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 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.