Orchestrating 101

*Originally written April 2011 – Recently updated January 2014*

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately orchestrating some of my music for my upcoming album.   In the midst of doing so, the topic does seem to be one that I end up discussing quite a lot – either within my family, or with colleagues.  I have been often asked:

Do you use a live orchestra?

How do you know which instruments are going to play which parts?

How do you write parts for all those different instruments?

How to achieve that sound?

I think to some people, orchestrating is this secret and complex thing that a small percentage of musicians actually know how to do.  Complex?  Maybe.  I suppose that depends a lot on the composer’s style.  Secret?  Well, to be perfectly honest with you, there are a lot of composers out there who do not like to divulge their secrets of orchestrating – because that is what makes their music uniquely their’s. And that’s perfectly reasonable and understandable.  While I am not particularly 100% that way, but there is a portion of my brain that thinks that if I do share certain things that I do, I would be giving away all my secrets and suddenly everyone else would be making music just like mine.  And then, what would make me still special and stand out?

However, I do believe in helping others.  If you know how to do something well, then you should share that with others and teach them.   Orchestrating is one thing that I think I can do fairly well, and I want others to excel at it too. So I’m going to share some of my orchestrating secrets here with you (Cue OneRepublic’s song “Secrets” right now). Think of this post as sort of an “Open Source” guide to orchestrating.

fixstillshot4It is actually becoming more and more rare in today’s music industry to record with a live full orchestra.  With the amazing and realistic-sounding virtual technology that is available to composers now, there is not a need to always use real instruments.

Some composers are completely open about this, others aren’t.  Why that is something to hide, I’m not sure.  I’ve asked a couple of different composers, quite plainly, about the orchestration they used and I received very vague nondescript answers. Now I think that’s a little bit silly.  Obviously, if you had used a real live orchestra on your album, wouldn’t you be so incredibly excited and proud that you would state it right there in the fine print for everyone to see? “Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios”.  I personally have never hid the fact that portions of my orchestrations are from sampled libraries. I actually use a hybrid method of mixing real live instruments with VST libraries (Virtual Studio Technology – instruments that are pre-recorded samples of real live instruments).

The fact remains, that for any artist, whether they are independent or with a bigtime record label, to record with a full symphony orchestra is a HUGE deal.  Even veteran performers who have recorded with an orchestra before will still get goosebumps when walking onto the recording set with an orchestra.  It is both exhilarating, and expensive.

You might be surprised to learn that virtually only about 5% of TV shows record with live instruments – the rest are done from sampled sound libraries.  And many movie soundtracks will dub in with sampled library sounds as well.  Hans Zimmer creates his own VST’s to use in his music (and is finally soon releasing some to the public, which I am very excited about).

It’s exciting and sad at the same time.  While being able to pull off a quality sampled orchestra sound on your recording has become much more prevalent and accessible to the average composer in recent years, it has also put a lot of orchestra sound stages out of work across the country.  When you consider that hiring out one of the least expensive recording philharmonics in the world (The Prague Symphony) will still cost you on the low end of $25,000 (mind you, I said least expensive orchestras) , when you can purchase a quite excellent virtual orchestra sample library for the cost of anywhere between $1500 – $5,000 (depending on what make/model/version it is), the choice is clear to many composers.

However, you must know (because you are smart, I know you are), that just because you have a nice orchestra software library it doesn’t mean that POOF you are going to have an amazing album or recording.  Learning how to use a sampled library and executing it is an acquired skill that takes both ingenuity and experience.  And that is what I wanted to go into a bit.

So are you ready to buckle down and get dirty?  All right.  Here are some of my secrets to quality orchestrating…

First, I should probably tell what sort of equipment I’m working out of (Updated as of Jan 2014).

DAWS (Digital Audio Work Station): 
Cakewalk Sonar Producer X2

Orchestra Sound Libraries:
EastWest Symphonic Orchestra – Platinum Edition
Eastwest Hollywood Strings – Diamond Edition
EW Symphonic Choirs (plus the expansion edition)
Quantum Leap RA (Ethnic instruments)
QL Gypsy (strings, guitars, percussion, etc.)
QL Voices of Passion
QL Stormdrum 2
QL Massive
Rob Papen Blue (synth)
QL Massive (synth)
Synthogy Ivory II (Pianos)
Alicia’s Keys (Pianos)
QL Pianos

Kawai CN-270 Digital Piano
Kursweill PC-88 Keyboard
Audio-Technica AT2035 Condenscer Microphone
Sony MDR-7506 Headphones
Audiobox USB Interface
Yamaha 8″ Studio Monitors (sorry I can’t remember the model number)
2013 Lenova PC, 10 hard drives (both internal and external), 16 gigs of ram (will be expanding to 32), and a bunch of other specs I can’t remember – but it is essentially a gaming computer that I’m using for music (Gaming computers can handle a lot and have better processors and video cards).

deskI have about a dozen other sound libraries that I also use, but for symphonic-orchestrating purposes, the ones I listed above are my go-to sources.  I have been using the EastWest Symphonic Orchestra for several years and am very happy with it.  But there are also some other very good quality sound libraries out there – the Vienna Strings for example.  Another terrific library right there.  Also the LA Strings are magnificent as well.

So the easiest way for me to teach you some things is to basically go through what steps I take while recording and orchestrating.

  • Have a Finished Composition to work off of.
    As a pianist, I will 90% of the time not start any orchestration whatsoever until I have a finished piano part.  The reason for this is because as the piano is the featured instrument on all of my songs, it’s the backbone of the orchestration.  It is what makes up the structure of my songs – the foundation.  The orchestration is the fluffy stuff. 🙂  Also because if my piano part is not finished and recorded exactly how I want it, it causes for hours of extra editing on the orchestration – should you need to change the piano part later on.  Once I have a completed composition, I will record the piano part as a midi file and once it is recorded exactly how I want it – I can go from there…

    I will say though, that I don’t ALWAYS start with a finished piano part though. There are many times when the sounds in my various sound libraries have inspired me to write certain songs, and so playing around with loops and sounds can also be a great way to begin a piece.

  • Listening over and over and over…
    So now that I have a song to orchestrate, of course I’m usually at this point wondering how the heck I’m going to orchestrate it.  I will listen to my recorded piano part dozens of times, while coming up with various ideas in my head of how it can be orchestrated well.  Sometimes I’ll write the ideas down on scratch paper so that I don’t forget.  For example, “Low bass notes in cello at measure 48”, or “Need french horns – powerful sound – 56 – 75”, etc.. I have a peculiar ability of being able to orchestrate in my head – and will often go for long walks while replaying the music over and over in my head, composing the orchestration, replaying it, taking out parts and adding others, etc.  It’s almost like being a conductor in front of an orchestra and being able to stop/start them how I wish.  I recently spent 2 hours driving in a car in the middle of Idaho while orchestrating my arrangement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  This method works great for me – because I find I can come up with far better ideas in my head than on a keyboard.  At least in my head I can hear a full finished sound and the potential of the orchestration.  Maybe not everyone can do that – but my point is is that it’s important to listen to your song several times to get ideas.
  • Thinking Outside the Box…
    I never write out the orchestrations in notation before recording them.  I’m not saying this is the best practice – but it works for me and helps me to be more creative and think outside of the box.  There are some composers that are very particular and want the orchestration to sound a certain way and they will write out the parts before-hand and then go record them.  I don’t like doing that though, because when using sampled sound libraries, you can’t always 100% of the time execute a certain technique like you can with a real orchestra.  For example, fast runs.  Think of the Harry Potter soundtrack (I use that as an example because I have performed that work in concert as a violinist in the 1st violin section).  That music has the violins doing all sorts of scales and runs up and down, all over the place.  John Williams was brilliant in creating that for the violins.  However, trying to do that on a sampled sound library is not the easiest to accomplish.  Doing fast violin runs and having it sound truly authentic is almost nearly impossible.  I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but it is difficult.  And so you might be limiting yourself if you have to have your orchestration just so.  You need to work with the samples you have and be willing to change your ideas if the sound you are going for is not coming off sounding true and real.
  • First in, First Up…
    So being that a symphony orchestra has a wide variety of different instruments, how do you know where to start and what to use?  Well, to make it simple, if I have no clue what I’m doing I’ll usually just start with whatever instrument I feel needs to come in first during the piece.  Otherwise if I do have specific ideas that I want to do with the orchestration, I’ll start with those instruments and spots first.  For example, the song that I have up on my homepage right now (“Illumination”), you hear the piano part first and then the very first orchestration you hear are the fast moving violins (by the way, those violins are the “repetition” violins in the EW sound library).  I knew that when I was orchestrating that piece, I wanted some fast short-sounding violins right from the get-go.  So those were the first instruments that I recorded.
  • Picking an Articulation…
    The first thing I do after knowing what type of instrument I want to use, I will go and look for the type of articulation that I want to use.  What is “articulation” you ask?  An articulation is a technique, or way of playing.  For example, a violinist can pluck the strings and that type of articulation is called pizzicato. A violinist can play long smooth notes, and that type of articulation is called legato. Which, if you haven’t already figured out, if you don’t know your Italian musical terms, you will want to brush up on them because the sound libraries go by the true and rightful articulation names.  And they are abbreviated as well, which makes it very confusing for a novice.  For example, can you guess what the following abbreviations mean? ConLeg, Spicc, Pizz, Marc, Acc, Leg, Stacc, ….?  Those would be Con Legno (hitting the wood of the bow on the string), Spiccato (a light bouncing of the bow on the string), Pizzicato (plucking of the string), Marcato (a shorter note with an accentuated start), Accent (an explosive start or finish), Legato (smoothly connected), Staccato (short notes).I want to talk a little more about picking out your articulations.  This is key, so pay attention.  If you get anything out of my blog post, get this: If you have finished your violin section and you only have one track – go back and redo it.  In order to get a good authentic sound, you are going to need to use many different articulations – which will require several additional tracks.  Just as a real live violin section is going to perform dozens of different articulations during a song, so should you.  Think in your head, if you will, Aaron Copeland’s “Rodeo”.  Okay, if you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, it’s the “Beef – It’s what’s for dinner” theme music. It goes Dun-diddy-dun, da-da-da-da-da-ad-da-da-DUN-dun-DUH-da-da-da-da-ad-daya-DUN.  🙂  Dy’a get that?  He uses a combination of an opening staccato note, with a slurred turn, followed by a bunch of marcato notes.  If you are using a sampled sound that is a Legato Violin section, you are not by any means going to make beef for dinner!  You will need at least 3 different tracks with 3 different string articulations in order to accomplish that music.Still confused out of your mind?

Here is a short sound clip of a song from my upcoming album that I’ve recently orchestrated, called “Fire Dance”.  In this clip you will hear a trumpet..I have purposely turned up the volume of the trumpet on the clip so that you can hear them better (normally they wouldn’t be so loud in the mix)…

I used 3 different trumpet articulations to achieve the seamless trumpet line.  Here are the screenshots of my tracks to illustrate what I mean…you can click to enlarge.This is an overall view of my song.  As you can see I have 24 tracks in this piece – multiple articulations for each instrument.

In this next shot, I wanted you to see the three different trumpet tracks I recorded.  In the audio clip, you only hear one trumpet, but it took me 3 different articulations to acheive the one trumpet sound.

And finally, in this last screenshot you can see the notes in the piano roll screen – and how they overlap to make one track.  Each color represents a different type of articulation.

  • Record by Trial and Error.
    So once you’ve picked out an articulation that you want to start recording, just go for it.  It is a series of trial and error to get the “perfect” recording.  It will sometimes take me several attempts to get my instrument to sound just how I want it to.  You also have to consider that with some samples, you can use your keyboard’s modulation wheel to add vibrato or intensity to the instrument.  This can get tricky – especially if you are trying to record multiple notes simultaneously – you might start to feel as though you need 3 hands.  My advice?  Record a basic track, no chords, and some basic mod wheel.  And then…
  • Edit, edit, edit!
    You should be able to view your track as either a Piano Roll, Event List, Staff, or like the above first picture – a Track Sequence. When I first started using this software, I had no idea when I would ever use these different types of views.  But once I learned how to edit my instruments efficiently, I realized that each view had its place and reason.  For example, the Piano Roll (as you see above in the 3rd photo), is a good screen to edit the start times of notes, the duration of notes, the velocities of notes, and the modulation of notes.  I use this view more than any other.  I will spend a tremendous amount of time with each and every track within the Piano Roll view to edit them.  Why? Well, for many reasons.  Take your strings for example.  Strings sounds happen to have a bit of latency to them – meaning when you play a note on the keyboard, the string might be ever-so-slightly behind the beat.  I’ve noticed a lot of recordings where they didn’t edit the string tracks in this regard, and they sound very late.  So what I will often do is go into the piano roll view and nudge the start times of the notes over slightly so that they sound more on tempo.  There is also another trick that I do with strings to make them sound more authentic.  I will overlap each note very slightly.  In strings, it makes them sound more real this way because it better mimics bowing – as you know strings flow from note to note.  They don’t go DUH DUH DUH, but instead they go La-ya-de-la-ya.  If that makes any sense at all.The Event List is not a view that I use very often, unless I need to edit something in extreme detail.  Every time you hit a note, change velocity, or modulation it will show up as a number in your Event List.  All of these different things are “events” happening in your track.  If you want to edit your velocity settings (how loud the notes are), knowing that velocities range from 0 – 127, you can go through each individual event and change those numbers.  Tedious, but sometimes necessary.The Staff view is helpful to me when editing piano.  I can easily edit pedal markings within the staff view.And just so you know, I spend more time editing my orchestral score than recording.  So if you find yourself doing that – it’s okay.  It doesn’t mean that I am terrible at recording – it just means I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  Oh, and that is another thing I wanted to add…like I said earlier when you are recording, just record a basic line and then edit it afterwards. This goes for harmonies.  I have found this method to be truly brilliant when creating string sections.  It’s like having a blank canvas to work on and trying different splashes of color.  For example, record a single violin line.  Then go into your Piano Roll view, and add some chording.  Move the notes around, hit play to listen, and keep changing things up.  In the meantime, edit your mod wheel so that the velocities are not stagnant and you have some depth, ebb and flow to the piece.
  • KeySwitches – Use them.
    I recently helped my mom with some orchestration on one of her songs.  She had recorded a flute, eullean pipe, and a string section (and a piano line).  Her instruments sounded very stagnant and inauthentic.  She was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do to make them sound more real. She said she went through all of the available articulations and couldn’t find anything better than what she had recorded with.  I told her that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her composing abilities and orchestration.  But it was the way that she recorded the parts that needed help.I can’t emphasize this enough – creating an authentic sounding orchestra takes a lot of time and effort.  So be prepared to put the hours in if you are wanting a stellar track.As I mentioned above, you should record all sorts of different articulations in order to get an authentic sound.  In some samples, they have an option called a “Key Switch”.  In the Eastwest software, it is abbreviated as “KS”.  It is often labelled with what notes on the keyboard act as the keyswitches, for example, “KS-C5”.  Meaning Key Switch, the note C, 5 octives up.  If you hit that particular note, it will give you a different articulation.  I love key switches because it means I only have to pull up one instrument sample to get a dozen different articulations.  But it does take some editing.  For example, in my QL Gypsy software I have a really nice sounding Gyspy Solo Violin.  This particular sampled instrument has about 15 or 20 different keyswitch articulations, ranging from the lowest C on the keyboard up to a G 2 octives higher.  Every one of those keys is a different artic.  So if I’m recording a part with this particular solo violin, sometimes the music passes me by faster than my brain can think of which keyswitch to press while simultaneously recording the violin part with my other hand.  It’s seriously like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.  It’s not easy!  So what I will often do is pick the main keyswitch I want to use (ex: Legato), and record the part – making sure that I’m playing the violin notes with the best emotional value that I can.  And then once I have that recorded, I can go into my Piano Roll view and edit the Keyswitches.Going back to my mom’s piece of music, we were able to edit her parts with Keyswitches so that each of those instruments sounded incredibly real and authentic afterwards.  It was neat to hear the difference.
  • Adding other Instruments…
    So you’ve added a violin section but you now still have no clue what other instruments to add.  You know, there are no set rules on what kind of instruments you have to use.  Sure in a real symphony orchestra you are going to have all your strings, your brass, your woodwinds, and your percussion.  But remember this is your recording and your style. You can do whatever you feel like. I personally don’t like the sound of many of the woodwinds, so you won’t usually hear flutes, clarinets, or oboes in my music.  That is my preference.  However, I love French Horns.  So you will be treated to them quite often. 🙂  I would say the best way to go about it is to first identify the range of instrument you think your song needs.  Does it need a high or low instrument?  Low?  Well, okay, what sort of low instruments can you use.  Well, there is the Bass, the Cello, a Contra Bassoon, a Tuba, or even some bass percussion like Timpani or Bass drum.  Obviously it might help to know your instruments and this will help you know your options.  And remember, sometimes less is more. You don’t need to add the entire kitchen sink.  Once you know what instrument you want to record next, well you know the routine….go through your articulations, record, and then edit.
  • Combing Instruments to Achieve a Particular Sound
    Sometimes if I’m not getting that total right authentic sound I’m trying for, I will combine several articulations together. For example, this might sound weird, but combining a staccato violin articulation with a staccato brass articulation (like trumpet) and then mixing them at a level where they blend perfectly will finally give you that raw authentic sound you are going for. Also, like I said, I use a hybrid method using real live instruments I’ve recorded myself with my VST software. I’m a violinist and so I often combine my own violin with my orchestrations, as well as have featured guest artists play.  It helps to round out the sound and give it a greater sense of authenticity.
  • Details…
    There are little fine details, like cross fadings, swells, fade-ins and fade-outs that you can’t always control within the midi setting.  You can, by using “midi envelopes”, but I’ve found it to be too much work that way.  So instead, I will edit those sorts of details once I’ve exported the track as an audio file.  And the better you can edit your audio track and have it ready, the more your audio engineer will thank you.  Sloppy edits make them unhappy campers.
  • Let it Sit Overnight…
    So say you just finished orchestrating one of your songs. You’ve spent the last 12 hours on it, and you are so excited that it’s finally done that you want to upload it to your Reverbnation player right now and share it with all of your fans.  DON’T!  Absolutely do NOT do that. Trust me, I speak from experience.  First of all, you’ve been listening to this track over and over and over for hours upon hours.  I hate to tell you but your musical judgement is a bit impaired right now.  You’ve heard your track so many times by this point that your ears have become a bit numb to mistakes and details.  Trust me…close your file.  Go to bed, and come back in the morning and listen to it with fresh ears.  I guarantee you will hear things that you didn’t before, and will have a short list of spots that you need to go back and redo.  Just the other day I finished orchestration on my extended version of “Illumination”.  I really did spend all day and all night on it.  I emailed it to my hubby before going to bed so that the next morning when he was working, he could listen to it and give me his opinion.  I thought it was rather perfect. 🙂  Well, sure enough, the next day he listened to it and gave me some constructive criticism on a couple of spots that he felt needed some tweaking.  And ya know he was right.  I listened to the track again several times and noticed some other things myself.  The entire pizzicato cello section that I added at the beginning…all of a sudden sounded rather terrible to me.  So yes, have the self control to let your song sit for a while before calling it a final draft.  I will often orchestrate a song and then revisit it several WEEKS later.

So those are the main things I wanted to share with you about how to be a better orchestrator.  There are, of course, many many other things you can do to make your orchestrations great but I just don’t want to make this post too much more of a novel that it already is.  For example, you can combine instruments, add some reverb and other effects and create a whole new sounding “instrument”.

Another thing I wanted to suggest is just taking the time to listen and study great symphonic works. Or even better, soundtrack music.  You will learn a great deal by example and hearing what other great composers have done before.  Stravinsky actually published a book on orchestrating and it’s a very detailed intriguing read.  The man was really a genius when it came to orchestrations.

Anyway I’m sorry for the lengthy post, but I hope it was somewhat helpful.  Would love to hear your thoughts/comments, and any methods that you use in your own orchestrations that are helpful to you!

Happy orchestrating,



2 responses to “Orchestrating 101

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