CLASSICAL ORCHESTRATOR VS TV ORCHESTRATOR

Recently, I’ve been made aware of the confusion that is circulating amongst many composers who don’t know exactly what to expect from an orchestrator. Hopefully this blog will clear this bewilderment and help anyone to understand what an orchestrator can do for them in the film/tv/games realm.

Orchestration, copying and music preparation services for a recent job. The recording took place at Air Studios in the hall with a small string section.

Orchestration, copying and music preparation services for a recent job. The recording took place at Air Studios in the hall with a small string section.

CLASSICAL ORCHESTRATION VS FILM/TV ORCHESTRATION

If you think about the way in which classical music was written in the past, the composer wrote and orchestrated their music directly to sheet music. There was no DAW or MIDI and ideas were played on the piano and committed to sheet music before taking it to an orchestra to be rehearsed and revised.

If you compare this with an orchestrator for film and television, we do not usually have the freedom to be involved as the composer is writing the music. What I mean by that is that in the classical world, the music is written and orchestrated in one swoop (at least, it was in the old days), rather than an orchestrator coming onboard when the music has already been written.

Also, most of the time we are using and working from MIDI to assemble the score to be performed by live players, and so we do not have the ability to make a large number of changes without actually changing the core of the cue. There are a number of things we can do to make it sound bigger and better including revoicing chords and changing octaves of instruments - things that the director/producer may not necessarily notice. The reason we can’t make huge changes is because the clients are used to hearing the music in a certain way, and if we started changing harmonies and melodies, there’s a chance that the director might pipe up during the session asking what has been changed.

WHAT CAN I EXPECT FROM A FILM/TV ORCHESTRATOR?

If you’re a composer and you’re working with an orchestrator for the first time, you might feel overwhelmed. out of control and maybe slightly confused at what to expect from your orchestrator? What will they do to your work? Well, that last bit is something that you need to discuss with them. When I’m working with a composer, I’ll ask them what they’re expecting from me. For example, do I have free will to change various aspects of the cue, or do they want an exact MIDI replication of each cue. Regardless of what the composer wants from me, I’ll always speak to them if something is impossible or if there’s something we could do to make something sound better.

As the composer, you may want the orchestrator to be faithful to the MIDI and to the demo simultaneously, but it is important to realise that those are not the same thing. Sometimes, what is heard is not actually playable in the real world and therefore it is our jobs as orchestrators to work around these potential hiccups which could occur at the session. It is also our job to fix these and iron out anything which could slow down the session and waste time and money.

SOUNDING OFF

At the end of the day, the orchestrator needs to be on the same page as the composer as to what is expected of you and how to deliver the composers intentions in the slickest, most efficient manner possible. Make sure that this is one of the first things that you discuss so that everybody feels comfortable early on in the project. If you have been working with a composer for a while, both of you will probably be on the same page and all of this will be irrelevant, but if you’re working with a composer for the first time, these are the things to consider.

HOW TO SURVIVE LONG WORKING HOURS

Before we get going, I’d like to state that I am by no means condoning long hours spent working. This is a blog to share how I cope when working on a job that requires long hours on a short term basis (less than a week).

SACRIFICING YOUR HEALTH FOR WORK

I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s seriously dangerous to risk your physical (and mental health on that matter) for the sake of work, but yet we all do it, and some more than others? Why? Well, if you told your clients that you refused to put in the hours required to get the job across the line, you’d never be hired again and nobody would touch you with a bargepole. I actually don’t mind putting in long hours in the short term, but I’d be seriously worried about my health if I were doing this for months at a time with no breaks in between jobs.

MINIMISING RISKS TO YOUR HEALTH

I’m not entirely sure what everyone else does, but I have several things that I do that help me get through 16+ hour days.

  • DRINK WATER (AND LOTS OF IT)

    Granted, you’ll be using the loo every half hour but your brain will be recharged and will stop you from falling asleep. I’ve done plenty of 18 hour days since starting this job and I don’t drink coffee. It’s a total myth that you need the caffeine to stay awake, and I’d recommend getting into the habit of drinking a pint of water first thing in the morning and subsequently throughout the day. Ideally, it’s best to drink at least 5 pints a day. I can always tell if I’ve been forgetting to drink because I hit a slump out of nowhere. Staying hydrated is critical.

  • EAT WELL.

    I have a very high fibre and protein diet with lots of fruit, vegetables and chick peas/all manner of beans (not baked beans). This helps unbelievably well. Try and make yourself a fruit salad before the job commences and you’ll have a supply of fruit lasting for a while. I can’t even tell you how much of an impact good food has on your life. You’ll feel better, look better and perform better. Your clients will thank you, and so will your body.

  • DON’T DO DRUGS

    To be specific, I’m talking about cocaine. I don’t use it (or any other drug) but I have no particular objection to them or anyone who wants to use it. One thing I will say is that it won’t help you perform like the above two will, and it’ll keep your money in your bank account instead of wasting it on something that actually ruins your health long term.

  • EXERCISE REGULARLY

    i actually find this impossible sometimes (namely on the job I’ve been working on recently). I had no time at all during the day, and the last thing you want to do after an 18 hour day is get on your bike or go swimming. I’m not sure what the way around this is, but if you get a few days off here and there, I’d recommend doing intense exercise and getting your heart rate up. We’re all at a higher risk of various diseases and strokes etc by being sat down for so long during the day. Your back will thank you if you engage in something like front crawl swimming through stretching out and the seamless gliding through the water will reduce stress. If you can’t fit any exercise at all in months, you’re taking on way too much work and I guess you may have to come to terms with the fact that your health is being damaged. Not an ideal situation, but it depends how much you value your health I guess…

  • SLEEP

    Sometimes it isn’t possible, but hear me out here. Sometimes, if you feel yourself flagging a bit (let’s say at around the 15 hour mark), and you think you might start to make mistakes, I would call it a day, get some rest and wake up fresh in the morning where your brain has processed any problems that you may have faced that day. We’re human, we need sleep. For some reason, there’s a bragging ‘trophy’ attitude to those who have stayed up for something crazy like 3 days without sleep. In my view, it’s totally ridiculous and you have no idea how much damage you’re doing to your body if you’re doing that. Not to mention the fact that you’re actually being less productive by doing it, even though you think that longer hours = getting more done. It’s just science really. At the end of the day, your body needs rest to recharge itself and I guarantee that if you stop working when you feel like you can’t go on much longer, when you wake up, you’ll be ready to do it all over again! Avoid anything past 18 hours at the absolute max is my advice. As with everything, there are exceptions to the rule, but use common sense.

SOUNDING OFF

I enjoy chatting about topics like this, and we all need to stick together and help each other out to make sure we don’t greet a grave at an early age. If you have any tips on how to stay focussed and energised, please share them!

WHAT IS MUSIC PREPARATION?

This is another term which is largely misunderstood by many in our community, not out of sheer ignorance but misunderstanding. For instance, I remember when I first started out in the business, I had no idea what a fixer’s job was, or even that they existed at all.

THE DARK ART OF MUSIC PREPARATION

So, what is music preparation? Let’s break it down into a typical job that I might undertake if I was working as a copyist/music prep guy for a client.

  • I would receive either PDF’s or a notation file such as Sibelius from the copyist or orchestrator. I prefer to receive Sibelius files if at all possible because it’s quicker and therefore saves previous time and money.

  • Once everything is printed, I then start the part taping process. In a studio environment, parts are taped when they’re longer than an A3 page spread which is obviously two pages of A4 but on one A3 landscape spread. This is basically to reduce noise when page turning - any noise from a page will be picked up in the recording.

  • The score that the conductor reads from is also taped to reduce any page turn noise, but the scores that are read by the engineer, orchestrator and composer in the booth are bound for aesthetics and because the noise created from turning a page in a bound score isn’t a problem in the control room.

  • As a rule of thumb, the conductor, orchestrator and composer have an A3 bound score, whilst the engineer and pro tools op have A4’s because they’re not looking at the score as in-depth as orchestrators and composers are - using it as a guide more than anything.

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  • The conductor scores feature one-sided music (because the score is taped), and the bound scores in the control room are printed back-to-back. This saves paper and money!

  • Once I have taped the parts, it is then time to ‘collate’ them and ‘pad up’. This means that the parts need to go (generally in chronological order, unless stated otherwise on the cue sheet) into individual folders such as FLUTE, VIOLIN I, ‘CELLO etc. This means that every desk of strings have their own music to read from and so forth across the whole orchestra. At this point, it is imperative to check and check again to make sure no parts are missing and every part is in order. You don’t want added stress by having to reprint parts that are missing at the session!

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  • Once the parts have been collated and taped, I will then sort out the binding or hole-punching of the scores and the taping of the conductor scores. This can be quite a time consuming process. If it takes you 6 minutes to tape (to a high quality) a 15 page A3 score, times that by potentially 30 or 40 cues for a big movie and you’ve got yourself several hours of work there just from the taped conductor scores alone. Sometimes string parts can be quite long and involve lots of taping. If you times that by how many desks there are and how many cues there are, you can see how the hours begin to tally up.

THE IMPORTANCE OF MUSIC PREPARATION

You’re probably thinking right now how this seems like the easiest job in the world. All you have to do is print and put paper into folders. Well, in a way, you’re correct, but the reason this job is so important is because without it, music will not be recorded, regardless of how well the music is written or orchestrated.

This is the final piece of the puzzle and if you cut corners here or try to save money by getting your mate from the pub with a desktop printer to do the job, the whole project will likely come crashing down and you’ll have pumped thousands (potentially even hundreds of thousands) of pounds into a project that has fallen short at the last hurdle. Music preparation is about being organised and methodical. It’s not uncommon to have a thousand odd pages lying around and if you’re not careful you can easily get bamboozled by the sheer scale of a project. Don’t underestimate the importance of getting the pages taped correctly and having every page of every cue in its folder in the correct place on the day of recording.

MATERIAL COSTS

One thing to bear in mind about this job is that there are material costs involved. Printer toner (which is VERY expensive with a high quality laser printer), paper (again, very expensive if you’re going for thicker paper), printer maintenance, binding coils, tabs, folders, stickers. The list goes on and all of this adds up. This is bundled into the music preparation budget/quote and is why the fees can be quite high for this part of the job.

SOUNDING OFF

This is just a brief insight into what’s involved, but be rest assured that this is one of the most important parts of the whole process and is often overlooked. Be sure to leave enough of your budget for music preparation and your session will run like clockwork!

HOW TO APPROACH A SCORING SESSION

Many composers who mostly write for samples (and therefore might not have much session experience) are daunted by their first scoring session and are not sure how to best approach the session in terms of preparation. Hopefully, by the end of this blog, you’ll have more of an idea of what things to watch out for and the best way in which you can prepare for a smooth recording session.

CUE SHEETS

I cannot even begin to stress how important a cue sheet is to everyone at a recording session. It’s the document that will aid you from going into overtime and will be the lifeline that you might need at the end of a trying day.

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Above is what a standard cue sheet looks like for a small TV recording session. You’ll see that it has all of the information on there that you need to keep yourself out of trouble.

Be sure to include the following information:

  • CUE NAME / ID (for example 1M01)

  • TIMECODE IN AND OUT TIME

  • NOTES FROM THE SPOTTING SESSION

  • CUE DURATION

  • BOXES TO STATE AT WHICH POINT IN THE PROCESS YOU HAVE REACHED WHILST YOU ARE WORKING. FOR EXAMPLE, ALL BOXES SHOULD BE GREEN AND ‘APPROVED’ BEFORE YOU REACHED THE ‘PRINTED’ BOX.

  • BOXES FOR MIDI AND STEMS CREATION.

  • BOXES FOR EACH INSTRUMENT/SECTION SO THAT YOU CAN SEE WHAT INSTRUMENT IS PLAYING IN EACH CUE

When you have completed each task: composing, copying, orchestration etc, you need to mark them ‘green’ and ‘approved’ immediately. This will help you to keep track of where you are during the process before the session has even taken place. The MIDI always needs to be bounced for the engineer to prepare the Pro Tools session at the studio (usually the night before the session), using all of the time signature and tempo information but deleting the actual MIDI data because that’s irrelevant at the actual session.

The stems also need to be bounced, usually in groups like strings, brass, percussion etc (or whatever forces you’re using) so that the engineer can feed the players the ‘prelays’ (basically anything that is staying in the mix and not being replaced by live players like synths etc) through their headphones along with the click track.

THE IMPORTANCE OF INCLUDING ‘CUE DURATION’

The cue duration is probably one of the most important pieces of information on the whole spreadsheet because it will help you to keep track of exactly how long each cue should be taking you to record. For example, if a 30 second cue is taking you 15 minutes to nail and you’ve only got 3 hours to record and 18 more cues to get through at 2 minutes per track, that’s going to be quite a big problem…

It’s always best to start the session off with a medium length cue and with most, if not all of the orchestra playing so that the engineer can set the levels and double check if there are faulty mics. I’ve then found that sometimes it can be beneficial to get through a few of the longer cues before moving onto the shorter cues which can take the pressure off nearer to the end of the session.

PASS THE BRASS

One thing to watch out for if you have a brass section is making sure that their lips don’t get tired. It may sound a bit childish, but if the brass are blowing on huge actions cues at fortissimo repeatedly, they’ll eventually get so tired that fortissimo will just become forte or less. For this reason, it’s best to make sure that you alternate between easier and harder cues.

Sometimes it can be best to hire a producer for bigger sessions so that you can leave them to keep track of timings and leave the orchestrator to focus solely on the music, listen out for intonation issues, the general performance and anything that they might want to adjust after communicating with the composer.

TIMECODE IN AND OUT

Once, at an orchestral session at Abbey Road, the picture in the cue was starting too early and had been misaligned by the engineer in the Pro Tools session when importing it. The composer noticed whilst he was conducting and they used the TC in and out time from the cue sheet to check at which point the picture should actually start. It was promptly fixed within 30 seconds and the panic was over. However, had the TC not been included in the cue sheet, there could’ve been a big panic about what was going on and if the music itself was actually incorrect. This is why it’s important to include this sort of information. In fact, my rule of thumb is that the more information you can include on the cue sheet the better. It’ll help you when you need it most.

SOUNDING OFF

I could write for days about sessions, but hopefully this gives you more of an idea of what to look out for/keep track of at the future sessions. If you’re one of those composers who hasn’t experienced their first live session yet, I really hope this is useful and helps you to get through it smoothly!

WHAT DOES A COPYIST DO?

‘Copying’ is probably one of the most confused and misunderstood jobs in our field of work, so what is this mysterious craft and how does it work?

In its most simplest form, the job of the copyist is to make the music as readable as possible for the session musicians who will be sight reading it. I’m always blown away when I hear London’s finest musicians playing music perfectly on the first take - music that they’ve never heard before in their lives.

WHY IS IT CALLED ‘COPYING’?

This term is taken from the olden days when copyists would literally copy from the conductor score and generate parts by hand writing the ‘dots’. Thankfully, we now have notation programs like Sibelius, Dorico and Finale to generate parts from. The parts are what we call the music that the players read from, and the score is what the conductor reads from, and those in the booth like the composer, orchestrator and engineer etc.

THE PROCESS OF GENERATING PARTS

As part of my bundle service, when I have finished orchestrating the score, I’ll move onto the copying phase of the job. This enables me to go through the parts through with a fine tooth-comb, checking dynamics that may have been missed in the full score and anything else that might look awry. If I’m working from another orchestrator’s score I will then apply my own custom house style to make it look easy and impressive on the eye (thus aiding the musician and making it more enjoyable to look at). Generally though, if I am doing the orchestration and copying, I will work directly into a Sibelius template which has all of my engraving and house style options set up. This saves A LOT of time and the client’s money.

What I’m generally aiming for is a clean look where there is some space both above and below each system. A system basically being a ‘line’ of music. The space is basically so that the player can scribble any adjustments around the music such as dynamic changes or a change of sound such as sul tasto or con sordino in the string section.

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PART PRESENTATION

Above is a sample viola part from LEGO: The Incredibles which I had the pleasure of orchestrating, copying and music prepping (a posh term for the collating and printing of all of the scores and parts). You’ll see that I’ve got bar numbers on every bar so that the player knows exactly where they are at all times, and if the conductor says to go from bar 28, they know exactly where that is. Some copyists put them at the start of every system but I’ve spoken to session players directly and they say they prefer them on every bar.

You’ll see that I’ve written ‘lazily’ in English and ‘espressivo’ in Italian. You might be wondering why I’ve mixed between two languages and that is because I go with the term that will be most easily understood. I have no idea what ‘lazily’ is in Italian, but ‘espressivo’ is a widely used term in Italian, so it’s best to use it in that language (though it would of course be okay to use it in English too - it’s just preference). I’m not that bothered about using Italian-only terms and nobody has ever questioned it as a session.

You ideally want to stick to the phrasing of the music, though that’s not always possible with film music if it’s underscore-y type stuff with music that doesn’t have set 4 bar phrases. I also try my best to keep hairpins on the same system so that they aren’t split, and with a hairpin any longer than 4 bars I use ‘cresc’ or ‘dim’ text to avoid hairpins from being split across systems.

SOUNDING OFF

Working as a copyist is one of those things that sounds easy, but requires a high degree of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t at recording sessions. I’m going to quote something from the Spitfire Audio website because I think that this is something incredibly important, and it highlights just how important a good copyist is.

You can scrimp on many things, but if you think copying is glorified photocopying, you’re mistaken. The single most important thing you need in order to record some music is a pad of music to be on the stands, with the pages in the right order, the cues in the right order. If you don’t have this, you don’t have anything.
— Spitfire Audio

To add to that quote. There is no point having amazing compositions and fantastic orchestrations, only to be let down at the last minute by an inexperienced and bad copyist. Don’t let it happen.

AN INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER JOHN LUNN (DOWNTON ABBEY)

Here is a short orchestration-focussed interview with John Lunn, one of the most sought after TV composers in the history of television music. He has been awarded two Emmy awards and a BAFTA nomination for his superb musical contribution to the music industry.

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AT WHAT POINT DO YOU SEND YOUR MUSIC OFF TO BE ORCHESTRATED?

Well, assuming there was a two week turnaround, within the first couple of days I would probably write five or six cues. Then I’d send them off to get approved by the director, and luckily they’re usually quick at giving feedback so generally 60-70% of those cues will be fine and they’ll be sent off to my orchestrator immediately. From there on, every day he’ll receive new cues to be working on because as soon as I know the cue has been signed off, I send it off to him.


HAVE YOU EVER COME ACROSS A SITUATION WHERE THE CUE HAS BEEN SIGNED OFF AND YOU’VE SENT THE CUE TO BE ORCHESTRATED, BUT THEN THE CLIENT CHANGES THEIR MINDS AND WOULD LIKE CORRECTIONS TO BE MADE?

I usually make it clear to the client that once it’s been signed off and has been orchestrated, then no more changes can be made. There have been a couple of times where whoever is in charge of approving the cues has been uncontactable for one reason or another and I’ve sent the cue off to be orchestrated because we can’t hang around forever, and then the cue has come back and they’ve asked for a few small changes.


DO YOU MAKE ANY CHANGES TO THE MUSIC DURING RECORDING SESSIONS?

The only things I generally make changes to in the studio when we record are dynamics and I don’t usually encourage the clients to come along to the session because it’s not the best environment for them to hear the music in. They’ll be aware of the dialogue but they can’t hear it in the studio because we don’t play the dialogue track whilst we’re recording for obvious reasons. I suppose you could play the dialogue alongside the music upon playback to hear how they’re sounding together, but it doesn’t really make sense to do so because the music hasn’t been mixed yet.


WHAT DO YOU SEND YOUR ORCHESTRATOR IN TERMS OF FILES?

I send over the Logic file because that’s the DAW that I write in, and that has all the MIDI data in it so that he can extract that and turn it into a score. I also send over a quicktime file of the cue so that he can see the picture whilst he’s orchestrating. This essentially means that he can tailor the dynamics to the dialogue and what’s happening on screen, but I’ll have written the dynamics with the dialogue in mind in the Logic file as well. The benefit of sending him the footage means that he can orchestrate to the picture.


HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT THE PROCESS OF SIGNING OFF THE ORCHESTRATIONS?

Alastair (my orchestrator) will usually send me the score as a Sibelius file (which is the notation software that we use to transform the MIDI into notation) and I’ll usually just send an email back with a couple of notes on a particular cue. Then, when I’ve received the scores, I go through them in Sibelius whilst looking and referring back to the picture. To be honest with you, the notes that I send back to Alastair are so minimal so there’s never very much of sending files back and forth. I actually like sending files via email but the issue is that if I don’t deal with it immediately, it can tend to get lost in the ether so that’s one problem.


BECAUSE OF TIME CONSTRAINTS, MANY TV COMPOSERS TEND TO WRITE USING ENSEMBLE PATCHES AND THEN LEAVE THE ORCHESTRATOR TO SPLIT OUT THE CHORD APPROPRIATELY. IS THIS THE WAY YOU PREFER TO WRITE?

If you take something like Downton Abbey, what Alastair did was mainly work out what part of the chordal pad each string instrument was going to play. The other instruments such as the vibraphone, cor anglais, soprano sax and french horn were already played in by myself and they were obviously just a single line each so didn’t need splitting out or dissecting. If I was really under pressure, sometimes I had a tendency to miss out a french horn and then when I’d be going through the score I would realise that we only have three cues with french horn in them so I’d ask Alastair if there were any places in any of the other cues where he could write a horn part in.




HOW IMPORTANT IS SESSION EXPERIENCE FOR AN ORCHESTRATOR?

This is a question that is vastly overlooked when composers are looking to work with an orchestrator, and one which must not be underestimated. There are some orchestrators working out who don’t have much session experience and this can be very detrimental to a session if you’re not careful.


HOW DO YOU GET SESSION EXPERIENCE?

I went to one of John Lunn's sessions for Downton Abbey when I was first starting out around 2013 and doing this was probably one of the most valuable free lessons I’ve ever received. I learned from the best people in the business and all I had to do was watch, observe and absorb. Everything was so relaxed and everyone was so calm. So, how did they achieve that? Well, they got the right people on the job, and they had all worked with each other for years, totally streamlining the process, and reinforcing the fact that it’s so important to form a team of people that you work with on every single project.

The key is just to ask. That’s how simple it is. Ask to attend a session. The answer will either be yes or no.


WHAT CAN GO WRONG AT A SESSION?

Well, all manner of things in all honesty. I was once at a big session at Abbey Road Studio 1 as the orchestrator, and all of the Pro Tools files had been corrupted somehow between the time the assistant engineer had prepped the files the night before, and when he arrived the next day in the morning. That meant that he was literally prepping the Pro Tools sessions as he went along just as each cue was being recorded. I’ve never seen anybody sweat so much in my life. Inexperienced orchestrators and copyists can really screw things up if they’re not careful and that’s why it’s so important to be organised. I always use a cue sheet for this reason.

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HOW TO AVOID ERRORS AT SESSIONS

Check, check and check again. Quite simply.


WHY IS SESSION EXPERIENCE SO VALUABLE?

In my opinion, it’s very important that the composer feels like they have another pair of eyes at the session, and someone who knows the score almost as well as they do (and in some cases better if they’re not that confident at reading music). If you can preempt questions from the musicians, you can write little nuggets of information on the score/part to avoid questions from happening. When I was first starting out, I remember hearing similar questions pop up from the players - If you know what they will ask, you can stop that from happening by adding something text-related into the part for the player to read, thus eliminating a question being asked and wasting session time.

In addition to that, knowing how to pace the session is extremely valuable. At the end of the day, if you pace it poorly, you could waste thousands of pounds going into overtime. It will make you extremely unpopular with everyone involved and you’ll look like an amateur. Thankfully, it’s never happened to me, but I know it does happen and it can really taint the whole experience.

Be savvy, be conscious of time and be knowledgable.



HOW TO STREAMLINE YOUR WORKFLOW WHEN WORKING WITH AN ORCHESTRATOR

STREAMLINING THE PROCESS

Often, when working with a composer (especially one who hasn't had much experience working in a studio environment with session musicians), I'm asked what the deliverables are to make the process as streamlined as possible. The following may not seem particularly important, but it is definitely something to get right as early as possible in the process to avoid any confusion for either yourself or the orchestrator.

GETTING YOUR DAW TEMPLATE SET UP CORRECTLY

Undoubtedly, one of the most important things a composer can do at the start of the process when working on a television series or feature film etc is to get their template set up in orchestral order. Take note of the following and I will explain my reasoning shortly.

From the top of your template to the bottom, your orchestral template should look like this screenshot below:

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I prefer sessions to be laid out this way because, as an orchestrator, I am required to sort through a seriously large amount of tracks and when I copy the quantized MIDI from Sibelius into my template Sibelius file (the file where all of my custom engraved fonts and instruments are laid out), I can almost copy line by line from top to bottom, rather than having to keeping scrolling up and down and then copying into the template file. For example, if the flute part is at the top of the session and then the oboe is down at the bottom where the double basses are, it means that I'm scrolling constantly trying to find where things are which wastes time. I’m happy to do that myself and this certainly isn't a complaint, but it'll cost the client more money and mean that the time I spend sorting through means I inevitably spend less time actually orchestrating.

It is really important to remove any variables and potential things that could be confusing which might slow an orchestrator down. For this reason, it's far easier to set up your DAW session in orchestral order from the start.

WHAT FILES SHOULD YOU SEND TO AN ORCHESTRATOR?

  • A MIDI FILE PER CUE/DAW SESSION PER CUE

I actually prefer that the composer sends me their whole DAW session if they're working within Cubase, which is the DAW I use to quantize MIDI. It means that there can be no errors with the MIDI and usually all of the tracks have been coloured and are easy on the eye rather than an imported session of pure grey MIDI. I would recommend making a duplicate of all of your DAW sessions and adding '_ORCH' at the end.

For example:

CUE ID_CUE TITLE_ORCH

1M23_DARK FORCES_ORCH

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This ensures that your original DAW files are always untouched. If I end up re-barring anything in my Cubase session, I tell the composer about it so that they can change it in their original DAW session for later reference.

  • TEXT FILES

Sometimes MIDI can bare very little relation to the actual audio that you're hearing and sometimes it can be wise for the composer to write a quick text document describing what particular sound they might be aiming for. This can be useful when the audio isn't exactly what they'd like to be recorded live, and the MIDI is no use to the orchestrator either. If you didn't write a text note here, the orchestrator would use their initiative and do what they think is best for the context, or they would call/email the composer and potentially waste their time or distract them from something important.

Often, if something in particular keeps appearing in a score, it is wise for the composer to inform the orchestrator that this is going to keep occurring. For example, on one film I worked on, the composer mentioned that whenever a certain theme was used, the minim in the second half of the third bar  was meant to be two crotchets. The reason the composer had just played a minim instead of two crotchets was because of the slow attack of the string samples.


For the full blog, please visit:

http://filmscoringtips.com/help-your-orchestrator-help-you/?fbclid=IwAR3vcK-dgOXBqk_MsW__62427Ty7UihFEIYLmIZHUKJWd0p8Pvp0Ii2Sbpk

Hopefully this has cleared a dark cloud of confusion as to what you need to provide when working with an orchestrator!







DO MODERN FILM/TV COMPOSERS NEED TO HAVE ORCHESTRATION SKILLS?

WELL VERSED OR NOT?

Here’s a topic which divides a large proportion of the music community into two, and I’m sure many people have their own opinion on this which I’d be interested to hear. A lot of composers & orchestrators maintain the attitude that you must be well versed in orchestration, melody and harmony, whilst an equal amount of people play devil’s advocate think that the job of the film/tv/games composer is to worry about the picture they’re writing against, without having to worry about the array of colours and combinations that are available to us - this is the job of the orchestrator.

Whilst I would agree that you need to have at least a basic knowledge of orchestration, I would concur more with the latter statement. The composer should really be focussing on composing and not worrying so much about how the orchestra functions - I’d imagine that this would waste a lot of time and slow the composer down if it’s something that didn’t come naturally to them. To counter that, I would say that the mockup would sound a lot more realistic if they chose to think about orchestral function, and that’s partly why Andy Blaney’s Spitfire Audio demos sound absolutely phenomenal. That and he’s incredible at mockups of course.

Many composers I know/have worked with would probably admit that they don’t know the technical principles of orchestration through no formal academic training, but when you study their work, they actually have a great sense of harmony and orchestration without evening realising it. The age of writing into a DAW has given those who aren’t classically trained a huge opportunity and I’m personally pleased that this is the case, since I think that it opens up the playing field to a larger variety of composers.

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TAKE A BREATH

One common thing that I regularly see in composers’ DAW sessions/MIDI is lack of breaths for wind and brass instruments. Most composers are too wrapped up with the pressure of delivering the music on time and on budget to worry (or care) about whether the flutes can play for 12 bars at 90bpm in 4/4 without taking a breath. Some composers do use breath controllers, which enables them to play the notes into the keyboard and literally blow the CC data into their mockups. This basically allows them to assume the position of a wind or brass player by writing melodic phrases and lines that work well for those instrument groups. I usually find that expelling air as I play back the part in the mockup helps me to dictate if the line is actually playable, but if in doubt, check with a session musician. You also have to remember that playing louder requires more air to be blown through the instrument, particularly on low instruments like the tuba. When you have a series of repetitive notes in the winds or brass, it’s often wise to leave gaps in the lowest instrument, rather than have them play on exactly the same beats as the other low brass/winds. This is also good for giving the music natural accents by having the instruments like the tuba play only on the strong beats.

You’ll see in the screenshot above that I’ve got the tuba playing an octave below the bass trombone but instead of the tuba playing on every quaver, it only plays on the accents. It may seem totally counterintuitive to do it this way, but you’ll find that the tuba player will produce more power and force when they have more time to breathe and you’ll keep them happy this way. This is far more idiomatic than having them constantly blowing, which will tire their lips very easily if you’ve got them playing all the time at fortissimo in every cue.

(ST)RANGER THINGS

Other details that composers might not be aware of are writing melodies in ranges that don’t project particularly well on that specific instrument whilst scoring a dense texture around it. This might work very well in a computer MIDI mockup, but in reality isn’t going to sound that great (or even be audible). It’s the job of the orchestrator to make this work within the context of the cue by finding a solution to the problem.

For example, if a composer has written a melody on a flute around the middle of the treble clef stave with a roaring french horn counter melody right in its sweet spot with high strings at a loud dynamic, there’s no way that you’ll ever hear the melody on the flute. This is purely because the flute doesn’t project well in the lowest couple of octaves in its range and cannot be played very loudly. As an orchestrator, it would be our job to flag this up to the composer long before we hit the recording studio which is where the bulk of the music budget is spent! £100,000 can easily be dispensed in a mere number of days with a full orchestra, so it is absolutely imperative that these details are ironed out long before the session takes place. In this situation, it might be best to mention to the composer that you won’t hear the instrument and ask them if it would be okay to try and move the melody up an octave, or by suggesting that we overdub that part as a separate entity in isolation so that they have full control over its volume at the mixing stage. Even then, it would be a bit pointless having the flute low in its range with a huge texture - pulling up the volume would still result in a buried sound.

Another option is to replace that instrument with another instrument that will cut through a bit more in the same register. What it is important for an newbie orchestrator to understand is that they most certainly do not have permission to start changing instruments which are playing the melody without first consulting the composer. At the orchestration phase, it’s highly likely that the cues you’re working on have been ‘signed off’, which in layman's terms basically mean that they’re been approved for by the directors/producers (and therefore require no further changes). This means that the directors/producers have heard the composer’s mockups quite a few times and have gotten used to what instrument is playing the melody etc.

SOUNDING OFF

Now more than ever, it’s important for a composer to have an interesting voice and capture the mood and vibe of a scene (if they’re writing the picture). Once this has been executed, we as orchestrators can go into depth and delve deep into the orchestration to figure out how to achieve this in the best possible manner with real session musicians. The above paragraphs are orchestration tips for composers to bear in mind, but I would still advise that the composer write in the way they feel most comfortable and then the orchestrator will sort any problems out. Hopefully this blog has described a part of the role an orchestrator takes on when they work on your music.