Orchestration: On Profiting From Your Limitations

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Previously, we looked at the currently-abused concept of literal repetition in the development of your musical idea. This time, let’s continue the discussion on a subtler level into the realm of orchestration. This can yield insights for both acoustic and midi instrumentation since, as we must oft remind ourselves, both carry the common aim of capturing and holding the interest of your listeners’ ears.

I had occasion once to perform a concert work by a very successful composer of fully-orchestrated episodic television and jingles. The piece was 4-5 minutes long and, after every complete run-through, my chops could feel the exertion. A cursory analysis revealed why: a sum total of 24 beats (not bars, but beats) of rest in the whole piece, with dynamics running the gamut from forte to fortissimo.

This is not intended as a slight against this composer; his career bankroll could surely buy and sell me and most of my colleagues many times over and that kind of success “ain’t hay.” It’s possible that, without the usual aid of an orchestrator on this personal concert work, the endurance aspect may have been overlooked. Or perhaps a bread-and-butter career of cues in the two-minute-and-under range may have numbed certain instincts. Whatever the reason, it was a bit of a workout.

I also noticed that, as principal trombone, my notes were, almost without exception, doubled in the first trumpet an octave up. This combination carried a desired effect certainly, but the consistency began to take on a subtler version of the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic/arranging repetitions we discussed last time.

Brass players, much moreso than their colleagues in the other sections, produce their tones through physical exertion of abdominal and facial muscles. Generally, exertion rises with pitch and psychological stress runs the gamut from minimal (low, loud, and tutti) to maximal (high, soft, and exposed.) Recording protocols being what they are, time to recover between rehearsals and “takes” can be short. As industrial composers whose music will be executed (in either sense of the word) by relative strangers, we would be wise to be careful what we demand of them. As a gauge of what one is asking, I always advocate a mental read-through, end to end, of each part. Even if you aren’t a brass player, pretend to be one as you skim and you will probably sense when you’ve gone too far.

However, beyond the strictly practical, there is also a subtle yet potent aesthetic principle to be assimilated as well, particularly for the midi orchestrator. The western ear, surely due to the mechanics of tone production, has evolved into one of strings with woodwind/brass/percussion embellishment, not the other way around. Samplers will, or course, do your complete bidding without complaint, but always bear in mind that existing listener sensibility which must process and accept the effect of your music. It evolved first and, unless you have the guts and creative genius of a Copland, Ives, or Stravinsky, it’s a mistake to arrogantly assume that it will twist itself into a pretzel to accommodate the seemingly endless horizons of your digital rig.

This means that, although you can blast your audience with nonstop rhythmic pounding or unending thicker-than-the-Great-Wall-of-China melodic stacks of seeming armies of brass, maybe you should think about whether you should. When you are honing the short strokes of your sampled magnum opus, solo the collected brass tracks and play the sequence all the way through. Could any brass section this side of heaven rehearse and comfortably record successive takes of such a monster? Does it end up sounding too good to be true? If so, do you risk, in addition to player burnout, subconscious overload of that precious listener psyche? Could your cue be made more interesting (and intuitively believable) by some judicious surgery or rearrangement of the building blocks within all the aural pudding? As variety is the subtlest, least-appreciated aspect of good orchestration, it often separates the true craftsmen from the mere sampler owners.

If time is too tight, at least take a quick look at the graphic view of the brass tracks. If you don’t see a fair number of “holes,” in each track, chances are it would be problematic for a live player and, by extension, should be rethought for your sampler. In the above story, if all one could see is 24 beats of space in a principal brass track of a 5-minute piece, it should certainly ring a few bells.

Ultimately then, if you look at the samples-versus-live discussion as a mere examination of the limitations of either one, you’re missing a fundamental aesthetic point. It’s not the humanity or lack thereof in your performer (real or sequenced) which should ultimately control what you do, it is that of your listener. It can be what makes some sampled cues sound like Saturday night at symphony hall and others like a cheap commercial. And when you do hear a piece performed live, carefully weigh its “authenticity” quotient. If the piece “feels” real and satisfying, chances are your traditional ear is hearing a balance, variety, and “mix” with which it’s already comfortable, and that’s the challenge.

5 Comments

  • September 23, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    Thank you thank you thank you Ron!

    This is a great reminder that things need to “breathe” no matter what the electronics to human ratio is. I am from the “old school of synthesis” where as we laid each line down we wondered if someone real could play this…because sometimes we could then take the mockup to a real player and most of the homework was already done.

    I am also glad to know that I’m not the only one who winces when six movie trailers in a row bombard the ear with non stop brass stacks. Breath people breathe!

    A

  • September 23, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    The points Ron makes about the relative stress and endurance of the various LIVE
    instrumental families are more familiar to those of us of a “certain age” where our orchestrational experience began with acoustic scoring.The younger composers
    who began with the sequencing /sampling process need to become especially aware
    of these limitations.

    the realities of commercial music and scoring all remain the same: time pressure, production costs. etc. The main difference is many of the younger composers don’t
    have these realities of working with live players . Samplers and keyboards don’t present breathing ,execution or range problems ,and the keyboard based composers would be well advised to go through some great acoustic orchestral scores and take note of the relative amounts of time each instrumental family particpates.

  • September 23, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    Another amazing article with great points. OH YEAAAAAA – the LISTENER! A great perspective – are you producing music or merely masturbating?

    I agree with Amin’s points above – in trailer and blockbuster entertainment music (which all composers jump to copy as the latest trend) we are no longer listening, we are being aurally assaulted, obliterated, note by note carpet bombed into submission. Thanks for being the voice of reason, again hailing for subtlety and variation!

  • September 24, 2009 @ 1:21 am

    Thanks very much for these articles, Ron. Every single one is thought-provoking and useful. More of the same, please!

  • Andrew Harrison
    October 1, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    Another great article Ron. We need to keep reminding ourselves that orchestral music ultimately is made by orchestras, not machines. Logic, Finale etc are just tools to make composing easier within the commercial environment. I keep checking in with great orchestral scores to remind myself of what great music ‘looks like on the page’.

    Cheers
    ANDREW

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