These include electronic pianos and organs, synthesizers, samplers and computer keyboards. Since these instruments often produce sounds rather than notes, the 'range' is quite meaningless. Electric pianos and organs generally have a smaller range than their acoustic counterparts, but often the keyboard can be electronically transposed.

Amplification & Sound Processing

Amplification of quiet instruments such as guitar in an orchestral context is now standard. On the whole, however, orchestras have not used amplification as much as they might. It is ideal for correcting balance problems, especially in works which have relatively quiet instruments (such as most woodwinds) pitted against inherently loud instruments (such as brass). Whole amplified orchestras are relatively common, usually appearing at special events such as playing outdoors.

Processing sound can be done in numerous ways. These days most processing is done digitally, which means converting the sound from an analog to a digital signal. 'A to D' converters are built in to most computers and digital equipment. In practice, many digital signal processing effects mimic more traditional analog effects. So chorusing, delay, echo, flanging and added reverberation are all used frequently in both analog and digital domains. The same also applies to filtering, equalisation (EQ), compression, distortion, and frequency modification. The resulting modified signals are usually handled by a mixing desk, and with selective loudspeaker placement various images of the sound of the orchestra may be produced.


Electronic and electronically controlled instruments

These may be divided into two main categories: original electronic instruments and electronic versions of acoustic instruments.

Original electronic instruments

The most familiar electronic instruments today are synthesizers. These contain banks of sounds which are either created artificially from sine waves, noise, or (increasingly) short samples of acoustic instruments. Synthesizers may be controlled by computer, or may themselves act as keyboard controllers for other instruments, such as samplers. The enormous range and variety of timbres available on modern synthesizers make them probably the most versatile instrument in existence.

The creation of original electronic instruments has a long history, beginning with mechanical devices such as the player piano or Percy Grainger's early experiments in substituting conductors with "orchestral supervisors" operating mechanical music stands. At the turn of the 20th century, William Duddell invented the Singing Arc, made of a series of arc lamps controlled via a keyboard. In 1913, Luigi Russolo created Intonarumori, or noise instruments. Other early instruments included the Telharmonium (which transmitted electric sounds down telephone wires) and the Trautonium. A detailed account of these and many other early electronic instruments may be found here.

Two of these early instruments which have achieved a lasting place in concert music are the Theremin and the Ondes Martenot.

The Theremin was invented in 1920 by Leon Thérémin (he originally called it 'the aetherophone') and has a distinctive quavering electronic sound controlled by hand motion around a central rod.

The Ondes Martenot was first called the 'ondes musicales' by its inventor Maurice Martenot in 1928. It has been used extensively by French composers, in particular Olivier Messiaen.

Electronic versions of acoustic instruments

The range of electronically modified or simulated instruments is vast, from the very familiar electric guitars through to modified clarinets and tubas. Electric keyboards deserve a special mention, in particular organs (the Wurlitzer, for example, was invented in 1946) and electric pianos. The latter include amplified pianos and sampled pianos, but also a number of instruments that have achieved a distinctive character by electronically generating sound. The Fender Rhodes piano is probably the most celebrated of these.

Most contemporary developments, however, use digital technologies to extend and develop instrumental possibilities.Instruments may be used as controllers for other sound events, or the sounds produced by the instruments might be modified in various ways by the players. The full potential of all these developments has yet to be realised in orchestral concert music.


MIDI and live electronics

An important thing to remember about MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is that it contains no sound. Rather it is a way of allowing one musical instrument to 'speak' to another. This is usually done in a MIDI 'chain' in which instruments (and possibly a computer) are linked together using cable. One instrument is designated the controller, and the MIDI signal triggers events on the various instruments in the chain. This can be done live in real time, or using a prepared sequence (usually made on a computer). By chaining together several sound modules in this way, an enormous palette of effects and sounds (including orchestral instrument sounds) become available to the user.

MIDI works by recording events such as 'note on' (the trigger) and 'note off' (the release) and numerous other controller events that occur in between those two (and indeed after the last). Although any number of sounds or timbres may be available to a MIDI instrument, usually they are identified by the numbers 0-127 (or 1 -128 on some machines). There are normally 16 MIDI channels open at any one time, so signals may be transmitted to any of the 128 available timbres using program change messages. Assuming the attached instruments have polyphonic capability, this means 16 simultaneous 'voices' containing potentially limitless timbres.

General MIDI was the result of an agreement between instrument manufacturers to standardise 128 MIDI instrument sounds. Thus, a program change message of 1 will deliver an Acoustic Piano sound on any GM instrument, regardless of manufacturer (although each manufacturer will have their own version of an acoustic piano sound!). See below for a list of General MIDI sounds. You will notice that the percussion set is treated separately. This is because each percussion sound is triggered by a single note on a MIDI keyboard, whereas all the other sounds play back across the entire range of a keyboard.

MIDI messages may be triggered by anything, which has made MIDI a useful tool for live performance. As well as the familiar keyboards, there are wind controllers, breath and voice controllers, MIDI percussion, and even light beams and laser controllers. It is not necessary to use GM sounds and any sampler or other instrument attached to a controller can be programmed to emit sounds in response to a MIDI control message.

Tape and Digital Media

In 1954 Edgard Varèse completed 'Déserts' for orchestra and tape. This was one of the first of many pieces combining acoustic and electroacoustic media in an orchestral concert. Tape was the preferred medium for such work, in particular because it enabled the composer to produce a highly edited and precise realisation of the musical ideas. Works for orchestra and tape still abound today, although digital media have gradually superseded magnetic tape.

One major issue when working with tape is synchronisation. Tape runs at a constant speed and the events occur in exactly the same way each time the tape is played. The orchestra, on the other hand, moves at a 'musical' speed and likes to 'breathe'. Various strategies have been used to try to overcome this problem, including variable speed tapes and deliberately un-synchronised material. The advent of digital media, however, has provided more solutions, including timestretching in real time, sequencing individual sound files, and live electronics.

Digital media include broadcasting and entertaiment, film and television, and most other areas of contemporary cultural life. Orchestras today are very familiar with such processes and many movies and TV shows have some kind of orchestral presence, even if oit is only through sampled sounds. Digital media in concert music include images and technical use of such media (e.g. for synchronising offstage musicians with the conductor). Opera and other theatrical performances often involve a large amount of streaming images and projections which are synchronised with the orchestral music. Usually a computer sits at the hub of such activity.

Perhaps the most adventurous use of digital media at the present time is in networked performance. At its 'Miramon in 2001' celebration, for example, the San Sebastian Technology Park (Spain) staged an orchestral concert in which the strings were seated in one auditorium and the rest of the orchestra in a separate auditorium several kilometres away. The sound was mixed separately in both spaces and there was a different audience in both. The conductor was with the strings (the orchestra was the Basque Symphony Orchestra) and synchronisation was achieved using a video link. Delivering a classical concert in this way is unusual, but digital musicians increasingly use networks for live music-making.

The largest network is of course the internet. The use of the internet by orchestras is in its infancy, but explorations such as those conducted by the Philharmonia in their Education and Access programme, are a possible way of drawing in new audiences and offering an orchestral experience to those who are unable to attend concerts.


General MIDI sounds

1. Acoustic Grand Piano
2. Bright Acoustic Piano
3. Electric Grand Piano
4. Honky-tonk Piano
5. Electric Piano 1
6. Electric Piano 2
7. Harpsichord
8. Clavi

33. Acoustic Bass
34. Electric Bass (finger)
35. Electric Bass (pick)
36. Fretless Bass
37. Slap Bass 1
38. Slap Bass 2
39. Synth Bass 1
40. Synth Bass 2

65. Soprano Sax
66. Alto Sax
67. Tenor Sax
68. Baritone Sax
69. Oboe
70. English Horn
71. Bassoon
72. Clarinet

97. FX 1 (rain)
98. FX 2 (soundtrack)
99. FX 3 (crystal)
100. FX 4 (atmosphere)
101. FX 5 (brightness)
102. FX 6 (goblins)
103. FX 7 (echoes)
104. FX 8 (sci-fi)

9. Celesta
10. Glockenspiel
11. Music Box
12. Vibraphone
13. Marimba
14. Xylophone
15. Tubular Bells
16. Dulcimer

41. Violin
42. Viola
43. Cello
44. Contrabass
45. Tremelo Strings
46. Pizzicato Strings
47. Orchestral Harp
48. Timpani

73. Piccolo
74. Flute
75. Recorder
76. Pan Flute
77. Blown Bottle
78. Shakuhachi
79. Whistle
80. Ocarina

105. Sitar
106. Banjo
107. Shamisen
108. Koto
109. Kalimba
110. Bag Pipe
111. Fiddle
112. Shanai

17. Drawbar Organ
18. Percussive Organ
19. Rock Organ
20. Church Organ
21. Reed Organ
22. Accordian
23. Harmonica
24. Tango Accordian

49. String Ensemble
50. String Ensemble
51. SynthStrings 1
52. SynthStrings 2
53. Choir Aahs
54. Voice Oohs
55. Synth Voice
56. Orchestra Hit

81. Lead 1 (square)
82. Lead 2 (sawtooth)
83. Lead 3 (calliope)
84. Lead 4 (chiff)
85. Lead 5 (charang)
86. Lead 6 (voice)
87. Lead 7 (fifths)
88. Lead 8 (bass + lead)

113. Tinkle Bell
114. Agogo
115. Steel Drums
116. Woodblock
117. Taiko Drum
118. Melodic Tom
119. Synth Drum
120. Reverse Cymbal

25. Acoustic Guitar (nylon)
26. Acoustic Guitar (steel)
27. Electric Guitar (jazz)
28. Electric Guitar (clean)
29. Electric Guitar (muted)
30. Overdriven Guitar
31. Distortion Guitar
32. Guitar Harmonics

57. Trumpet
58. Trombone
59. Tuba
60. Muted Trumpet
61. French Horn
62. Brass Section
63. SynthBrass 1
64. SynthBrass 2

89. Pad 1 (new age)
90. Pad 2 (warm)
91. Pad 3 (polysynth)
92. Pad 4 (choir)
93. Pad 5 (bowed)
94. Pad 6 (metallic)
95. Pad 7 (halo)
96. Pad 8 (sweep)

121. Guitar Fret Noise
122. Breath Noise
123. Seashore
124. Bird Tweet
125. Telephone Ring
126. Helicopter
127. Applause
128. Gunshot

General MIDI Percussion set

35. Acoustic Bass Drum
36. Bass Drum 1
37. Side Stick
38. Acoustic Snare
39. Hand Clap
40. Electric Snare
41. Low Floor Tom
42. Closed Hi-Hat
43. High Floor Tom
44. Pedal Hi-Hat
45. Low Tom
46. Open Hi-Hat
47. Low-Mid Tom
48. Hi Mid Tom
49. Crash Cymbal 1
50. High Tom

51. Ride Cymbal 1
52. Chinese Cymbal
53. Ride Bell
54. Tambourine
55. Splash Cymbal
56. Cowbell
57. Crash Cymbal 2
58. Vibraslap
59. Ride Cymbal 2
60. Hi Bongo
61. Low Bongo
62. Mute Hi Conga
63. Open Hi Conga
64. Low Conga
65. High Timbale
66. Low Timbale

67. High Agogo
68. Low Agogo
69. Cabasa
70. Maracas
71. Short Whistle
72. Long Whistle
73. Short Guiro
74. Long Guiro
75. Claves
76. Hi Wood Block
77. Low Wood Block
78. Mute Cuica
79. Open Cuica
80. Mute Triangle
81. Open Triangle

The Orchestra: A User's Manual is a free resource and will remain so. It still receives between 8,000 and 16,000 unique visits per month from all over the world. See the testimonials. Thanks to all the donations, I have been able to create this responsive re-design. But the movies and sound clips recorded in 2004 do show their age. I would really like to re-record everything and add many more techniques, especially for solo and ensemble writing. I estimate this will cost around £30,000. If you know a source of such funds, please contact me: a.hugill [at]