Instrumentalists are people… not machines!

film music orchestration Feb 03, 2021

How writing for live players differs from writing “in the box”

10 minutes until the downbeat of a recording session.


The room is a bustle of activity. People are arriving. Instruments are being taken out of cases. Warm up exercises are being played and last minute practice is attempted. Then the music is passed out.. It’s time for me to focus. My thoughts of traffic, my to do list and the nagging muscle pain I feel in my wrist all go out the window. As I look over the music and I spot a section that is really awkward and difficult to play. Am I up to it? Panic begins to set in. My breath gets shorter. My muscles begin to clench…and my mind races. “Will I be able to play this?” I take a couple of deep breaths to try to calm my nerves. Like it or not I will be put to the test in a matter of minutes. Gone are any thoughts of artistic expression. My survival instincts take over.

Then the conductor takes the podium. OMG! They look really nervous. Are they competent? Can I depend on them to give me the information I need? Can I follow them? Should I ignore them and just focus on the notes? Then their hands go up and it’s time to begin.

The tension is palpable. I’ve been through this so many times…why is this so unsettling?

I check to make sure I’m still smiling and we begin. Just another day at the office….

The conductor:

Okay okay. I’m nervous. I’ve never done this before. I think I’m prepared. All of my stems have been uploaded. The parts have been proofed. The director approved my mockups. What if there is a mistake? Or, if the director wants me to change something? What if the orchestra doesn’t pay attention? Can anybody sense how nervous I am?

Technology is great. Samples, midi and digital audio workstations enable us to make sounds…a seemingly infinite supply of sounds. But, regardless of how great these sounds are, they have to be triggered by a daw and/or keyboard. Like turning on a light switch. It’s key on… key off. There is no eye contact. There is no consideration for the physical limitations of the player. There is no tension in the room. It’s strictly zeros and ones activated by a machine.

The violinist: 

Oh no. This conductor hasn’t got a clue. They are insecure. They have difficulty talking to the orchestra. Worse yet — I’m not even sure he knows the difference between a violin and a viola. Sigh. What has my world come to?

I’ve spent my entire life practicing to become the best musician and artist I can be to end up here playing for someone who has no idea what I’ve gone through to get to this point? Sigh. I’ll muddle through and do the best I can but, yet again I have to play piano parts and emulate samples that have nothing to do with the violin.

The conductor:

Holy crap! There are 75 people staring at me and I’m scared to death. What if I screw up? What if I say the wrong thing? Do they like me? Do they respect me? Holy Crap! I’m shaking like a leaf.

Why doesn’t that passage sound good? It sounded fine at home? What do I do now? Do I waste time rehearsing it? Now I’m getting frustrated. My patience is wearing thin. The director is getting antsy. I don’t know how to get out of this mess…and the clock keeps ticking.

Making your samples sound better - write for people not samples.

We live in a strange hybrid world where the old way of making music (live players) and the new (DAWs and plugins) collide on a daily basis. Writers today spend most of their time staring at a screen tweaking durations, attacks, volume, expression and more. This attention to detail is a good thing. For many, their only relationship to a violin is the patch in Kontakt that says Violin. So, it’s understandable that the focus is on what is in front of them — the plugin, the midi track, the EQ etc. If you stay in the box then this is fine. If you are lucky enough to add a live player to your project then a completely different dynamic occurs: you will be interacting with a human being who has emotions, physical limitations, etc.

Here’s a few tips to help you get better performances:

“I’m not a violin. I’m a person.”

As a composer, you will always be at the mercy of the players sitting in the chair. Like you, they have strengths and weaknesses. They have emotions. They are people. Treat them with the respect they deserve and show humility by acknowledging (in your presence) the amount of time and effort it took them to be able to sit in that chair. If you think about it wouldn’t you agree that you perform better if you are relaxed instead of tense? Smiles and kind words go a long way. It takes the edge off.

“The range of a violin is what again?”.

Every instrument is sensitive to the nuance that a player brings to an instrument. How a player breathes will affect their performance. How they physically feel (posture, carpal tunnel, etc) will affect their performance. If there is a passage that is not idiomatically written for the instrument a player will struggle. Conversely if you understand how an instrument is played and can visualize how a player will execute a passage then you will get a better result from your sample. That is of course if you are doing a mockup that will eventually be played by a human.

Instrumentation is more than transferring notes on a keyboard to an instrument.

“Why don’t my high violin notes sound like my samples when they are played by a violin section?”

Perhaps the most significant thing to remember about writing acoustic music is the overtone scale. No matter what instrument is being played there will be overtones. If there weren’t overtones present in the sound every instrument would sound like a sine wave. When you put multiple instrument families together in the same room the overtones will interact even though they may be inaudible to you. This is what creates the “color” of an acoustic ensemble. We have been conditioned to accept these sounds over centuries of orchestral writing.

If you have 24 violins playing a unison then there will be 24 violins on one note. If you play two notes with 24 violins you will have 12 violins per note. If you play three notes you will have 8 violins on each note etc. If you are using a sample with 24 violins and you play 3 notes you will have the equivalent of 72 violins playing at once.

Now let’s consider the physical properties of the violin.

The violin has a body (for resonance) and strings (for pitch). The lower the note on the fretboard the deeper the tone. The higher the note the thinner the sound will be. Each register has a different quality because of where on the instrument the note occurs. This is crucial information for the orchestra. Why? Because our job is to make the orchestra sound good.

Back to our high violin unison problem. How do we make a high violin note sound fuller?

If you look at the literature when master orchestrators want to make high violins sound fuller there are two time-honored approaches. One is to double the high violin with a flute. The flute adds a roundness to the sound to help soften the brittleness of violins in the high register.

The other approach is to use overtones to our advantage. This is accomplished by adding violas and octave lower. Why? Because the first overtone of the viola note will be the same pitch, in the same register, as the violin. The viola is bigger than the violin so, even though you could double the violin an octave lower, the viola will have a broader sound than the violin. If you want your string line to balance with a loud brass section then add the cellos 2 octaves below the violins. The first overtone will double the violas and the third overtone will double the violins.

This technique can be applied to sequencing samples with great effect. It will sound more natural because of the physics involved in the sound generation and also because we are accustomed to hearing that sound. Give it a try and see what you think. Depending on your samples your results may vary but I guarantee you when you put this in front of an orchestra you will hear the difference.

Orchestration is fascinating because every situation is different with so many variables. Playability, sonic characteristics, the human interaction during performance. It’s like peeling back layers of an onion: The deeper you go the more you will discover.

If you want to improve performances of your music by live players remember:

They are people.

Write for the instrument and the person… not the keyboard.

The magic comes from the performance…not the note.

There’s really no secret to all of this. It’s just a lot of hard work.

Join us at “Crib Notes” for a deep dive into composition, counterpoint, orchestration, life as a creative and more.

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