Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear a lot of different orchestral music written by a lot of different composers.  These composers use many different tools for composing…  Some write at a piano.  Some write using sequencers and samples.  Others sit at a desk and write with a pencil and a notepad.  Others go for a walk in the woods while conceptualizing an idea.

What is interesting is how much the tools composers use can affect the musical ideas they come up with.  This isn’t necessarily bad, as workflows themselves can be a source of inspiration.  Working with samples, as one example, can be genuinely inspiring and lead to great musical ideas.  The same is true with improvising at the piano or making a notated score.

However, I have noticed some tendencies created by each of these workflows that aren’t necessarily beneficial.  In this blog, I thought I’d look specifically at one type of workflow—composing with sequencers/samples—and tendencies that are common when composing with these tools.  In a future blog, I’ll look at the other common workflows and tendencies that they create.

Some tendencies to watch out for when composing with samples…

1) The first tendency is something I call “same articulation syndrome”.  This is the tendency to begin an idea with a particular articulation or sample type and then continue using that sample type for an unnaturally long time.  This is a natural outcome of the way sampling patches are structured.

When composing with samples, it’s common to load a particular sample type and then begin composing via improvisation.  For instance, I may load a staccato cello patch and then play on my keyboard until I have an idea that I like.  This is a great approach for the generation of ideas.

Of course, if I want to change articulations (such as switching to pizz or legato), then I have to take an additional step.  I have to load a new patch or hit a key switch to change the sample type.  This added step creates an incentive to use one articulation for an unnaturally long time, because changing articulations requires extra work.

Notably, that incentive doesn’t exist in the case of the actual instruments.  It’s no more work for a cellist to alternate between staccato and legato than it is to play staccato the entire time.  The same is true playing piano and other instruments.

As a result, composers using sequencers/samples tend to change articulations much less than composers using other methods (such as writing at piano or in a notation program).

This tendency can be overcome simply by being aware of the situation and taking time to do the extra work…

Take the time to switch between different sample types, and as you are composing with any particular sample type, keep in the back of your mind that the ideal performance of your musical idea might use multiple articulations.  Just asking the question — “Would this musical idea be better if I changed articulations at some point?”  — will make your music better.

2) The next tendency is to write music without a lot of dynamic variation.

Again, this comes down to the incentives created by the process of sequencing with samples.  When we load a given sample…it has a particular dynamic shape to the decay.  Most samples are designed to be flat dynamically, but many samples have a gradual crescendo or diminuendo to each note.  Regardless of the dynamic shape of a given sample, we get that same shape every time we play a note.  To get something different, we either have to take an extra step–change samples or add continuous controller data to shape each note up or down.

In this case, the nature of sampling creates an incentive to write music where each note has the same decay shape.  Every note is a diminuendo—or a crescendo—or dynamically flat.

Again, this incentive doesn’t exist with the acoustic instruments.  If a violinist wishes to crescendo on one note and diminuendo on the next note, it takes no extra steps for the violinist to make that switch.

This tendency can be overcome simply through embracing the extra work…  Take the time to add continuous controller data to dynamically shape each note while it is sustained.  Take the time to switch between samples with different decay types.

3) A third tendency is to write music that is possible to play with the samples but not the acoustic instruments.

Some ideas can be played on a keyboard linked up to samples but can not be played on the actual acoustic instruments.  A fast chromatic scale in harp.  A seven-note pattern in timpani.  These ideas can be done easily in a sequencer, but can not be done at all on the acoustic instruments (a harp has only seven strings per octave, and a timpani is a series of only five drums).

This tendency can be overcome by learning about the acoustic instruments and limiting our ideas to ideas that can be played on the acoustic instruments.

The above list is a few tendencies to watch out for when composing with samples.  Given the nature of the technology, they’re tendencies that show up in all of our music.

Notably, the other methods of composing are not better nor worse–they’re just different.  Writing in a notation program or at a piano, those methods come with their own set of tendencies.  I’ll talk about some that I’ve noticed in a future post.

Irregardless of your method of composing, it’s worth taking time to evaluate that method, try to determine how that method influences your ideas, and devise ways to overcome those tendencies and generate that absolute best musical ideas possible.

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    It’s a very great tips Ben. I agree with you about articulation and dynamic that is very important when composing with samples and no.3, I think is the most important.

    Great comments! Don’t stop your train of thoughts…because I believe that “how” you do something has a tremendous influence on “what” you do – quality, quantity, etc.. Sometimes, I think, in the long run almost more important than the resulting composition. Because, without good work habits the composition never gets finished..the great idea never gets form or substance.

    Those are really good points! Another limiting aspect of using samples is that also not all CPUs can handle 60 different samples loaded up in only one session, and sometimes that’s what you would need to be able to include all articulations you want in all instruments… And that’s IF you had the patience to try out all those samples and choose between the immense variety available that ones that sound best for each excerpt of your piece…

    Hi Ben, thanks for posting these tips.
    Before starting to use sibelius i usually composed my stuffdirectly with samples, and yes the 3 risk you’ve token about are real.

    I usually compose a line using a keyswitch track (specially if it’s a solo or a melody line) so i improvise with one sample and after i go npte per note to assign the right articulation. Like this i can play and let the inspirtion come out without an extra work.

    I find interesting to compose with piano also because helpto have a fluid workflow.
    For the orchestration’s work i prefere now to work with sibelius first, (it seems to me to have more control on the entire orchestra) and after export xml to cubase.

    Thanks for posting these points Ben. I find that I tend to do exactly as you describe – improvise with often a full orchestra template without much thought to switching articulations because it really is an interruption to the thought process.

    I now follow a kind of hybrid approach – get the sounds I want with the instruments but then produce a piano reduction in the DAW. I then send that data to Finale and produce a Piano reduction with the correct articulations.

    That data is then orchestrated according to the original ideas.

    It’s a bit long winded but having a properly written Piano reduction helps produce the result I am after.

    Hi Ben,

    As I re-read your article, I totally agree. Sometimes we get so focused on melody or harmony, we neglect dynamics and articulations. We also need to know the limitation of a real instrument which takes study, so that we don’t write something impossible for an actual player to play. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    Great advices!! I will keep that in mind for sure.

    Really appreciate this blog post Ben!


    Ben these are all great ideas. Many times I have found my self getting caught up with the samples instead of exploring the idea. I find this happens less when I at least come up with and explore my theme away from the computer at the piano. When i write this way I tend to explore the t heme more, and the find the correct samples to realize it, when I do not do this I find my self trying to do do variation with the samples.

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