Sketching with ensembles


While in the recent past we sketched at the piano, in recent years several ‘ensemble’ patches have appeared from library developers. These patches mix several different instruments in a single ensemble, to quickly draft a piece using a full-orchestra or full-orchestral section sounds.

Dorico smartly manages solos and sections. There isn’t, however, any instrument definition for these ensembles. The only way to manage them seems, to me, to use a Keyboard or Synth instrument definition.

At the same time, I wonder how easy it is matching them with the appropriate VI sound, playback/playing techniques, expression/percussion maps. A playback template will not have a way to identify a brass ensemble from a strings ensemble, when the referring instrument definition is just ‘Synth’, or the like.

Is there a workaround? I know that sketching is not the core of a program like Dorico, but I’m particularly liking writing in particella. Schoenberg and his disciples also sometimes release it as the final score, and the first draft of Jerry Goldsmith scores were particellas.


Even if you use an ensemble patch, Dorico has no way of knowing what notes in any given chord are producing wind and brass samples and which are producing strings, so I’m not sure that it really matters how you write with such patches in Dorico, since you’ll get no specific assistance in working out how to break out that material onto solo or section staves for those specific instruments.

What composers who like to write in sketch tend to do is start with a smaller number of staves, e.g. a grand staff instrument each for wind, brass, percussion and strings, adding text notes or comments to yourself to remind you of your planned orchestration for each chunk, then eventually graduate to writing with a larger number of staves. This is the process Alan Silvestri, for example, describes in the interview we made with him last year.

Hi Daniel,

If I’m not misunderstanding, in that (beautiful and generous) interview, Alan Silvestri describes a process where he makes an early mockup in Cubase, with tens of individual-instrument tracks. Then, he prepares a blank sketch in Dorico, to write on paper with the hit-points shown. Then he transcribes this 5-staves sketch into an 8-staves sketch in Dorico, and gives it to his orchestrator, that will use the conformed Cubase multitrack mockup as a guide.

In this process, I don’t see ensemble patches coming into play, since most of the sketching work seems to be made at the piano. In case this process had to be done in Dorico, what I find missing is a way to drive patches like “Full Strings Ensemble”, “All Brass Ensemble”, “Woodwind Ensemble”. That is, the grand staff instruments encompassing all the individual solo instruments in a single patch.

To give an example of ensemble instruments that can be used in this process: Albion One has the orchestra divided into Strings, High Woodwinds, Low Woodwinds, High Brass, Middle Brass, Low Brass. Which instrument to recall, in Dorico, to host them?

More complicate: VSL’s has instruments like BBO Black Eye, were the full orchestra can play techniques that need a dedicated set of playback techniques. A standard ensemble instrument definition would not be enough, because it is a very specific set of extended techniques for an orchestral ensemble.

I’m probably missing some features that is already there, but at the moment I can’t see any other way than using a set of Keyboard instrument definitions, with manually added playback techniques and expression maps. This can probably just end up as a template. I’m not sure I could use playback templates to create it, since a playback template would probably be confused by the fact that all the grand staves in the sketch are marked as Keyboard.


Please let me reopen this thread, because I would like to underline the importance of managing sketches.

Dorico is clearly conceived with the goal of producing the most effective final score. That is, with all the individual instruments and sections in the final form.

However, being the powerful composing tool it is, it would be also very useful to have the early stage of writing supported. As discussed above, sketching with a few staves and “general” section sounds is one of the tools most often used by composers. And today we have plenty of sound libraries supporting this way of working.

Currently, Dorico doesn’t support ensemble-type sounds. One can use the Keyboard or Synthesizer instrument definitions to simulate it. I personally use the individual instruments most similar to the ensemble sound I will compose for, and then change the name and reassign the sound.

Supporting custom instrument definitions would probably be the general solution for this and other needs (like supporting the most rare instruments). Maybe playback templates would also be able to link these instrument definitions to a particular sound in a VSTi.


You seem to be missing the fact the Alan Silvestri doesn’t need computer playback to help him write a score that sounds great. Neither did any other composer, in the centuries before computers even existed.

If so, it would be too easy to question the reason why we are here, in a forum where people discuss of computer software to write music…

In any case, what you say is not correct, since Silvestri makes sketches in Cubase, and has an assistant creating full mockups for him. Exactly as us ordinary people.

You need to rewatch the Silvestri Dorico videos.

If this kind recommendation is for me, I’ve looked at that interview several times. Silvestri says more than once that he makes a mockup on Cubase, and sends that one to the film director for evaluation. Then (better, while the director gives him instructions) he composes the final sketch on paper and in Dorico. Finally, he gives the sketch to his orchestrator for the final work on the full score.

I wonder who can do any film work, today, without making a mockup of the piece. Are there directors who can read music?

It’s not a matter of Alan Silvestri’s workflow: it can be inspiring, but then everyone has his own. Dorico is a wonderful software and I like working on it; it could be really useful to add the ability of creating custom instruments, as ptram said: at the moment this is a lack.

Dorico does have one ensemble instrument: a Choir reduction.

ptram - I think you’ve worked out for yourself how to do this; via a template of Keyboard instrument definitions with manually added playback techniques and expression maps. Yes, saving reassigned Instruments as Playback Templates poses problems, but if the whole layout has been saved as a Template surely there’s no need to involve Playback Templates? Unless, of course, you want multiple different types of sketching layouts - which would seem to me to be getting away from concept of sketching and back into arranging.

Apologies if I’ve misunderstood you.

You can do this, you need to set up a piano instrument and assign it a VST with your ensemble patch. One each for winds, brass, strings. But you’re right there’s no native Ensemble instrument for setting this up. I’m not sure how this would work with templates / endpoints / whatever they’re called.

I use Pianoforte for sketching because Dorico considers it a different instrument than Piano. So perhaps you can create a playback template that defines Pianoforte to be your ensemble patch? And then add custom techniques to choose different channels for wind / brass / strings. Or potentially seek out two other unused grand staff instruments and define them to be the other section ensemble patches.

David, thank you for your considerations. What I’m missing is probably a single feature solving two problems:

a) a way to save instruments definitions, expression maps, playing techniques and playback techniques for the sound libraries I want to use for sketching;

b) a custom instrument definition, allowing for the use of more sound libraries for the same instrument. Playback templates allow for the replacement of an instrument’s family, but not the simultaneous use of more sound libraries for the same instrument.

Sketches have never a fixed form, since they grow while composing. You have to keep the staves at the bare minimum, but they may grow as you progress. Instruments in a stave may change. So, there is never a standard instrument definition fitting every situation.

And, sketches are not based on standard instruments, since you might start with a “brass crescendo”, followed by a short “violin solo” passage, completed by a response from the “high strings”. Ensemble/sketching libraries are a match to this way of holistic musical thinking.

Score templates, with every situation programmed (instead of a playback template) wouldn’t work for me. If they have to include all the situations, they would be incredibly big. Many composers start with a huge template in their DAW, and only turn on the tracks they need at the moment. I find this way of working distracting. The reasons why I love Logic’s track setting presets is that you can start with a single track, and quickly program as you need it. And then add all the tracks you need, letting the piece grow with sort of a snowflake method. You can think starting from the blank page, growing to the full piece without losing focus.

Playback templates in Dorico want a precise match between instrument definitions, sounds, playing techniques, expression maps, etc. What I’m looking for is something more casual, less precise, free to use at a particular time. The freedom to switch instrument at any time, and use any timbral combination when I want it, at any level of zoom on the piece.

I know I may be foggy, but I understand this is one of the most complicate issues of making music, and there aren’t many example to which to refer to.


Thanks ptram. FWIW, I’m also very keen to see Custom Instrument Definitions - which I believe are scheduled to arrive at some point.

I’ve started a sketching configuration based on OT Berlin Inspire, which is admittedly a quite simple ensemble library. The configuration uses a single kontakt instance with all sections loaded, and playing techniques to select the different sections. For libraries split in to high / low, you might look into how to split channels per staff. Another possibility is to use unused treble and bass instruments, e.g. Marching Band Horn for treble and Serpent for bass. Create an endpoint with three instruments – Pianoforte, Marching Band Horn, and Serpent – and assign them each to their own instance of the Kontakt multi, and save that as a playback template. Now any time you add one of those players, it will load that Kontakt multi and you’ll have a sketching staff.

After some months of trials and (mosty) errors, I may have found an intermediate solution, while still hoping the Custom Instruments Definitions to appears in one of the forthcoming versions of Dorico.

As Pat describes here above, I ended up using custom keyboard and pitched percussion definitions for my ensemble libraries. For example, VSL’s BBO Andromeda is Synthesizer, and BBO Regulus is Electric Organ. These are definitions that I would not use while sketching.

When applying the BBO playback template, there is not interference, and staves are not reset by the wrong endpoint configuration. When sketching, I can simply call a library with the nickname I assigned it in the general map, so that I know that invoking a Synthesizer is, in reality, calling for BBO Andromeda.

And now, another problem on sight: with all the ensemble libraries released during the latest months, I’ve nearly finished all the fake definitions in Dorico!


An additional note: maybe it is better to assign single-staff fake instruments to the ensembles/custom instruments. A sketching may be currently written as a series of grand-staves, but it is in reality conceived as a series of single staves. Ensemble usually are given as separate Low and High sections. You may want to have different articulations for the same ensemble. Having each staff separate would make managing this crowded array of sounds easier.