Saturday, September 20, 2014

Anti-Dominant Harmony - The Minor IV (4) Chord

Have you ever heard a rock, blues, or jazz tune that went to the minor 4 chord before ending the song on the 1? How about a sweet orchestral ballad that did the same, choosing to ignore the traditional authentic (V-I) cadence or other popular cadences, by lowering the “IV” to a “iv” before resolving to the tonic? Well, perhaps you've never thought about it, but if you are a super music nerd like me, you may find a study on this peculiar, yet, pleasing way to resolve a song to be very interesting.

Perhaps you have no music theory background, or perhaps yours is basic or limited. If you weren't trained in the more classical side of theory terms, getting familiar with them will help you to understand and appreciate anti-dominant harmony more. A very brief explanation for the purpose of this article is that basically, the word tonic describes the “one” note in a scale and the triads (three-note chords) built off of it. Subdominant describes the “four,” and dominant describes the “five.” They are all written with Roman numerals in the upper case. Minor chords get the lower case numerals. In other words, in the key of G, your three major chords that naturally fall into the G scale—your 1, 4, and 5—are G, C, and D, written as I, IV, and V in classical theory. “7th,” “9th,” “sus,” and other such chords are simply additions or alterations to regular major and minor triads.

You may then be wondering what the title of this post is all about, regardless of your theory knowledge. In short, it is something I discovered to be the opposite, yet the same as the dominant (V or 5) chord in any key or scale. Of course, there are books and studies that go into uncommon and odd scales, chords, and other musical ideas, most likely including the ones I will mention here, but they are not necessarily the easiest to find. Plus, using what I call the anti-dominant, the iv or minor 4 (Cm in the key of G), is common in both popular/studio music and traditional/orchestral music. As far as I have seen, studies don't really seem to connect the ends of the musical bridge I would like to create in your mind, and since this concept is so unconsciously common, it should be explored more regularly. So, here's my story:

During the early part of my graduate school studies in composing, I was given an assignment to come up with a way to use an 11th or 13th chord—correctly and tastefully—in an original piece. I began to develop an outer space-themed score for an imaginary video game, though I had the galactic Super Mario series in mind. Because of the mystery of space and the unknown of the “far beyond,” I decided to write in a mode (type of scale) that I was unfamiliar with. In fact, this mode, though discussed in those studies of uncommon musical tendencies, is not any one of the common Greek-named modes. For those who are interested, I will discuss the scale more in-depth at the end of the study.

I would recommend looking up modes too if you really want to follow along with this whole article, but it isn't necessary to understand the anti-dominant jargon. Again, briefly, modes refer to the different possible scale types, and the Ionian mode—all white keys on a piano from C to C—is our very familiar major scale and is also pretty much the only scale beginners or musicians with little theory knowledge use. If you've ever heard a pop song, chances are, you've heard the Ionian mode.

Anyway, enough confusing lecture and back to the story about Super Mario themes. As I said, the scale was very uncommon. In fact, unlike most songs, in which the dominant (V or 5) chord is everything due to its ability to naturally and pleasantly lead back to the tonic (I or 1), this mode had no true dominant. It had a “v,” or minor 5 chord, but that doesn't sound at all like a dominant and isn't super effective in leading you back to the very major-sounding tonic. So, I played my melody over a few times and began to experiment with other chords built off of notes only in the scale I was using. Everything kept pointing for me to go to the minor subdominant (iv or minor 4) if I wanted to have that feeling of resolution when I returned to the tonic. I didn't argue it at all because it sounded great, but I grew very curious. How could it be that I had the exact same satisfaction of resolution without a dominant?

Remember how I said the objective was to write a score that used 11th and 13th chords? Well, I noticed that when you add so many extra notes to a chord, you actually get two or more different chords stacked on top of each other. Again in our G example, a D11 chord would start with a single D note as its personal “1” and build the chord off of the 1-3-5-7-9- and 11th notes, which, since D is the 5th note and chord in G, would actually be (from lowest to highest) the 5-7-2-4-6- and 1 notes of the G scale. Those notes are D-F#-A (D triad)-C-E- and G (C triad). Now depending on what type of 7th, 9th, 11th, etc. chord you want, those extra notes can sometimes be flattened or sharpened to give off the desired effect. For example, you may have heard of a “major” 7th chord, which is different from the most popular “dominant” 7th, or simply 7th, chord.

I began to wonder if the minor version of the subdominant felt right because it was an extension of something else too. So, the first thing I did was count backwards. As we all know, in music, you count from low to high, left to right. Therefore, because there are seven notes in a regular scale system, if you go up a fourth (remembering musical movement always counts where you start as the first step) from a G major chord to a C major chord, you would have to go down a fifth to get from the same G major to a lower C major, even though the tones play the same harmonic roles. What this meant for my piece was that instead of referring to the chord as the subdominant (IV or 4), I gave it the role of the negative dominant (iv or -5) because counting right to left turns takes five steps to reach the fourth note in the scale. I'm sure somewhere along the way I thought that this was unconventional, like anti-music or anti-harmony, and that's probably how the actual term anti-dominant was born in my mind.

Next, I tried to discover what other chord it might be a part of, although I could kind of guess as you might have already done. Tracing back three notes, I found that previous possible notes were the same as the notes in a major dominant (V or 5) chord. Although my scale had a minor dominant, this excited me greatly, and I immediately stopped to test out the simultaneously forming theory in other situations. I was writing in a difficult key, so I switched to something simple like good 'ol C major. We'll stick with G though for the fluidity of the article. You may or may not know this, but it isn't always required to play every single note in a chord, especially when they get thick and complex like these stacked chords, so that is another reason I was so excited.

I began to play different chord progressions that would be accepted in popular/radio music, making sure the last three chords would be 4-5-1. The first time, I resolved to the final 1 from the 5 normally, but the second time, I substituted that 5 for a minor 4. Both sounded great and gave the full satisfaction of a resolution. That was it. The 4 was still the subdominant and the minor 4 was not a cool subdominant—it was still the dominant! The first three notes were just left out. And it made sense too, since this anti-version of the dominant was found to the left of the tonic five steps, just like the dominant itself was to the right five steps. Of course, I then tested the theory again, this time playing the final progression as 4, 5(11), 1. It still worked, and it sealed the creation of the anti-dominant in my mind. Rather than calling those notes the 1-3-5 of the subdominant, or 4-6-8(1) in the scale, I could also call them the 7-9-11 of the dominant, and that is why this is the only other chord that brings full aural satisfaction of a traditional, authentic ending (cadence).

Ok, so Super Mario never really showed up again for the rest of the article, but wasn't that fun? I've since used this chord (and scale for that matter) in other works, not as a strange subdominant (IV or 4) chord as a minor variation of a plagal cadence (IV-I), but on the basis that it carries the full weight of a dominant (V or 5) chord. I've also discussed it with a few professors and other academics to continue to work it out in my mind and to gain as much new information as possible about this chord. Hopefully you can see why—even if you are not that interested in musical technicalities—this chord, concept, or theory of the anti-dominant should be further studied and developed by whoever writes and preserves musical history. Perhaps this article can inspire a few academics/professionals to consider it including a study in the next edition of their theory textbook or pop artist magazine (just call it the anti-5 in a spot about why so many artists choose to go to a 5 before resolving to the 1). I've never read any higher level books or articles that have quite explained the iv/minor 4 this way, as being an extension of the V/5. I've never read any blogs posts or other such publishing for that matter either. Perhaps, I will have be the first to write about it and maybe even dedicate an entire book to an in-depth analysis.


Exciting news! I recently was studying some jazz techniques I was not familiar with on the piano (an instrument I pretty much loathe unless I am composing or am in a room playing by myself), and, of course, I immediately saw the opportunity to convert what I was learning just enough to apply the theory of the anti-dominant. What I found further supports this idea of the minor subdominant (4 or IV) being more of a cleverly masked dominant chord, and it also secures the idea that the cadence might authentic as opposed to plagal... especially since what I found could easily be argued as a non-plagal ending, despite the semi-professional argument that it too is plagal.

While studying the jazz techniques, my lesson was using a basic I-vi-IV-V pattern with the V only being in the bass and the right hand staying on the subdominant (IV). In modern terms, that is a 1-6-4-4/5. Using the key of C as the starting point, my chords were C-Am-F-F/G, and grew in complexity as 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and lead notes were added.

My brain saw all of those back-to-back F chords and had to begin experimenting with the different resolutions possible. My left hand could play as little as a single bass G note, while the right hand covered notes from the FMaj7 or 9 as was traditional in the exercise... Or, the right hand could instead use the anti-dominant in any of the root or extended forms. It sounded pretty nice, but that wasn't the focus. I heard other things—things I liked better. The first thing I noticed is that the G as the bass with the anti-dominant Fm or Fm7 was what was keeping it pretty nice instead of very nice. But, the idea of something else for the bass note instead of F, Ab, or C, seemed like it was on its way.

Naturally, my next choice for a bass note was D for a few reasons, most of which I won't get into right now, and it was magical. The main note to understand about the D, however, is that it is the 5th note in a G scale, making it the 3rd or highest note in the root position G triad. When that D is in the bass instead of the G, a G chord is considered to be in second inversion. Note, though, that it is still a G chord.

I could switch to this D immediately upon moving from the F in the bass, or I could do G with the regular F chord(s) for half of the measure and then jump to D and the anti-dominant F for the second half of the measure. Both worked. So, let's look at the actual chord. D-F-Ab-C. I preferred a triad in the right hand as opposed to the 7th, though the 7th didn't necessarily sound bad. For analysis purposes, less is usually better.

Having this D in there changed everything. What do I call this chord? Fm/D? G11 no root no 3 b9? Dm7b5? What was it's function? It's function was to lead me back to the tonic (I or 1), and with this particular chord structure, the role of the D didn't feel as though it was part of a D minor chord or really even that is was a part of the famed 6th chord on the IV (F6). It did, however, feel like it belonged to the G still in that rare second inversion. Most importantly, the resolution felt complete. Because of that, the idea of the anti-dominant grows even stronger. After all, D is directly related to the G chord and only indirectly related to an F chord (these are some of those other ideas I didn't want to get to deeply into a couple of paragraphs ago).

Finally, as a fun experiment, I decided to lower the C a half-step to a B and add the 7th back in, this time on the high D, making the chord in the right hand a true Fdim7. It resolved just as well as the previous chord. This is interesting because now, all of the notes in the chord were a part of the G7 with no root, minus the Ab. That would extend it to a Gb9 chord. Even though the root wasn't present, the chord was clearly way closer to a G than to an F, and both G and D sounded strong as bass options. So, if you considered it in anti-dominant terms, the 11th note (C) would have to be a b11 instead of just a regular 10th (3rd an octave higher) as well as the 9th being a b9, hence the diminished chord. Either way, because it sounded great and was fun to experiment with over a D bass note, it is useful information to share.

In general, this whole section is a bit less structured and planned out as the main part of the article (especially since it was written shortly after the experiments), so it will be updated and revised to be more eloquent as it takes shape in my crazy musical mind.

Thanks for reading, and, as always, you can see some of my works and reach me through www.natecombsmedia.com. Keep reading if you want to learn more about the scale I used in the first section.


I have no idea what the super scholars are calling this mode, but I did discover that it can stand alone as its own family with full-fledged “major,” “minor,” and “relative” concepts.

Basically, each scale in the family is half a major scale and half a natural minor scale. The “major” concept then begins with the first four notes from the major scale and the last four notes from the natural minor, while the “minor” concept is reversed—the first four notes are from the minor scale while the last four are from the major scale. Now, the middle two notes are the same in both scales, so you could count it as taking 3 notes from one scale and 5 from the other or even 3 from one and 4 from the other if you don't like counting the tonic twice. It doesn't really matter which way you do it, but let's take a look at a new set of examples in the key of C.

In C, the major version of this mode would consist of the following notes: C-D-E-F-G-Ab-Bb-C. In the minor version, they would change to: C-D-Eb-F-G-A-B-C. We already know that the dominant in the major version of this mode is the same as a minor subdominant, effectively earning the name anti-dominant. The minor mode does have a dominant, but that version is something I haven't extensively tested yet, so that is open for you to play with and perhaps discover new, hidden “antis” of your own.

Other chords work with both scales, though the major version lends itself to and has a large number of diminished chords. They must sometimes be “overcome” by leaving certain notes out of the chord, by layering with 7ths, 9ths, and stacked chords, or by using other additional/borrowed notes in order to function properly. The v chord, when used appropriately, can even function as a sort of anti-subdominant, as it would be the “negative” (minor when counting from right to left) version of a major dominant in a regular scale.

Finally, there is a relative minor to every major key, and it is always a perfect fourth forwards (or fifth backwards) from the tonic, thus cycling through the circle of fifths in almost in reverse. It truly is a backwards key. So, taking the same notes from our major version of the C key and starting a fourth higher, we get the minor version of the F key. Then, by parallel movement, we can change the F key to its major mode, which consists of the following: F-G-A-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F. From there, you could of course move to Bb, and from there to Eb, and so on. Going a fourth backwards from C's minor mode to the relative major, you would pass through G, D, A, etc. just like you would in the circle of fifths.

If you wanted to create a new type of relative major for each minor in this mode (going forward a fourth instead of returning back a fourth), that is also possible, and the hybrid you would get is the same as playing the Lydian and Mixolydian modes simultaneously. This would be like keeping all of the parallel majors and minors separate and only creating new scales based on the relatives of every major mode and then creating a separate group of relatives for all of the minor modes. Of course, you can't really cycle through the circle of fifths this way. So, our F Mixolydian-lydian mode (which I think I actually wrote in once, calling it either the Mixomixolydian or something cheesier like the super mixolydian), would have the following notes: F-G-A-B-C-D-Eb-F because it is based solely on the minor version of our other mode in C, neither of which now have any relation to the major version of the C. C's Mixomixolydian (I like that name), by the way, would be based off of minor version of G and would consist of the following notes if you want to compare the three styles: C-D-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C. Yes, a key with both a sharp and a flat (because otherwise, you'd have to double the name of the G or A and eliminate either the F or B).

Obviously, if you keep pairing relatives and parallels like I just did, you will slowly make your way through the circle of fifths run through countless other new types of scales, some of which probably sound amazing, but that's not this study. I hope you enjoyed this second explanation if you stuck around. Perhaps, you will even find it aids you in the creation of new types of music.

Monday, August 11, 2014

David Bennett: Where Creativity and Resourcefulness Merge

David Bennett is a songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from Brighton, UK. He draws his musical inspirations from a wide variety of sources, and I could imagine no less from one who is versed in many instruments and musical styles. Back in March, he released a brand new video to accompany his song “Jenny,” which is inspired by the film Forrest Gump. Because Bennett has only recently begun sharing his music online within the last year, “Jenny” is his first full non-instrumental song and video release. However, he expects to be releasing more before the end of the year! I did a short interview with David, and here is what he had to say:

1) How long have you been a musician, and what roles did you have in the production of this track?

I've been a musician for 7 years now. I now work full time as a musician—teaching, performing and recording. Little to none of what I get paid to do is my songwriting though, so it remains a labour of love. On this track I've done everything aside from having some amazing female vocals added by Daisy Jean Russell (of Brighton-based band, Garden Heart). 

2) Are you and Daisy Jean the actors in the music video?

We're not in fact. The actors in the video are two of my friends. I used my friends to avoid acting (which is not my forte). However, I have acted before though; I used to perform in a comedy group with the male actor in this video!

3) Who inspires your musical style?

I'm never very sure how to answer this! I could list the artists who inspire me to make music (Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Bob Dylan), but this doesn't really reflect my style. I often compare my style to that of Noah & the Whale or, as you said yourself [for those who don't know them], Mumford. However, I feel this is a little misleading too. I'm also unsure whether finding it hard to describe my style is a good or a bad thing!

4) What made you choose ‘Forrest Gump’ as the theme for this song?

The story of the film just seemed like a worthwhile topic to explore in a song. I wrote this song about two years ago when I was going through an odd, film-based songwriting stage. I also wrote a song about ‘The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’

5) Do you have any advice for musicians who may want to make their own music videos?

Exploit all your resources! Think, ‘what do I have access to?’ and then try and base the video around that—for me it was a photographer girlfriend (who filmed and edited it all), a grandad, a smoke machine and a doctor’s surgery.

6) Random thoughts:

I'm currently reading a book called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. It revolves around spontaneous, unlikely, long distance walking and it often reminds me of Forrest Gump and his cross-country running. I would recommend anyone to read it as it is very life-affirming. However, I'm perhaps three chapters from the end so it could all go horribly wrong.

My thoughts on the interview:

Wow, only 7 years! That seems like a long time, but in musical years, that is relatively new, especially considering that the first few years tend to be used to struggle past the beginner stages. Then, add recording and production on top of that, and that is quite an impressive timetable. It is by no means easy to do everything from conception through production all alone.

I thought the video was well done. Your friends did a great job acting. Aside from music, I think comedy would be the other best use for videos!

I've heard some of your more classical/piano-based works and some other tracks, and I would classify this particular song as English folk. Regardless of whether you have a hint of Mumford, a touch of Noah and the Whale, or a trace of anyone else in your style, I would say that you have a gift for melody. I’m terrible with lyrics, but your melodies have been stuck in my head all week.

Exploiting resources is surely a great way to advance ideas you once thought were impossible. I’ve never really had time to make any music (or other types of) videos myself, but I sure would love to some day. However, I can agree on the musical side as well. Without some great resources in my town, I wouldn’t be able to get out as many diverse tracks as I do for sure.

Thanks for your time David and good luck with your future in music! To hear more of Bennett’s music, visit his YouTube or SoundCloud pages.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Orchestral Libraries 3.5 : Vienna Buyer's Guide, Vienna Instruments Standard Collections, and Other Purchasing Tips

Yes, my last post was very long, but hopefully, it had some useful information about how Vienna works and what the Special Edition is. I have finally lost access to my school’s demo and had to do some purchasing in order to keep using Vienna products for class. However, I did not go with the Special Edition, and if you are thinking about doing so to save money, you may want to think again. Here’s why:

Vienna SE comes in six parts. Volumes one and two, along with their “plus” counterparts are basically essential if you want to have any versatility at all in your composing... and it will still run you over $1,200 USD. The full SE collection, except for when there are sales like there are right now (buy 2 SE get 1 free for the month of August, 2014), is about $1,800. If you are going to spend that much money on Vienna products, there are a number of better methods you can use to get more of what you want.

SE is basically everything Vienna has to offer in an extremely limited way. You get a large number of instruments you most likely will never need or use, and even if you are a bit adventurous, you will probably only use some of them once or twice. So, you are paying for wasted access to many instruments that, even if you did have recurring need for all of them, still only have four different articulations (sustain, legato, staccato, and sforzato). Such instruments include the bass flute, bass trumpet, euphonium, basset horn, and many more “uncommon” orchestral instruments. Aside from that, your regular and semi-common instruments (oboe vs English horn, clarinet vs bass clarinet, trombone vs bass trombone, etc.) only have a few more articulations that you may use on a regular basis.

However, buying Vienna Standard Collections can get you immensely more from each instrument for the same price, and you can still have a very complete orchestra (though at this price point, some small sacrifices will need to be made). What I mean when I say you get immensely more is that each instrument comes with about twice as many useful articulations or variations of similar articulations and those instruments have more detailed sample layering. It is particularly noticeable in the brass, which comes with vibrato and non-vibrato versions for many different articulations, but as brass is still the hardest instrument family to sample, it takes really great mixing work to apply some of the fortissimo patches properly.

Here is what I did, what I got, and what I had to sacrifice:

As I mentioned before, the woodwinds by Vienna are immaculate. Plus, I use 7-8 different types of woodwinds—the traditional four and their semi-common counterparts—in most of my compositions. So, it made the most sense for me to get Woodwinds I and II, which is around $800 together. The complete Woodwinds Bundle, which includes Special Woodwinds ($370 alone), is $1056, but I didn't want to spend the extra money for instruments I don't use. The only special woodwind I did use, frequently I might add, was the oboe d’amore, and if you remember from the previous article, all instruments except strings can be purchased on an individual basis as well. That was one of the sacrifices I decided I could live with.

I had absolutely no need for the cornet, alto trombone, fanfare trumpets, or euphonium of the Special Brass collection, and the only thing in Brass II that I used regularly was the bass trombone. I sometimes used the piccolo trumpet as well for variation amongst individual trumpets. So, because I do have an EastWest trombone that plays in the bass register or could replace bass trombone parts with a second tuba, I just got the Brass I section, which consists of the main four instruments as solos and multiples sections for the trumpets, horns, and trombones. Again, if I really want to upgrade or get one or two more brass instruments, I can still purchase any one instrument at a time to add onto what I already have.

The strings was a bit of a sacrifice at first… or so I thought. In SE, you get basic versions of all solo, chamber, orchestral, and appasionata strings sections. Purchasing the standard collections outright costs $500-600 per section size if you get all four instruments as a bundle, which is quite a bit less than buying parts I (violins, viole) and II (celli, bassi) separately. So, I thought, I already have multiple EastWest solo and chamber and orchestral strings sections, I rare use my SE solo strings, and I have never used my SE appasionata or chamber sections, so why not just get the orchestral (standard) package, which I use in every piece? And that is exactly what I did. Solo strings would be nice to have too, but it really isn't that necessary, especially since I have so many EastWest options.

Finally, Vienna doesn't specialize in world or Hollywood-style percussion, so you won't find a lot of the instruments you may need if you are looking to use non-traditional percussion in your scores. Again, I already have everything I need percussion-wise in EastWest, but I'm not too fond of my old glockenspiel, and Vienna does a great job with their pitched percussion. Also, their timpani and harps are wildly different from those of EastWest, so I thought it would be good to have two different options. Although you only get one or two articulations per instrument, I went with the Special Edition percussion for only $63 because you get a plethora of percussion for a very small price… and I don't really need many articulations for percussive instruments that I can't create on my own with good MIDI usage.

So, I hope that helps any confused buyers out there to rest a little easier when deciding which library sets they want. When added up, I still got all of the instruments I use regularly (including a Flute II, oboe II, and other secondary instruments) minus my preferred second oboe d'amore and bass trombone. What's better is that the final price was about the same as that of the full Vienna SE (much cheaper though with my special discount applied), and I now have double the articulations and sample layers for each instrument.

Perhaps, you only need a few things and can purchase one individual instrument at a time. That works too, but in the long run, it will cost you more than bundles do, so try to reserve purchases for when your needs align with the best packaging options. The final reason that standard instruments and packages work best with Vienna is because if you ever want to upgrade to an insane amount of articulations by adding on the extended libraries, you have to own the standard versions of all of the instruments in your desired package before they will sell it to you.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Orchestral Libraries 3: Vienna Instruments and VI Special Edition Review

I recently dived face-first into a special 6-month trial of the full Vienna Instruments Special Edition suite, and boy do I have some news for you all. This trial has greatly opened my eyes to the coveted world of MIDI composition that is Vienna Instruments. Because of their ever-expanding options and libraries, getting set up with Vienna doesn’t necessarily have to cost you more than you will be paid on your next few to several projects. However, I will say ahead of time, in order to properly reap all of the benefits VI has to offer, you do have to have a decent amount of experience writing, and more importantly, mixing music well. This includes having the ability to sufficiently handle a large amount of keyswitching. If you don’t know what that is, perhaps I will write an article for you.

The reason you need to know what you are doing as a composer or producer if you want Vienna to sound good at all is because everything is recorded completely dry. This means there are no “multiple mic positions” in the traditional, EastWest sort of way, although their separate MIR reverb software does enable you to process real stage positions and reflections in a very advanced way. Therefore, if you can’t mix or keyswitch well, or if you are newer to the field and lack advanced listening skills, you may feel like Vienna doesn’t sound much better than the stock MIDI instruments in your DAW. However, that couldn’t be further from the reality of just how different Vienna actually is. In fact, an advanced composer, or at least the mixing engineers he or she sends any Vienna-made scores off to, might be overjoyed that no big “room” sound was recorded along with all of the samples because it gives them complete control over reverb effects for any given situation. Purists might be upset by the dryness of Vienna, but room noise in what is still considered to be a “stage mic’d” sample isn’t exactly pure, now is it? Perhaps the truest of purists who lacks the ability to hire a full orchestra might simply take any sampled parts to a concert hall and re-record them for a “true” natural reverb… but that’s another topic for another time.

The really fantastic things about Vienna are its players, Vienna Instruments/VI Pro; the ability to create custom keyswitches; and the common sense they used when recording various articulations.

The player is a unique work of art all on its own, and other developers should learn from it. You have the ability to assign the various parameters to MIDI controlled channels for automation, and perhaps the greatest three features to control are the velocity fader, the velocity fader on/off switch, and the slot fader. That’s right, you can control and automate the velocity of any single, sustained MIDI note with the velocity fader, meaning that you could have a note on a horn start out at pp (pianissimo) and crescendo as it plays until it reaches a ff (fortissimo) volume… and the duration of the crescendo can be any length you want!  I don’t know of any other players that allow that kind of customization. The on/off control is there because, as avid automators know, once automation is turned on for a track, whatever the automating line says at that exact moment is what all of the other unattended notes will play back for the rest of the piece. So, if you only want to crescendo 3 notes during an entire score, it could be a bit of a pain to go in and set the velocities of every MIDI note via automation. Simply automate the on/off switch instead to tell your sequencer when to ignore velocity automation.

In addition, the slot fader lets you have the same kind of control… but get this—it’s between multiple articulations or instruments. Yes, you can have a fortepiano contrabass note magically transform into an organ or even have a sustaining cymbal swell suddenly become a flute, but on a more practical level, you could have a sustaining violin section slowly add tremolo as a note goes on. Or, you may like the “oboe d’Amore” sound for the first half of a note but want it to settle in with a simpler sound before the note ceases. Tiny details like this can greatly add to the realism of a MIDI mockup, and again, I know of no one else who offers this level of control.

The ability to create custom keyswitches is the next great feature. Whether you are or are not familiar with keyswitching, I’m sure you can agree that assigning C1 (except for low instruments, which I usually default to C4) to change all of your instruments to the “sustain” sound, C#1 to change to staccato, D1 to legato, etc., allows you to greatly increase your workflow and keep trigger memorization to a minimum. Other players and companies do offer keyswitching; however, many of them kind of throw the keyswitches in at random and follow no common setup for all like instruments. You might have D2 be pizzicato for one stringed instrument, but have it be tremolo for another. With Vienna, you get to choose and save your own keyswitches, so after the initial set up, time never really has to be wasted checking which trigger produces which sound. Amazing. I won’t even get into how the matrices or presets work, but let’s just say there are multiple layers of keyswitching that could allow you to keep your articulations all the same but change, say, the instrument type you are using, the playing technique from regular to muted, or the size of the viola section. Vienna Ensemble is a whole separate beast that allows you to preset an entire orchestra (with or without Vienna plugins, so you can mix and match) in a single player that will load every time you open a new or existing project and allow you to still control each instrument individually via aux channel.

Finally, in regards to what makes Vienna great, they had a little more sense than some other manufacturers when deciding what articulations to include in with each instrument set. Too often, you will see a sample set that has something like staccato in the solo cello and 10 cello sections, but leaves it out in the 3-4 cello sections. Or, you might see a trumpet, trombone, and tuba with a sforzato patch, but not get it in the horns. Everything in SE is pretty much standardized, with slight variations based on what instruments can play and on what you already have. So, obviously only strings will have pizzicato and tremolo (which I just put higher up in my keyswitch chain so as to keep the lower notes common among all instruments), but everything has sustain, staccato, sforzato, and legato and their plus versions have trills, fortepiano, portato, mutes, and more. The only area where this is slightly off is for uncommon instruments or instruments that repeat like bassoon 2, flugelhorn, and 8 “epic” horns, which have no “plus” articulations (in the SE versions). All in all, it’s pretty consistent throughout. One additional side note is that the legato patches in Vienna are all true legato, meaning that, much like a synthesizer set to “legato” voice/mode, only one note can be played at a time, and tiny crossfades and slides are applied to overlapping notes in order to emulate how a live player would move between two legato notes.

So, let me give you the breakdown of what SE includes. There are 4 products in the VI SE line, and special editions 1 & 2 both have “plus” versions, which come with additional instruments or articulations beyond the standard packages. Versions 1 & 2, along with their “plus” add-ons, are probably the most essential parts to get if you are on a tight budget and are considering Vienna. Together, they encompass the bare minimum you need to write music for an orchestra, but, as you can see in the list above, don’t expect to get extreme in your creativity. Version 3 is strictly a con sordino strings and harp 2 add-on, while 4 includes more obscure instruments, like the euphonium, cornet, heckelphone, and bass flute.

The strings sections are pretty good. They are definitely not “Hollywood” bright or big, so if that is the sound you are going for, you may prefer something that has a more unrealistic high end. In the full version of SE, you get regular and plus articulations for all five sections as solo instruments, chamber ensembles, and full orchestras. You also get an even larger grouping called “appassionata” strings, but each section only contains sustain and staccato articulations. Everything is very realistic, and it is highly recommended if you know what you are doing and don’t need that many articulations. The harp options are very nice, though they only come with simple articulations in SE. I give strings a grade of A-.

The percussion/rhythm section is interesting because it is very classical for the most part. If anything were going to have a bit of a Hollywood edge to it, I’d recommend it be the percussion, maybe because I love to write for big and world percussion styles. Pitched percussion is fairly easy to sample, and things like the glockenspiel and xylophone in SE hold their own well. The timpani also sound great with classical pieces but need a boost from something like EastWest’s timpani if you really want to bring the thunder. Unfortunately, there are only one or two options (a left hand hit and right hand hit) for important instruments like gongs, cymbals, mallet cymbals, bass drums, etc., so the sounds get repetitive quickly. Plus, there are no foreign instruments except for taiko, and it always sounds like they are clipping at their highest velocity. Pianos and guitars are also extremely basic in this version, but lots of these instruments can be upgraded. Regardless, the Vienna percussion sound often isn’t enough for me, since I write for many foreign percussion ensembles, so if you have similar needs, be prepared to seek an additional supplier or a Vienna upgrade for your percussion. Overall, I’d give Vienna SE’s percussion library a B.

The brass is the weakest grouping here, so I can’t give it higher than a B or B+, but even so, it is still good as brass instruments are not easy to sample realistically. You just have to know how to use it. My main issue with the brass is the thin, phase-y sound it has when it is completely unedited, especially in the grouped sections of 3 instruments.  I prefer to have 3 solo brass instruments I can customize individually, luckily, but using similar keyswitches in unison parts can still get a bit wild. Once mixing is done, you can usually blend the brass and get most phasing issues to go away, but I’d still rather they not be there at all.

The woodwinds are a huge plus, probably my favorite of the included sections. They have all four main instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) and their counterparts (piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon), and there are alternate options for all four main instruments. I also often include the rare or alternate instruments from the SE 4 collection in my scores. Again, I don’t really have a need for the multi-instrument sections, as I write for each woodwind individually, but those are included as well.  Although the bass clarinet seems to be twice as loud as the other winds, which has happened with every sampled bass clarinet I’ve ever heard, I give this section a solid A+ because of the incredible realism and control possible with the woodwinds. The only way I can imagine it being better is by buying more Vienna articulations.

Lastly, I mentioned that Vienna doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. While the rules and prices vary between Europe and the Western hemisphere (American-based composers can purchase Vienna through Ilio at www.ilio.com), the products remain the same. Yes, the full Vienna suite plus all of the additional software and plugins will run you over $15,000, but they recently outdid their Special Edition package by offering individual instruments or sections for single purchases, each complete with the option to go standard, go extended (plus), or do both at once. These are a bit more expensive (about $50-100 for standard or extended per instrument and $150-$200 for both), but you also get a significantly larger collection of articulations since they come from the non-SE full packages. Oddly, strings are not included in this offer, but most everything else they have to offer outside of the “dimension” series is available. The great thing about choosing this route is that you can select exactly what instruments you want your orchestra to be comprised of. So, if you only want one flute type but need the contrabass tuba, euphonium, and regular tuba sets, you can buy whatever you want whenever you want it. Plus, if you do need a basic strings package, the SE packages can be broken down by section (allowing you to just buy strings) and there are various other strings packages, though those are pricey. However, rumor has it that they will give you a discount on new purchases that overlap with what you already own.

I know this is a longer article, but there is a lot to know about Vienna… and I barely scratched the surface. It is a great collection of instruments if you know how to use it properly and its sound blends well with some of the bigger “in-your-face” libraries out there. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner, but then again, I wouldn’t recommend much to a beginner, so it’s actually a nice first library to have, especially if you are willing to practice, make mistakes, listen, and learn. Who I really wouldn’t recommend it to is the lazy composer who maybe doesn’t have professional aspirations. A library that has automatic mic positioning and preset reverb setups is going to make your cheesy 5-minute loop with no use of the available keyswitches sound better. But to everyone else considering high-end professional material, this is a must-have. The player paragraph should have made that obvious. Vienna can easily be a great way to achieve your realism goals if you prefer live musicians (don’t we all) but only have the time or money to hire a few main pieces.

To hear samples of songs that are made with or incorporate Vienna instruments check out my site at www.natecombsmedia.com and its various links.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Winifred Phillips: Award Winning Game Composer and Author

I had the amazing privilege to engage in a few online conversations with Winifred Phillips recently. For those of you who do not already know who this rising star is, Phillips is an award-winning film, game, and radio composer whose name is quickly rising, specifically in the game music community. Not only has she composed for big titles such as Little Big Planet, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, God of War, and many more, she has also written a book which aims to aid aspiring composers in their own quests to impact gaming history with music.

Published by the MIT press--that's right, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press--her book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, is being celebrated throughout the entire compositional world. Legends such as composer Harry Gregson-Williams (one of the top film and game composers today... you definitely know some of his works even if you don't recognize the name) and game director David Jaffe back this book... and I do too. No, I haven't had time to read the entire thing yet, but having previously taken a master's-level class on this exact subject and knowing what it takes to work in the game composing world, I can say that this book shouldn't just be read by aspiring composers... it should be taught in music schools. It definitely gets more in-depth than my course did and may even contain two semesters worth of material for some universities. An initial read-through also allowed me to pick up on three aspects I believe all good publications contain: thorough detail with understandable explanations, evident passion, and quirky, witty comic relief.

At a modest price of under $30, you can obtain Winifred's book either as a hardcover or eBook on Amazon by following this link: A Composer's Guide to Game Music.

For anyone interested in getting into the game music world and wanting great instruction for an unbeatable price, this book is a must-have. With it, you can go from thinking, "Hey, I can make game music," to knowing, "Hey, I can make game music," just as Phillips did before she began her career as a professional game composer.

In addition, you can find her website at www.winifredphillips.com, a press release by the popular game business site Gamasutra, and countless YouTube videos featuring the works of and interviews with Winifred Phillips herself.

As always, I will post an additional/updated review as I work my way through the book, and I am going to try to secure an interview to post as well.

Be sure to also check out what's going on at www.natecombsmedia.com!

Friday, January 3, 2014

David Garlitz: Euro-American Acoustic Album "A Poor Man's Pocket"

I have interviewed David Garlitz before for the site, and now, I have the pleasure of reviewing his first full-length album, "A Poor Man's Pocket," before it is released on January 14th. As you should know from the previous article on David, he is truly a phenomenal jazz guitarist... and he does all of his music on a classical guitar, which is no easy feat. He also still lives and plays music in Paris, but frequents his homeland of the United States when he can.

"A Poor Man's Pocket" is everything you can expect from Garlitz. You'll hear great guitar matched with perhaps the perfect voice for his style, and you can bet your bottom dollar you'll hear subtle references, clever wordplay, and scattered silliness. For the first time, I got to hear David sing in other languages, all of which I know and understand a little bit less every day, sadly. I really enjoyed the long solo intro to the first track, "Hija Mia,"and assumed it would continue this way until the next track. However, I was pleasantly surprised that it later developed into a full song, which he sang entirely in Spanish. So as not to give everything away, I will say that one of the tracks tactfully switches between French and English, creating a nice, and funny Franglish?... Engrench? I don't know, since I've studied Spanish way more than I have French.

A very nice thing about the album is that it is consistent all the way through. You won't hear 15 different guitars or mixes done by 10 different people. Unfortunately, in today's industry, some people can rush their albums and you can easily pick up on it in the final product. Also, many people try to squeeze too much into each song and extend them to sometimes 6+ minutes. I'm glad to say that this didn't happen in "A Poor Man's Pocket." Most songs seemed to be under or around 4 minutes and they only have 3-4 tracks--one for the main vocals, another for the guitar, and perhaps another for some guitar slaps or harmony--with no doubling, all of which is great for acoustic music.

Finally, I will say that some of the songs really remind me of that light, happy feeling portrayed in many Pixar short films, and I could easily hear David being featured in one of them... if he is even interested in writing music for movies.

I enjoyed hearing "A Poor Man's Pocket," and it is very good for a first album, speaking as one who produced somebody else's not-too-consistent first album when I first started in the field of recording. I have heard David play with other people before, and would love to hear a full band album in the future, with either all new material or some full band arrangements of his favorite songs.

You can find out more about David Garlitz on his website at www.davidgarlitz.com.

The album is also available on itunes at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/a-poor-mans-pocket/id778708889?uo=4

Be sure to also check out what's going on at www.natecombsmedia.com!