How to make your compositions sound realistic on a limited budget
By: Mathieu Karsenti
Instrument plugins have come a long way in recent years and they can be so realistic that often composers will bypass recording real instruments altogether. For the working composer, budgets are smaller and deadlines are tight, so we often record parts ourselves with or without real instruments. In some cases, plugins will be absolutely fine but at other times they might need a strong injection of realism.
So what can we do to achieve a more realistic sound when the budget is limited? - If you can afford it, blending real instruments with midi is a good start. I often record my violinist for a minimum of 3 takes or more of the same melody line, played slightly differently each time, and then blend them in with my midi string section. I make sure to use panning for a realistic orchestral setting and the same reverb for everything. Often, plugins sound so polished that it takes more EQing and compression to achieve a smooth realistic blend. But the results are worth it. Having a professional musician play on your composition will add emotion and humanity and it makes your music sparkle and come alive. - If your budget is tight and string plugins are all you have, another option is to play each violin part one by one with solo plugins, played slightly differently without strict quantizing. This might be intense on your CPU but you could have 5 or 6 solo lines bounced down to one stereo file. Make sure you invert the phase when needed and EQ it slightly differently and you will end up with a 10-12 string section that will sound a bit more realistic. - However with certain instruments, I will go straight to recording with musicians and account for it in the budget. I've yet to use plugins that could emulate the power of brass for instance and for fast or strong passages musicians are needed to add character. Again, the human element is impossible to replicate and why wouldn't you want to work with real musicians, it's a blast! Furthermore using a service such as Musiversal is a great way to add realism with great price package options, recording with top class musicians. - Composing playable passages is also very important. Even if you don't play the instrument yourself, your piece should be playable in real life. Transposing keys and composing in the right range are important if you are going to re-record with a real musician. But also chances are that your plugin will sound more realistic if programmed with that in mind. The goal should always be how the piece will be played in a real setting.
- Articulations and FX are things that will bring life into your mixes. Even playing your own pizzicatos on an old battered violin will go a long way. Sound FX ideas like breathing into a clarinet, scraping or bowing guitar strings, or making scratchy noises on a violin are also very helpful to add realism.
- And this brings me to the last point. Nowadays there are plugins for everything!If you want toy sounds or kitchen utensils sounds, there's a probably a plugin for it. How about stepping out of the digital and experimenting a little in the real world? You'll have fun in the process and discover different ways of composing that are much more creative. The key to making a composition sound better on a limited budget is really to picture it being played by real people as much as possible. In today's industry, it's often a game of compromising in order to get the job done professionally to budget but we shouldn't compromise on the sound and the human experience. In-depth knowledge of instrumentation, orchestration, recording techniques and any real life experiences are all important in making a piece sound much better than the just unpacked plugin in your DAW.
Mathieu Karsenti is a multi award-winning music composer, producer and musical director. http://www.mathieukarsenti.com