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Top Virtual Instruments for Composing and Scoring to Picture

This is a great time for anyone interested in creating music for visual media, whether it be films, television, games, or advertisements. Music from the Golden Age of Hollywood was reliant on expansive teams — composers, arrangers, copyists, music editors, players, engineers and more each played their role in creating the memorable scores from when the Hollywood Studio System dominated cinema.

As technology crept into the frame — digital recording, MIDI, sampling — no longer did we need a battalion of talented individuals to generate music scores. For better or for worse, the teams that work on music for visual media are generally smaller these days. I’ve worked on plenty of indie films and advertisements as the sole musician and engineer. While one could argue the collaborative spark is missing from music from today’s scores that were created by smaller teams, if not individuals, this new system is undoubtedly faster, cheaper, and simpler.

When composing for projects with restrictive budgets, I’ll write for and then track the organic instruments that I am proficient at, this includes acoustic and electric guitar, bass, piano and other keyboard-based instruments, as well as various percussion, and then I’ll fill out the arrangement using my collection of virtual instruments, my favorites of which I’ll be discussing beneath.

Before I do that, however, may we take a moment to appreciate the incredible standard of quality to which virtual instruments have risen? I recall the quality of tools I had installed on my very first computer-based music production system, and today’s software is nearly incomparable in terms of sound quality, playability, and user interface design.

Companies like Native Instruments and Spitfire display tireless devotion to creating tools designed to be used by top professionals during the production of widely-distributed media, and they deserve our praise. I would also like to point out that while this article focuses on composing for visual media, the music for podcasts and certain radio programming can be “cinematic” in nature. With that, here are a few of my favorite tools for composing music.

Albion One by Spitfire

For anyone interested in creating music for media, Albion One is a terrific starting point. It has a bit of everything with a nearly 90 GB library of a 109-piece orchestra which includes some heavy-hitting percussion and a steam synthesizer. Albion One can do dense, chilling textures, lush ensembles, abstract string runs and “effects”, and pretty much everything in between. It has all the typical articulations including legato, tremolo, pizzicato, and more, and allows you to control over four different microphone configuration levels.

It was masterfully recorded at AIR Studios in London using a Neve 88R console, 2-inch tape, and world-class Prism AD converters. The other entries in the Albion series are all excellent but are a bit more specialized than the original.

Composer Tip: Albion One is an endlessly tweakable piece of software. Between the different articulations, microphone configurations, as well as separate controls for dynamics, vibrato, expression, and reverb, it offers users plenty of command over which samples are triggered and the space in which they exist.

The learning curve may seem steep, but put in the time to get to know all that Albion One can do. For general orchestral scoring duties, as well as for more abstract styles of composition, it’s a very powerful tool. I recommend using it with a MIDI controller that you’re comfortable with, and mapping the many different parameters to different knobs and/or faders on the device, as it really feels like an organic, natural instrument upon doing so.

Arcade by Output

I’d venture to say that Arcade is one of the most unique (and fun) virtual instruments that I’ve ever used. Output, makers of Exhale, the groundbreaking and widely-used vocal synthesizer, have created another truly special piece of software in Arcade, a self-described “loop synthesizer” which uses a cloud-based platform to download kits and loops onto your computer. Even more exciting is that new content is being developed for Arcade regularly.

The concept is this: the white keys play back loops in Arcade (you can even load your own), the black keys are used to modify these loops in a number of ways including reverse, repeat, or re-sequence, and the sliders allow the user to add effects including reverb, delay and filtering to the instrument.

Once you get the hang of Arcade, it’s a genuinely fun and inspiring music-making tool. From glitchy drums to eclectic toys, to slowly modulating pads, Arcade is loaded with a wide variety of excellent sounds. One of my favorite recent additions to Arcade is “In A World”, an entire instrument dedicated to making music for trailers and action sequences.

Sound quality aside, I have to say that Arcade is perhaps the most beautiful-looking virtual instrument currently on the market. The user interface is incredibly intuitive, and benefits from imaginative design. Considering that you can download and use Arcade for free for the first 100 days, it’s a no-brainer to give it a shot and see if it belongs inside your music production repertoire.

Composer Tip: For any music composers out there, don’t sleep on Arcade. While I’ve achieved great results using Arcade for additional production elements in straightforward pop music, where it’s really shone is for creating music to be used alongside visual media.

I’m currently scoring a short horror movie, and I’ve found the textures found within the “particles” kit to be great for adding a foreboding, slowly-evolving ambiance. Because of the excellent effects, a lot of the loops can be “blurred” just enough to toe the line between music, and sound design, making Arcade an excellent choice for composing and scoring.

Bassynth by Wave Alchemy

Bassynth is a complex and highly versatile virtual instrument, aimed towards creating low-end elements, but capable of so much more. Wave Alchemy sampled 11 GB worth of mono and polysynths, drum machines, organic percussion, stringed instruments, brass, as well as noise and foley to create this incredibly deep virtual instrument.

To describe it only as a sampler though would be reductive, as it comes loaded with effects, oscillators, a wavetable engine, and complex routing capabilities. If I’m feeling as if I’ve hit a creative wall in regards to my low-end instrumentation, I’ll insert Bassynth and will often feel inspired in no time at all.

Composer Tip: One of the key features of Bassynth is its 4-voice engine, essentially meaning four separate slots in which the user can load patches. For example, on a recent cue, I combined an 808 kick as the main component, a synth pluck for the transient, and vinyl cracking for some nice texture, and although I experimented with some brass samples, I ultimately left the fourth spot open.

From there, you can customize the attack, decay, sustain, and release of each of these individual sounds, as well as run them through modulators, filters, distortions, reverb, and many other effects.

Spitfire Hans Zimmer Percussion

I put the Hans Zimmer Percussion through its paces on a short horror film I scored earlier this year, and it worked perfectly in this context. From creating impacts for jump scares, to gradual percussive builds, to constant intense pounding, Hans Zimmer Percussion effectively nails them all. The user interface (it works within Kontakt/ Kontakt Player) is intuitive and clearly laid-out, the sheer amount of percussive instruments and articulations is stunning, and most importantly, the sound quality (recorded with precision at Air Studios) sounds great with little to no processing.

As an educator, I appreciate plugins/virtual instruments that provide informational value, in addition to being usable in a musical context, and the encyclopedic collection of instruments available in Hans Zimmer Percussion allow it to serve as a sort of historical document of the drums and sounds achieved by Zimmer and his incredibly talented team.

Composer Tip: Hans Zimmer Percussion allows the user to control the dynamics, releases, expression, and response of a loaded instrument. The “boom” and “crack” controls afford the user even more sonic sculpting capabilities. Additionally, one can change the mix of the mics while performing. The result is an incredibly expressive and dynamic virtual instrument, especially if you map these controls to your favorite MIDI interface.

Don’t settle on simply loading a patch and recording a part. Rather, experiment with the different controls, and even manipulate them while performing so that your percussive layers feature the dynamics common to those heard in the soundtracks of Hollywood blockbusters that Zimmer and his team are celebrated for creating.

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The Arturia V-Collection 7

As popular music continues to draw upon nostalgia for the 1980’s, so has film and television. The popularity of Stranger Things (and its perfectly executed, synthesizer-based soundtrack by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein) has rekindled the love of electronic music by composers Vangelis, John Carpenter, and others who scored films during “the decade of excess.”

The latest update to the V-Collection from Arturia includes classic synthesizers and keyboard instruments from the 1980’s and decades prior, including the Yamaha DX7 and CS-80, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, New England Digital Synclavier, Moog Modular, and even a Mellotron. For any piece of music that requires the unmistakable, authentic sounds of these instruments, the V-Collection from Arturia offers fun to use, and much more affordable alternatives than the actual hardware.

Composer Tip: The Arturia V-Collection sounds great and the virtual instruments do an excellent job of capturing the character of the originals, but when mixing, I do recommend some degree of processing to place them within context. A lot of these classic synths were originally recorded to analog tape and/or using analog hardware, so I suggest using analog emulation plugins (if not actual hardware) to warm them up a bit.

LA Modern Percussion by Audio Ollie

Allen Meyerson is credited as the score mixer for some of Hollywood’s hardest-hitting blockbusters including Pirates of The Carribean, Gladiator, Transformers, and many more. Score mixers are deeply involved in the recording of the scores, as well, choosing the microphones and determining the recording configurations. Meyerson’s scores are known for their enormous, aggressive percussion tracks, and Audio Ollie sought out to make a virtual instrument capable of recreating these iconic sounds. For use with Kontakt Full 5.8, LA Modern Percussion is a stunning achievement with 25 GB worth of meticulously captured instruments including Taiko, Bass Drum, Toms, and more.

Composer Tip: LA Modern Percussion was recorded with 14 different microphones and includes effects such as compression, saturation and equalization. Although the drums sound wonderful and already “mixed” right out of the gate, it’s absolutely worth taking the time to experiment with the different microphone configurations and effects to see how they can be used to help the drums fit better in context.

Also worth noting is that LA Modern Percussion is configured so that users are afforded several different ways of performance. There are three different mapping styles, meaning how the samples are laid out across the piano roll. Users can choose between having velocities laid out chromatically on the keyboard, or having higher velocities played depending on how hard they hit individual notes. Additionally, LA Modern comes with many impeccably performed loops, which I find great for inspiration.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2

Omnisphere is a behemoth sampler and synthesizer with over 14,000 sounds in its library, granular and wavetable synthesis capabilities, a powerful arpeggiator, and 58 on-board effects units including amp simulators, equalizers, compressors, reverbs, delays, and many more. The sound library features both traditional and completely off-the-wall instruments. Some of my favorite esoteric textures include a burning piano, a bowed bicycle, and a coffee can kalimba. If you’re looking for a straightforward, realistic-sounding orchestral library, you might be better served choosing one loaded with more articulations, but for esoteric textures, patches that weave between organic and synthesized, and flexible sound-sculpting capabilities, Omnisphere is hard to beat.

Composer Tip: With so many interesting sonic options, Omnisphere users could fall victim to “analysis paralysis” and sitting for hours, if not days, auditioning patches and effects. I suggest learning how to quickly and efficiently use its intuitive search function to find elements similar to what you’re looking for. Also, take the time to explore the expansive library, and “mark” your favorite sounds for later use.

Native Instruments Komplete 12 Ultimate

The latest offering from Berlin-based software pioneers Native Instruments includes 101 instruments and effects, 20 expansion packs, and over 45,000 unique sounds. The sample library takes over 600 GB of hard drive space. Of no offense to any of the other entries on this list, an aspiring composer could probably purchase Komplete Ultimate 12 and have more than their basic scoring needs covered.

If a scene asks for a piano, you’ve got six sampled instruments to choose from, including The Grandeur for a classic Grand Piano sound, The Gentleman for a vintage upright, Una Corda for distinctive textures, and several more. Drums, synthesizers, world instruments, guitars, strings, horns, toys … there’s hardly anything that Native Instruments hasn’t covered with great attention to detail. A few of my favorite virtual instruments from Komplete 12 Ultimate include:

Heavyocity Evolve

For sketching out cinematic ideas, Evolve is a great tool. This collection of mix-ready loops and hits (over 3900 samples) are perfect if you’re needing a quick jolt of inspiration.

Kinetic Toys

This is one of the stranger, more niche-specific virtual instruments I’ve ever used, but it still gets a fair amount of use. Kinetic Toys features pinball machines, train sets, toy robots, and plenty more. For delicate, metallic textures, strange, morphing ambiances, and elements that exist in the space between sound design and music, Kinetic Toys is a unique, and fun to use collection of sounds.

Action Strikes

This collection of cinematic percussion works so well because the hits and rhythmic loops already sound mixed. Effects such as reverb, delay, equalization and filtering are right at your fingertips, and the playability of Action Strikes makes this a standout virtual instrument.

The Discovery Series

The ability to believably and respectfully recreate the sounds and styles of music from across the world is an important skill for a composer. The Discovery Series, which are individual libraries that include Middle East, West Africa, India, Cuba, and Balinese Gamelan is a valuable tool to help users produce the sounds of instruments from different parts of the world.

Composer Tip: Where to start? From intimate organic instruments to blistering synthesizers, the library likely contains more sounds than any one composer will find a use for in a lifetime. I will say that many of the 28 effects that come packaged with Komplete 12 Ultimate are wonderfully strange, my favorites include “The Finger” which is a multi-effects unit that was designed to be playable like a musical instrument, and “The Mouth” which generates harmonies and melodies based on whatever is fed into it. These non-traditional effects may not result in assets that are usable in scores but can definitely add unique textures to musical works if your creations feel uninspired and predictable.

Additionally, Native Instruments has a vast range of high-quality hardware controllers that integrate seamlessly with their software. If you’re thinking of taking the plunge into the wide world of Native Instruments, the Komplete Kontrol series keyboards are excellent units that complement the cutting-edge software.

The Hollywood Orchestra (and so many more) from EastWest/Quantum Leap

I was hoping to recommend one product from EastWest/Quantum Leap, but the truth is that so many of their individual libraries are stunners, offering unparalleled realism due to the recording quality and massive amount of included articulations. Founded by Doug Rodgers in 1988, EastWest collaborated with engineer Bob Clearmountain in creating the first commercially available drum sample library. Since then, the company has released thousands of products, many of which are used by some of the top film composers including James Newton Howard, Thomas Newman, Mac Quayle, and more. In the interest of keeping this roundup under 10,000 words, I will point to the Hollywood Orchestra, which includes the Hollywood Brass, Percussion, Strings, Woodwinds, Solo Cello, Solo Violin and Solo Harp instruments.

Composer Tip: With so many provided articulations, Hollywood Orchestra has a pretty steep learning curve if you’re not well-versed, musically. The EastWest user interface is elegantly designed and offers a great amount of control over which articulations are triggered, and how. This is not a simple “insert and play” virtual instrument like some of the others listed here, but put in the time to learn the different articulations, and the EastWest interface, and you’ll be rewarded with incredibly believable results.

The Stock Sounds in your DAW

While third party companies offer such a wide variety of incredible sounding and intuitive to use tools for the modern composer, the virtual instruments that come stocked with the most common DAWs are certainly worth mentioning. Apple’s Logic Pro X is very powerful and comes loaded with instruments including vintage keyboards, synthesizers, strings and brass, a drum designer, and more. Sonics aside, the way Logic handles MIDI, flexibility in setting tempo and using markers, as well as its score editor, make it a top-tier DAW for modern composers.

Steinberg Cubase, Presonus Studio One, Ableton Live and even Pro Tools offer some serviceable stock sounds and features for composing to picture, and can certainly be used to sketch MIDI mock-ups or to augment music made with third-party software and/or actual instruments.

While Ableton Live is very limited in terms of flexibility when working with and against picture, the sounds that it comes pre-loaded with are some of the best available. I would definitely not recommend it as a host DAW for a third-party instrument like Kontakt, but would rather suggest using Live re-wired into another DAW such as Pro Tools or Logic.

Summary

So while there are no substitutes for the sounds of world-class musicians, playing gorgeously-written scores, in acoustically ideal environments, software has come incredibly far, and in fact, many virtual instruments and sample libraries today are created by capturing top-notch musicians in professional recording studios.

If you are interested in scoring to picture, knowledge and appreciation of the history of cinematic music is just as valuable as the latest software. That being said, it’s a really fun time to be a composer, and I’m excited to see how technology continues to advance and alter the medium.

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch on his website or learn more from him in Mastering in the Box and Mixing Pop.

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