Rubato and Digital Composition

Hi All,

I’d guess that many composers today are in the position of writing music that remains unperformed, especially orchestral music.

I live in Australia, and getting an orchestral work performed by a living composer is almost impossible. We have 8 state and territory orchestras and many other amature/semi/professional orchestras. The figures for performance of living Australian composers' works by all orchestras is less than 10% of total orchestral performances.

So, like many other composers, I rely on technology to reproduce my compositions.

I have an adhoc setup of various sound sets, instruments, and computer music programs and systems. I run both Windows 10 and M1 Mac on separate computers.

None of what I have gives me anything close to a professional orchestra. I know I can buy the VSL Pro and integrate it with Sibelius and get a very good reproduction quality.

However, no VST or computer-based music notation or DAW can offer that rubato that all human performers do as a matter of normal music making. This is what makes music, music. That human feel.

So, I/we have to put up with computer-based music as a real orchestra is basically never going to happen for most of us.

I’d be interested to hear about your computer music set-up and hear your orchestral works coming out of your system. And how you go about giving your computer-based music that human/rubato feel.

This is what I have…

Logic Pro 10.7.5. With various VSTs. Kontakt 7.

Sibelius Ultimate with NotePerformer sound set.

Mixcraft 9 on Windows 10 PC.

All the best,


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  • Hi Rob -  I'm not getting great results with VST's but David Carovillano and Dane Aubrun do. Check out this string quartet.

     And this chambr group


    Phoenix Rising for String Quartet
    • Yes, great sounds, but little rubato in my opinion. However, it depends what is required. Some of my muic is milatryistic, and I don't want rubato for those. I see string quartet music as the heart of classical music, so it needs to be as human as possible. Thanks for the links.

      • Just to be clear, if you are using midi tracks in a DAW, which is how both of the pieces I linked to were rendered, you can vary the tempo by any amount at any point in time.  So technically any rubato is possible.  Of course to create a realistic performance requires a lot of practice and skill.  David Carovilliano's piece above has numerous subtle changes of tempo.  Here is a video of him explaining his methods.

  • Interesting.

    Basic set up:

    • Windows 10; 16GB
    • DAW: Reaper;
    • VSL assorted VI series and player pro. Doesn’t have all the articulations I’d like. Some can be faked but there’s a distinct lack in some areas.
    • Old Samples, still useable: Siedlaczek’s Advanced Orchestra, built into Reaper’s Sampl-O-matic, the equivalent of a VSTi.
    • Pianoteq 5
    • Notation software (used for engraving only): Dorico

    I haven’t a problem about the fakeness of synthetic orchestral music as I see the orchestra as a machine, a hugely rich source of timbres. Humanity comes into it but basically the composer turns the knobs and pulls levers with the conductor interpreting that into sonic output.

    Soloists and smaller ensembles are different altogether where the visual act of performance comes into it. Here I agree about impossible to “show” the humanity. The sounds are fine as far as they go but without that human element a mock up is the best to hope for. That can be useful if touting ones scores around. It mattered a couple of years ago when I worked with a contemporary dance group (sadly stifled by pandemic lockdowns). But the leaders thought the rendered mock-ups would be better for a live performance – not just to save cost but for consistency in rehearsal and the final show as some of the dancers were quite young (i.e. less confident to extemporise).

    I quickly gave up using notation software to compose – barely made a start – it’s  too constraining for the way I write – more like a prison with fixed bar lines and forced into deciding the relative duration of each note. And you said it: RUBATO. No way can it reproduce the emotional nuances however slight, of rubato. It can’t do much better with dynamics either.

    So I’m happier working on paper at first with a kind of shorthand that can be expanded later. (It also helps as much writing comes out orchestrally, so I notate the short score with instruments I think I’ll assign.) Then I set it in the DAW where I can control rubato and dynamics within the limits allowed by midi. Finally I pass the midi to Dorico for engraving. Some really weird things happen! but I’m ok to edit as necessary.

    Humanising: The DAW is where it happens. I don't rely on VSL's humanising too much although it has its moments. I just don't snap to the grid for the rendering. (I have to for the midi that goes to Dorico or I get some really weird note and rest values all over the place.) Sometimes I have more than one track for an instrumental sub-group, like I start with 4 horns on separate tracks to be condensed later. So when they're in unison there'll be small discrepancies in timing and intonation. This all takes extra time however and it depends on how serious the work is regarding its future. Notation software can't do this except by its intenal algorithms if it has them. I've been toying with the idea of Vienna's Dimension Strings and Brass. They seem to provide much scope for humanising but it would mean a huge expense for little real benefit.

    That’s about me. The latest is going back to more outboard machines (well, dusting them down in some cases) and analogue synthesis, experimenting with recent enhaned chips to see what they can do.

    May I acknowledge Ingo quoting one of my pieces. I am humbled.

    Sorry this has gone on a bit. And...cheers. Look forward to hearing some of your work.


    • Hi Dane,
      I hear what you say about notation software. But I've found that most things can be manipulated in the software, just don't ask a real player to perform those scores. We can open a notation program, and not assign a key, or even bars and create. But again, no performer will look at that score, but you end up with something musch more human coming from a machine.

      The humanisinhg functions that I use in Logic, I find do help a bit, but not a lot. Things like Smart Tempo, and randon velocity do something, but it's just really a different type of mechenical adjustment in my opinion, but it's better than not doing it. The Rubato in Sibelius does absolutly nothing. I've tried it acrss a variety of instrumnets and music style, it just dosen't work at all.

      I'll post some stuff soon. Thanks for the insights.

  • Although a decent mock-up is never entirely going to replace a good orchestra, sympathetically conducted, it's probably better than many amateur orchestras who don't have the technical ability to really make music out of the score. As I generally like a reasonably strict tempo in my works, I'm not too bothered by lack of spontaneous rubato and am happy to do virtually all my work in Dorico notation software which has many DAW-like features . Of course you have to have a decent virtual orchestra to begin with and the range of all-in-ones or at least matched sections from the same vendor is not that large.

    NotePerformer is fine for a basic mock-up but only in certain strongly dynamic and rhythmical works is it more than just acceptable (though NP4 is supposedly out soon and may possibly change the equation). The leading contenders are VSL which is used by several members here, Orchestral Tools Berlin series, Cinematic Studio which is often my favourite, especially for warm singing legato lines, and Spitfire, esp. the BBC SO set. These four all sound quite different to each other and choice will depend on kind of music being written and personal aesthetic preferences. Of course there are plenty more specialist libraries and the really sophisticated composers often blend and match sounds from different sets. In general that's too much like hard work for me.

    I myself am only really just starting to get to grips with half-decent mock-ups so would most certainly not put up my efforts as an example to be followed. My recent 15th symphony has at least been praised (on a technical as well as musical level) by one multi-award winning commercial UK composer --now rich enough to retire early-- who knows the technical side inside out and I'm gradually starting to upgrade the reverb on others which can make on its own quite a difference. By all means have a listen to that (or anything else) if you fancy. I look forward to hearing your own efforts.

    orchestral works
    • Hi David,

      I hear lots of good things about Dorico. But as a long time Sibelius user, I just could not start again, although, I imagine they are not a lot different. And, as VSL have integrated their products to Sibelius so well, it's hard to move away from Sibelius.

      Can't wait for NotePerfomer 4. I asked them what's going to be new, while they wouldn't tell me, they hinted it will be a huge change. You have to love that company. Buy a product once and all updates are free. Unlike the greedy major music companies, what a delight NotePerformer are.

      It's good to hear that the different VST companies have a different sound, because every orchestra in the world does.

      Just listening to your Symphony No. 15. The orchestration is excellent. Exciting composition too. I think a real orchestra would bring it alive. There are some great individual instrument techniques in there. Lots of colour and lively rhythms. It could stand a bit more reverb from what I heard. What was the soundset?

      I’m interested to know if there was a specific inspiration for the composition?


      • well I used a Sibelius /VSL combination for most of my works for well over a decade. VSL have in the meantime produced Dorico Expression Maps for most of their Synchron based libraries but to be frank, I write my own which is not too hard -- I'm not happy with some of the choices VSL have made (indeed initially they failed to understand one or two basics of Dorico programming). Agree entirely that free upgrades to NotePerformer are very generous. Most of my symphonies previously had NP versions though only no.11 -- possibly my most distinctive symphony --currently remains as a first preference mockup.

        The 15th symphony uses the Cinematic Studio libraries (together with VSL Special Edition percussion as CS have not yet completed their percussion library). I use Altiverb reverb and I think it's the Festspielhaus Baden Baden on Reelcrafter. The initial atmosphere and idea for a harpsichord motif came, I think, from a passage in the 9th symphony by Steve Elcock (can be heard on his website) but the slightly sinister use of the harpsichord is also found in the Soviet school - for instance Weinberg's 7th or works by Schnittke. At least one composer thought the mad march in the first movement was reminiscent of the war in the Ukraine though that was never consciously planned.

        PS I'll see if I can find some Peter Schulthope to listen to.

    • You raise a point about these "Symphonic Libraries": the most recent ones, Spitfire and Berlin seem to fix the user to the standard positioning of instruments in the orchestra. There were things inadequate about both (to me) but that was the worst as I want to place instruments where I choose particularly with ensembles. Spitfire IIRC also has very little in the way of an independent double bass line.

      VSL VI has more articulations than both of these (also EW Opus and Hollywood series). I was surprised only VSL includes String glisasndi but then only for the Violins.  The Synchron Strings FX contains these but at a huge expense.

      One problem with Spitfire is the recordings are all with reverb. I tried the freebie. There's no way to switch it out so I can apply a different hall.

      Hence sticking with VI (which happens to have a truly powerful player too, much of which can be manipulated through midi CCs.. The EastWest offering would seem a good alternative should I need one. 


    • Hi Dane,

      I met Peter Schulthope a few time. He was a completely lovely man: and his music is simply some of the best. But it's a crime that since his death, we hardly ever hear a piece of his performed live anymore. The classical music industry sucks. All our radio station play is Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

      Australia does not have one orchestra or radio station dedicated to contemporary music. It’s like living in the 1800 here.


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