What Is a Virtual Orchestra?

Erik J.J. Goserud

A virtual orchestra is an instrumental ensemble played on a keyboard or MIDI device meant to imitate the sounds of a full, live orchestra. Orchestral simulation is another term that refers to imitate prerecorded or live environments. There are any number of combinations a producer can use with strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion. Simulating traditional orchestra performances can be lucrative for some producers as these samples are used frequently for TV, radio, and theatrical productions.

A regular keyboard can be used as a MIDI keyboard to produce orchestral sounds.
A regular keyboard can be used as a MIDI keyboard to produce orchestral sounds.

Music heard on television and radio uses prerecorded virtual orchestra samples whose rights are purchased for use in a given product or episode. It is vital that these tracks are sonically mixed and mastered by audio professionals. Music production programs such as Logic, Pro Tools, and even Garageband come with prerecorded samples of virtual orchestras that can be used royalty free before mastering.

Once a large set of samples is completed and mastered, they are put into software packages for commercial sale. Companies, artists, or independent producers in need of a virtual orchestra sound for their audio projects then buy these packages. For example, if an independent producer is making a radio spot advertising that a local orchestra will be playing at an upcoming event, the production engineer may order a prerecorded virtual orchestra sample for the commercial.

When a piece of music is scored for a film, it requires a lot of collaboration when the orchestra is being recorded as the director must keep the group in sync with the film. The orchestra must follow a tempo in real time while accentuating peaks and valleys in volume, articulation, and phrasing of a piece of music. Orchestras are organized by producers or directors who hire musicians to record these audio samples for commercial use.

Sometimes, virtual orchestras are created by layering one or two instruments at a time. On some occasions, producers play the instruments themselves to better obtain their vision in the final product. Once the instruments are recorded, a production engineer can layer instruments in different arrangements for a multitude of tracks. These are called samples and almost always have copyrights.

Many orchestra musicians see these virtual orchestra samples as controversial because they are a continuous threat to their jobs. In fact, unions have formed to combat the intended use of technology to make virtual orchestras. The time, money, and immense organization required to gather a full orchestra, however, will keep demand high for virtual orchestra samples.

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