How To Get Realistic Sounding Virtual Horn Sections

Who should read this?

Whatever your DAW is, be it Cubase, Pro Tools, Ableton, etc. the techniques I talk about will work in any of them - but you do need a certain level of mastery. For instance, if you don't know what MIDI is then you really should learn about that first.

Virtual Horns

Song For Bilbao
Song For Bilbao

You don't need to be a horn player to add a horn section to your tracks. You can 'play' virtual instruments by writing MIDI notes inside your DAW.

Take a listen to 'song for Bilbao' on the right.

These virtual instruments are real horns, notes and articulations sampled throughout their range so they can be triggered by MIDI notes.

Session Horns

You will have some virtual instruments supplied with your DAW. Some of them may be quite effective for solos but, by and large, those freebies are rubbish. You need to invest in a dedicated product. Native Instruments Session Horns is the go to digital horn section. My advice on Horn sections only applies to that product. f you haven't got it already, go buy it. I have a discount code for you.

Writing Horn Parts

First, a bit of theory, not too taxing.

The first thing to get right is the individual ranges of your instruments.

Each instrument has its own playing techniques. For example, a sax is incredibly agile at playing runs, they can jump octaves easily, and are great at crescendos.

If you are writing for real horns and want more advice visit this page... .

Mike gives loads of detailed advice on the physical limitations of each horn type. For example, double and triple tonguing are pretty easy on the trumpet whereas, on the sax, you just can't play repeated notes fast.

Writing for virtual horns does not have the same physical limitations of course, you can do crazy things, but the limitations of the instrument you are emulating should still be respected to keep things realistic.

Digital Horn parts

You can write individual parts on separate tracks but the easy, crude and effective way is to use a single MIDI track. Session Horns will sort out which instrument plays each line.

Here are some examples.

As a general rule don't use parallel fourths or fifths Try to keep most of the intervals small.

The topic of style and interpretation is far beyond the scope of this article so I don't cover it. A funk player will interpret a score very differently to a Ska band. I assume you already have a feel for your type of music.


Until I started producing my own horn parts I didn't know what the heck Doits were. All you need to know, with reference to creating really dynamic horns, is the section on the Session Horns™ control panel. It's ticked by default.