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!

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.