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Dear composers,

I've been struggling to find the right software to orchestrate my works. I have tried Reason on my Macbook Pro, but I find the sound way to unnatural (especially the violin parts). I wonder, since you have more experience, what are your favorite programs to compose/orchestrate with? Which program creates the most realistic sound and is not to hard to use?

Thanks in advance!


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To orchestrate use pencil and paper (and eraser)

For parts and scores Sibelius.

For sequencing and recording (any DAW such as  Sonar, DP, Logic, Pro Tools) and the VSL (vienna symphonyc library)

or other such libraries in kontakt or the old gigastudio

@ Ariel Ramos Is VSL an extended library to Sonar, Dp, Logic and Pro Tools or is it a program on it's self? 

VSL falls into the VSTi category, which are mostly shipped separately from any Sonar/Logic/ProTools you might get, BUT they're made compatible with sequencers and thus can be used inside them. An additional midi sound bank, more or less.

Greg is right.

VSL needs a sequencing program, it's just sounds that need to be triggered by midi.

I think what you're looking for are virtual instruments (DXis for Mac I think). You could try VSL for a solo violin, or if you've got Kontakt you could try others like Hollywood Strings.

Most virtual instrument plugins need a sequencer/DAW like ProTools, Reason, Cubase. Sounds like you might need to invest in both instruments and a DAW if you don't like the reason interface.

Hi Charlotte,

It depends where you are having issues with virtual orchestration. If you are finding the interface/workflow awkward for actual composition or orchestration then I agree that either using pencil and paper or some kind of notation software (like Sibelius) would be the answer.


If the problem is down to the quality of the virtual instruments then ... welcome to the never-ending world of trying to make mockups sound realistic. Basically you will need sequencer software and a professional level set of orchestral samples.


At the moment East West are doing an exceptional deal on their Symphonic Orchestra but it tends to have a fairly cinematic sound by default. It depends what you are looking for overall.


I use Cubase (and occasionally pencil and paper and advice from some amazing orchestrator friends) and I use a LOT of sample libraries. You can see more details at If you check out my page here at Composers' Forum then you can hear some of my mockups.


Realistic orchestral mockups require a fairly serious hardware setup so you might find my approach won't work for you. One of the best possible approaches for beautiful and realistic-sounding orchestral 'sketches' is Spitfire Albion. It's even designed to be run on a laptop.


Solo strings are one of the hardest things to mock up however again I would recommend Spitfire for this. Their Spitfire Solo Strings library is reasonably priced and sounds amazing (because it's top-class British performers recorded by a world-class engineer with top-quality equipment in AIR Studios in London).


If there's anything else you'd like to know then message me and I could set up a Skype session.





@James thanks for your offer and the advice. I'll be listening to your samples and trying the things you advised soon. For now, I think I have enough information. 

Thanks for all your useful advice, I really appreciate it.

Hi Charlotte,

I was completely new to this game about 5 years ago, and I'm still struggling.  However, the first piece I ever wrote was a string quartet, with the now vastly underated IK Multimedia Miroslav Philharmonic Orchestra.  I thought at the time that the solo strings were gorgeous.  I'm not recommending the above orchestra, but you're welcome to listen to my string quartet on my profile page.

Hi everyone,

So, I've a fine program now on my MBP which I find very practical to work with: Finale 2011. Yes, it's notation software, but I discovered that it's the best way for me to compose.

One problem is that the sound of the instruments are not quite good (actually it's terrible). Now, I've read somewhere that it is possible to add some better instruments. Does anyone know how this works? And do you have some advice what instruments (VST ?) are giving a good sound?

Hi Charlotte,


While it is possible to get better sounds for Finale, you are always going to have issues with it not sounding quite right because of the lack of control needed to get a performance out of virtual instruments. The approach taken by many composers is to write in Finale, then export the MIDI and import it into sequencer software such as Cubase or Logic. Then you use VSTs inside the sequencer to try and create the final version. Not sure how much time and resource you are prepared to put into this but I can help you put together a package for a certain price range. If you don't want to do this publically then feel free to message me directly.

What many people do (and this is what I did) is purchase Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO4) with Finale 2011. There are other sound libraries to consider, too, depending on your orchestration needs.

I got both for a discount, since I purchased it through a religious institution (an educational discount may be available, to you.)

I am new to this [I used Finale in the early 1990s, and quit], and often exasperated by the string section, especially. But Finale is fairly straightforward, once you know how to manipulate it - and it is one of two standard programs (Sibelius is the other one) used for notation and orchestration. The sounds you hear within the existing program are "Softsynth" samples, which comes free with Finale. They are good for getting an idea of a piece, but it is better to add a VST program like GPO4.  [You will see a place to change your MIDI settings in Finale - VST can be checked off, once you have a better sound library to pull from.] There are many other sound libraries to choose from, and I'm sure better ones, but the price for GPO4 was a bargain - not much more than $100-$150.

Once inside of GPO4, you will still find the strings disappointing. There are two special Garritan VST add-ons for violin and cello, both inexpensive. I have not purchased them, because I rarely hear a mockup that sounds convincing enough to make the leap. The Garritan website has a lot of information. That said, I still do not know how to use all the controls in GPO4 with any competency. There are ways to improve the samples themselves, as per taste.

GPO4 warns you, and most people do not take heed: you must use a mod wheel to make the samples sound realistic! I do not have a mod wheel yet - it is a point of contention in my mind. I do not know how to use one, frankly. I'm not sure I will ever be satisfied with inexpensive samples, and all the work that goes into making them sound halfway decent. So a recent string arrangement I made sounds like a reedy Wurlizter organ to me. I've considerd substituting other innstruments for string quartets, just to get a pleasing mockup.

 The website for Garritan has notation examples of their VST samples - using existing symphonic music (I think Rimsky-Korsakoff), and the effect is tremendous. This means that the samples can be manipulated to sound wonderful, given that you will put in the time to add finesse and musicianship to the parts yourself. This requires patience, and a sequencer. 

I see that everyone exports MIDI to a sequencer, or DAW (I do not really know anything more). But I understand: Finale does a crummy job at interpreting what I write, dynamics-wise, and tempo/rubato-wise correctly. There are myriad adjustments the wise composer can make to almost everything - how much intensity to put into a hairpin, a crescendo, how much velocity to give to a mezzo forte, human playback, etc. One needs advice/trial & error on these particulars. I have made guesses - dreadful ones, mostly. But not entirely.

For one mockup I did, which was used to educate the performers, I used string sections instead of solo instruments. I got a less irritating result. I wrote in dynamics in nearly every bar, and changed the tempo often to emulate something of a performance. The result is crude by the high standard used by most, but you can hear it just the same: "French Noel" on my page. This was my first effort with Finale 2011 + GPO4. I thought I would never use it again, since I was unhappy. But I am back for more. People, rarely if you really know string instruments get a realistic sound in their digital works. Do not expect to fool a string player, ever! I went through this with digital organs, as an organist, years ago.

But you can do amazing things today, considering what we had to use 20 years ago (and that was a revelation). 

Your decision to use Finale is university standard, and I think a wise investment. Good luck.
Charlotte van Gemeren said:

Hi everyone,

So, I've a fine program now on my MBP which I find very practical to work with: Finale 2011. Yes, it's notation software, but I discovered that it's the best way for me to compose.

One problem is that the sound of the instruments are not quite good (actually it's terrible). Now, I've read somewhere that it is possible to add some better instruments. Does anyone know how this works? And do you have some advice what instruments (VST ?) are giving a good sound?

Hi Charlotte. When I got my Cubase 5 and started composing using HALionONe as the VSTi I was not very satisfied with the sound I heard, so I've tried several other VSTis, including Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra, East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, Miroslav Philarmonik, and the most recent I am using now, Garritan Personal Orchestra.

I am quite satisfied with the sounds of Miroslav and East West. So maybe, you could also try those or any other great VSTis, such as Vienna Symphonic Library, although I haven't tried that one, but I've been listening to the samples. :)

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