How to Add Orchestral Instruments Into Your Song for Cinematic Effect
Orchestral instruments can add a lovely element to your song and make it shine. Today’s post is a guest post from Graeme Rattray from HomeStudioLabs.com – Please see his bio at the end! I appreciate his hard work and want to thank him and Home Studio Labs!
In this article, we are going to look at how to add Orchestral Instruments into your song using Orchestral VST plugins. For this article, I want to highlight using FREE VSTs. The reason being, if you are just starting out using Orchestral libraries, it makes sense not to invest too much money into a product that you may or may not continue to use.
I am confident that when you try it out that you will want to keep going. Using Orchestral libraries brings such a different dynamic to our recordings. Even if you are recording pop or folk music, or you are making EDM, cinematic elements add variety and depth and definitely stand out.
So let’s take a look at how to start using these powerful tools.
What is an Orchestral VST?
A VST (Virtual Studio Technology) is a plugin format that was created for the modern DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) like ProTools, Cubase, FL Studio, etc. An Orchestral VST is a specific kind of VST Plugin that uses recorded samples of orchestral instruments and makes them playable in your DAW using a MIDI editor.
With an Orchestral VST, you can tap into an entire orchestra and do whatever you want with them. Most Orchestral libraries will have a variety of instruments, each with a set of articulations specific to that instrument. For example, the string section may have longs, short bows, and pizzicato articulations.
Free VST Orchestral Instruments
There are hundreds of free Orchestral VSTs on the web that you can download and get started. Some are great and some are very “cheap” sounding. I have included my top four free orchestral VSTs. Each one of these plugins will give you a great sound.
- LABS – This instrument is a project from Spitfire Labs. They have created loads of free VSTs. The LABS series, has 8 strings, 1 percussion, 1 brass, and 2 vocal libraries. All of these samples are recorded meticulously in a professional studio.
- BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover – Another project of Spitfire Labs. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is a full orchestra recorded by Spitfire and usually is a very expensive library. The Discovery version was released to give people an introduction to the full suite. If you fill out a survey, you can get the plugin for free after 2 weeks. It is definitely worth it as it sounds so good.
- Orchestral Tools Layers – LAYERS is an amazing tool created by Orchestral Tools. It is by far the easiest way to add cinematic sounds into your recordings. You can play full chords with one note and it is already optimized to sound like a rich orchestra. The only downside is that you have a little less control.
- The Free Orchestra by Project Sam – The Free Orchestra library is a host of samples taken from a bunch of Project Sam’s paid libraries and compiled into a library that can be played through the free version of Kontakt player. You will need to download the Kontakt player separately. This library has some very unique sounds to create a cinematic effect.
Installing your VST instrument
Here is a simple step-by-step guide to installing your VST. This should work for any DAW as long as you know where the folder location will be.
- Download the VST to your computer.
- Unzip the VST file.
- Copy the .dll file to your VST plugin folder. This folder may be named differently for you.
- Rescan your plugin directory in your music software.
- Open up the plugin in the software
Once you have the plugin open you are ready to start playing with it. You can start adding notes into your piano roll or MIDI editor, or you can go ahead and start recording the notes with your MIDI Controller.
Using a MIDI controller
If you are skilled in playing a keyboard, you may want to opt for using a MIDI controller. I use an AKAI mini play controller to play the virtual instrument but there are many different brands and styles to choose from.
These MIDI controllers plug directly into your computer via USB and therefore no additional hardware is required.
The MIDI controller is used to trigger events in the software. These events could be sounding a note, the velocity of the note, changing the volume, etc. When notes are written into the MIDI editor or Piano Roll, the events trigger the VST to produce the sounds at the pitch and volume that was written in.
This is a very powerful tool in creating music. It allows those of us who cannot play certain instruments to access those instruments for our recordings without having to source out a player.
It also gives us the ability to create soundscapes that may not even be possible in the real world, if that is something you are into.
The great part about recording in this way is that if you make mistakes they can easily be fixed in the editor. You can quantize the track so that it is in time and you can change notes even after you have played them.
Easy Way to add a Cinematic String effect
One of the easiest ways to add a cinematic effect to your song is to simply play your song’s chord progression through the VST. You can pencil in the notes to your piano roll editor or press record and play them with your MIDI controller.
Once you have the chords written out in the piano roll then you can tweak it a little to sound more cinematic.
Spread out the chords
Spread the chords over two octaves so that there is a sense of different instruments playing. For example, a typical violin can play in the range of G3 to A7, while a Cello will play C2 to C6. Keeping these things in mind will help you to place the notes for a better sense of a full ensemble. Orchestralibrary.com has a chart for all the instrument ranges.
Once you have your chord arrangement, it is good to add in some passing notes between the chords to create movement. It doesn’t need to be a lot. Try mixing up the ranges to make it feel like different instruments are moving at different times.
Create a Counter Melody
This is important for creating something memorable. Create a counter melody that supports the main melody. Think of it like creating a secondary hook. You can have this small musical idea play when the vocal has stopped or have it as a harmony to the vocal or main idea.
Using Expression and Dynamics Controls
The last tip is to use expression and dynamics controls to make the instruments sound more human. This is especially important with strings. It is something that a lot of people do not incorporate into their orchestral instruments, but this causes the orchestra to sound fake and more like a synth. They need an arc to the sound like what a real string player would do.
You can do this by using a fader and automating it in real-time or you can pencil in the automation curves by hand. Either way works. Create swells that feel natural like the bow going across the strings.
Do this for both the expression and the dynamics and you will get a realistic sound.
The Bottom Line
A lot can be done to add to the quality and uniqueness of our recordings. Adding in cinematic instruments can give your song greater depth and feeling. It is another tool in our arsenal for creating memorable music. If you apply these techniques, you will be on your way to creating epic cinematic moments.
Graeme is the founder and chief editor at Home Studio Labs. My goal is simple…to help you cut through the fluff and figure what you need to make great music at home. I’ve been a working musician and hobbyist music producer for the last 16 years. I studied music in Canada and received my Bachelor of Arts in Music. In 2004 I bought my first audio interface and a copy of Pro Tools. Since then I have spent countless hours learning, recording, and mixing. My passion has been my Home Studio.