Orchestration Journey 3 – Strings – Elgar’s Nimrod

The string section is the most used groups in the orchestra. For one thing, they don’t need to rest an embouchure, and the expressive quality of the strings is versatile so they get a lot of play time. If the look of 20 staves on a page all at once feels daunting to you then starting with just the 5 staves of strings would be recommended. You could even start with a string quartet and then only be looking at 4 parts. For any instrument you want to get to know the reasonable range of comfortable playing and also the absolute range for pushing the limits if you are writing for a group or player you know can handle it. You will also need to read the clefs and deal with transpositions. The strings don’t have any tricky transposition, the double bass sounds an octave lower than written but that’s easy to sort out in your head. The viola commonly plays alto clef which is the only strange thing about reading the strings. It takes a little getting used to but nothing any different than learning any other clef. I remember I learned treble clef first as a kid, then I learned bass clef when my voice changed and it wasn’t a big deal so there’s no reason to make a fuss over learning yet another clef (For my own benefit I made some alto clef flashcards in the form of a You-Tube video, use it if you like).

No better way to get your feet wet than to just jump in at this point so for a quick walkthrough I’ll give you a segment from Elgar’s Enigma Variations Number 9 “Nimrod”.

The first 8 bars are all string. There are definitely more simple examples than this but this just happens to be one that I was recently looking at. Notice right away that second violin, viola, and cello all split within the section, so it’s a pretty thickly harmonized section. Looking close at the divisi sections you see the parts criss-cross too, based on stem direction. Half the section will play notes with stems up, and the other half with stems down. Elgar has the melody in the first violins but he also has some secondary melodic movement that he wants to come through in the lower parts, that is why the second viola part is sometimes higher than the first viola. This melodic movement will not translate to a keyboard reduction though but it’s worth it to play through the individual lines to get a feel for the intended up and down motion.

Another observation is that some of the notes are doubled between two sections. The second and third notes of the lower 2nd violin are the same notes as the upper notes of the viola. An interesting choice to have a section divisi to a note that another section is already playing. One reason you might do this is to get a more rich tone, the sound of a violin playing an A is similar but not exactly the same as a viola playing an A but both together could thicken the tone but I think it’s a subtle effect. This will not make the ensemble louder, by the way, but it will spread the harmony spatially. The violas are usually seated to the right and the violins on the left, if they share this note then it’s coming from both sides and also the orchestra gets to hear more of the harmony from their closer neighbors so it would change the listening experience for the players too. These are just guesses, I don’t know what Elgar’s thoughts were but I’m guessing that he started writing some harmony parts with the secondary melodic function I mentioned earlier and then realized that there were a few places where that led to a missing chord tone and decided to remedy it by div. and then he just ran with it filling the whole middle range with it. This section just happens to have a lot of divisi but it’s totally fine to not use it. It’s common to not split the parts further than the standard 5 sections, no shame in that but put it in your toolbox because when you want to thicken the harmony a well played divisi will do the trick.

On the low end you see the 2nd cello part tracks the bass closely (remember bass will sound an octave lower for a note on the same position of the staff). Cello is the bass instrument of a string quartet and in the orchestra is has a versatile role where it can support the bass, it can fill in middle harmony, or it can take melodic passages too so look for examples of all of those roles. The 1st cellos are doubling the viola almost note for note during measures 3-7, so half the section gets to do a more melodic type of harmony role while the other half is playing a bass role. The basses have a good thick low end but cello can give those notes some definition so you not only feel some rumble but you can more easily interpret pitches with some of the higher frequency overtones.

Doing a full blown harmonic analysis is always a fun activity if you’re in to that sort of thing, and I hope that any composer who is interested in orchestration is into it. I don’t want to tell you what to do but it’s really going to help if you can analyze it. I have reduced these 8 bars to a grand staff that can be played on keyboard and it’s perhaps easier to digest in this format but you’ll get to a point where you’ll want to read a score and understand it without going through this step so I’m not going to say you should do this for every score you study, but do it a few times at least so you’ll have that skill for whenever you need it later. Most scores will have combined parts that can not be played by one person at a keyboard, there are just too many notes, so a keyboard reduction will need to take some liberties. The sound of a passage played at a piano will have a very different effect too, this Elgar example illustrates that vividly. It has a very different feeling when I play it at the piano. The strings are able to put way more syrup on it.

There is a notable use of the lydian mode, which comes across as F major and D minor type chords because of the A natural. You can think of it as F major playing a V/V type role but there are a few complex moments in there, in particular beat 3 of measure 6 I think is the strangest moment. It’s hard to find one exactly right definition of what’s happening here, there are a few ways to define it and I’m sure there are some theory buffs who will argue that there is one proper analysis but to me it’s all about passing tones that pretty smoothly take you from a D minor to a second inversion F chord by the second beat of measure 7. Dissecting each point along the way is not as important to me as the motion that gets you to the destination. From there to the end you get what could be a classic tin pan alley turnaround as I’ve blocked it out below but with the string arrangement notice how it sounds much more tender and reflective than when you play this cadence on the piano.

This is a view of my process, and all along the way I will listen to the recording and reverse engineer how you might get to this result in practice from having that sound in your head. You really want to make a connection between the sound of it and the dots on the page. The more you read and listen the better that connection will be.

Orchestration Journey 2 – Score Reading

After doing a lot of deep listening, the next step to familiarizing yourself with the orchestral instrumental palette is to read. Find scores of works you can listen to and read along with. I’ve found a wealth of free digital scores at these two sites: IMSLP , free-scores

IMSLP has a ton of public domain (generally meaning old) works to download in pdf, sometimes multiple editions of the same work. There are publishers who will also sell you a hard copy of many classic works if you want them on paper or more contemporary things that aren’t public domain. If you want John Williams then you can get conductor’s score editions from Hal Leonard. Omni Music Publishing puts out wonderful full scores of soundtracks that could be of great interest to you. Other than that you might find that most soundtrack scores are not available. With some experience you could undertake a transcription yourself from listening to the audio, that’s an excellent exercise to do even for things which are available in print. You can try your hand at it first and then compare to a published version to see how close they match. That is getting ahead of ourselves though, let’s bring it back to score reading.

I’m not digging deep into the theory here, I’ll stick to mostly the orchestrating aspect, but if you want to brush up on your theory I’ve found this reference to be so good: Music Theory for the 21st Century Classroom by Rob Hutchinson. It really has so many principles demonstrated by example in a superb way. Do read through it or go to it as a reference whenever needed. It’s organized rather well to just jump into whatever section you need.

You should study any pieces you love or things that are in a direction you would like to go yourself. People will ask “what is best to study for this or that?” and I can’t tell you because I am in no way a knowledgeable reference for all things orchestration, I just note things I hear that I like and I seek those things out. I think you should do the same for whatever gets your heart beating. Don’t get too caught up on what others think, or what might be considered the standard. By all means investigate the greats but don’t worry much about having different opinions than others, variety brings richness to the world.

Reading through the score while listening is good but it’s not enough for me, there is a lot going on that can’t be absorbed just in real time as you listen. I sometimes start out by doing an initial read through as I listen but then I will go back and analyze the score in more detail, deconstructing the harmony, voicing, and whatever other elements that catch my interest. I have done 2 stave reductions before too (writing all the notes on one grand staff), which is a great exercise to see how all the elements come together and what the harmonic function of each voice is within the context of the whole group.

To further your ear training and instrument spotting you can see exactly who is playing and hear simultaneously what that sounds like. Through this training you can develop the wonderful corollary skill of being able to hear a desired sound in your minds ear and be able to orchestrate it successfully to achieve that imagined sound. As I read through the score I also pay close attention to how sections are balanced. You can look at this multiple ways. Check how the balance of harmony is achieved within a section, some passages may have all the harmony covered within the string section for example but then other passages may have the harmonic support spread between different instrument families. You may have strings carrying the melody in unison or octave doubling and brass and winds filling in the support underneath. All different scoring combinations (and there are endless ways a tune can be orchestrated) will give different sounding results and many of them won’t be very good sounding so as you hear what works and sounds good you should pick it apart to figure out why certain arrangements work so well to give a particular desirable effect. It may be related to how an instrument stands out from the rest, it may be how instruments blend together. There are so many emotive possibilities.

You can find a large number of orchestration manuals and reference books if you look for them. You can also find university classes on this stuff if you need that format. I have been through some music literature and theory courses at the university level but I didn’t go through any composition specific courses or in class intensive symphonic analysis. I have been doing that part of it on my own after getting a solid music theory education and lots of practical experience in choirs, bands, and various ensembles. There is so much information available that a motivated learner can put together their own excellent curriculum on the subject. These posts of mine are not a course on orchestration, but just a log of some of my thoughts, experiences, and advice to others who want to go through a similar journey. Tailor your own experience to get the most benefit for yourself. I’ll next do a few posts about some of the pieces I have read through and my interpretations and reactions.

Orchestration Journey – 1 Listen to the Instruments

Learn from listening, that’s the most basic principle in a musical education: listen. Knowing how each instrument sounds is imperative to orchestration. As you listen to recordings, start identifying what instruments you hear. On a basic level get the sounds split into the major instrument families, is it a wind? is it a string? From there, determine the pitch range and further analyze the tone to identify it. Non-musicians sometimes will process the sound they hear as one group entity, not really distinguishing individual instruments, if you tend to listen to music this way then you must change your whole viewpoint. It comes with the price of lost innocence though, but I don’t think you’ll regret crossing that threshold. There is a lot of value to searching out solo performance videos on youtube where you can see a player and hear the isolated sound, do this for any type of instrument you need to get more familiar with. Then go back to ensemble recordings and try to zero in on those sounds and how they interact with the whole. Watching videos of live orchestral performances is great too, especially when they have multiple close camera angles to highlight the sections.

An instrument up close and solo will have a different sound than when mixed in with a group in a large reverberant room, so be aware of that. Mic placement and room acoustics have a big effect so you’ll notice instruments sounding quite different because of those things. I like to listen to classical radio as I drive and identify the instruments and analyze how they are utilized, you’ll want to get to the point where you can do this without any visual cues (like a video zooming in on a bassoon player when the bassoon has a solo). Some instruments will stand out easily like many percussion instruments or the bright oboe tone over quiet low strings, but the more instruments are playing at once the harder it gets to hear things like a clarinet or flute in a middle harmony note. The highest and lowest pitches are easier to pick out of the crowd, especially the highest note. If it’s just one instrument group on the high note like 1st violins soaring, or a lone piccolo then that is fairly easy to process, it cuts through the mix as they say.

A common stereo image will have violins on the left, cello on the right and so on according to how the seating is in the orchestra. You can use this as a clue as you are listening to hear where the sound is coming from connected with what instruments you expect to be sitting in that area. But of course seating arrangements can be modified and sound engineers do different things so don’t rely on this, it’s best to get it just from the tone but it’s an extra clue you might use if you get stumped. Usually viola will not be overly heavy in the left channel, so if you are trying to distinguish between low violin and viola then it might come in handy to remember that violins are more heavy on the left side. There are tonal differences between violin in the low range and the corresponding viola notes but it’s pretty subtle, they can sound really similar and I can easily be fooled.

Brass is difficult to distinguish too when all playing together, there is that brassy blend and I wish I was better at being able to pick out just what notes the horn is playing as opposed to trombone or trumpet, although trumpet usually has a nice brilliance which is distinguishable from the more rotund stately sound of the horn. When it all blends together and the sections play divisi it’s quite a trick. You get doubling going on too, like cello and bass together, or cello and bassoon, or clarinets and violins etc. This has an effect of richening or fattening the tone but it’s very difficult to identify exactly how it’s scored in many cases, you may hear just the cello and not realize there is a wind doubling, or you may think it’s a bass clarinet double when it’s actually a bassoon. This is my experience.

I don’t expect anybody (except for some very exceptional genius) to be able to just listen to an orchestra and be able to accurately replicate the score note for note by ear. That would be so amazing, but I would expect a good orchestrator to be able to come up with a close approximation. This should be a goal. So to do this you not only need to identify what instruments are playing the parts but you need to be good enough at ear training that you can transcribe the correct notes and rhythms too, that’s a separate skill in itself that applies to any instrument or ensemble, not just orchestras so that should be something all musicians develop.

Once you are at a point where you can usually identify the instruments by ear when they are playing exposed parts then it’s a good idea to move to the next step which is to cheat and look at the answer key while you listen. The answer key of course is the conductor’s score, it will tell you exactly if you are hearing cello and bassoon together or if it’s just cello alone. I think it’s good exercise to try for a while first without looking at the score but then to advance your skills you really need to start score reading while listening. As you read the tutti sections, where everyone is playing, you can see all the details of who is doubling who and how those inner harmonies are filled. You’ll probably find some wind parts supporting the harmony in there that were not immediately apparent to the ear upon first listen and other hidden tidbits that you can dissect and analyze for years to come. What fun we have in store. I’ll pick up with score reading in the next post.

Orchestration Journey – 0 Introduction

The word orchestration typically makes people think of a symphonic orchestra setting; strings, winds, brass, percussion in a large scale way. The skill to orchestrate for this kind of group is an awesome skill to develop; I also think that we can use the term to apply to ensembles of all different varieties. You can orchestrate a piece for steel drum band, ocarina quartet, or any combination of combined instruments. Orchestration is the art of making a musical arrangement for different instruments in an ensemble. The traditional symphonic setting is probably one of the most intimidating ensembles to work with for many composers who are not experienced in that area, and the bulk of my experience is not in that area but I’m quite familiar with most of the standard instruments and have worked with them a lot in other combinations. There is a feeling though that there is a right way and a wrong way and some people are very particular about following a strict set of rules and guidelines more so here than in most other ensembles. You won’t find so many orchestration manuals telling you how to combine guitar, bass, piano, voice, and drum set but you’ll find a lot of text about violins, piccolos, timpani and that sort. Really though there are a lot of universal musical fundamentals that dictate best practices for arranging your ensemble no matter if it’s for a mini-moog or a Stradivarius.

There is something quite special about a well balanced string section with accents of winds and a strong brass section for some weight. I’m not discouraging you from studying traditional orchestration at all, it’s a wonderful task to undertake, I simply want to remove some of the stigma for those who might feel they are not allowed to orchestrate for certain groups because they didn’t come out of a conservatory. You have been an orchestrator of sorts since your first composition, whatever that may be. Considerations like frequency, range, tone, and texture come into play for any composition so you are likely already accustomed to be thinking in these terms when you compose or arrange. Those are the same skills you need for dealing with an orchestra, there are probably just more instruments to wrangle and keep track of than in some of the other work you might have done. That has been true for me, although there’s nothing so foreign about it, different but not foreign. The question of understanding tonal differences between an oboe and clarinet are for example are not so different from comparing between two different guitar effects pedals. You’ll want to consider the range, the playability, and volume differences of the instruments too but that’s all stuff you can learn. The stuff that’s harder to teach is the pure musical inspiration, but you already have that right? So you’ve got the hard part down.

Getting used to all the instruments sounds and nuances just takes time by doing things like listening, studying, and hands on experimentation. I’ve been going through this process for a while and I’ll start sharing some blog posts specifically about my transition from an orchestrator for contemporary pop/rock groups to symphonic orchestra. I’m still in the process, so this will be an evolving journey. Isn’t the musical journey always an evolving one though? Yes indeed it is. Look for upcoming posts to dive into this more detail.

Just Mickey Mousing Around Here

A reddit post caught my attention this week, about film music and the phrase “Mickey Mouse” as a way to describe a composition style. I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days now and on some projects I’ve done a true Mickey Mouse job at scoring, admitting that with no shame. What I mean is that I have employed a direct connection between on screen visual events and what the music is doing in real time. This is the method of many cartoons and to me it’s also a very classic silent film or Vaudeville type of style. My last project was scoring a 1910 silent film after all. I wasn’t familiar with the term in that specific usage until I read this post. I would have assumed it referred instead to a non-advanced type of compositional style, simplistic in a way that was lacking skill and depth. To many it may mean this too but what I’m talking about in this post is specifically having the music blatantly accentuate the visuals, like a xylophone on the blink of an eye or something like that. There’s a time and place but usually we don’t go to that extreme unless we want it to look silly.

Consensus in the comments of the reddit post was generally that this practice is not in style and will give an effect of making you irrelevant if you overdo it. Many say it’s not trending and should generally be avoided. The author’s reason for the post was expressing that they lost a job because they were Mickey Mousing it too much, so there’s a case in point argument for why it may be a bad technique. I then naturally considered my own work and the question arises if it’s irrelevant and by association that would make me irrelevant as an artist and maybe even as a human being if I’m feeling especially dramatic. Without answering my own question yet, I stand firm that there’s a place for Mickey Mouse. I strongly associate the character Mickey with the inspiring story of Walt Disney and so I have a hard time coming around to use the term in a negative way. This, while somewhat related, is not actually the point of the whole discussion though so I’ll get back to it.

Most motion picture works are a huge abstraction for many reasons, so having a soundtrack that is closely woven into the action in a direct way it’s not going to automatically kill the mood in my opinion. It can surely get to a point of distraction or add an inappropriate comedic feel that will kill the vibe if it’s contrary to the nature of the story. I’m going to consider these things pretty seriously going forward but I’m not going to rule out using these effects. I just heard an interview with Danny Elfman where a film editor complimented his soundtrack saying the music fit so well it made it look like the editor had fit the film to the music instead of the other way around, is that Mickey Mousing? To me it seems kind of like it is and it also seems like something I want to do. It can be a good thing, I think it can be a very good thing. Humans like things being synchronized. That’s why music and dance is such a universal love of people worldwide in every generation. Doing it tastefully, yeah that’s important, but let’s not throw it all out, that would be losing something beautiful.

I think I haven’t done a bad job, I also think I can improve and that’s my take. So how do we all feel about using this so called Mickey Mouse technique, yea or nay? For my next project I’ll ask the question whether it’s necessary, whether it helps the story, whether it distracts, whether is can be just as good without it, but ultimately I need to deliver what the customer wants so that is also a big factor. Being more aware of it should be a good thing though. Just remember though that Fantasia is a classic!

Sampling Autoharp and Pan Pipe

Listen to the clip to hear my new sampled instruments in action:

This week I recorded 2 instruments and created digital sample instruments from them. This is the first I’ve done with sampling instruments to be reused with midi. The motivation for this was my coming across an Autoharp in a second hand store. I took the harp home and tuned it up, which is not a quick task but considerably easier than tuning a piano. It was after the tuning that it occurred to me that if I sample it then I can use the sound next time without the need to tune up first! Using the sampled instrument will not be the same, especially on a strummed instrument like this. I didn’t actually sample strums or chords yet, I think I may do a bit of that later but first I captured some single notes. I went up through the range of the instrument in 5ths and captured 8-10 velocities of each note. So I didn’t sample every note on the instrument, that would take a while. The notes between samples I just repitched the sample to fill in and it’s a good result. Very usable. The single notes gives it a particular sound, not immediately recognizable as an Autoharp but a good crisp pluck sound. Much more bite and complex resonance than compared to most guitars, it has a lot of strings that I didn’t dampen so there was some nice sympathetic vibrations going on.

Before working in the sampler I did a little bit of processing on the clips, tuning and trimming the start and end points of course but then adding a small touch of reverb, a little eq, and smooth fades for the cutoffs. Then I mapped them using the multi sampler tool in Logic. The whole process took a good part of a full night, I had to look up some info a few times on how to use the tools properly since it was my first time but now I have an instrument to use whenever I need it.

I’m thinking about doing another virtual instrument sampling strums, but that will take more organization up front to decide how to implement it. Single notes are much more straightforward. The instrument has a limited number of chords that it plays from the push buttons, with one chord selected you can strum it in different pitch ranges too so I need to find a good way to organize those within the framework of a keyboard midi controller. A nice benefit is I can transpose the samples and extend the range of keys that I can play compared to using just the instrument itself, but I’ll be limited in the type of strumming effects I can use with the samples.

Last night I was still on a kick from finishing my first sampled instrument and I was itching to find something else to sample. The perfect thing came to me; I had some 1/2 in. PVC pipe sitting around that I had planned to make a set of pan pipes out of. I cut some lengths of pipe and didn’t get any farther than that. I tried to get a sound out of it and I could do it but it was not easy. Instead of taking the time to try finish assembling the pipes and then learning to play it, which I may never be great at, I can now save myself a lot of trouble by just building up a sampled instrument to use, provided I could record myself getting at least a few good sounding notes! This was still a task but I managed to get some usable tones. Controlling the dynamics on this one was not as much an option, I couldn’t get a quiet sound, so I just had about 3 levels of velocity on most of the notes I sampled. I couldn’t do a very big range either, I think I ended up sampling 4 different pitches and just extended the lowest one over a large section of the bass notes, kind of unnatural but I figure you can push the boundaries and call it experimental.

The end result of the pipe instrument sounds very much like an airy organ, especially played on the keyboard in chorale style and with the artificially pitch shifted bass notes, it’s pretty nice but since I run out of breath fast on these there is not a lot of sustain. I think there is some setting in the sampler to make it loop a section for eternal sustain but it’s very usable without that, and if I’m emulating an actual pan player then it’s accurate.

Para Marisa – an orchestral work for film

In an earlier post I allude to a piece I wrote to submit to the Gil Family Estates Soundtrack Contest. I was holding off from sharing my composition until the contest played out and now that the 12 finalists are announced I can share my piece, I’m not a finalist; in fact I don’t know if my entry was even considered because the cutoff age is 35 and as I submitted a passport scan with my entry showing I’m over 35. They may have disqualified me directly, I don’t know. I can only hope that that is the reason and that it has nothing to do with the quality of my work! At any rate yes I’m feeling old and dejected but I’m going to keep making music with a fierce passion regardless of the lack of reception.

I like the film and I loved the opportunity to apply my skills to compose to a clean slate, a new film which hitherto had no soundtrack, and not even any temp music. One of the requirements (one that I didn’t blatantly disregard as I did the age requirement) was that the instrumentation should be for a traditional orchestra of strings, winds, brass, and percussion; harp and piano were also allowed and they are both dominantly featured in my piece. Additionally a pdf full score was to be submitted as well, quite an academic exercise in all when you consider the orchestration and engraving. This in effect was my first traditional orchestral score of any significant length, just over 8 minutes.

None more to say about this except that I proudly present the demo here to you, I’ve been eager and waiting to share it. To me, it’s a winner.

Reviving a Silent Treasure – A Gold Necklace

A Gold Necklace is a 10 minute short film from 1910 starring Mary Pickford who was at the time early in a career that would see her become a major silent film superstar and influential force for the future of the industry. This film is cute and lighthearted with a comic air as a necklace gets lost and found and we see the mishaps of good intentioned players trying to restore the necklace to its owner without having a correct understanding of who the owner is. Mary Pickford is delightful in this, and I got a kick out of Mack Sennett’s performance of Sam on a few occasions when he looks directly into the camera with a smirk or a stunned look. The biggest problem with this film though is that the original finished version doesn’t appear to be available; I’m no film historian but all I could find was a collection of the scenes out of order, maybe the order they were filmed in, or maybe just a random order of clips spliced together on one reel, I don’t know but it made no sense to watch it like that. The Library of Congress has a digitized version like this and they have even posted it on YouTube.

I do think that there was a finished version at some point, and it seems to have been released and viewed publicly based on historical print adverts I have seen, but at any rate if it does exist somewhere (likely not) it’s not easily available to me or the general web surfing public I would imagine. This was a golden find for me, as I needed an interesting picture to score and here I could score a fun old movie and provide a corrected version of it to the public with just a little bit of video editing up front. Public Domain can be a great thing sometimes.

With the aid of a 1 paragraph synopsis I spent a day sorting out the correct order of the scenes and then dreamed up appropriate title cards or inter-titles to add to help the viewer follow the story for the bits that can’t be conveyed silently by body language, those are the slides between scenes that show dialog or explanation in a silent film. Visually I made these titles in a classic vintage style, and added my fish logo on there for good measure. So then I had a rather unique picture, about 11 minutes long which is a silent clean slate to add some musical inspiration to. Leading up to this I had spent a few nights flipping through public domain footage in search of something interesting to score, there’s a lot of weird stuff out there, a lot of boring stuff too, and a few gems which is how I regard A Gold Necklace. It took some extra effort to get it to a point that it was ready for music given the unedited state it was in but it was well worth it and really cool actually that after my own edit it was a unique version that nobody else had.

I discovered some particulars to scoring for a silent film that make it quite different from traditional film scoring and by far the biggest thing you notice right away is that you don’t need to make room for dialog! So as any composer who does underscore knows, rule #1 is dialog is king, you don’t crowd out the dialog. In this case I threw rule #1 out the window. The next thing you notice is the lack of ambient sounds and effects, which also makes a big difference, it was only an 11 minute show (with titles and credits added) which is short but it’s a huge sonic emptiness that needs to be filled and the music is a lot more of a focal point in silent films than in our modern talkies. So I needed 11 minutes of significant music, filler would not suffice here and I paid a lot of attention to transitions too. Every scene flows into the next with deliberate tempo and key changes. I didn’t just end segments without knowing what would come next, I basically had to write the ending of a segment and the beginning of the next segment simultaneously to ensure they fit and would flow together.

Silent films have a tradition of physical comedy, or over the top physical acting and this is quite understandable given the format, additionally the reels are often spun to playback faster than real time which adds a certain physical comedic effect. The music for these films was probably regulated even less than the playback speed because each showing was a unique live performance of an organist in a theater and every theater’s organist I’m sure had their own style and conventions but the music I’ve heard that accompanies silent films is usually also rather brisk and jovial. There were probably some amazing performers at the organ in many of these theaters, but I didn’t set out to recreate a historically accurate score. I wanted to come at it with an open mind and not rule anything out in the areas of instrumentation and style. I tested a few ideas out before deciding on some themes that actually had more of a traditional sound than I expected to use. In instrumentation I used a few modern instruments like electric piano, electric bass, and a little drum machine but acoustic guitar and a music box sound play a big role and it gets thickened with strings, voice, harpsichord, organ, piano, marimba, and percussion. The music box is from Spitfire Labs (free and extremely useful), the strings are a hybrid of Spitfire Studio Strings and me playing my pawn shop violin. The vocalizing is also me and the guitar and bass are actual instruments but the rest of the above listed are Logic’s software instruments.

I used no snare drum at all (weird right?). The percussion consisted of a fair amount of cymbals, shaker, knee slaps, claps, stomps, low tom, tapping on the guitar body and neck, triangle, and glockenspiel, and the software instruments I used were wood temple blocks, timpani (very fun to work with), a few additional cymbals, bass drum and a filtered analog drum machine sound. I did map out the tempo in Logic, I often work just in free tempo without a click. This is the longest piece I’ve done with the tempo mapped from start to finish and it has a lot of BPM variation as you see in the tempo track.

It took quite a bit of time to get all the changes programmed and to synch correctly with picture but I think it was the right way to go in this case. It was a complicated piece to do to hit all the cues and it just required a strict backbone to keep it all in place.

I plan on scoring more silent films in the future, and depending on the story I may step out further from tradition, it would be fun to get experimental with it, but since A Gold Necklace has such a playful story it didn’t fit to get edgy or too weird with the sound. I like the nod to early 20th century American song, hopefully that comes across but I think the Rhodes piano and harpsichord especially give it a little extra zing. I am guessing that most composers don’t have something like this in their demo reel, and it’s probably not an obvious fit to pitch something like this for most jobs that would come up but regardless I will be putting a clip from this in my next demo reel, which I think will be the next thing I put together. Now if I can only decide which section to use… I’m open to suggestions.

Beethoven and the Power of Understatement

This year as we celebrate the 250th birthday of Beethoven I want to give a nod to the man with the intense furrowed brow. For a while now, I’ve been captivated by the first notes of the very famous Beethoven Symphony No.5. It’s a melody I’m sure we all know well, it ranks up there with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in recognizability. I’m really focusing on the first 4 unison notes, or 8 notes if you want to think of the repeated eights as different notes, but I mean the G to Eb and F to D part where G and F are 3 eighth notes and Eb and D are held out. My primary fascination with this part is 2 fold: 1. it’s unison so there is no harmonic chord backdrop to set the tonal context and 2. the tonic note is not included in these first notes which further creates ambiguity for the listener about what key its in. Given those 2 points, the listener is left a bit in the lurch as to how to make harmonic sense of it for the first few bars until the unison breaks into chords, at which point it’s clearly in a minor key (C minor). This may not seem terribly unusual, and there are probably other great pieces that do something similar but in my experience I have avoided doing things like this in my composition because I was worried that the listener would not make proper sense of an unsupported melody to start a piece off. I thought it would be confusing and thus not a good experience for the listener but now that I recognize how effectual it was for Beethoven, I must repent of my ways.

As I was pondering these notes, I wondered if the line was really so explicit in suggesting the minor mode that the tonality is obvious even without hearing a C minor chord or even the note C. I imagined just the first 2 tones: G and Eb and that interval is a major third, and then I imagined that the tune “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” starts with that same interval and it’s in the major mode. So I shifted my thinking to favor the idea that it’s not clear what the tonality is going to be when it starts, and that’s an acceptable ambiguity. It may even add interest to the overall experience! So I wondered if this melody could then be fittingly paired with a harmony of the major mode variety. So I devised some chords to go with the same melody that would change it into a major key and you can hear that in the video at 3:52. It works rather well actually for just a passing exercise.

The key takeaway from this experience for me is that time doesn’t just go linearly from start to finish in music; things that happened in the past are not gone forever even though the sound dies away. For the human listener, things at the start of the piece are still resounding much later on. A note alone, or even a chord alone doesn’t mean much by itself, it takes a melody, or a progression to give it meaning, and not only the notes that follow it matter but the notes that preceded it equally so. An event can occur and the full importance of that event won’t be made clear until things that come later give the information needed to process the relevance of the initial event, so it’s fine to leave some things to the imagination and then give clues as the piece progresses to fill in some details, it will probably enhance the listener’s experience.

*in the video I play the piece in G minor instead of C minor, just because I was in the mood for G minor that day I guess.

DAW Project Template and its maiden run

There are many others out there who have done a lot more projects and have published video and commentary in detail on setting up a template, I’ll let you seek those out for more experienced nitty gritty, but I am just documenting my journey here so I’ll share my perspective as one who is just doing a first pass at setting up a template, not one who has years of experience with it.

I am working more with large ensemble projects and so I recently created a default project template for Logic. I’ve been using the program for years so it may be a little surprising that I’m only doing this now but I didn’t actually consider this option till about 2 months ago. The majority of what I did in Logic previously was using guitar/bass inputs or mic’d instruments and voice, it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been working on larger projects with many recurring midi patches and orchestral type arrangements so the time is quite right for me to use a template now. I’ve grouped my instrument tracks in sections: Winds, Percussion, Keyboards (and misc harp, synths, etc.), Guitar and Bass, Voice, Strings and I’ve got them in order from top to bottom as you would see them reading down the score (flute, oboe, clarinet…. strings at bottom). I see that this is the way to work, each instrument can have its own FX patches preset, and then the section groups can also be preset through a chain. For projects with many instruments this is such a timesaver. For better or for worse it will also have the effect of maintaining a specific “sound”, if you always use the same instruments through the same types of routing and such. I haven’t decided if I’ll use one super master template to cover all projects or a handfull of templates each covering one specialty. For this first template I want it to be a catch all, and after I play with it for a while I’ll decide where to go from there.

This first template is the most comprehensive, with the idea that if I’m going to score for full blown orchestra this will cover me, for mock ups. I’ve left it open to sweeten it up with some mic tracks to add live instruments but the majority of it is samples and such. I’ve got the winds and strings and bells and whistles at my fingertips here including my favorite keyboard sounds and some instruments that are non-traditional orchestra. My favorite extras are vintage electric pianos (so useful for a lot of things), a little B3 organ, celeste, some bassy and ambient synths (I don’t use a lot of synth at the moment), the Spitfire LABS music box and felt piano are really cool, and a few drum machines. I’ve got some favorite electric guitar and bass patches at the ready too. Guitar is one of my main instruments so I like to loosen tracks up with a bit of that when it’s appropriate. Having an actual electric bass performance instead of a midi performance of a bass sound is important for me but that’s the bread and butter of my background so I’m biased in that regard. I usually don’t do anything too fancy with the electric bass signal chain as I like a simple vintage type sound. I want to get myself a double bass soon, I played it in college but I need to find myself an instrument. I have some midi triggered sounds that do well for the plucked bass sound but the real deal is the real deal.

My string section is the Spitfire Studio Strings, which has been doing the trick for me, but when I get the chance I will upgrade this. Before I do that I will get a woodwind library as that is the weakest link in my setup. I like the default mallet percussion sounds in the Logic package and I’m using some other percussion that works really well, timpani and others. I have an acoustic drumset in the studio that I use a lot, even for some of the orchestral things. The snare is quite useful for many styles of music and you can get a really dramatic cymbal swell by doing a crecendo roll with soft mallets so I’ll mic live percussion sounds frequently for all styles of music. Shakers and tambourines add a lot of good vibes to tracks and you can readily add these instruments and play them yourself even in the smallest studio without having to do years of study on them, while it does take some practice to do it well, it’s a lower bar to hurdle than learning the bassoon or horn.

The maiden voyage of this template was an 8 minute orchestral score for the GIL Family Estates Soundtrack contest. The brief is for a traditional orchestra score for a short film emphasizing themes of family, home, land, and passing on history and legacy through generations. Quite a heartfelt film with a lot of room for music. I had not scored for such a large ensemble up to this point, I utilized the strings of course but also had a fair amount of harp and piano along with sections of winds and brass. Percussion was minimal, but there was a good amount of glockenspiel and just a bit of other percussive elements here and there. The project was quite a success! I spent about two weeks in the composition and recording of it. I will be able to share it here with you in the near future. A lot of the melody was written just in my head as I was imagining the feel of the film and pondering what kind of music it was asking for. Then I would later take these themes to the piano and then to my digital orchestra part by part layering upon a piano guide track. I didn’t use metronomes or clicks for this one.

Transcribing the written score for it was the tedious wrap up work, but really not too bad. I composed a lot of it at the piano and then from there to tape (or DAW really) so getting it to paper came last in this case. I do write some of the themes and ideas down initially, so I don’t forget it. I will usually write the parts out in detail later and sometimes I will make some voice leading and harmonization changes and edits as I write the score out in full. It’s easier to get a grasp of how all the instruments are working together when they are all laid out on paper sometimes but it’s really only necessary if it makes a noticeable sound improvement, otherwise I don’t care how textbook my score ends up because all that matters is how it sounds. Trust your ear but sometimes seeing the harmony on paper helps you get to the right answers quicker to give you a chance for your ear to confirm it.

Finishing that project was great for me, I ended up realizing the vision I set out to accomplish and in the process I created version 1 of my orchestral template. This will I’m sure be the first of many versions and updates it will go through, but I just think, all the tweaks I make this time around will be already set for me on the next project so it starts paying off right away.