A simple introduction to Expression Maps

I am drowning in complicated (but no doubt useful for those who can understand all to jargon used) topics on Expression maps.

If I start with a simple piece of music say, for a small group of instruments, and the notes are all as I want them to be, how do I set about making decisions as to which sound libraries (and where I can find, change and use them) I should look at ?

This aspect of Dorico is perhaps the most opaque part of using this software. I can appreciate the ways in which music can be written, but the sound issues are making the use of this program much more of a challenge.

Help, please, from a confused newbie.

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newcomers to Dorico can usually get quick answers to questions on factual aspects of using the software in isolation. For those like yourself who want to invest in sound libraries which will do your works justice, there are plenty of differing opinions, although not so many who would happily stick only with the supplied library (though even that has a few adherents).

The most often praised library as a starting point is Arne Wallander’s NotePerformer. The advantage with this is that most features are supported in Dorico with a playback configuration and the inbuilt intelligence as to how to play the music. The library is inexpensive and light on system resources. For orchestral music it has many strengths, for chamber music the relative lack of detail in the samples rather counts against it in my book.

Of course much depends on what sort of music you are writing. For a sort of “all in one” orchestra at a reasonable price, the most popular current choices include Spitfire’s BBC Symphony Orchestra (Core edition) and the VSL Special Edition. I’d listen to the samples on the respective websites and elsewhere including many right here on the forum. Both of these have Dorico templates including Expression Maps available which can greatly reduce the need for you having to create your own at least initially.

This sort of approach is probably the easiest – you can add more specialised libraries later for chamber, choral, jazz etc according to what you actually write.

Thank you for your helpful reply: the problem (from my point of view) is not just the choice of which program will provide me with a the right sounds for, say, a string quartet, or a full orchestra, or a multi-part choir, but
a) how do I get to use it - buy ?, or ?
b) how does it connect with Dorico, and will I have to adjust it to make it sound better ?
c) Why are there so many different sound libraries - is it impossible to make (or combine) so as to get a realistic sound ?

I really wonder if my quest to write music is going to founder on this very complicated (some would say impossible) task of making the result sound right ? Am I asking too much, and is it now the time for me to just walk away from Dorico altogether ?

fair questions – I would answer as follows:

a) most libraries and arguably all decent ones you have to pay for, mostly by ordering from the producer’s website. To find out what they’re like, listen to as many demos of those which you think might met your needs as possible. There are many discussions on the more popular ones in this forum. In some cases you may be able to get a trial or refund offer but with virtual instruments, that is far from invariably the case so research is important.

b) all instruments have a plug-in mostly in VST (Virtual studio technology) format to communicate with Dorico (or any other host for that matter). It’s usually quick and easy to install this. To get the best out of any library, you’ll mostly want to make some adjustments but many of the more popular ones have ready-made presets and Expression Maps to make life much easier and as you get more experienced, you can easily edit and refine them.

c) there are many different sound libraries because there are many types of musicians with differing musical tastes and requirements. You can indeed combine sounds from the same or even different manufacturers.

If you can get professionals to play your music then you arguably don’t need playback libraries. For the rest of us, it’s a matter of choosing what you think is the most realistic ones within budget, time and sometimes computer hardware limitations. Dorico doesn’t enter into the equation to a great extent. If a library sounds good in another programme like Cubase, it’s almost invariably possible to get it to sound good in Dorico as well if you’re willing to invest a little time and effort

Finally, when I started to write music nearly 30 years ago, virtual instruments were rather primitive compared to now and things are continuing to improve every year. If you have something to say, then write it!

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I think there are two fundamental questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Is your ‘quest’ to write music for others to play, or for you to create music yourself as the end product?
  2. Are you more comfortable creating music by writing dots on paper, or by playing and recording instruments?

Dorico excels at producing dots on paper (everything from how you input the notes to how you want to present them to real musicians to perform is handled elegantly, whatever the genre).

But the conversion of the dots into sounds is always ‘fraught with difficulty’:

  1. the the marks on the page are only ever an approximation of what the composer intends (hence the complexity of expression maps)
  2. Sound libraries and Virtual Instruments are of widely differing quality and capability (even if your expression map is detailed, your VST may be incapable of interpreting what you intend)

My advice: If you are uncomfortable creating/manipulating music with dots on the page, then walk away from Dorico (as you would only be using a tiny fraction of its capability).

As to sounds, there are many low cost options. The built-in HSO is perfectly adequate, though perhaps a bit dull- but it works out of the box; NotePerformer is popular, but don’t expect to tweak it; Spitfire BBCSO Discover (free, if you complete their survey) has an excellent, but limited, set of sounds. Also the Spitfire LABS instruments are free and fun to experiment with.

You can all too easily spend a king’s ransom on sound libraries. My advice is don’t! Get really comfortable with your creative process first.

Good luck.

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I am impressed by and agree with the responses you have received thus far. Like dko22 and Janus I would recommend taking a look at NotePerformer which is comparatively inexpensive, virtually painless to use with its included expression maps and playback template, and provides quite life-like phrasing as a result of its unique “artificial intelligence” programming. Conveniently, NotePerformer is available in a free trial version.

However, I think your confusion about how to set up new expression maps or adjust existing ones for other sound libraries is an intimidating prospect for many users including myself. I’m confident that a basic guide to preparing new and altering existing expression maps and playback templates would be welcomed by many users. Lillie’s “First Steps Guide” (available on the Dorico documentation website) is incredibly useful in pointing users to Dorico’s “main features” and hopefully a related guide to expression maps is already on the agenda or something the team might consider.

Dear Mike,
I think you are right. I simply wanted to add, having myself already spent a great deal of time with those expression maps, that each library behaves differently. This is the real struggle. Expression maps are only a means to communicate between two apps. But you need to really know your library to make appropriate choices, and this is something the Dorico team cannot do (at least not for every library out there)

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Hi Marc,
First of all, thanks for your innumerable positive contributions to this forum which I always enjoy reading! I understand what you are saying about how each library behaves differently and I would not expect a Dorico team member to tell me or other users what settings are appropriate in individual cases. However, experienced users like yourself start with a background understanding of the function of different settings that allow them to make educated guesses concerning how to get where they want to go. I think a guide that provided users with some of this background understanding would be both useful and appreciated by many.

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I remember Paul made this a while ago:

Expression Maps for Dorico 3.5+ - Dorico - Steinberg Forums

It is a little heavy on terminology (which makes the wording precise, of course), so it might be necessary to go in small steps.

Good luck!
Benji

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Thanks for posting the link to Paul’s explanations. These are really very good, and I wish I had some time to spend and translate this into french for my fellow Doricians from the french-speaking FB group… The steps he describes are exactly those you’ll end up taking, so it’s a huge time-saver!

Thanks for this. I will take a look a little later in the day.

I agree, but are you not just asking for the Sound Library creators to provide better, and more comprehensive, documentation?

Less than ideal documentation from sound library producers causes unnecessary confusion but that is only part of the problem and is clearly not a job for the Dorico team. However, the team could prepare a basic guide that focuses on assisting users who come from a background that doesn’t include significant exposure to DAWs and virtual instruments. For example, I am mystified by the relationship between primary and secondary volume control and how to use it in an expression map and suspect I am not alone in my confusion.

I think a step-by-step guide that focused on helping such users gain basic expertise in what to look for and consider in developing an expression map would be worthwhile to many. I recognize that it would necessarily be less “all-encompassing” and thorough than a guide to preparing useable notation of pieces from the common practice period but that would be fine. Ultimately, I would like to develop reasonable comfort preparing my own expression maps and/or modifying those prepared by others and suspect that I am one of many in this regard. I have been working through Paul Walmsley’s thorough guide referred to earlier in this thread but it seems to be focused on more sophisticated users than I and although I am trying, I am not sure I will make it all the way through.

In closing, it appears to be open to question whether the kind of guide I am hoping for is even possible and I accept that I may be asking for an “undeliverable”. If so, then so be it.

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In general VST libraries will have one controller for current instrument volume and one for the character or tone of the instrument. Although they can often be mapped to any CC, the standard is CC1 for tone which is usually controlled by the mod wheel when playing live and CC11 for volume (sometimes confusingly known as Expression).

In most cases as a very general rule, one of these should be mapped to the primary controller and the other to the secondary so they can be used together. Instruments which cannot change tone during the duration of an individual note, such as piano or percussion are often mapped to velocity. In this particular case, a secondary controller is often irrelevant. Shorter articulations like staccato with orchestral instruments are also sometimes programmed to velocity.

The rule is very simple --read the documentation about how the library is designed and how to optimally programme it in general terms and put the info into the Dorico expression map. If the documentation is poor (surprisingly frequently), you need to experiment, keeping in mind the basic principles above.

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Thank you for your details. Yes, the two aspects of composition (dots on a page, and the sounds you wouls want them to make) do illustrate the mina divisions within Dorico. I have no problems putting dots to a page, but the task of working out which of the many sound libraries would be the best for what I want the music to sound like, that is another matter.

Another aspect to consider is the hardware of the computer itself, and again some questions seem appropriate.
a) I would assume that as much RAM as possible would help in the processing, so it is not really an option - am I right ?
b) Again, it would seem logical to have as comprehensive as possible when looking at the sound card used, or again am I correct in this assumption ?

I am sorry to ask again on this topic, but it is obvious that there are more options than I first realised. So, again, can you suggest/advise me on my music ?

a) the processor helps with the processing but RAM is needed to hold those library samples in memory. 16Gb may be enough – try first and see by checking your RAM usage. I recently upgraded to 32Gb which gives more leeway. Unless you’re running a studio or the really big libraries, you probably won’t need more unless you are multi-tasking with other RAM-hungry software.
b) don’t quite understand the question but anyway. the soundcard itself is one of the most important things for getting stable playback and good quality audio. There’s no way that something you get built into the computer will be good enough for libraries which are themselves detailed and well programmed enough to produce good sound although it might do for something resource-light like NotePerformer.

When you say “can you suggest/advise me on my music”, I assume you don’t actually mean that but rather the technical means to perform it. If it’s libraries then you’ve already had several suggestions. But perhaps you mean something else?

I see dko22 beat me to a response so there is some duplication here but hopefully also some useful information!

One of your questions relates to an appropriate sound card or audio interface. Assuming your focus is on using sound libraries to make your music “sound right,” even relatively inexpensive sound cards focussed on use by musicians rather than just listeners should work fine. More expensive audio interfaces (sound cards) will have multiple inputs for microphones and midi (electronic) instruments but these are unnecessary and will remain unused if your sounds are coming from sound libraries on your computer or a connected drive.

As you suggest, more RAM will allow you to have more sounds loaded and ready for immediate access by your computer when it plays back your music. However, the amount of RAM needed will vary depending on the particular sound library you are using, the number of instruments in your composition, and the number of articulations used by each instrument. In general terms, the amount of RAM required for a vocal piece accompanied by piano or guitar will be much lower than that required for something like a full symphony orchestra. I am sure many musicians manage to get by with 8 or 16 GB of RAM but this will vary according to the type of music they are writing and the libraries they use and there is little advantage in having more RAM than you need other than being ready for “larger” projects in the future. Most sound libraries include information on the amount of recommended RAM.

If you will be working on lengthy projects with large numbers of instruments, the speed and number of CPU cores in your computer will impact how comfortably it handles the playback and notation aspects of your Dorico projects. I use a 2013 MacBook Pro with a 4-core processor running at 2.7 GHz and have no difficulty with even orchestral projects, although most of those max out at about 200 bars long. In short, my understanding both from my own experience and from reading this forum is that many users are comfortable using Dorico on a computer with 4 or more cores running at something comfortably over 2 GHz, although professional musicians and composers as well as others writing for large numbers of instruments often use even more.

The goal of getting computer-generated music to “sound right” has at least two different focusses. One of these is the beauty and, if we are talking about traditional instruments, the authenticity of the sound produced over our speakers or headphones. Varying personal taste plays a significant part in such decisions and different people will prefer the sounds of different sound libraries. The second variable is the extent to which the phrasing of the music (including timing and dynamics issues) sounds like it might have been played by human musicians. This is the more difficult thing to get right, although different notation programs including Dorico allow users to choose a level of variability in the timing of note attack and conclusion that more accurately reflects real human players. As well, many sound libraries are designed to play a series of fast repeated notes in “round robin” fashion which translates into varying volumes and durations for each note in order to avoid a “machine-gun” effect. In addition, Dorico has a piano-roll feature in play mode that allows users to adjust the sounding duration and volume of individual notes without altering what appears in the notation and this can add to the believability of the playback.

Almost certainly, the most effective sound library in terms of producing human-like phrasing is NotePerformer which is specifically designed for use in notation programs, as opposed to Digital Audio Workstations like Cubase, Logic or Pro Tools. On the downside, the beauty and authenticity of the instrumental sounds isn’t the best but this is balanced by modest cost, low RAM requirements, fast loading times and very believable phrasing as well as decent sound when playing with a large number of instruments that reveals less detailed exposure to individual instruments. However, NotePerformer is primarily focussed on orchestral instruments and might not be a first choice if you want to write for something different. Nevertheless, for anybody who has some interest in writing for the included instruments (probably the widest range of any instrument library) my personal recommendation for a first instrument library would definitely be NotePerformer.

If you have further questions, it would be helpful to know what kind of music you are interested in writing. I hope this is helpful.

Thank you dko22.

I can see how CC values would be useful for playing directly into Dorico with a midi keyboard while using the mod wheel. However, I am not talented enough on the keyboard to do this and instead input all my music step-time. Based on what you have written, I understand that:

—I could use a CC (probably but not necessarily “1”) to “draw in” tonal variations for instruments whose tone varies with time (like a cello as opposed to a piano), and
—I could also use a CC (probably but not necessarily “11”) to also “draw in” varying volume curves if I preferred this to note velocities.

Edit: Based on my understandings noted directly above, volume (dynamics) can be controlled via either note velocity or a CC curve and any “secondary dynamic” control in the expression map relates to tone rather than volume. Otherwise, Dorico would be confused as to which of two volume (dynamics) instructions it should go with. Is this understanding correct?

This forum has plenty of people “not talented enough on the keyboard” to input CC’s while playing, or even enough to just play in the notes. People who can save a lot of time, but it’s not necessary. I count myself among those whose keyboard talents are, uh, less than optimal. It’s like most things in life. You just have to figure out how best to accomplish what you want with what you have.

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Yes, indeed!