My mentor was a huge fan of Duke Ellington. Duke wrote for the members in his band, not for generic instruments. He knew their strengths and weaknesses. He knew what made them unique. Like any good orchestrator Duke was a master at finding unusual combinations of instruments. Now, because he had the same guys in the band for years he had no need to put instrument names on parts. He would just put their names on the parts. He intimately knew each player and how their individual sounds would blend.
This was my example when I began writing arrangements. I quickly discovered that the more I knew about each player the more effective my arrangements became. Why? Because I was writing for the player, not the instrument.
When I began doing synth scores I adapted this approach when using samples the same way in three respects.
1- Just like picking an instrumentation to book a band I would decide what I was looking for (sustains, shorts, waveforms, etc) before I began writing. I found that if I chose a group of sounds first I minimize the distraction looking for sounds while I was trying to write.
2- Having a specific instrumentation made mixing much easier. My track template and stems would be consistent. If you’ve ever tried to mix a complex track I’m sure you will know how valuable this is.
3- Limiting the sounds I used focused my attention on how to get the most out of the ensemble instead of wasting time endlessly looking for the perfect sound.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from an interview with Stravinsky. When asked by an interviewer why he was interested in serialism his response was: “The more limits I place on myself the freer I become”.
What does this mean?
If you look at an onion it appears to be one shape. As you peel back each layer its shape changes. You find that there is a lot more to an onion than how it appears at first glance. The same holds true for a combination of sounds. If you look beyond the obvious you will discover that more options for combining sounds exist than what appeared at first glance.
When you write for an acoustic ensemble you have to accommodate the limitations of the players and their instruments. When you buy sample libraries or instrument plugins the amount of choices are overwhelming. Who has time to absorb every choice? If you limit your choices of sounds (the instrumentation of your ensemble) it will be easier to keep your original objective fresh in your thoughts.
In today’s world we work with a LOT of instances and tracks. Even so, the concept still applies. Using every method possible to improve our workflow means time saved. And, as we all know, time is money.
The point is this: having a predictable, reliable workflow makes your process dependable. Dependability is attractive to clients.
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