Working With an Orchestrator
Composers need orchestrators – there’s no getting away from it! In this article I’ll give a general overview of the process involved in working with an orchestrator – including best practices, what is expected on both sides and how to make that process as clear-cut and streamlined as possible.
When you first start out composing for orchestra you will find that the range of knowledge needed to fully understand the entire workings of the orchestra itself is a bit overwhelming. Also, as a composer, you’ll find that the vast majority of your time on a project is spent…well, composing! For most of us there simply isn’t time to work on finalising and adding detail to the score in preparation for the orchestra to play it. If only there was someone who could take care of this side of things for us…
…Enter the Orchestrator – Saviour of the Universe!
The orchestrator is the link between you and the orchestra. Someone who has the range of knowledge and skills to take your composition and make it ‘orchestra friendly’ – producing a written score that can actually be played and sound like a fair representation of what you were hearing in your head when you composed it.
It’s important to understand that the orchestrator is on your side and will work with you to ensure that the orchestra plays your compositions as you intended them to be played and that you are happy with the sound of the final recordings.
A good orchestrator will give you help and advice along the way – remember, they are experts in their field and understand the range, tonal quality and characteristics of each of the orchestral instruments and sections. They will know if a player will struggle to play certain parts or even if the part is downright impossible so will suggest workarounds – maybe a different instrument, different key or even a re-think on the part itself.
Make it clear that you are open to suggestions and improvements to your compositions whether it be bolstering parts with other instruments, advice on divisi considerations and so on. You will always have the last say as long you aren’t asking for the impossible!
As time goes on and the relationship develops, your orchestrator will get to know your style and the way you compose so don’t dismiss, out of hand, changes to the score, small alterations or harmonies etc. that they suggest – again you have the last say so you don’t have to worry that you are not in control.
Of course, not all composing is restricted to orchestra. Maybe you are considering choir on your project or instrumentation outside the scope of orchestra – band instruments, guitar, ethnic or folk elements perhaps.
These are all areas that the orchestrator can be involved in especially if they require printed score and/or conducting.
Choosing an orchestrator you can work alongside throughout the project is probably one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make and the first meeting will help you decide if they are the orchestrator for you.
Developing a rapport is key to this relationship and it’s good to lay the foundations as to how you both intend to work at the outset. Some of the issues you’ll need to discuss are:
- The nature of the project itself including musical style, references and influences.
- How much music you intend to compose in minutes.
- The budget for the project.
- Which instruments you will be composing for – strings, woodwind, brass, percussion etc. and what samples you’ll be using in the final mix and therefore not needing orchestration.
- Will there be any choir parts or non-orchestral instruments?
- Schedule of the project – you’ll have to work backwards from when delivered recordings are required.
- What materials the orchestrator likes to work with such as midi files, printed score and MP3 mockups.
- Will they conduct the orchestra themselves?
- How much of the administration will they handle? Booking of studio time, engineers, orchestra/choir, hotels and flights.
PLAN OF ACTION
Once you have talked through all these points the orchestrator should be armed with enough information to go away and formulate a plan of action. They’ll be able to suggest a suitable orchestra size and recommend the number of players you should have in each orchestral section (including any doubling in the woodwinds or brass), the number of sessions required to record everything and the costs involved (including their own fee!).
Generally speaking (and it can depend greatly on which orchestra you are using!) you can safely allow for around 20 minutes of recorded material per 4 hour session (including a break). For choir, 15 minutes of recorded material is not unreasonable for a 3 hour session. You’ll find that depending on how good the orchestra and/or choir is, coupled with how fussy you are during recording, these estimations can swing considerably.
MAKING A START
Once the plan and schedule have been agreed and both composer and orchestrator are happy, you can get down to what you do best and start composing!
Every composer works differently but I’ll give an overview here of how I like to work – knowing that I’ll be handing the composition over to the orchestrator at some stage to orchestrate it.
Most, if not all orchestrators will work with midi files exported straight from your chosen sequencer. If they also require a rough printed score (not so often these days) to go along with this midi file then you’ll have to export that also. Although, the orchestrator can produce their own score direct from your midi file, it’s still a good practice to get to grips with exporting a score to a PDF or some other digital format yourself. Get familiar with the process of making the parts on the score look presentable – correct clef, time signature etc. in case you ever need to do this for some reason. It’s not much fun counting ledger lines!
Note to self: – ‘Must remember to set the clef’
I like to compose without thinking too much about the final draft for orchestration. Just go ahead and compose without the worry of formatting, neatness, etc. – that will come later!
I usually start the track at Bar 3 which allows for a two bar count on the click track before the orchestra comes in. Take time to get the velocities and relative volumes of the instruments in your mockup mixes as close as you can to how you’d like them to sound in the final recording. This will help the orchestrator enormously in determining the dynamics to put in the score.
Once your track is sounding just as you’d like it and you believe that it’s ready for orchestration then it’s time to make it presentable so the orchestrator has a half chance of deciphering your work !
Of course, it is feasible that at this point you could just spin out a midi file, render an MP3 mockup and send these off to the orchestrator while giving yourself a pat on the back. However, there is a lot you can do to make the whole process of orchestration a lot smoother and preparing the materials properly before you send them off will really help the orchestrator to make the best of your composition.
I like to make sure that my track names reflect the sample articulation that I’m using, so, for example, I may have violin legato, violin trem, violin trill, violin stacc, violin con sordino, violin pizz, violin played blindfold and so on. If you are using a sample with built in dynamics , such as horn crescendo, pfp etc. then, to an orchestrator looking at the midi file, this is just a single sustained note so it’s a good idea to include the sample dynamics in the track name itself so they can work out what that midi note means. Try to be as descriptive as you can in the track names. ‘Harp Glissando’ means absolutely nothing if the whole sample is the chord itself so include that chord in the track name.
The first thing I do is to make a copy of the sequencer file which will be my ‘orchestrator copy’. I then edit this copy especially for exporting to a midi file for the orchestrator safe in the knowledge that I have the master copy safely stored.
I have a list of things I do to ensure the midi file itself is presentable and meaningful:
- Remove any empty/unused tracks.
- Remove any non-orchestrated tracks. Things like synth tracks, sample based instruments that will be used in the final mix etc. unless the orchestrator asks for these tracks to be left in the midi file as a reference.
- As far as possible, slim down the number of tracks by merging similar parts where they don’t overlap. For example, you may have four or five clarinet legato tracks so merge them into one or two tracks depending on how many clarinetists you have.
- Using an event list editor, piano roll or key editor go through each track and carefully quantize the midi notes making sure that the notes start on time, that there are no overlaps and that the lengths are correct. I generally do this as I compose but some will have been missed. Also, this is a good opportunity to check for mistakes such as notes you’ve hit by accident on the keyboard while playing in the part, double notes etc.
- Order the tracks in the way the orchestrator finds most useful. They are probably going to drag the midi file into their own software and it will help if the order of the tracks in the midi file correspond to their own setup. This is usually something like choir (sops, alto, tenor, bass) fl, ob, cl, bn, horns, brass (trum, trom, tuba), timp, perc, cym, harp, celeste, strings (vn, va, vc, db).
- When you’re happy that the sequencer file is about as neat as your going to get it you can go ahead and export the midi file for the orchestrator.
- Export a print out of the score itself if your orchestrator requires one (and if your sequencer supports this feature, of course!)
- Make MP3 mockup renders of the track. This can include a master mix with everything in it including any synth tracks. An orchestra-only mix, choir-only mix and so on. It all depends on what the orchestrator asks for so they can objectively listen and get a rough idea of how you want it to sound.
- Lastly, add any special instructions that you feel are important. Are the tremolos measured? Are the trills semitone or full tone?
OVER TO YOU, ORCHESTRATOR!
The orchestrator is now going to take your composition and work their magic!
The first midi file you send over will confirm that everything is formatted OK and that they have something they can work with. Their role now is to turn your composition into something that can be read and played by all the players in the orchestra, leaving nothing to guesswork. A score is like any other language and as long as all the correct information is in the score there can be no excuses for not playing it correctly. This means adding all the dynamics, playing instructions, accidentals, rests, bar numbers, tempo and time signature changes and so on. It is an onerous task and is vitally important to the outcome on the day of recording. The dynamics alone can make or break the ‘feel’ of the piece and is totally down to the orchestrator’s interpretation of your midi file combined with the MP3 mockup.
During the orchestration process the orchestrator will point out suspected mistakes in the score such as a rogue A# in the strings where everyone else is playing A – that kind of thing. Occasionally this will be intentional but it’s good to know that this is being checked. Also, they will inform you of parts you’ve scored which are out of range for the instrument you’ve assigned them to and recommend either re-scoring the part or giving it to a different instrument – The phrase ‘Let’s give it to the bassoons‘ is a common one for us as Allan, my orchestrator points out – ‘They can play anything!‘
The orchestrator will also point out if you’ve over-scored something. A common example of this would be if you have two clarinet parts and a bass clarinet part playing simultaneously and only two clarinetists!
If you have scored parts for doublers which require an instrument swap (oboe doubling cor anglais for example) then the orchestrator will give the player advanced warning of that swap in the score and will also let you know if you’ve not left enough time for that switch-over. It’s not uncommon for the flautist doubling on piccolo to have the piccolo in his top pocket for an amazingly quick swap!
The orchestrator will also work out the most effective divisi numbers and whether it will be necessary to do any overdubs if there are too many parts to be played by one section.
Eventually, after all the problems and queries have been ironed out, the orchestrator will send you their version of the score as a PDF or similar.
It’s a good idea to at this stage to take a good look at it and make sure everything seems OK. Once you have given it the ‘thumbs up‘ all the individual parts will be printed and on the day of recording you should ideally get a printed bound version of the score itself – preferably on A3 paper – which you can use as your master reference.
Of course, with the best will in the world, the score will still not be perfect at this stage and it won’t be until you’ve heard the orchestra actually play it through that you’ll be able to make final changes and improvements in the studio but hopefully the orchestrator has done enough to get you as close as possible to that perfect score beforehand.