One of the most often-considered topics on Scoring Notes and elsewhere that music notation software is discussed is the convergence of applications that are primarily designed for good-looking notation, with those that are tailored for optimal playback.
Many of the questions that were asked, and answered, in a recent Scoring Notes podcast episode dealt with this very issue: using music notation software with — or as — a digital audio workstation (DAW).
As a composer, orchestrator, and copyist, I’ve worked extensively on both sides of this dichotomy, with the goal of bringing them together into a cohesive experience, with a lot of help from recent improvements in the technology.
Sometimes, I focus mainly on one aspect or another, in my YouTube tutorial series, Lightning Sibelius:
But today, we are going to take a comprehensive journey through my latest three-movement orchestral composition, Anatolia for Orchestra. Remarkably, the entire piece was crafted within Sibelius, utilizing the cutting-edge Playback Engines of NotePerformer.
I am excited to unveil all the hidden intricacies, along with crucial focal points, that contribute to achieving a significantly enhanced playback experience.
Before we continue, I’d like to extend a couple of invitations to you.
First, please read David MacDonald’s excellent review of NotePerformer 4 (and the news about the 4.1 update), which was released earlier this year, to understand the new features in this update. NotePerformer 4 is a big upgrade that brings in a groundbreaking concept called Playback Engines. This idea makes NotePerformer act as a bridge between Sibelius and other third-party music libraries from Spitfire, Cinematic Studio, Cinesamples, VSL, and more. The result is an incredible playback experience with very impressive sound quality.
Next, please take a moment to listen to all three movements of Anatolia for Orchestra. Then we can then dive into a thorough conversation about its notable elements. Each movement encapsulates a traditional Turkish-Anatolian motif, offering a cultural essence. I genuinely hope you derive as much enjoyment from it as I have.
The first movement: unveiling the dark side of 9/8
Let’s start by talking about the important task of choosing the right instruments. In my collection, I have a variety of six different orchestral libraries. Each of them adds their own special sound to this project.
What’s wonderful about using multiple libraries is the wider range of colors they provide. By carefully making use of these resources, I’ve managed to bring a greater diversity of tonal richness into the composition. This careful process of selecting instruments really enhances the listening experience and brings a new level of depth to the music.
Once you’ve finalized your instrument selection, I recommend saving this setup as a template. Doing so will spare you from having to repeat this process in the future.
In this particular project, I required a strong and bold string section, a brass section with a controlled level of power, and a woodwind section that could delicately express nuances.
To meet these needs, I chose to use Cinematic Studio Strings for the string section. For the other instruments, I blended together BBC Symphony, Hollywood Orchestra Diamond Edition, and Cinematic Studio. I opted for Cinematic Studio Strings because I wanted to capture a Bartókian style. This choice was influenced by the first movement’s time signature of 9/8, divided into beats as 2+2+2+3, mirroring a common Turkish folk dance rhythm. The sound quality I find with Cinematic Studio Strings perfectly matches what I envisioned. Performing this rhythm, especially at fast tempos, is truly challenging!
Since I composed this piece for a small orchestra (double winds), I made sure to give each instrument a distinct role to create a richer sound. I also experimented with different ways of combining instruments.
Here’s where it gets important: I separated the woodwinds and brass sections onto their own musical staves. This allows for different levels of loudness and ways of playing for each instrument.
When working with the NotePerformer Playback Engine, keep in mind that if you have, for instance, two flutes or two oboes, make sure to select two staves corresponding to the instrument within the Playback Engine. This ensures that the playback accurately reflects the intended musical expressions without requiring loading additional instruments, thus optimizing your computer’s resources.
Here’s a really important tip from the first movement that can make the mixing and mastering much easier later. When you want your project to sound loud, don’t make the dynamics too extreme. Remember to leave some space for mastering, as the sound can get even bigger during that step.
For example, in this movement, I had the sound quite loud. Even though it sounded better at the loudest point, marked as fff, I chose to make it a bit quieter at ff. This way, there’s enough space for mastering later on, keeping the sound quality intact.
To follow this approach, just read this helpful blog post. It’s fantastic and uses a tool called the Change Dynamics plug-in, which ships with Sibelius. This tool makes it easy for you to adjust dynamics throughout your entire project. You can tweak the dynamics just the way you want them.
The second movement: a dramatic solo cello performance
In the second movement, the standout part is the solo cello performance on a D Dorian cluster played by five solo violins in the Violin I section, which includes the notes D, E, F, G, A, and B.
Many people have asked me how I managed to create the free-flowing cello performance in Sibelius. My answer is pretty straightforward: I played it myself!
Here’s the trick: Since this version is just for playback and won’t be given to the actual orchestra players, I don’t need perfect notation. Instead, I estimated how long the cluster should last, picked the cello solo, and then used Sibelius’ flexible time input (“Flexi-time“) to play it the way I want. Think of it as using Sibelius somewhat like a digital audio workstation (DAW) for a bit. Use the shortcut Ctrl-Shift-F (Windows) or Cmd-Shift-F to initiate recording, or just click the red Record button on the Transport or in the Ribbon at Play > Transport > Record.
You can also find Flexi-time recording in Note Input > Flexi-time > Record. Right next to it, you’ll find the built-in Re-Notate Performance plug-in, which I used to tidy things up.
Finally, I organized velocity and volume using Graphical MIDI Tools (GMT 2). I really suggest checking out this awesome plug-in!!!
It helps a lot and lets you use Sibelius like a DAW with a MIDI roll. You can get it from Notation Central.
I followed the same procedure for the outro, resulting in a beautifully executed solo cello for the second movement.
Just a reminder — all the steps we’ve discussed for the first movement are applicable here as well.
The third movement: powerful brass impact
In the third movement, specifically from 00:21 to 00:26, I aimed to create robust and impactful brass sounds.
I find the combination of the Cinematic Studio and BBC Symphony brass sections particularly effective, because they handle varying loudness levels seamlessly. One noteworthy tip is to avoid consistently using the loudest dynamic fff for the brass. Richard Strauss would approve!
When you genuinely need a forceful segment, it’s more effective to duplicate the brass section and create a secondary supporting staff.
- Simply duplicate the musical staff via Add/Remove Instruments by pressing I;
- Copy the part you want to be boosted;
- Maintain the same loudness level (in this case, f);
- Slightly adjust its panning in the mixer by pressing M.
This technique imparts a broader sound. I use this approach to achieve crisp brass tones while maintaining volume control. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that I’ve marked the dynamic as f, but the overall sound might come across as more of an ff-fff.
Also, don’t forget to select the three staves from the NotePerformer Playback Engine for each of the brass sections.
Exporting all tracks as audio, and getting ready for mastering
Once you’ve completed composing your piece, you might want to separate the stems and adjust them individually by importing them into a DAW. In this particular piece, I didn’t find it necessary, but let’s assume you’re aiming for specific mixing effects. If you want to transfer each staff to a DAW and use external reverb, delay, or similar effects, there’s a fantastic and efficient trick available that will quickly export all the stems for you.
Navigate to the NotePerformer Playback Engine, ensuring it’s loaded with your song’s appropriate instruments, and then click on Settings. Personally, I recommend exporting stems in 24-bit at a 48 kHz sample rate. So I chose this option, and I chose the destination folder in which to save these stems.
At this point, NotePerformer is ready for you to export your audio directly from Sibelius. And you will see such a window.
Now go to the File menu, select Export, and then choose Audio in Sibelius. You can export the type of audio you prefer.
Once the audio export is complete, NotePerformer will have exported all the stems as separate files. And you will see all the instruments exported as individual stems, similar to the photo below.
This removes the necessity to wait for Sibelius to handle each stem one by one. While I’m not completely certain about the exact methods employed by NotePerformer, this approach truly saves time, especially for bigger orchestral scores.
This final tip concludes our journey on enhancing the quality of your orchestral piece using Sibelius and NotePerformer. I appreciate your continued interest and for reading this far!