Garritan Personal Orchestra 5 – Overview

I have had a lot of questions about Garritan Personal Orchestra 5 from readers, colleagues, and friends.  Garritan Personal Orchestra 5 (GPO5) is the latest version of the incredibly successful orchestra library that is the best bargain in its category.Version 5 has so many improvements and additions to its predecessor that I have decided to do a series of posts rather than write one book-length post (and yes, there is that much new and worthwhile in this upgrade).


The most noticeable and important feature is the sound: all of the instruments just sound better than previous versions. They are more life-like, react more like the physical instruments, sound more ‘present’, and in many cases include more playing techniques. One very important feature that might be overlooked is the number of different solo versions of certain instruments. This allows you to create sections of a specific size without merely duplicating the same instrument, a practice that results in phasing and gives a poor result. With different sampled instruments you not only get rid of the phasing problem, but gain from the richness of the slight differences between the instruments, just as you would with a physical group of them. This can be handy from creating duets with two different versions of the same instrument, to creating specific-sized groups. For example, say you are writing for string orchestra and want to split the strings into two groups, i.e. two sets of first violin, second violin, viola, and cello (a technique called divisi). The problem here is that you end up with a string section which is twice as large as the original, and the sudden increase in size is disturbing to most listeners. With four different solo players, you can create a section of just four violins, and use two of these groupings when divisi is called for in an eight-violin section. This is the attention to detail given to GPO5 by Gary Garritan and his team.

ARIA Player

All of the instruments come in two versions: notation and standard. The sounds are the same, but a few commands are handled differently in notation software than they are when played live from a MIDI controller. Notation programs automatically choose the correct version. When using the free ARIA Player that comes with GPO5, you would usually choose the Standard version. Playing from a controller such as a keyboard calls for the standard set, but if you choose to load a MIDI file that was created by a notation program you probably want to load the notation patches. The ARIA Player is a powerful control instrument on its own, with many subtle (and not so subtle) effects that can alter the overall sound of the instruments. Newer versions list all of the Garritan libraries on your system, making it easy for you to choose sounds. There is also a default setting that loads the instruments of your choice at startup, as well as an Ensemble section that loads full sets of instruments for many standard groupings. The Controls page has an optional 3-band equalizer with user-defined mid-range. This page also has handy access to MIDI controls that you may not be familiar with, including portamento and subtle variations in pitch and timing. You can also choose Auto-Legato to smooth out your lines, and Stereo Stage to give a wider sense of stereo to your stage. (All of these can be controlled via MIDI, and the MIDI control numbers are included beside the controls.)


Under Effects you will find the new, powerful Garritan Convolution Reverb, in addition to the standard Ambience reverb, EQ, and damping controls. The Ambience reverb is a synthesized version of the reverberation characteristics of a space: a hall, a room, a club, etc. A convolution reverb is a sampled set of “impulses” which record how a given space actually reverberates in the real world, and can give a more realistic sound to your music. Of course, each has their place, and you might even want to combine the two for special effect. There is a full-fledged mixer to set the volume for each channel as well as the master, and includes Pan and Send controls, as well as Mute and Solo switches. The Settings page is for more advanced users, but it gives you the option to change the type of tuning your instruments use as well as the base frequency; it even tells you the current versions of the player and engine and allows you to update directly from this page.

One of the most useful parts of this excellent player is the keyboard that is always at the bottom of its screen, allowing you to play any sound with the mouse, and showing you the playable range of each instrument. You can also choose keyswitches with it, which are shown in red. GPO5 uses keyswitches to change patches (or types of sound) for the same instrument. This entails hitting a key well outside the playing range of the instrument, which immediately changes the sound of the instrument. For example, a very low note might change a piccolo from a straight sound to flutter-tonguing, while a very high note might change a double bass from bowed to pizzicato.

The ARIA Player has still more to offer. You can load a MIDI file into it and play it back using whatever combination of instruments you like. I find it a good idea to delete Program Change and other Control information unless it was created with GPO5 because it can cause unwanted effects. You can also record from the ARIA Player, either a version of a MIDI file you have loaded or yourself playing. I will use it for later posts to demonstrate instruments, keyswitches and other goodies.

User Manual

If you have specific questions about GPO5 or just want to see the entire list of instruments before you buy, you will be glad to know that the GPO5 User Manual is online at This is a change from GPO4, which had a downloadable PDF manual. While this is a problem if you have a question when you are not online, it is a benefit in that it can be updated immediately if problems are found, information is missing, or new features are added.


Valerie Tryon Sets a New Standard for Ravel’s Jazz-inspired Piano Concerto

In the 1920’s jazz brought an exciting new element to the world of classical music just as that world seemed to be in chaos, searching for a new direction. Ironically, it was European composers who began to incorporate jazz elements into their compositions, even though jazz may well be, as many have said, “the first truly original American style of music.” One of the very first established classical composers to incorporate jazz into his music was Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and you can hear it clearly on a wonderful new CD performance of his Piano Concerto in G by the brilliant pianist Valerie Tryon backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Jac van Steen.

Somm CD 258

For a full review of this magnificent recording I suggest that you read this article from The Classical Review (click here).  (I will only point out the one obvious typo in that article, where the Concerto for Left Hand was finished in 1931, not 1938.) This will leave me free to dwell on the jazz influence in the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. Ravel was interested in jazz before his 1928 tour of America, and he took every opportunity to hear it while in the USA. For the rest of his life he would urge American composers to respect the value of jazz as their own musical heritage and incorporate it in their works, but his generation was slow to take it up, although Copland and Bernstein needed no external encouragement.

This concerto is an ideal piece for jazz lovers who want to know more classical music, as well as for classical lovers who wonder what jazz is all about. The piece begins with the crack of a whip (the orchestral version, also called a clapper, slaps two pieces of wood together, sparing the lives of the rest of the players), and the horns that soon follow remind me of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” which was written when Gershwin visited Paris hoping to study with Ravel. However, as soon as the piano gets the stage to itself, Ravel introduces a chord with a flat 9th, still a favourite of jazz players. Even though it begins as an appoggiatura to the tonic, it is on the downbeat with an accent marked. Sure enough a theme follows using the “blue notes” that have become so common in all types of music now, but at the time they must have seemed strange and new in the concert hall. In fact the conductor’s score makes a point of showing that the “blue” minor 3rd over a major chord is meant to be that note by including unnecessary accidentals (in the space above the notes, drawing even more attention to them), basically saying “yes, I know the strings are playing A# but the trumpet plays A-natural here!” A close listen reveals a lot of these “dissonances” that are really staples of jazz, with flat-9ths and sharp-9ths sneaking into all sorts of harmonies, along with flattened 5ths and jazz scales.

A lesser composer might be content to incorporate so much jazz fluidly into a concerto, but Ravel investigates the individual components of  his chords and scales and creates truly amazing effects. A classic example comes in the second movement (in the bar at rehearsal number 2 if you are following with the score) where he gives the piano an F# against a D# major chord (which contains Fx). This is almost the dominant 7 with a raised 9th, known to rock guitarists as “the Hendrix chord” (from Purple Haze, although the Beatles had used it in Taxman already, and a whole generation or more of jazz players before them liked it too). Here it is the “almost” that makes it so important: Ravel omits the 7th that might “explain” its presence, and by itself the F# adds an other-worldly sense of pathos. Such an unexpected effect from what is most commonly an attention-grabbing ear-cruncher of a chord! Ravel’s genius here is in his comprehension of his materials well enough to use them in unique ways to express what is otherwise inexpressible. All three movements contain jazz elements used very deftly, some obvious, others quite subtle.

I love this piece, and I already have two very good recordings of it, but this is by far my favourite because of Valerie Tryon. Her playing is beyond magnificently virtuosic; I would imagine that it would delight Ravel himself. Certainly the tradition of how the piano and orchestra should play could only have been more closely relayed if Ravel had done so himself, since Valerie’s teacher Jacques Février played the piano orchestral reduction as Ravel coached Marguerite Long, the pianist for the concerto’s premiere, thus learning the intricacies of both soloist and orchestra. Such things as strict adherence to timing are passed along easily enough, but the particular touch on the keys and use of the pedal (known as “jeu perlé” which literally, and clumsily, translates as “pearl game”). In Valerie’s hands, and fingers, it does sound like strings of pearls floating on Ravel’s exotic sea, and it is finesse of timbre such as this that makes a CD so much better than an mp3 even at its highest transfer rate (i.e. its least compressed mode). Her phrasing and touch are a perfect collaboration with so fine an orchestra as the Royal Philharmonic and conductor Jac van Steen. At times the piano joins the orchestra as one golden thread shot through a splendid weave of colours, while when necessary Ms. Tryon brings the piano out front “large and in charge”, a true leader of a terrific assembly of some of the world’s finest players.

Full disclosure: I have known Valerie Tryon since shortly after I began work at McMaster University in 1988 and saw her in concert, or more accurately since the time I worked up the courage to congratulate her on a stupendous performance. I was honestly flabbergasted that the university could have an artist of that stature, and playing a free concert for staff and students at that.Each time I watched her perform I wondered how few peers she had at the piano, while each time I spoke with her I wondered how few people could possibly be that nice. Little wonder that she is so beloved in music circles from students to the most accomplished performers and conductors.

While she has been acclaimed and won much-deserved awards for her interpretations of Liszt, let me add that Valerie Tryon’s two CD’s of Ravel’s piano music are the finest versions I expect to hear in my lifetime, and they have helped me to understand the music of Ravel as no other performer could. Also, I am not alone in considering her CD of Book One of Debussy’s Preludes the finest ever recorded (replacing my erstwhile favourite by Walter Geiseking).

This CD is just one of three that Somm has released recently featuring Valerie Tryon with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Somm CD 253 features Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (revised version), the Burleske for Piano and Orchestra of R. Strauss, and Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Song, all under the direction of Jac van Steen.

The third CD  (SOMMCD 250) contains Turina’s Rapsodia Sinfónica for Piano and Orchestra, Franck’s Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, and de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, again with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra but under the baton of Kenneth Woods. This CD contains “bonus tracks” consisting of two piano encores — Granados’ The Lover and the Nightingale, and Debussy’s La Soirée dans Grenade — as well as Busoni’s transcription for piano of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor. All three of these CD’s are triumphs and a fitting tribute to one of the finest pianists to grace the keys.

Valerie Tryon is a name that every music lover should know!


My sincerest thanks to Alan Walker (no relation, unfortunately) for apprising me of these fantastic recordings, as well as his generous mentoring on all things musical.




The Indie Band Survival Guide

Once you have some music ready to share with the world you need to learn how to navigate the modern world of music. No doubt you keep hearing about the “new and unlimited opportunities” for musicians without the need for a recording contract, but how do you take advantage of these opportunities? The best source of  information and step-by-step instruction is The Indie Band Survival Guide. This is THE guidebook for any independent (i.e. “unsigned”) musician or group, regardless of style.

Indie Guide

The book begins by telling you how to get prepared to use all of the services that are available to you by assembling your team and networking, setting up a “brand” that will identify you in many different places and circumstances, and most important of all, getting to know your rights. Many musicians leave a LOT of money “on the table” because they don’t know to ask for it, or in some cases demand it. After this you are ready to use their strategies for getting gigs and making money selling your music and related merchandise. If you are not already familiar with the companies that will sell your CD’s as well as “merch” to your fans on demand, then you are missing out on a potential goldmine and probably spending money that you don’t need to. In exchange for a cut, there is a whole network that will package and sell music in whatever form, T-shirts, ball caps, anything that identifies that brand you set up while getting prepared. Yes, you give up some money but do you really want to get into the manufacturing business? Or be an order-taker? These kinds of deal let you stick to the music while your brand gets around and you get cheques from your merchandising partners.

You will need a marketing strategy, and these days a web presence is essential. Social media is a must to interact with fans and potential fans, and an official site can be invaluable in getting the word out to fans about new music and gigs as well as turning people who are just browsing into fans. The authors show you how to set up various internet services, some specially for musicians and others that you can tailor to your own needs. They even provide a web site that keeps the information in the book up to date, so that as new services appear you will know how to take advantage of them. And then, of course, you become a fan of Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan for providing this service for you. A nice example of practising what they preach.

The flip side of this new accessibility for indie artists is that more and more people are getting out there. Chertkow & Feehan give you great advice on getting heard and seen through all of the competition. All you need is some talent, music that you want to share, and the motivation to do what it takes to find and connect with your fans. These guys know what they’re talking about, having run a successful indie band for years, while keeping their day jobs as an IT expert and a lawyer. No matter what style you play, no matter how big you want to get or small you want to stay, if you want to make money in music, this book will pay for itself many times over. It belongs in every musician’s case, dog-eared from being read over and over.

How To Write Your First Song


I wrote this book because I have met too many people who want to write songs but can’t because of what they know.

Hey, wait! Don’t I mean “what they don’t know?” Well, no and yes. The book does cover everything that you need to know to write your first song, but it also puts music theory into the perspective of a songwriter, and not a composer of symphonies 200 years ago. While any music theory should help you understand music better, so that you can play it or write it better, it is often taught via “rules” — and pretty much any modern song breaks several of those rules, and the best break a lot of them.

The book re-frames music theory that you may already know as a tool for you as a songwriter. You rely on your own ear for what sounds “good” to you, and you develop your own process for finishing a song that you like. There are no exercises because you don’t invest yourself in something that is just for practice. Instead you write a song that you like, one that you are proud to play for friends and family, and even in public if that’s your goal.

As usual, the title can’t tell the whole story. I aimed this book at novices and at accomplished songwriters who have hit a wall. We all have times where nothing seems to come to us and we feel like we’ll never write again. The value of having a process is that you can start with a simple idea, even one from a song that you rejected before, and by working with it you can re-shape it into something you truly love. It works because you don’t learn my process, you learn your own (which may well be totally different from mine).

I can shamelessly promote my own book because I’ve seen the approach work with students who had no musical training to ones with PhD’s; and from metal-heads to writers of classical lieder. We’re not aiming to get you to Number One on your first attempt, but we do get you to the point where you can write your own song that pleases you. I think that’s a great start.