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.
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.
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.
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.