Well this really is a bold post because (like most people I suspect) I still really have no idea how to use the woodwind section.
I would say that they really are the least liked and least understood section of the orchestra for many modern composers. I also notice that they are often the first section to be omitted in many of the robust, modern action scores. Even Danny Elfman who always seemed to love them in his early works (like The Nightmare Before Christmas) has abandoned them these days (Planet of the Apes, Spiderman, etc). Need I mention how rarely Hans Zimmer uses them.
So as I dislike this modern trend, here is my understanding of the woodwind section and how I approach them with samples. Originally this article explored how woodwind is used in an orchestra but I decided that it was waaaay too big a piece so I editted it down and have now concentrated on the difficulties of reproducing woodwinds with samples.
Ok, this is one area that woodwinds still get to be used for... even quite frequently. A solo flute or oboe can be one of the most effective ways of conveying a melody. Generally a sparse or quiet accompaniment must be used to give the instrument room to be heard clearly. Perfect for soft themes and also a great place to begin building from ... perhaps passing the melody from solo oboe to solo french horn to 1st violins.
Obviously creating a convincing woodwind solo using samples can be difficult. Generally you'll need a VI or sample with as much expression available as possible. I tend to use different samples depending on situation but here are some of my favourites: -
VSL French Oboe
VSL Solo Woodwinds from VI SE
The WIVI woodwind instruments still don't always have the best tone to me but they are very expressive and play well. This is a big strength for solo work. Also things like vibrato can be configured very accurately.
I've never written a bassoon solo but my samples always sound adequate. The oboes are generally very good and I have enough to choose from so I don't get bored of hearing the same samples again and again. The one instrument I'm always disappointed by is the clarinet. Seriously, please someone create an excellent and expressive clarinet VI. As a result I rarely use this instrument (the nightingale of the orchestra as it was once known) in solo passages. My favourite is probably the VI SE instrument. The Westgate Flute still is often used because I simply love the sound of it. These dry samples are power panned down to almost mono and Altiverb is used to help place them.
As always, the best advice here is to listen to the way the instruments are played and try to reproduce the sound with samples. Also, listen to the way the instruments are recorded in your favourite pieces. Princess Leia's Theme from Star Wars: A New Hope is either close-miked or recorded very hot. The oboe is really close up and intimate at the beginning there.
Homophonic / chords
This is a sound I hear less in modern scores but I really love. Having just seen Indy 4, I was pleased to hear a reprise of JWs Map Room music. Clearly influenced by a section in Holst's Saturn but it is a great piece nonetheless. In fact, JW is one of my favourites for using woodwind chords often polytonally over a bed in the brass or strings. Check out his work on Star Wars: A New Hope and ET for some great work in this manner.
Now I admit to not having enough experience with this section myself but one of my ways of dealing with this is to write for the middle register of these instruments. As I'm using samples, there is no problem adding auxiliary instruments (so I can easily use 3 flutes plus a piccolo or add an english horn at the bottom of the oboes). Generally I've found that 3 flutes plus 3 clarinets plus 3 oboes in their middle registers creates a fairly straightforward 'woodwind' sound which, to my ears, is dominated by the flutes.
The bassoons tend to be in their own register for the most part but the other three sections have a significant overlap. They can often be arranged to overlap with each other on at least one note. Sometimes they are arranged as 3 note chords with all 3 sections playing the same notes. Rimsky-Korsakov mentions that placing the clarinets above the oboes will result in a brighter-sounding chord but I rarely do this.
Working with samples on these chords can be difficult for many reasons. Firstly, it can simply be a lot of work for the DAW. Secondly, samples have a tendency to sound just too big, especially close-miked samples. Being lazy, it can be easier to create a woodwind chord with just flutes or clarinets, especially if there are other instruments (strings, brass, piano) mixed in there. Otherwise it can be a lot of work to really reduce the size of the samples with judicious use of power-panning, eq, volume and verb. Of late I've been using Project SAM's Woodwind Orchestrator and I love the results, especially when combined with a couple of other instruments from Westgate and VI.
Ensemble Unison Lines
Ensemble unison lines of flute, clarinet and oboe seem to be all over JWs orchestration and again they can be difficult to pull off with samples. Samples have a real problem of sounding too big. Still, if you can reduce their size it can sound great. I usually use VSL ensembles for these lines. If you want to be lazy though I've found that often just a flute ensemble will be sufficient when using samples, especially for a background part.
Playing chords or notes in a staccato fashion can work very well with the woodwind from the low bark of the contrabassoon to the penetrating whistle of the piccolo. These are often used to help add an 'edge' to a staccato rhythm played by other instruments. If playing staccato chords, then balance needs to be maintained. They can also be added to more percussive instruments like harps, pianos and pizz strings to slightly soften or thicken the sound.
This is definitely where the woodwinds are the best choice. Often an easy way to maintain interest in a melody can be to pass it from one section to another and the woodwinds have enough variation to keep sounding interesting.
Also, the woodwind can produce many different effects. A fast legato 'swirl' up and down on the flutes can be used as
a really exciting sound effect. Obviously this requires some good legato samples but it usually works well. For the JW sound, definitely add in the piccolo and make sure it dominates the mix at the top of the run... Same thing for rips. The piccolo adds that breathy edge to the sound that I hear in his pieces all the time.
Similarly, a woodwind part can stand out well when used for a passing motif. The problem with balancing woodwinds can work as an advantage here as they can easily jump out of a mix if required. The various colours of the instruments can immediately suggest everything from innocence to playfulness to menace. Cartoons or comedies often take advantage of the particular sounds of the woodwinds instruments to great effect.
For horror-style random woodwind work, Project SAM's Woodwind FX and Flute & Piccolo FX are both worth checking out. Other libraries (notably EWQL SO Gold XP Pro) feature some great effects as well.
With other instruments
One thing the woodwinds are famous for is being able to glue the strings to the brass. Their sound works very well with the other two sections. High woodwinds in unison or an octave above violins or a trumpet certainly help to brighten the sound. Bassoons double well with cellos for lines or horns for chords.
One trick I often use is to add a strong woodwind line to the top line of a homophonic string arrangement. This is similar to the type of arrangement Rachel Portman uses with a chamber orchestra and piano.
Some sample tricks
As mentioned above, listen to the recordings you are trying to emulate. If you want a close-miked sound then definitely try and mix/produce in that up-front manner. For more regular woodwind, make sure they sound appropriately small and distant.
Solo stuff is often the hardest to pull off well: partly because it is so expressive but partly because you can only use one sample at a time. Once you get into ensembles then you can layer different samples and that works well e.g. adding a layer of staccato samples to help bring out the louder notes or using combinations of sus, legato and espressivo samples to give different tones. Solo pieces tend to draw attention to when the exact same sample is being played again and again. If you have multiple libraries that you can make sound similar then this can really help bring solo performances to life by switching in samples or lines.
I tend to like a fairly breathy flute sound so if I'm using WIVI I tend to exaggerate the breath noise. In ensemble work I'll often throw in a piccolo and a breathy Westgate flute patch as well.
One effect I always try to avoid is the whole woodwind section beginning to sound like a big church organ. For me, the clarinets tend to be the biggest culprit here so I try to do things to mitigate this. Adding a little bit more rhythm, movement or even contrapuntal ideas within a homophonic/chordal piece often works well. Also, adding a touch of strings can avoid this effect.
A last couple of points
Well this really has been a scattershot overview of a massive subject. Perhaps I'll take a subsection of this and focus on it in a future post.
As always, those great comments are what really make these posts interesting.