• André Miranda

How to prepare for a studio recording session: orchestration techniques for live instruments

Tired of using VSTs and looking at using real instruments to give your compositions an even better sound, but not sure where to start? Well you’ve come to the right place!

Here at Musiversal we receive plenty of scores and while they’re all amazing, there are always small fixes that can make them even better! Writing and score preparation for an orchestra is extremely challenging to master, even if you have been doing it for a number of years!

We have put together a new series of articles to help you take your score writing to the next level! In this post we list some of the techniques live musicians can perform that you might not be aware of if you're used to composing for VSTs.

So you’ve primarily worked with sequencers and VSTs and are thinking of moving into orchestrating for live instruments? You will be aware of the limits of what VSTs can do, but the exciting part of orchestrating for a live studio recording session is that you now have the opportunity to write a number of techniques that will sound amazing played by live musicians. There are many musical techniques such as triple tongued brass, glissandos, and tremolos that will sound incredible with live musicians but not so great on VSTs that are affordable for the average composer. In this article, we provide examples of the many techniques you may not have been aware of that will sound incredible with live musicians.


Orchestrating for live strings presents a composer with countless opportunities to really express their creativity and skill. In the musical example notated below there are a number of techniques that you can make use of when writing for string instruments. This example would sound excellent with real instruments but would be very difficult to recreate with software and would require very expensive, top of the range VSTs. The excerpt features a number of different techniques you can use for 1st and 2nd violins.

A violin passage featuring notation for espressivo legato, con sordino and a violin solo

Legato is a technique where notes are played smoothly from one to the other with no silence in the transition. Even though most DAWs will have a legato mode, it is still very difficult to recreate the sound accurately. In the first bar for Violin I you can find an example of the notation for playing espressivo legato.

The third bar contains a part that is played con sordino, which translates to ‘with mute’ in English. In an orchestra, the string instruments will usually have a mute attached below the bridge. Make sure when orchestrating to allow a break with a decent amount of time for the musician to put the mute on.

In the fourth bar we have a solo violin playing a glissando. If you look through forums and message boards online you’ll find a constant source of frustration is that solo instruments, especially violins, rarely sound close to the real thing. While a VST will never sound exactly like a real instrument, solo violins seem to be particularly bad. A glissando sample is also not found in many instrument packs and it can be tedious to program one.


Of all the sections of an orchestra, the woodwinds can be the most difficult to get a good sound from VSTs. With real instruments there are a vast number of techniques at your disposal for woodwind instruments. The passage below features a number of techniques that can be performed by real instruments. We have only included flutes and oboes so it is not overly complicated. One of the most important considerations for woodwinds, if you are used to VSTs, is that real musicians need to breathe. So make sure to allow enough breaks in your composition.

This woodwind passage contains techniques such as trill, flutter tongue and leaps in register. It would sound awesome with live instruments

On the second and fourth bars flute 1 plays very short notes with a big leap in register. Oboe 1 also plays short notes in the second bar. Very short notes can sometimes be difficult to recreate with MIDI while the sound of a big leap in register can sometimes be too clean on a VST. This is fine if that is what you are going for but with real instruments, a big leap in register can be used to add an interesting or quirky effect to the piece. Sometimes composers can take advantage of the weakness of instruments to experiment with interesting sounds.

There are a variety of different tonguing techniques that live musicians can perform with woodwind instruments to create a broad variety of sounds. Skilled musicians can usually perform techniques such as double tonguing and triple tonguing. For flute 2 on the third bar we have an example of the notation to use for flutter tonguing - a technique that involves the musician rolling their tongue. When notating the abbreviation flz is used, which is short for “Flatterzunge” in German.

Woodwinds played by live musicians can sound fantastic when switching between staccato and legato. Here oboe 1 plays staccato for the first two bars before the oboe 2 follows with the same notes but legato for the next two bars, creating a call and response type effect. While oboe 2 is playing legato, oboe 1 continues the trill that starts in the second bar, a technique that involves rapidly switching between two notes.


When it comes to orchestrating for brass instruments one of the things to be careful of if you are used to VSTs is that you may have an unrealistic expectation of what brass can do. By this we mean that a VST can make many things that are quite difficult to do with real brass seem too simple.

One of the most important factors to consider with brass is the different registers of instruments and what the musicians are capable of playing. VSTs can give the impression that it is possible to sustain extreme registers for an infinite period of time. However more extreme registers can be tiresome to play for extended periods. For example, high registers put lots of pressure on the musician's lips and can even become painful to play.

This trumpet part shows how to notate for triple tonguing

Higher registers should also be used sparingly as brass instruments tend to be very loud, especially in higher registers. The loudness isn’t necessarily a problem when you are working with VSTs as you can simply lower the volume on certain parts. With real instruments there is the potential for the brass to drown out other sections, so try to avoid too many elaborate moving brass parts.

With all that said, there are certain aspects of live brass that VSTs can’t recreate. For example, it is still very difficult for VSTs to match the sheer power that live brass provides in a recording. Brass VSTs can rarely capture the expressiveness of a real instrument played by a talented musician. One such component that adds expression is vibrato using a trumpet - a technique that involves oscillating, or wobbling, the pitch.


While it may take some time to get used to orchestrating for live musicians if your only experience is with VSTs, you will soon find you can express your creativity in more ways than you ever thought possible. Although we have just scratched the surface, hopefully this article has helped make you aware of the sheer number of techniques available when composing for live instruments. It is one of the greatest thrills as a composer to hear your creation played live. If you want to book a session with Musiversal and you have any concerns about what is and isn’t possible then don’t hesitate to get in contact with us and our experts can help you out!

Has this article inspired you to have your piece played by a live orchestra? Then book a session with Musiversal today!


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