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Quick Tip: Realistic Solo Orchestra Instruments with Keyswitch Articulations

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Read Time: 4 min

Performers who play orchestral instruments often use multiple playing styles throughout a piece of music. Therefore, knowing when to switch articulations is important for computer composers who want to achieve a realistic sound. Fortunately, many orchestral VSTi have a feature that helps us do this, called keyswitching.

Step 1: Pattern

To demonstrate this, I'll be using the Viola Solo instrument from Kontakt 4, but this tutorial will apply to any orchestral plugin that supports keyswitching, though different plugins may use slightly different terms for articulations. Note that I selected the Sforzando articulation, which has a hard attack, allowing us to hear even the shortest notes.

Here is our pattern. Feel free to use the midi file if you'd like to follow along: StartingPattern.mid, or you could apply these tips to an original piece of your own. Note that for my pattern, the tempo is set to 178bpm.

Step 2: Staccato

When a plugin's design allows us to switch articulations using notes, this feature is called Keyswitching. Usually, these notes will be assigned to a very low octave, outside the musical range of the instrument. Once we locate these notes, we can change the articulation from inside the piano roll.

To begin, let's apply the Staccato articulation to our staccato (short) notes. To do this, you'll place a note on the Stacatto key to turn on this articulation, and you'll also place a note on the Sforzando key where you want to switch out of it. In the image, I added the grey bars to help show where Staccato is turned on. Note that it is okay to be a little early with your keyswitches.

Step 3: Legato/Sustain

When some notes are connected, it can sound great to have a hard first note and then soft attacks on the following notes. This makes for a realistic legato phrase where the notes blend into each other smoothly. Let's turn on the Sustain articulation for our legato notes, and maybe have a little bit of overlap on some of those notes.

Step 4: Fortepiano

The Fortepiano articulation is like a sustain note, having a soft attack, but with the addition of a swell. It can add a nice flourish to a pattern.

I also want to note that we have a section with hard articulations (Sforzando, Staccato) and then we have a section with smooth articulations (Fortepiano, Sustain). This is why the pattern is so believable.

Step 5: Pizzicato

It takes a moment for a performer to switch between using their bow and their fingers, so the Pizzicato articulation should be used for entire sections like a verse or breakdown. Here it is in action.

Did you notice how our previously staccato notes stood out? It is unrealistic for us to expect a violin performer to pluck those notes so quickly, so let's remove some of them. Let's also add some more dynamic range to our Pizzicato section, as our violin player may hurt his fingers having to play each note that hard. In FL Studio this is easily achievable by using the Scale levels tool ALT-X, and using the Tension knob, or you may prefer to adjust each note individually.

Step 6: Clarinet

To demonstrate that this technique is applicable for other instruments, I copied the notes from Step 4 and had a Clarinet play them.

Without keyswitching articulations:

With keyswitching articulations:

Notice how much better the second example sounds? These principles apply to all instruments that support multiple articulations.

General Guidelines

  • Study the meanings and uses of these articulations. For example, if you know that Staccato means short notes and that Sustain/Legato means connected long notes, you can easily select a suitable articulation for each note.
  • If you're going for realism, try to imagine what a performer is actually capable of. Notes cannot last forever, performers will need rests, and there's a limit to how quickly a performer can switch between notes and articulations.
  • Don't overdo it. Too many articulation changes in one phrase can sound as fake as having none. Like with a lot of subtle things in audio, it should be unnoticable to the average listener, unless you take it away.
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