The first thing I must do is to explain that
this article is meant for the average music listener and people
who are curious about music production and arrangement. If you are
already an experienced composer or arranger of music, this will
teach you nothing new. I am not a classically trained or educated
orchestrator. If you are one yourself, you probably know how to
do all this stuff much better than I do. I'm simply telling the
story of how I carried out my first orchestral project. I'm not
saying it's the only way. In fact, I'm not even saying it's the
right way. I'm just saying it's the way I did it, and people around
me were happy with the results. This was written simply as an amusing
little story about how I put together the orchestral music without
an orchestra. The whole thing is for entertainment - not for reference.
Tools at hand
I had the following equipment at my disposal
for this project:
* Kurzweil K2500 synth/sampler with 64
* Soundblaster Live! soundcard
* Yamaha VL-70m synth with breath controller
* Novation Supernova synth
* Novation BassStation synth
* Peter Siedlaczek "Advanced Orchestra" sample-CDs (audio versions)
* Mixer and various outboard reverb units etc.
Sticking to the instruments
I knew from the start that I set out to write
about 1 hour's worth of music. Some big and powerful - some calm,
timid and some dreamy. Well, actually, let me correct that. I wanted
to write enough music to make it a one-hour project in the end.
I always throw away some bits and pieces before the final stage,
so with that in mind, I figured I had to write about an hour and
a half worth of music.
The first thing I learned was that it's
important to set up a collection of instruments in the synths and
samplers, and then sticking to it throughout the whole project.
So the first thing I did was to spend about 2 weeks just working
samples. I had bought the audio-versions of the sample-CDs with
orchestral sounds. The same CDs were also available (a lot more
expensively!) in "ready-to-use" CDROM format, ready to
load into the sampler and just play. But the audio-versions of the
same CDs were a lot cheaper, so I did the rather tiresome job of
sampling each sound from the CD, and put it into my sampler at the
right place. Each instrument was given a new sample for every 3
keys up the keyboard, i.e. C, D#, F#, and A for each octave on the
keyboard. Over 5 octaves, that makes 20 samples for a single instrument.
And each sample had to be properly looped, mapped, and so on. So
it was quite a tiresome and longwinded job. But I think the fact
that I did it myself made me a little bit more "aware"
of each instrument and each sound, and I had a better relationship
with them, rather than having just loaded them up in two seconds.
It gave me a better feeling of what made each instrument "tick".
Back to what I was saying about creating
a basic set of instrument and sticking to it throughout the project.
It's quite obvious. The orchestra doesn't change during recording
of a whole 1-hour piece. The performers don't move around, or replace
instruments. So I created a set of about 30 different instrument,
saved all the files, and decided to use them for the whole project.
I didn't want a "pure" orchestral
sound. I wanted a "basically orchestral sound, but with other
sounds also mixed in from time to time". These "various
other" sounds were going to be mostly analogue synths playing
"other-world'ly" odd sounds that are not supposed to sound
like any instruments, but are just "sounds". So I made
up a basic "skeleton" of orchestral sounds, and decided
to use that as the back bone of the compositions, and then throw
other "weird" sounds into it whenever I felt like it.
If the "weird" sounds changed from piece to piece, but
the orchestral backbone stayed the same, I figured that would give
a nice balance of continuity versus variation. So the most important
thing was to first get a good set of backbone orchestral sounds
to build on.
Staying in control
All the brass samples were stored in the Kurzweil
K2500. The strings were stored in the PC's memory, and played out
through the Soundblaster Live's digital output. Brass and strings.
The two most important and dominant families of instruments in an
orchestra - at least in sci-fi and space-theme music. Brass consisting
of separate tuba, trombone, french horn and trumpet samples. Strings
consisting of separate bass, celli, viola and violins. All the brass-
and string sounds were taken from the Peter Siedlaczek Advanced
Orchestra sample CD series. But I "built" the instruments
myself, to my taste. I wanted to get some real-time control of the
sounds, so that I could put some colour to them as I played them
on the keyboard. So I applied a low-pass filter to the brass sounds
and set up the K2500 so that I controlled that low pass filter with
a slider on my keyboard. This allowed me to "open" and
"close" the brass sound as I went along, to create "swells"
and "stabs" while playing the parts. Rather than just
play a flat brass sample, I could then add some more emotion to
it, giving the impression of some notes being played softly, others
MP3 sample: brass
sample simply being played "straight"
MP3 sample: brass
sample played with real time control of the low-pass filter
Likewise with the strings, I wanted some
real time control - something that I could use to "colour"
the sounds as I played them. It was important to me to be able to
change the sounds during recording, because the notes and the way
they are performed interact so much with each other. It just wouldn't
have been the same if I had played all the notes straight out first,
and then applied the variations in filter, attack-time and so on.
I decided that it had to be done together. So with the strings,
I applied a slider on the keyboard that let me control the attack-
and release-times, i.e. how fast the note rises to full volume,
and how fast it drops back down to silence.
MP3 sample: violins
played with fast attack/release times
MP3 sample: violins
played with longer attack/release times
MP3 sample: violins
played with very long attack/release times
Placing the "virtual musicians"
In an orchestra, each performer has his
place. I know that some people, when they want to "emulate"
an orchestra in the way that I did, go to almost extreme lengths
of getting everything correct right down to the last millimeter.
There are huge books available on how to orchestrate music. A certain
type of 18th century Spanish violin, for example, could not play
the same high A as a 20th century one. And so on.
However, I decided to go a bit easy on
all this, stick to the basics, and use a bit of common sense. The
two arguments I used were (1) no music will ever be exact science
and (2) I just haven't got time to read 2000 pages about the way
different violins work. I did read a quick guide to the tonal range
of each instrument, and a rough guide to the placement of each instrument
in a concert setting. I used this to draw the following sketch:
(This is my actual sketch as used during
setup. I'm sorry that it's a bit messy - I didn't think that anybody
besides myself would ever see it!) :-)
Using this sketch, I set up the volumes
and left-right position of each instrument on my synths and inside
the music software (Cakewalk Pro Audio). I also set up the amounts
of reverb added to each instruments so that the instruments furthest
away from the listener had more reverb, and the closer instruments
had less reverb and more of a direct sound.
Playing the parts
Again, I decided right from the start
that I wanted to play all the parts myself on the keyboard. It is
possible to "tap in" and "type in" the music
into the music-software, but I decided to stick with playing every
little bit to try and keep it "human".
For someone (like me) who has been playing
pop, rock and other types of music for many years, it just seems
all too tempting to follow the same basic ways of playing. If you
want a Cminor7, you slap 4 fingers on the keyboard - C, Eb, G and
B - all done, no problemo. You can't do this in orchestral music.
That's not how a chord is played by an orchestra. Instead, the celli
would play the C, the viola would play the Eb and the G, and the
violins would play the G. For example. And it would all come out
in harmony (hopefully). Furthermore, the instrument would rarely
just play that note and stop. It would be part of a sequence. The
chords could be inverted for the next passage. This turned out to
be harder than I expected because I was so used to the habits of
pop/rock music that I hardly managed to shake it off and think in
a different way.
Again, I decided not to go completely
nuts about realism. A true fanatic would surely find out about which
direction the second violinist would draw his bow over the strings
first, and how much vibrato he would put on each note. But again
I decided to go with a bit of common sense, and try to use my ears.
I tried to play phrases on each instrument that would be possible.
The trombone does not play for 45 seconds without drawing breath
- and so on. A kind of middle ground between a little bit of realism
and a little bit of just trying to make it sound good. That was
the recipe I had used throughout the whole project, and it seemed
to serve me well again.
Catching some breath
What I enjoyed most of all was to play
the woodwind parts. I almost wish there had been more of them. But
this was a sci-fi / space theme and because of that, brass and strings
were always going to be the most dominant instruments. For the woodwinds,
I used the breath-controller and actually played the notes in the
part on the keyboard, while at the same time "blowing"
the parts into the breath controller. This gave me a more realistic
sound and when put into context with the rest of the orchestra,
I felt that the woodwinds sounded really good. Maybe it was just
because I knew that I had literally blown the notes, that I had
a special feeling about those few notes of woodwind. :-)
Recording and Mixing
For the recording and post production,
again, continuity was important. I set up my recording gear (a DAT
recorder and some outboard effect units) and saved all the setups
so that I could record all the pieces with the same type of sound.
I'm afraid I didn't succeed 100% with this, because of some occasional
slackness on my part, some parts were recorded with slightly different
settings. But again back to my point about not being too fanatical
or hysterically correct about any of this. So all the music was
recorded with roughly and basically the same settings. I then plugged
the digital output of the DAT recorder back into the PC equipped
with a Frontier Design WaveCenter digital in/out card, and put all
the music digitally onto the PCs harddrive, from where I balanced
the volumes and applied the final compression and EQ.
With pop and rock music it's a common
thing to add a lot of "compression" to the audio level
(that's volume-level compression, not file-size compression) in
order to make the final mix sound "louder" and more "radio
friendly". But for this music I wanted to try and keep a lot
of the original dynamics - and keep the quiet parts and the loud
parts well separated dynamically. So I only applied a little light
compression, and practically no EQ.
And that was it! My first orchestral project
- without an orchestra. The whole thing took me about 7-8 months,
although I was also doing some other things in between during that
period. I had a great time doing it, and I hope to be able to do
- Bjorn Lynne