About instruments, techniques and chords

edited November 22 in Composition and Production


I'm pretty new to the world of music producing (I'm still trying to learn the circle of 5ths!) and I just bougth the BBCSO plugin and I was wondering what instruments and techniques are not suitable/meant to play chords (to be clear: more than one note at a time) with? I'm going to assume the Timpani is one of those instruments? And legato is one such technique? Is there a site/youtube channel/whatever where I can learn more about this stuff?

Are there anything like weekly/monthly challenges on this forum where ppl make a piece of music based on a theme or a storyboard or something like that?


  • Oh boy this is quite a question.

    So you are correct: timpani probably don't play chords with unless you arpeggiate it which should be fine (the musician traditionally only has two arms, so they can only play two notes at a time). Funnily, the other mallet instruments (xylo, vibes, marimba) can do up to 4 notes because they can wedge 4 mallets between their two hands.

    The legato articulation won't let you play more than one note at a time (unless you enable polyphonic voicing which let's you do multiple voices based on velocity). So only do one note at a time for legato playing.

    Long and short articulations are okay to play multiple notes on! If you check the number of musicians in each section of the orchestra, that should give you a general idea of how many notes you can write per section per articulation. An example of this is the a3 flutes. You can have 3 notes (one per flute player) before you would "technically" require a 4th flute player. In the real world and virtual, you can always get a 4th player, but just know that every extra note requires another person. The strings are a bit special in that there are a bunch of them (anywhere from 4 basses to 18 violins). The more you divide them up, the smaller and crisper the sound is going to get. So while you can split them however many times you want, the quality of sound is going to be affected in quite a cool way. Composers utilize that sound all the time (sometimes splitting up the Violin 1s on 5 or 6 notes).

    Splitting up players onto different notes is called "divisi" for strings (there are some libraries that feature divisi samples; BBCSO does not so do not worry about replicating this).

    The longs and shorts all work the same way; there's no really complicated way to split the voices up. Just keep track of the number of players per note. That's the important thing.

    You may be like, wait a3 means 3 players are playing. Which means a 3 note chord has 9 players playing 3 notes! And this is sort of true, except it is okay because when 3 players play in real life the room and instruments cause each other to reverberate. The a3 patch can more accurately replicate the reverberations hence giving a better picture of what the sound would sound like. Just remember in real life, it will probably be a lot quieter than your VSTs.

    Also, unless you're trying to write something very specifically for an orchestra to perform, don't worry too much about being true to life. Write 17 violin parts in one piece. Someone's gotta do it. Anywho, I'd check out some orchestration guides and videos related to real orchestras instead of virtual instruments. That might give you a better picture of how to accurately write using the articulations you have.

  • Thanks for taking the time to answer gregoryd! I have a lot to learn, and this is a broad subject, but I've got to start somewhere!

    I also just realized there's a pdf-manual with descriptions for the different techniques, so that's also something I'll have to check out. (There's also a picture in there that shows the layout of the orchestra, btw.)

  • Yeah, I probably should have just pointed you there haha. Those descriptions are quite perfect in their own way.

    I'd also check out the "Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment" on Youtube to get a decent grasp of all the individual instruments. The interviewees often describe different techniques they can play and give little demos of their skills and uses.