Leandro Gardini

How Articulations Can Improve Realism

Image: Larisa Birta

Welcome to the Gardini School blog!
The content of this page makes part of the course Scoring Tools Masterclass and is under the rights of Gardini School. 
If you are here it's because you want to achieve a better realism with your mockups. On this article I am going to show you how an effective use of articulations can easily improve the realism of your mockups almost in real time.
For the best experience it is important that you follow the suggested exercices. Therefore, be prepared in front of your keyboard and have a amazing learning activity.

How the effective use articulations can easily improve your mockups.

It is very important to spend a good amount of time discussing expressiveness. In the end expressiveness is, in the majority of cases, what brings life to our music.

In the last lesson we've seen that the library and your programming must be expressive. Only with the combination of both you can make your computer sound with life in itself. Every library has its strengths and weaknesses and a wise combination of them makes the secret.

However, Scoring Tools Masterclass wouldn't be a complete course if we didn't discuss the importance of variation of articulations. If the combination of libraries is necessary to achieve certain results the combination of articulations is important as well.

A common way of composing today is to load few patches with certain articulations and rely on them from the beginning to the end of the music. This kind of thinking leads to a minimalist composition that in many cases is the desired result by the composer. However, as said before, if your libraries have been the main source of inspiration you are not developing you composition abilities to the fullest. Your libraries have to respond to the music that you conceive in your mind and not the other way round.

Now let's do another interesting test.

In the following example there is a phrase for violins I without any articulation notated.
Now, play this melody on the piano for few times and when you are comfortable go to your favorite violin ensemble library. Try to make this phrase sound as good as you can by just playing it with you violin ensemble.
You may also download the midi file here and import it to your sequencer. If you do, try it on the piano and later on your favorite violin ensemble.
How it sounds on the piano? And on the violins?

In composition there are certain cases where the notes are not as important as the rhythm and articulations are. Sometimes the energy of the element is what matters the most. If you play the phrase on the piano and violins you are going to see that this example is not the case at all. There is a tonal center on C and the notes really matter. However, the rhythm plays a bigger role here.

The eighth notes predominate throughout the entire phrase and they give us a hint of which articulation would be more suitable for the violins.

I didn't told you which articulation you could play this phrase but there's a high chance that, after hearing it on the piano, you chose a short one for the violins. Legato, spiccato and staccato would be the most common ones but once you play legato the repeated C and Eb would be a problem due to the speed of the melody and the slow attack of most legato patches.

I am not with you now but I can predict that if you first test it with legato you probably have changed it to spiccato or staccato afterwards and the result has been better afterwards. Or maybe you have gone directly to the short ones!?

So far so good but do you think the energy has been kept the same throughout the entire phrase?

Play it as many times as you want and feel the movement of the phrase compared to the energy that it gives.

On the third bar 5/4 there's a break in the ostinato which gives a new direction to the energy and later it goes back to the original state until the end.

It is not measurable but I am sure you can feel that the break drops the energy down to almost half. Hear it now on my staccato patch.

What is the problem then?

There's nothing wrong with the phrase nor the break. They are both composed of simple eighth notes and the notes are not as important as the rhythm.

How Articulations Can Improve Realism

We cannot separate realism from musicality. In midi orchestration they both share the same meaning and my goal on the entire course has been to teach you to perceive music in a different way so that you can become more musical.

When it comes to musicality I don't care how talented or experienced you are. If you are not getting the desired results with your mockups it's because you have room for improvement in your musicality. In fact, all of us need to improve our musicality and I am not away from this group. However, the most common mistakes in midi orchestration (lesson 9) have all to do with musicality and just by understanding them you are way ahead of most midi programmers.

Ok, but the question that was left out on the article above was this.

What is the problem then?

Why has the energy of the phrase been dropped down by the break?

There's nothing wrong with the phrase nor the break. They are both composed of simple eighth notes and the notes are not as important as the rhythm.
If melody and rhythm are ok then there must be something going on in the idiomatic articulation and your musicality must tell you.

This break has been inserted in the phrase on purpose so that it could have some contrast with the steady ostinato and, it asks for a change of articulation!

Did you feel the need of a more energetic articulation in the break when you first heard it?

You probably did and this is a good sign of musicality.

The most common articulation we could have in the third bar is the measured or unmeasured tremolo. Since there's a drop of energy the tremolo could compensate it.

All right, now there are two articulation on this ostinato of 5 bars and it is way more interesting than the first version with staccato only.

Surprisingly, lots of composers wouldn't think of such break because it is not something that sounds good out of the box if we are relying our entire composition on few patches/articulations. It requires a certain imagination that goes beyond of what is handy in your tools and it is in conformity to the idiomatic writing for a real orchestra and not virtual instruments.

If the standard composing process today is through trial and error (test is, if it sounds good leave it and if it sounds bad change it) then breaks like this and mixture of articulations are things that are usually left out.

An improved way this phrase could be conceived is this.
As you can see there is a mixture of articulations on this phrase that makes it way more interesting and it will be a great exercice if you sing it before playing.

Believe me, if you can sing both versions, with staccato only (first version) and with legatos/staccato (the last one) than you have done the first important procedure to simulate this phrase with accuracy and realism.

You don't need to sing perfectly in tune. In fact, you don't even need to sing the pitches if you are good reproducing the attacks and connection of the legatos with your voice.

Now, the improved result sounds like this.
I think you agree with me this version sounds way more interesting and realistic than the first two ones.

Mixture of articulations is an interesting music resource that seems to scape from the mind of many. I truly believe the minimalistic music has its importance as composition style. However, in many cases composers are not using a single articulation because they are seeking this particular style but instead, the facility of loading few patches and composing through them is what dictates the direction and quality of the composition and mockup.

It is true that getting a more complex usage of articulations requires much more time and an certain ability to shape the sound until it becomes convincing but the time and effort will be well invested.

Going Beyond

If we acquire the mindset of a fine use of phrases with subtle variation of articulations we can find new possibilities that we never thought before.
The following is an example of variation of the previous idea.
This time the second beat has the legato while the first and third are staccato.

This could be used in the same composition as a variation and this little difference would bring a lot of richness to your music.

Upon thinking more of composition than virtual instruments we open our minds to so many new possibilities that it becomes difficult to determine the threshold of exaggeration.

The following example is the same phrase on violins I and violins II playing a slightly different phrase.
This adds a new edge to the ostinato by making it more varied.

Then can we conclude that the more articulations the better?

No, I don't think so. The music would become ridiculous if we change articulations every few notes. The melody must be cohesive and change articulations according to the nature of the contour and speed of the phrase.

But how can we know when it is too much or too little?

Again developing your musicality and understanding the idiomatic articulation of each instrument is a must. Only with both you will be able to better judge when, which and how often you should change articulations.

However, you may from now on think of the energy of the phrase. By thinking how energetic you want your phrase to sound you will be able to instantly grasp an idea of mixed articulations and in the end you will be able to better mockup full orchestra pieces like this.

Check the Full Score

Now it's time to talk about the programming of the articulations used in each instrument and how to make them sound balanced and realistic.

Proceed to the next video (available only in Scoring Tools Masterclass).

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