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Making Tracks: Creating Realistic String Parts

August 1, 2008
Vienna Instruments interface

FIG. 1: The Vienna Instruments interface shows the Special Edition patches on the right. The legato violins are loaded.

When Vienna Instruments introduced the affordable version of its Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL), Vienna Special Edition (VSE), which is Digidesign Pro Tools compatible, the company added features that solve two of the most challenging problems in sampled-strings arranging: note connections and dynamics (see Fig. 1). These facilitate some of the processes I described in “Making Tracks: Create More Realistic Strings” in EM's August 2006 issue.

When playing legato, string players will move their fingers to the next note while they continue bowing. The result, particularly with multiple musicians, is a very smooth transition from one note to the next. A player may even slide from note to note. Because each musician plays that slide somewhat differently, the effect cannot be duplicated using a simple synth-style portamento.

A Nonstarter

Most sampled-strings instruments restart each sample as it is played. In the August 2006 “Making Tracks,” I suggested moving the sample start time up for legato notes so that the attack portion of each sample is not heard. Although an improvement, the result still does not sound completely convincing.

VSL went one step further and sampled the note-to-note transitions of each section. When you play note transitions with an overlap, VSE finds the sample of that transition and plays it.

The VSE legato instruments are all monophonic, so you must open separate VSE instances for each string section in your arrangement and write monophonic parts. When one section is playing more than one note (called divisi), either open a new instrument or use a MIDI controller or keyswitch to change the player to the sustain articulation.

To ensure that all the notes in your arrangement play legato, first quantize all their attacks and releases. Check visually that each note overlaps the next, then add 50 or so tics to the duration of each note. (In Pro Tools, use the Legato function in the Change Duration window.)

Check that there are no repeated notes in the arrangement, because moving the Note Off command of the first note to 50 tics after the Note On of the repeated note will cut off the repeated note; when you need to repeat notes, leave a space between them. There is a bit of latency involved in playing the transition samples, so shift the track playback offset until the timing feels right.

The best way to add dynamics to your strings is to vary their volume and timbre with MIDI Volume (CC 7) or Expression (CC 11) continuous controllers. Rather than using just volume and filter changes, VSE lets you gradually fade between samples that are played with different dynamics. That gives you a much more realistic crescendo and decrescendo.

Smooth Move

Here's how to set up the performance parameters to enable smooth dynamic changes that work within a pop arrangement (see “Step-by-Step Instructions”). Because the volume range in a pop arrangement is usually limited, the strings should express dynamics without large volume changes. For orchestral or solo string pieces, you may want to tweak the settings or keep the VSE default settings.

In the Patch Assign window, load legato violins (055 VI-14 legato) into patch 1A. Click on Edit Cell and lower the dynamic range (DYN.R.) to 10. You might also choose to increase the release time (REL).

In the Perform window's Perform Control tab, turn Velocity X-fade on. Next, in the Perform window's Map Control tab, click on Velocity Crossfader and select ControlChange as the source and 7 Volume as the controller (CC 11 works just as well).

Now MIDI volume commands will affect both the volume and the crossfade between samples. Velocity will not affect the dynamics at all. When CC 7 affects sample crossfade and volume, the volume change is too great for pop music, but when CC 7 is turned off, the volume change is too small. The solution is to pull the Velocity crossfade curve to the right (concave) and the volume curve to the left (convex). Tweak both curves until the dynamics feel right to you. A concave crossfade curve has the added effect of spreading the crossfade area over a greater range, making for a smoother transition (see Web Clip 1). Play your parts while using a MIDI volume fader or pedal, or — my preference — play the parts and then draw in the dynamics on your DAW.

The VSL Appassionata Strings and Chamber Strings collections (not included in VSE) work well in other contexts. The Chamber Strings collection suits retro-sounding tracks, because many older records used smaller sections (see Web Clip 2). The Appassionata Strings collection, with its heavier vibrato and larger sections, fits a modern classical crossover arrangement (see Web Clip 3).

Steve Skinner is an arranger, programmer, and producer based in New Jersey. See his record credits at




In the Patch Assign window, load legato violins (055 VI-14 legato) into patch 1A.

Patch Assign window


Click on Edit Cell and lower the dynamic range (DYN.R.) to 10. You may also want to increase the release time.

Edit Cell


In the Perform window''s Perform Control tab, turn Velocity X-fade on.

Perform window''s Perform Control tab


In the Perform window''s Map Control tab, click on Velocity Crossfader and select ControlChange as the source and 7 Volume as the controller.

Perform window''s Map Control tab


Pull the Velocity crossfade curve to the right.

Velocity crossfade curve


Pull the volume curve to the left.

volume curve


Vienna Special Edition from Ilio

"Create More Realistic Strings" in the August 2006 issue of EM

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