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Symphonic Virtual Orchestration (Review)

symphonic virtual orchestration

Today we’re having a look at Cinematic Composing‘s popular online course called Symphonic Virtual Orchestration. Hosted by L.A.-based film music composer and tutor Marc Jovani, the course provides a comprehensive guide to orchestration, recording, mixing and mastering of sample-based orchestral arrangements.

Geared towards composers of all experience levels, Symphonic Virtual Orchestration centers around the concept of Synthestration – a neologism that stands for synthetic orchestration or orchestration with synthetic instruments (software samplers).

Over the last couple of weeks I took the course and in this review I would like to share with you how the class is structured and what I was able to take away from it.

OVERVIEW

Symphonic Virtual Orchestration is sectioned into 10 modules dealing with different areas of sample-based cinematic music production. Each module contains various, over-the-shoulder-style video lessons and voluntary assignments where you can put into practice what you’ve just learned. The results of your assignments can be submitted and are overseen by tutor Marc Jovani himself. You’ll then receive tips and feedback based on your submission.

In addition to the several hours worth of pre-recorded video tutorials, you can engage in a private weekly video chat with both the tutor and other students in order to discuss the topics dealt with in the course. Also, enrolling in Symphonic Virtual Orchestration makes you eligible to join the course’s private Facebook group. Here, you’re able to get in touch with hundreds of musicians who have taken the course, ask for feedback on your music or troubleshoot any production-related issues.

These are the modules covered in the Symphonic Virtual Orchestration course:

  • WELCOME/FIRST STEPS
  • Synthestration. Tactics for a good sound
  • Using Templates to Boost Productivity
  • Part 1: Arranging for Samples, Techniques Compilation
  • Part 2: Arranging for Samples, Techniques Compilation
  • Mixing (1). Secrets of the Pros
  • Mixing (2). Secrets of the Pros
  • Mixing (3). Expanding Mixing Depth
  • Mastering
  • Composing Workflow: Efficiency
  • Bonus #1: Class A Composers’ Systems, Explained

Symphonic Virtual Orchestration comes in the three different versions BASIC, PRO and EXPERT which build upon another in terms of additional content:

BASIC

  • 10 SYMPHONIC VIRTUAL ORCHESTRATION MODULES
  • Bonus #1: Class A Composers’ Systems Explained

PRO

  • 10 SYMPHONIC VIRTUAL ORCHESTRATION MODULES
  • Bonus #1: Class A Composers’ Systems Explained
  • BONUS #2: 10 CASE STUDY VIDEOS ON DIFFERENT GENRES (SPY COMEDY, ROMANTIC, ACTION/ADVENTURE, ORCHESTRAL TRAILER)
  • BONUS #3: STUDIO ERGONOMICS

EXPERT

  • 10 SYMPHONIC VIRTUAL ORCHESTRATION MODULES
  • Bonus #1: Class A Composers’ Systems Explained
  • BONUS #2: 10 CASE STUDY VIDEOS ON DIFFERENT GENRES (SPY COMEDY, ROMANTIC, ACTION/ADVENTURE, ORCHESTRAL TRAILER)
  • BONUS #3: STUDIO ERGONOMICS
  • BONUS #4: SAMPLE LIBRARIES LIST
  • BONUS #5: 1 HOUR COACHING CALL WITH MARC JOVANI
  • BONUS #6: 1 HOUR COACHING CALL WITH A WORKING HOLLYWOOD COMPOSER

For this article, I enrolled in the PRO version of Symphonic Virtual Orchestration.

SYMPHONIC VIRTUAL ORCHESTRATION CONTENT

As mentioned, at the core of Symphonic Virtual Orchestration lie the course’s 10 thematic segments. The individual modules loosely build upon each other, but you don’t necessarily have to take the course in a linear fashion. Rather than having lessons that progress in complexity or difficulty, these 10 modules are laid out as a collection of tips, tricks and explanations centered around a given topic. This way, you can either go through all lessons in successive order or first pick the topics you’re interested in the most.

Let’s have a closer look at the individual modules and what is taught:

First Steps & Synthestration

In the first few video lessons, tutor Marc Jovani welcomes you to the class and helps you get accustomed to the online course’s features and functions. After an introduction to the art and craft of synthestration, we quickly get down to business and deal with topics like real orchestra vs. sampled orchestra, the importance of dynamics and distributing your ideas among musical layers. These subjects set the stage for all the things to come.

Templates

In the next section, Marc Jovani provides you with a host of informative videos centered around the concept of creating an efficient and inspiring working template. In times where client’s deadlines are short as a fruit fly’s life cycle, it’s essential to establish a digital workspace that’s neatly organized and provides you with everything you need to get started quickly. In terms of an audio project, this means that your tracks are color-coded and put in order, that the most essential instruments and plugins are loaded and everything is pre-routed, leveled and panned in a logical fashion. To simplify this cumbersome process for you, tutor Marc Jovani talks you through the steps of creating such a template and exhibits different types of templates that may put themselves forward for certain situations or technical preconditions. Topics include routing concepts and organization as well as different types of templates (minimal, modular, small & big) and setting up reverb sends & returns.

Arranging For Samples 1 & 2

This is where we get to the meat and potatoes of the online course: orchestrating, arranging and sequencing the musical parts that form an orchestral music piece. Again, the topics dealt with in this two-part chapter come across more like a curated pool of tips and methods rather than consecutive lessons – just as if you’d be assisting a working composer for a couple of weeks and assemble little bits of knowledge here and there.

The lessons featured in the Arranging chapter are somewhat more hands-on, as the tutor takes you directly to his DAW and shows his techniques practically in the context of real-life music projects. Here you’ll learn how to achieve a tight and powerful orchestral sound using track delays and are shown how to orchestrate and sequence brass, strings or percussion beds by using a bit of music theory.

The second part of the chapter continues with the orchestration of different orchestral sections and particularly deals with blending orchestral colors. Furthermore we’re talking about the advantages of sketching out ideas in your sequencer and some technical trickery to even out very dynamic passages.


PROCESSORS: KEEP OUT!

One thing we learn in the Arrangement chapter is how Marc Jovani leaves all of the processing and mixing decisions for later, concentrating solely on the composition part of the production. This means he refrains from adding any EQ, compression or effects to his tracks in order to 1) save CPU power for the sample libraries and 2) not having to switch between composer and mixer mode all the time. After finishing the arrangement, Marc prints all of the tracks to audio and re-builds the project clear from any MIDI or software samplers.


Mixing Secrets Of The Pros

Now we’re heading to the next big key element of any professional sounding track: the mixing stage. Over the course of three sub-chapters, Marc Jovani gives you the full tour of mixing orchestral material¬† – sampled orchestral material, that is. As you might know, orchestral samples can behave quite a bit differenty to a live orchestra in terms of sound and dynamics, which always has to be taken into account when mixing synthestrated tracks. This set of lessons and tips gears you up to throw yourself against any sampled orchestral track as you learn how to make profound mixing decisions and listen to what the arrangement needs.

In the first sub-chapter, Marc gives an overview of the most essential mixing processors like EQs, compressors, reverb and analog saturation, explaining how each one can be of benefit for the sound of your sampled orchestral arrangement. Next, we’re having a look and listen to all the various sections of the orchestra and how to mix them in context with the rest. In following the lessons, we can witness how one of Marc’s demo pieces gets polished and rounded out just by making subtle tonal adjustments track by track.

The last one of the mixing chapters deals with the bigger picture of a mix and how to expand depth, width and punch of a song by working with effects. The effect processors covered in this sub-chapter are delays, reverbs, imaging and sub-harmonic enhancers. Each processor is presented in a mixing context as it is added to the demo piece from before. Marc then shows how these effects influence the mix and how again subtlety can make a big difference in the long run.


Reverb Galore

Again you’re able to observe a rather unique method Marc Jovani applies when it comes to mixing and the use of reverb. Since he doesn’t use any additional processing on his tracks in the composing phase, they are mostly quite dry in sound when he imports the printed audio files back into the project (except for the room tone some orchestral libraries come with by default). Now, although having a couple of different reverbs and delay returns set up for the mix, Marc goes ahead and inserts a reverb plugin into every single audio track he printed. Apart from reverb and delay traditionally being send effects rather than insert effects, putting a spacial processor on every track seemed kind of unusual and counter-intuitive to me.

However, as he progresses, Marc explains that this technique ensures separation between the different instrument groups, as each reverb effect is tailored to the track it’s put on. And if you think about it for a moment, this makes quite some sense. Instead of putting every track through the same reverb setting, you can – for example – push the percussion into the back by choosing a darker reverb with a bit of slap while keeping the high strings upfront by using a shorter and brighter reverb. While I’m a big fan of cohesion and putting all the orchestral instruments into the same virtual space, Marc’s method definitely is an interesting approach that I’d love to have a chat about some time soon.


Mastering

Leaving the mixing stage behind, we’re taken to the final – and often mystified stage of music production: mastering. As with the chapter on mixing, Marc leads us along the most important processors used for mastering and clarifies their function and fields of application. We learn how to apply corrective EQ, how an Imager can add width to a track and how to use a Maximizer. While Marc explains most of the processors and effects using his favorite set of plugins from UAD or FabFilter, he also added a video on how to use of your DAWs stock plugins for mastering.

Composing Workflow: Efficiency

In this final chapter, tutor Marc Jovani grants you an over-the-shoulder view of how he composes and mixes a track from scratch, combining all of the techniques and methods taught in the previous chapters. This chapter mostly serves to reinforce his point of working with a well-organized template so you’re able to compose quickly and efficiently.

BONUS CHAPTERS

As I mentioned in the beginning, Symphonic Virtual Orchestration comes with a host of bonus content depending on which of the three editions you chose enroll in. One bonus chapter that’s included with every edition is a quick aside about famous Hollywood composers’ rigs and technical setups.

The PRO edition of Symphonic Virtual Orchestration (which we had access to for this review) adds two additional bonus chapters:

  • BONUS #2: 10 CASE STUDIES/BEHIND THE SCENES
  • BONUS #3: STUDIO ERGONOMICS

The case studies show the generative process of creating orchestral arrangements of various different genres including Epic Orchestral, Action Adventure, Thriller and Romantic Drama. For each genre, Marc Jovani takes you through a track of his and shows you how it was composed and which mixing techniques he applied.

In the chapter on studio ergonomics, tutor Jovani provides some information on how to organize your workspace, distribute your equipment ergonomically and how you can build your own studio desk for under $70. These guidelines are especially helpful for composers who are on a tight budget and/or just got started.

CONCLUSION

With Symphonic Virtual Orchestration, composer and tutor Marc Jovani – to my knowledge – created one of the most comprehensive online courses centered around sample-based orchestration out there at the moment. Covering everything from setting up an efficient template, composing for different genres and applying music theory to enhance arrangements, the course provides modern media composers with all the necessary tools to get started or improve their existing skills. The substantial lessons on mixing and mastering are down to the point and allow for an easy entrance into the often mythologized art and craft.

The weekly video chats and Facebook group discussions are a nice addition to the course as you are able to exchange ideas and thoughts on the lessons with other students and receive help with anything you might struggle with. The voluntary assignments can massively help you improve your skills by getting professional feedback and a “second pair of ears” opinion.

Tailored to sampled orchestral composition, this course is probably most helpful for composers who mainly deal with orchestral sample libraries and have a hard time finding the right balance or achieving a realistic orchestral sound. Composers who look for advice on classical orchestration may find what they look for in Cinematic Composing’s other online course Orchestration 1 – From Sketch To Orchestra.

One final note for our spanish speaking readership: Every video clip in Virtual Symphonic Orchestration is available both in English as well as in a dubbed Spanish version.

Symphonic Virtual Orchestration is available in three different editions at Cinematic Composing’s online store. For all three you can choose either single payment or a 12-month payment plan which both come with a 30-day money back guarantee in case you’re not fully satisfied with the course. This is the pricing table:

BASIC PRO EXPERT
Monthly Payment $77 / month $99 / month $177 / month
Single Payment $775 $975 $1,847

See our Courses section for more reviews on cinematic music-related online courses!

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