The good news is that in recent years sample libraries of orchestral instruments are better than ever and computers are more powerful than ever. With all the terrific offerings from developers like EastWest, CineSamples, Vienna Symphonic Libraries, Orchestral Tools, Project Sam, Spitfire Audio, 8dio, Kirk Hunter Studios and many others, it is entirely possible to create some excellent sounding and fairly realistic compositions with samples that almost rival the real thing, in skilled hands. The same is true for for software reverbs, spatial placing plug-ins, etc.
The bad news is that when I listen to a lot of people's work posted in various fora, YouTube, and Soundcloud, there is a growing sameness to the sound of much of it that makes it harder for one person's work to stand out as a unique personal sound. So here are six tips that I believe can help you start to overcome this problem.
Tip 1 '" Free Yourself
Allow yourself to be informed by what the 'real players' do, but don't be imprisoned by it. Here is a picture of a real violin section.
Now here is a picture of a sampled violin section. Notice the difference?
All joking aside, #2 will never really sound like #1. It is of course very helpful to know instrumentation and orchestration so that you know what the real players do individually (and as a group) to sound the way that they do. And it is also true that composers who do this for a living sometimes have clients pushing them to achieve a sound that fools listeners into thinking that they are hearing a real orchestra. I get that, and we all do what we must to please our clients.
All that stipulated, nonetheless if writing something that you know would sound good with real players is not sounding good with your samples, you need to move on. Conversely, if something is sounding terrific with the samples that would be either hard or impossible to pull off with real players, use it anyway. The odds against your client and eventual audience being knowledgeable enough to object to that are pretty high.
Tip 2 '" Go Analog
Warm up your samples with analog software instruments.
I actually figured this out over twenty years ago when I was composing the music for the TV series 'Zorro'. I had a small orchestra that I augmented with samples, but still was not happy with the sound. I found however that if, for example, I doubled the real celli with a cello-ish patch from a MemoryMoog, it really made the sound rich and warm. More realistic? No. Better? To my ears, yes.
I do the same thing with my orchestral samples and soft synths. I love to double my sampled strings with an analog source. This one is my current favorite but any good analog synth will do.
Tip 3 '" Add processing Plug-Ins in a Creative Way
OK, I admit it, I am an unabashed Universal Audio fanboy, so their plug-ins for the UAD platform are what I reach for first, but you can take this approach with any plug-ins you like, including those that come with your DAW.
I love me some Roland Dimension D chorusing on my sampled strings, especially chords. It makes them very textured and helps them sit beautifully in a mix.
The EP-32 Tape Delay can do magical things with woodwind runs and horns.
Tip 4 '" Corrective EQ, adopt the Hippocratic Oath
The Hippocratic Oath that doctors take is to 'first do no harm.' I hear lots of posted pieces where it sounds to me that in trying to create space for each instrument people have boosted some frequencies and cut others in a way that just makes them sound flat out unpleasant.
By all means, feel free to use EQ in a creative fashion for when you e.g. want to make a sound more edgy or boomy on purpose, but a little subtle corrective EQ goes a long way in my opinion. Here is an example of subtle EQ I used on a clarinet patch that gave my sampled instrument more character without making it harsh.
Tip 5 '" Don't overthink your reverb
I did the whole "two instances for each section, one for early reflections and one for tails" dance and I ultimately concluded that it was too much work for too little sonic reward. Now I use an instance of QL Spaces (any good, clean IR in a convolution reverb will do) for each orchestral section and a little UAD Plate 140 for overall (any good algorithmic reverb will do) and my composer friends have routinely said to me, "Wow, that sounds great, what hardware are you using for reverb?"
Tip 6 '" Use a Multiband Compressor for Tough Mixes
Many engineers pooh-pooh the multiband compressor as an admission of poor mixing skills but to me it is like the smile of the Buddha; it covers a multitude of sins!
There are a lot of them out there, with the Waves C4, FabFilter Pro-MB, PSP Vintage Warmer 2, and Sonalksis CQ1 being popular examples. Also, almost every DAW has one.
Not surprisingly, I use the UAD Precision Multiband, and I cannot tell you how many times tweaking this preset has lead me out of the woods.
Once again though, the Hippocratic Oath applies. You need to spend some time actually learning what these tools do rather than just dialing in a preset and then living with it. Knowledge is power, folks!
If you incorporate and adapt these ideas into your own musical explorations, the only limitations will be your imagination, and your desire and willingness to invest the necessary time to create something truly unique, Think outside the box. Don't limit yourself to simply trying to make orchestral samples to sounding exactly like a real orchestra. It's boring, boring, boring and ultimately you will never quite get there anyway.
Want to learn more? Watch this excellent video course on string orchestration by Thomas Goss: