Creating Virtual Instrument Sample Libraries

Computers, software, and the internet are great! There’s no denying it. Technology is amazing, and it will continue to get better. It’s a wonderful tool, and…. that’s how it should stay. Simply put, technology is supposed to be a tool to help us create, with the aid of other creators. In a perfect world, specifically for composers, music projects would often use sequenced virtual instruments, together with live players.

Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, lack of knowledge, and just all around laziness, only a very small percentage of  most commercial music, is produced with only live and or sequenced performances together. TV, the internet, and commercials, are mostly comprised and recorded with computer sequenced instruments.

Aside from the occasional music project that specifically calls for only synths, and virtual instruments, I find it strange that a lot of music is composed with only programmed tones. Technology has not yet reached, and may not reach, the sophistication of highly trained musicians/performers. No computer simulation equals the nuance, and feel that a rehearsed live performed recording can offer. It could be argued that electronic and rap music genres do in fact evoke the same feelings that a live performed recording can. However, that notion dispels quickly, because I have yet to hear a virtual instrument that can recreate a human voice, and have it be compelling. Basically, any widely known “popular” musical work, uses some form of live human performance. That may change in the future, but for now it holds true.

I know it may not sound like it, but I really do like virtual sampled instruments. I think they play a vital role in staying financially competitive as a composer. I’m also completely aware of the ease of use, the access to diverse instruments, and only a one time fee (as opposed to an hourly rate of a musician.)

The problem is when I watch TV shows, commercials, web content, etc.. I can tell you a good amount of the time, what sample library a lot of the instruments the composer used in their cues. Obviously, knowing what sample library a virtual instrument came from, means nothing to an un-trained ear. Even if the person using your music does know where  your sample library came from, they’re usually in a rush and won’t care and use it anyway.

However, I can tell you from experience as a composer, why only using commercially produced sample libraries in your compositions, is ultimately not a great idea to practice. I have worked on 2 different TV shows where the producers were very un-happy with having to use library music. They felt every library they listened to, sounded monotonous and tired.*(see foot note) They wanted their shows to sound like they were custom scored or at least different from everyone else. They also wanted it to be a music library (not a custom score) as they wanted to be able to have music that could be easily edited, and used on multiple episodes.

If my budget was gigantic, that would be an easy fix because I would hire musicians, purchase the newest best possible appropriate virtual instrument sample library, as well as an amazing engineer to edit, mix, and master it all into one nice package!

Of course that wasn’t the case, the producers had a lobster diet on a taco bell budget. (As most people do) Yet, despite this, I still was able to help. This gave me some insight that I believe will help other composers/musicians as well.

In order to accomplish these ridiculous, poorly funded music expectations, I drew upon a reservoir of inexpensive creative tools. They helped me to be “unique” and not break the bank.

What that was:

  1. Focusing on composing music for instruments I knew how to play and record live, as much as possible
  2. Using effects and mixing techniques to alter the tonalities of my commercially purchased virtual instrument libraries
  3. Create my own music library

My long winded preface up until this point, was to convey why it’s important to be musically different from what everyone else is doing. I didn’t want this to be a simple  “show you how it’s done” article. Rather, “if you don’t learn to be unique and standout in this industry you’ll get brushed aside and here’s some ways to avoid that inexpensively” article!

We’re focusing on number 3 (creating a personal music library) because, I do know composers that are not good as performers. I mean not even remotely good. This doesn’t mean they’re poor composers. In fact Berlioz didn’t play any instruments, but he composed Symphonie Fantastique.

Also, mixing is a subject and craft all on it’s own. It requires just as much study to become really good at, as any other skill. Again, I know composers who are great composers, but not so much at mixing.

This leaves us with creating your own personal music library. This can be achieved, with just mild performing, recording, and editing skills. This doesn’t solve the need for more live performances on commercial music. However, in combination with commercial sample libraries, your tracks will stand out from others. I dare say they may sound unique and fresh!

If you happen to fall into the I can’t perform or play any instrument very well category, fear not. Most percussive, and stringed instruments can be recorded by someone with only mild musical abilities for our music library purposes. (Wind and Brass instruments would definitely require a proficient player) You just need to know the tuning of the instrument and record each note of the instrument one at a time chromatically.

By taking it slow, you could essentially borrow a friends instrument and record it yourself. Electric bass, Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Ukelele, are great places to start. Violin, Viola, Cello, and Contra Bass are possible too, but orchestral players tend to be very leery of lending out their instruments. You may be able to just pay them a little money to perform some varying articulations of chromatic scales, have them sign a work for hire contract and be done with it.

This brings us to what needs to be recorded for your sample library. I think there are 3 articulations that you could record and it be the foundation for most compositions. Widely used articulations for melodic instruments are staccato, sustained, and ordinare. In other words, short notes, long notes, and notes in-between. Percussive instruments, for the most part, are just staccato.

For melodic stringed or plucked instruments, a chromatic recording of 2 to 3 octaves of the instrument performed as staccato, sustained, and ordinare, will cover most of your compositional needs.

We are not addressing the effects and individual special characteristics that every instrument has. Those definitely require a professional. We are just creating samples that will be work horses, and can be used most of the time. Again, they’ll help you sound different then everyone else when used in addition to your current library.

Okay time to make a music library. I am, by trade and training, an electric bass player. I usually perform my bass parts live on my recordings. However, for this article I decided to record my bass and turn it into a virtual instrument, as I could quickly record and edit the files.

With a budget in mind I created this Sample Library using this hardware. (It is not required that you use these items to record with. Different equipment can produce better results, however, I wanted to demonstrate with budget items what you can do. Also, I am not endorsed by any of these products and gain nothing by mentioning them) 

  • Logic X
  • Art Tube MP Studio mic pre modified with a RCA 12AX7 Tube (sounds better than stock tube Art supplies)
  • M-Box Pro 3 interface
  • Squire Jazz Bass
  • Audiffex Amplion Free (Free Software Amp Simulator)
  • Tx16Wx Free (Even though I use the EXS 24 as my sampler, this software is for MAC and PC and is free. I posted this for anyone who doesn’t have a software sampler integrated into the software recording program of their choice)
  1. I created a new music project at 48k and set my project tempo to a slow tempo of 70 BPM.
  2. I plugged my bass into my Art Tube Mic Pre and created an audio track. I then set my volume levels.
  3. Then I loaded a tuner into my channel and tuned my bass. It’s good to leave your tuner open to constantly make sure that you’re in tune
  4. Then I inserted the Amplion Free amp simulator into the channel. I selected the clean preset. I used this effect because it added a little grit and noise to the bass tonality. Too often sample libraries are so over produced that all the human characteristic is taken away. This is a tell tale sign that you’re using a sample library for an instrument, when all the notes sound exactly the same!
  5. I decided to start with the staccato articulation. I record every single note on my bass. (Almost 3 octaves) Make sure your notes don’t overlap. There has to be silence in-between notes.

Bass Stac.png

6. Next you will Strip Silence from the audio file. What stripping the silence does, is remove all the unwanted audio below a certain volume threshold or “silence” in between each note that was recorded resulting in individual audio files. You can adjust how much stripping, either more or less space between notes, the program does by adjusting the “Threshold value.” To get to the Strip Silence Function in Logic X you will

a) Press on the Toolbar Icon in the upper left hand corner.

b) Right Click in the Tool bar area that appears and select “customize tool bar”

c) Then select Strip Silence in the menu that appears. You will then see the Strip Silence button in the Toolbar. If you don’t see the Strip Silence button it’s because you have too many customized buttons in the tool bar. De-select any tools you don’t need and then you’ll see the Strip Silence tool on your tool bar menu.

Strip Silence.png

(Stripping Silence is a function that is available in most digital audio recording programs. If you use a program other than Logic X, I would refer to your users manual to find out how to use it and any other functions demonstrated from here on out)

7. Then you will select all of the newly created individual audio regions. Then on the furthest left hand column under the drop down tab titled “Region” you will see a “Fade In” and “Fade out” function. When you enter values next to the Fade In and Fade Out, it will create a fade on every single audio region that you had selected.

Fade.png

8. Next is to export or bounce out every audio region individually. It’s a highly recommended that you listen to each audio region individually. You may need to adjust the  Fades and the starting and ending points for exporting for each individual file. You’ll want to make sure that there’s no clicks or pops as those will be super annoying if you have them there while playing your virtual instrument. I tend to export my virtual instruments as mono, but stereo is fine too. Just keep in mind that stereo files are much larger than mono, and will eat up more memory. Also when you’re exporting your files, how you name your file is incredibly important. I start with the number 0 then an underscore _ then the note name. I’ve seen other ways  to name sample files, but I personally find numbering the samples numerically to be the easiest. (See Below)

Naming.png

9) Now we need load a software sampler instrument into our project. There are countless software samplers on the market. I’m going to demonstrate using the EXS24, as it’s a little more involved than other software samplers.

10) Once the EXS 24 is loaded click on the edit button near the upper right corner. The instrument editor window will appear.

EXS24.png

11) Then drag and drop all of your edited audio files on to the corresponding keyboard note at the bottom of the instrument editor window. For this example our first note is E, and I dropped my files on the keyboard board note E2. I’m completely aware that bass is a transposing instrument and should be placed lower on the keyboard to represent the pitch accurately however, I placed it at an octave that’s easier to play as a keyboardist. After you’ve dropped the sample onto the keyboard a window will pop up. Select the “contiguous zones” option as that will map all of the notes chromatically from start to finish.

Instrument Editor.png

12) The last step before you’re done is turning off what is called the 1-shot option. The 1-shot option will play the entire sample regardless of how long you press down on your keyboard. Essentially, if you have a sustained note in your score that is only a half note in length, but your virtual instrument was sampled at 2 whole notes worth of time, then even if you have a half note in your score, it will play 2 measures worth of time. To turn this off, click  starting on the first note underneath the column titled name, hold shift and then scroll down to the last note of the instrument and click it. This will select all of the notes in your virtual instrument. A few columns to the right is the column marked 1-Shot. Click on any of the check marked boxes in that column and the samples will be deselected.

1 shot.png

13) Save your virtual instrument by clicking on the instrument button in the Instrument Editor window and select save as. In order to access this EXS24 instrument you created for another session, you have to place the EXS24 file you just saved in the Sampler Instrument folder found at hard drive/Library/Application Support/Logic/Sampler Instrument. Then the next time you launch Logic and load the EXS 24 you’ll see your Virtual Instrument in the drop Down Menu

When I created my bass virtual instrument I decided to put both my ordinare articulations and staccato articulation into a single program. Essentially the first 3 octaves are starting on E2 are ordinare and then at E5 or note 36 the notes start over but they are staccato. I do this for 2 reasons. The first is I eliminate the need for loading 2 separate bass articulations which saves memory, but also because I can alternate repeating the same pitches from ordinare to the staccato and it doesn’t sound like a machine gun. Often when composers use samples and they’ve composed a passaged that has 8 “C” repeating, it sounds fake because the note when triggered plays at the exact same velocity, duration, tonality, and attack. When you alternate between articulations of the same pitch it sounds a bit more natural up to a certain tempo. If the notes are played at a very very fast tempo then you’ll notice the synthetic quality. The video below demonstrates what a repeated note of the same articulation sounds live vs an alternating between pitch, then a very fast alternating pitch. I also played each articulations chromatic scale. (a little flub towards the end of the video)

A lot of the sample music libraries overly eq, compress, and limit, and sometimes overly effect, a sample. They may be compensating for people who don’t have really elite recording gear and are trying to help them out. I think that it’s okay for drums to be these overly manipulated because they’re very tricky to sound great in a home studio, but most other instruments this is a detriment. Most people with do some sort of buss compression or limiting on their tracks which in turn makes these affected sample libraries sound overly in your face. However without the buss compression or limiting, your live instruments won’t sound like they’re a part of a cohesive mix. The samples I created do not have all these affects on them which I feel gives them much more flexibility. I can add a ton of compression on my bass track if the composition calls for it, or very little, and there will be a difference in tonality. Whereas a lot of sample libraries are so compressed you have no choice but to have all the other instruments meet their tonality.

Finally, I’ve put together a video of samples that I created using Electric Bass Sustained, Electric Bass Ordinaire, Electric Bass Stacatto, Ukelele, Shaker, Metal Chopsticks, Wooden Instrument Body Taps, and Claps. The composition only contains samples that I recorded, edited and encoded. They have only been mixed within Logic X. The samples themselves are mostly raw audio. Anyway, I hope it gives you an idea of what’s possible to do for a personally library, while not breaking the bank and staying unique.

Below is the link to the samples I created available for download!

It includes Electric Bass Sustained, Electric Bass Ordinaire, Electric Bass Stacatto, Ukelele, Shaker, Metal Chopsticks, Wooden Instrument Body Taps, and Claps. I’ve encoded them for EXS24, Kontakt, and Tx16Wx.

                  1) Download this file->    zip_files_file_type_file_type_icon_png_zip_png_zip_icon   (Dropbox  may be needed)

*The producers based their opinions upon mid-range to low-end priced music libraries that they listened to. Hi-End boutique music libraries do not share this problem, but are quite simply in a niche market. They do not factor into this common situation I’m focusing on.

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