Updated: Oct 7, 2020
I want to address a common mistake that many of us have made, myself included, in our Kontakt libraries these days. That would be, proper use of the "dynamics" parameter in many a sample library interface these days. But before we can make sense of it, we need to rewind and cover some basics. Let's talk scoring!
When a production company records a live orchestra for a film, much of the recording and the mix is "room mic'ed." This means that the recording technicians place tree mics as well as ambient and balcony microphones throughout the studio hall to capture the true sound of the recording space as well as the players. The alternative is placing a different mic in front of each of the players' instruments, which would be insane and terrible sounding, not to mention an expensive waste of time. So instead, to capture regions of the orchestral hall in a variety of methods and mix those together is common practice.
As a plus, mix engineers can use the same layout later, to extract the transient effects of a space using various tones and recordings to create a custom reverb plugin should they decide they liked what they heard. Perhaps the room had a unique sound of its own. Many of them do, and all the plugin does is simply model those characteristics.
Ok great, but what does that have to do with the dynamics knob in my library? Well, the real question is, how do the greatest movie scores of all time make their brass sections sound consistently bright and crisp and often overpowering in a good way? The answer lies partly in the skill level of the musicians they recorded, but how the room was mic'ed can also play a huge factor.
Why is it important to know this? Because we know from arranging and orchestration that a French horn doesn't really sound automatically "bright," but rather muddy. It fills the low mid and mid frequency ranges. So when you hear those French horns soaring above the events on screen and they sound brassy as can be, those are not horns you are hearing, but cornets after all. (Perhaps even trombones depending on the scene.) Could you tell they were not the same instrument? Likely not. If you've never been formalized in how orchestras are laid out, you might have missed this one. That's all thanks to the magic of smart hall mic'ing by live sound techs, true masters at their craft, but also, mix engineers. This is ultimate frequency prioritization in action. We've been fooled.
Back inside plugins, you have may noticed parameters for mixing those mics together the same as they would be in a score's live recording session.
If you've never used a sample library before, the first thing you may notice is that they can be somewhat of a beast to wield at times.
Like any new tool in the studio, you've got to spend quality time with it and "learn how to drive" so to speak, getting familiar with the ins and outs, capabilities, as well as nuances and behavior until it's an extension of you, just the same as other gear.
That doesn't matter now though. You are a kid in a candy store. Let's crank those horns as loud as they can go!
Woah, slow down maestro. Remember what we talked about earlier with room mics and mixing? The French horns aren't the ones generating that "brassy" sound as you know it. Their job is to give the cornets and/or trumpets more body and sound less empty. On top of that, most, if not the entire brass section has to play very loud to achieve this type of tonal quality. That is to say it takes a lot of skill and effort. If you spend too long on the high end of the dynamics knob, your brass section is going to have lips the size of the international debt ceiling before they can even get through the piece.
You have to remember that today's industry leading sample libraries are often modeled after sounds from the most elite players in the entire world. A lot of scores today are defined by their predecessors from decades past that created these hallmark sounds that composers idolize, but the reality is a lot of them are quite difficult for the orchestra to create. Some have said that a sample library can often beat a "bad" orchestra, or sound better than a good orchestra in a bad room for that matter (acoustics). These world class musicians can pull notes more powerfully than just about anyone else and this is something we with our Kontakt plugins (or otherwise) have got to keep in mind when we use the top end of such parameters. So without further adieu, here are 3 basic dynamics rules for virtual orchestration.
Treat the Library the Way You Would a Live Orchestra
Treat the plugin itself like you are asking a human being to belt those notes, and you might find yourself thinking twice about what you're doing. It would be insane to play an extreme dynamic throughout the song. It couldn't be done; it is unnatural, and will wind up sounding unnatural to a trained ear if you're not careful. This first rule encompasses the other two in a way, but the difference is, it can apply to more than just dynamics and reappear in issues surrounding articulation, phrasing, and register to name just a few. Consider what live players can physically accomplish themselves before you command your DAW to playback a certain line or phrase. This concept by itself is critical for virtual orchestration as a whole, as well as the sampling universe which is where this all started to begin with.
Assign Traditional Dynamics Markings to the Parameter Divisions
You see those tick marks? I'm talking about the halfway and quarter points on your dynamics meter or knob. This is where you actually use them. Treat each division like a separate dynamics marking, the way it would appear on a sheet of music and do this in your head as you go. Take this to heart as a concept, and stick to it for effect.
0-10% should definitely be pianissimo. The first quarter division would be the piano range just about. The halfway point: roughly mezzo piano. Above the halfway point would be mezzo forte. Forte would be at about the third quarter mark, and above 80 or 90% we must reserve for fortissimo. As you drag your parameter around, keep track in your head of where you are on the dynamics scale. Really, it helps to imagine that your virtual orchestra of live players are seeing the appropriate dynamics marking for the respective division you chose from your plugin, and they are seeing that on their score sheets instead.
Utilize the Instruments That Already Make the Sound You Need
Are you articulating brass? Don't forget to add some trombones or trumpets! As we discussed earlier, French horns don't do all the heavy lifting to create that brassy sound; they are the support structure. Arranging 101: grab something that generates what you are trying to express organically, without any extra processing like parameters, effects, or anything else. This will save you in many areas of production. Perhaps your processing gave your horns the sound you want but it is likely unnatural and incomplete. You get something less than it could have been in the end.
A Little Bit Goes a Long Way
This concludes most of the main considerations for proper sample library dynamics control. If we keep some of these things in mind while we're automating our parameters, we'll be well on our way to getting the right dynamics levels out of our sample libraries. Many track submissions these days are getting these parameters pushed a little too hard resulting in samples that sound occasionally more intense than a phrase calls for. We've all done it at least once. Now that you have the insight into why libraries are setup the way they are though, hopefully your productions will be staying that much more true to the form.