The Synclavier™ Audio System Files

A Users Perspective of the Synclavier™ by Michael Whalen


Hello! Here are my first two installments of my on-line column for the Synclavier™ audio system web site. I will try to highlight some "real life" Synclavier™ audio system related issues that come up in my travels. If anyone out there has stories, musical revelations, or practical Synclav' tips please send them to me at my "tips" address:

The Synclavier™ audio system as orchestra/volume 1:

One of the topics that I discuss in detail with my film score student interns from the Berklee College of Music here in Boston, is "orchestral" arranging for samplers and synthesizers. I thought I might discuss a couple of the things that have come up in our discussions and put these issues in context when using the mighty Synclavier™ audio system.

1. There is no "right" way.

Everyone has their own method of making tracks - so, I can only discuss what works for me. Most of what I do on a day to day basis is writing for television and film scores. Most of my projects are on tight deadlines, most (if not all) of my clients have no imagination so, and (not surprisingly) the "demo" they hear of a cue - could just as easily be called the "final". Speed and efficiency are key to making the deadline and to juggling multiple jobs in the air. The most important thing to remember about synth orchestration is to know where your best orchestral sounds ARE, also, have an idea of what kind of sounds you are looking for in your project, and most importantly, on the Synclavier™ audio system, start thinking about how you can maximize your available RAM and voices.

2. Every orchestral part should be on a separate track.

One of my big pet peeves with students (and some professionals!) is that they lay out their orchestral parts in large blocks - playing string PADS like a keyboard part instead of string LINES - like an actual string section. They go on to make the same mistake with woodwinds and brass. What these young synth orchestrators are left with is a dense synthetic mush. Whether you are writing for a real or virtual orchestra I think it is the most effective to think about individual parts rather than trying to muscle whole sections on a single track. This approach has a couple of benefits:

a) You use only the voices you need instead of stacking a lot of redundant notes across many sections.
b) You have greater control over balance and articulation.
c) MIDI Transcription of just one of the parts (say, the first violins) doesn't to be "broken out" - its right there and you can export it out using MIDINET to Finale or Sibelius or whatever...
d) You can blend notes and colors on a per note or part basis rather than an entire section. For example: if your string basses aren't full enough - simply copy the track, substitute the bass timbre of your choice and blend. One of my tricks is to do this with most of the parts of the strings emphasizing different colors in different sections. In one section I might try to use combinations of samples and synth sounds to create a cohesive whole. This leads me to another point


3. No one "orchestral" library will cover everything.

If there was an orchestral library out there that did "everything" ­ everyone would own it and Hans Zimmer wouldn't have made his own sample library of the London Symphony Orchestra. As I mentioned before, knowing where and what your best orchestral sounds are is a MUST. Most importantly, having different kinds of articulation, timbre, number of players, and even having similar types of orchestral sounds in varying sample SIZES in also crucial. On the Synclavier™ audio system, RAM can be at a premium ­ even on a large rig. Having your sounds organized in a way that will help you work quickly is no longer a luxury.

(part two of this column on orchestral orchestration is coming next month!)

Firewire Drives & disc image files:

One of the best recent developments in the world of Synclavier™ audio system, is the ability of the new PCI software to make disc image files anywhere on the Macintosh. If you have a lot of sound files, you can run out of room (like me) quickly even on a 20 or 30 gig hard drive. The problem arises: where do I put all these sound files? The first thing I tried to solve my space problem was purchasing a 20 Gig external USB drive ­I noticed immediately that the file access times really slowed down and it even hung up and crashed the system several times on my 450mhz G4. I returned the drive and I got a 30 Gig external Firewire drive from Lacie. The first thing I noticed about the Firewire drive was how fast it was loading files. In my opinion, it seemed just as fast as loading off the internal drive in my Mac.

For those of you who have not heard of this technology, Firewire is a fairly new technology and since last year it is a standard buss for the Macintosh that is many times faster than the fastest USB or ultra-wide SCSI drives. Firewire has been a proven way of transferring enormous digital video files in several high end video edit and graphic systems for a couple of years. For us musicians that travel, Firewire drives are not only fast but they are small (they can fit in your jacket pocket) and they are "hot swappable" ­ which means you do not have to re-boot the system when you attach them or remove from your computer. So, bringing your ENTIRE sound library across the country to a different system is easy.

Building a disc image file is simple - the process is the same as formatting any drive for use within the operating system of the Synclavier™ audio system. The only real difference is that you are partitioning small sections of your Macintosh hard drive and copying your sound files on to them. One of the great benefits of having disk image files - rather than those annoying MO drives - is the ability to combine many of the same sounds by TYPE that were separated out on different physical media. So on one disk image file, I have ALL my string sounds. That means when I want to load ANY string sample from any library with any patch - I do not have to worry whether the right "media" is loaded - its always there!

(tune in next time for specifics on making disk image files and organization)

Michael Whalen is an Emmy-Winning TV and Film composer whose music occasionally floods the airwaves. Check out his newest CD, "The Border of Dusk", on Koch jazz or go to

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