Hi guys. I decided to write a brief post to help people who are interested in composing orchestral music get started. Here are some pointers and helpful resources:
If you don’t own any orchestral libraries yet, I suggest you start with Spitfire Audio’s free Discover library that contains 33 orchestral instruments. Visit this web page, search for the “add to cart” button, and click the “Or Free” link below it. You will be asked to fill out a form, and upon completion, Spitfire will tell you that you'll receive the free library in 14 days. That’s a long wait, but it’s free.
In the meantime, you can play with Spitfire’s other free libraries.
At this point, I don't think you should get another entry level library that you have to pay for - save your money for the good stuff that you can still use in several years from now. That brings me to my next point.
After you’ve played with the free libraries and you’ve decided to make a commitment to improving your orchestral music, plan which sample libraries you’re going to buy. There is a ton of crap in the sample library market, and it can be tempting to buy the crap during flash sales. Having a plan, or specifically a spreadsheet, of what you will need can help you resist those temptations and buy the high-quality products sooner.
"How do I know what I need?"
Think about what style of music you want to make because that will increase your awareness of what tones, sound quality, dynamics, and articulations you want from your libraries. First choose one instrument family; let’s start with strings. Do a search for “strings sample library”. You’ll find lists of the best sample libraries and advertisements from sample library developers. Start listening to demos of all of them. Take notes on which ones you like. When a library appeals to you, do a search with the library name, and watch all the video reviews and walkthroughs, read any written reviews, read all the forum posts, and listen to as many demos as you can find. If you’re not very familiar with orchestral music, it could be difficult to tell what’s good because your ears aren’t trained to recognize good playing and sound quality; the solution to that is to listen to a lot of well-recorded orchestral music performed by top level musicians.
Pay attention to the wetness level of each library. The wetness usually refers to how much natural reverb one can hear from the room the samples were recorded in. One benefit of wet libraries is that the natural reverb sound can beat what you can do with artificial reverb. One downside is that they can be more difficult to mix with other libraries, especially ones that are significantly dryer. To make your life easier, you might want to buy multiple libraries from one company, assuming they were all recorded in the same room.
Every time you research a library, I recommend you specifically do a search on ViControl, a forum where many great composers like to procrastinate.
While reading forum posts, bear in mind that people who say X library is the best thing ever might have poor taste, and people who say X library sucks might not be competent enough to use it properly.
I suggest you create a spreadsheet of all the sample libraries you want. You can make multiple sections, such as “essentials”, “nice-to-have”, and “still researching/interested”.
If you buy everything on your list when they’re on sale, or use student discounts, you'll save a substantial amount of money. Some companies have sales all the time whereas others have them far less frequently. I sometimes google previous sales to predict future ones.
Here are some links to libraries that are frequently recommended:
You might be interested in Composer Cloud, the most popular subscription service for sample libraries. It gives you access to a lot of good libraries. I haven’t purchased it myself, but I frequently see these libraries in use. I believe many of these libraries are quite old, and I hear that programming them can be difficult, but I honestly don’t know much as I prefer to focus on more modern products.
Be wary of buying anything from 8DIO. Some of their old stuff is poorly scripted and difficult to use. Some of their newer libraries, such as the Century series, are popular though. They overprice most of their products and have frequent sales with more appropriate prices, so wait for a major sale if you want one of their products unless you need it immediately.
To use many orchestral libraries, especially the smaller ones, you’ll need the full version of Kontakt. You can buy it itself or as part of the Komplete bundle, which gives you a huge number of libraries and effects plugins. I believe both are 50% off twice a year. It’s possible to get away with using the free version of Kontakt, but if you do this, make sure you don’t buy anything that requires the full version.
You’ll likely want to have a library collection that covers the entire traditional orchestra; but there are many other useful niche libraries, such as ones dedicated to medieval instruments, ethnic instruments, horror sounds, general sound effects, uncommon instruments, etc. Synths can also be useful if you want to make hybrid music.
Here are some helpful resources for studying digital music composition:
Karleen Heong – Orchestration 1 and 2 (and 3 if it’s ever released)
Jonathan Peters - Music Composition 2
I recommend watching this channel’s videos to learn about mixing in depth:
There are many channels that can teach you the very basics of music theory, mixing, using a DAW and plugins, etc. that you can find on your own. I believe knowing the very basics of music theory (especially chords and voice leading) is a must if you wish to create interesting orchestral music; and if you can’t play an instrument at all, I recommend learning a bit of piano - and buy a midi keyboard if you don’t have one. You don’t need to become proficient with it, or even decent – just learn to play basic arrangements of songs you like. Doing this will help you understand how successful chord progressions and melodies are crafted, how the melodies relate to the chords, and you’ll get better at creating your own chord progressions and melodies. Being able to use a midi keyboard will greatly improve your workflow as well.
If you get stuck while trying to learn music theory, you can check the table of contents of an online course for guidance. Just look at what the course teaches then find free videos on those topics.
In addition to sample libraries, you might also want to buy some plugins to make your music sound better. I’m not as interested in plugins, so I can’t make many recommendations. I suggest you see which plugins are used by the YouTubers above as a starting point for your research.
I frequently use these plugins:
Here are some websites where you can find sales on sample libraries and plugins:
Inexpensive and useful libraries (Some require full Kontakt):
A lot of stuff from Embertone https://embertone.com/
Free libraries spreadsheet (May Require Full Kontakt):
Here are some general composition and mixing tips:
1. Try to avoid making your track sound like you took a bunch of loops and layered them in varying ways. Make sure every line of music is supplementary and interacts with the other lines in a meaningful way. It’s okay to use loops, but make sure they fit and contribute to a cohesive composition.
2. Use many articulations to make your music sound lively. Only using staccato and sustain quickly becomes boring. Experiment with all the articulations available to you. Sometimes it’s beneficial to switch articulations more often than you would if you composed for a real orchestra to compensate for the lack of realism in the digital performance.
3. Avoid triggering the same sample in quick succession unless it’s unavoidable. You can ensure you use different samples for a note by changing the velocity, automating the expression, and using different articulations.
4. Pay attention to what area each instrument occupies in the frequency spectrum, and don’t overcrowd any area. Try to achieve a balance between the lows, mids, and highs. If you arrange your instruments properly, your song will sound good prior to doing any mixing. Common mistakes are using too many instruments that exist the mid range and not using enough high end instruments.
5. If your song sounds fatiguing and/or overly bright, here is something you can try: open an EQ and make a 2-3db cut around 4k. This can be highly effective on individual instruments as well.
6. Listen to professional pieces of music that sound like what you aim to compose to get composition ideas, and use them as references for mixing.
My thoughts on asking for feedback:
Asking for feedback from other composers can be very helpful. They can point out aspects of your composition that you didn't think about, give you new ideas to approach composing, guide you in the right direction for improvement, teach you new skills and give you valuable knowledge, and motivate you to work harder. If you're a total beginner, don't be surprised if you don't get much meaningful feedback though; it can be quite difficult to give feedback to beginners because typically when one provides feedback, they point out a few aspects of the music that can be improved, but in the case of giving a beginner feedback, it's possible that every aspect of the song needs significant improvement. Where is one supposed to begin giving feedback in such cases?
Another thing I want to mention is that you shouldn't assume all feedback you get is accurate. It's important to evaluate all feedback and assess the skills of the giver (based on their own music, does it seem like they have the knowledge required to give you valuable feedback in a particular area?). If you don't understand something that was said, do research or ask the person about it.
I hope this is helpful! Feel free to add to this in the comments and let me know if you disagree with any points.