Beginning work on the 3rd Movement

One of the technical issues which will significantly boost the performance of my PC is using Solid State Drives (SSDs) instead of Hard Disc Drives (HDDs). The sound samples that make up the VSL virtual orchestra take up about 750GBs of data and are stored over two HDDs. The software that needs access to that data, (the Vienna Ensemble Pro – VEPro), has to read the data off the HDDs. No HDD (or indeed SSD) will provide instant access to the data creating a latency between a note being played and a note being heard. To remedy that problem a small part of the start of every sample is preloaded into RAM the memory modules where all programmes (including VEPro) are loaded each time you start your computer or start a new programme. VEPro will then instantly read the start of the sample loaded into the RAM which allows sufficient time to capture the rest of the sample off the HDD. We are however talking milliseconds here.

What causes the bottleneck is if the HDD is slow then more of the sample has to be preloaded into RAM. And bearing in mind how huge the data is this can quickly fill up the RAM available. My recent performance of the 2nd Movement had over 20GBs of my available 24GBs of RAM filled in this way and my system was on the verge of becoming unstable. The 2nd Movement is but a mere minnow compared to the other movements.

The benefit of SSDs is that their “read speed” is potentially much quicker and therefore the amount of each sample you have to have preloaded into RAM is less which means you can run bigger performances. The downside of SSDs has been their expense and their capacity. Recently the price of two 450GB SSDs has come down to my level of affordability (although at £ per GB they are still 5 to 10x as expensive as HDDs). So I have taken the plunge. Turns out, inevitably, that it’s not as straightforward as that as I also have to have a special PCIe card which plugs into my motherboard and into which you plug a special housing cage into which you plug the SSDs. And then it further turns out I cannot take full advantage of the new technology of the SSD because my motherboard is getting terribly old (about 3-4 years old) and doesn’t support the latest protocols (it supports SATA II and not SATA III if you know what that’s about). It does appear however that I should still be able to get read speeds several times quicker than my current HDDs.

I got the new SSDs easily enough but have had huge amounts of trouble with the PCIe card and have now sent back the second one awaiting a third replacement. I am however getting closer to attempting a new performance of one of the bigger movements and have decided to go the whole hog and tackle the biggest movement of all the 3rd. I wanted to leave the first movement to last which is easily my favourite movement and the one I want to do best.

And of course it’s not just that the 3rd movement is 5 times as long as the second it’s the size of the orchestra and corresponding data I need. The 2nd movement had 72 virtual instruments (VIs), the 3rd looks like it will need 126. This is largely because of the strings. In Mvt 2 they are only ever divided into two parts each and so 10 VIs. In the 3rd Mvt all sections are divided into 2, 3 & 4 parts as well as unison and both violins are, for one extended passage, divided into 8 parts. VSL has 4 different string packages. The Appassionata Strings (20 Violins, 14 Violas, 12 cellos and 10 basses) which I’ll use for the unison passages; Orchestral Strings (14, 10, 8, 6) which I’ll use when the sections are divided into two parts; Chamber Strings (6, 4, 3, 2) which I’ll use when they’re divided into three and four parts and I’ll use solo violins when they are divided into 8. This means I have to have 51 Vis just for the strings and the data for the different string packages is huge.

So with 126 virtual instruments my virtual stage is getting very crowded. As is the Sibelius score. For each virtual instrument I have 3 staves. One has the unaltered part for reference. The second has the same part but with the many alterations I need to make a musically convincing performance and the third which is littered with midi instructions. So 378 staves. That’s a mighty big score. Thank goodness no one needs to have a physical copy. I remember seeing the score to Brian Ferneyhough’s La Terre et un Homme which has up to 70 staves and is four feet tall!

I’ve learnt the hard way that in tackling a project of this size you have to be meticulously organised in advance so whilst I’m waiting for replacement computer bits and before I can actually start creating the performance I am documenting the set up logistics of the virtual instruments and have created a rather attractive looking template which shows each of the virtual instruments I will need, what Sibelius Soundset each section needs, and what VSL sample set is needed which you can see here.

I’m also making sure the parts are all correctly separated out and on their correct stave and making sure the Sibelius score is correctly set up so it communicates the correct midi information to the respective virtual VSL instrument.

I suspect that even with the new SSD drives I will still not be able to run the entire orchestra at the same time but I am fairly sure I will be able to do each section one at a time and I shall start with the strings which is easily the biggest. Once I have perfected the string section performance I can “freeze” the data needed for them and move on to another section. I suspect by the time I have completed the performance of each section (which could take many, many months, if not years) I will have upgraded my PC again so that I will then be able to run the whole shebang and perfect the whole performance. Assuming of course I haven’t gone stark raving mad before then.

Watch this space.

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