#7 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!

#5 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.




#2 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.