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From DAW To Score

Modern Orchestration For Film, TV & Games
By Tristan Noon

What does it take to transform a composer's sample-based demo into a form that real musicians can read and play?

The job of the professional orchestrator is one of the most misunderstood in today's music industry because, reflecting that of the composer, it has changed so profoundly in recent years. Only a couple of decades ago, a composer like John Williams would sit with Steven Spielberg and play the cues through on the piano, occasionally explaining that "the French horns will come in there," or "the strings will play that motif." The composer would then prepare a sketch, which would be fleshed out by an orchestrator — the director wouldn't hear the final piece until the recording session.

The author at work.The author at work.That method of a composer showing the client their work is now obsolete. Instead, they're expected to use their DAW and sample-based instruments to conjure up super-realistic mockups of their scores. My aim in this article is to explain how this change has impacted on the role of the professional orchestrator working in the film, TV and games industries, and to offer some tips for anyone looking to start out in this line of work.

Risky Business

First, it's worth considering why this approach has become the norm. While the sophisticated sample libraries that enable the mockup approach are a relatively recent development — orchestral libraries have existed since the '90s but we've had to wait longer for the computing power and affordable data storage that allow them to be everyday tools of the trade — the change in approach wasn't driven purely by new technology. Mockups are now the norm for a far more predictable reason: money.

The budgets of Hollywood movies can often run to several hundred million dollars, but even for something like a prime–time BBC drama, there's considerable money at stake and a lot of people are involved. On the music side alone, several minutes of overtime with a large orchestra can easily run into four figures — it's not hard to burn £100,000 in a few days with a full orchestra at somewhere like Abbey Road or AIR. So delays and errors at any stage of the project cost significant sums. One of the worst nightmares for a director, then, is to turn up at Abbey Road Studio 1 to hear the first cue and hate it. In days gone by this happened; whole scores for some very famous films were jettisoned at the recording stage, later to be replaced by the music we're familiar with today. Just imagine how terrifying that would've been for all involved.

A desire to minimise the financial risk in large projects means that composers' clients want any aspects of the music they're not keen on fully addressed long before the recording sessions. Convincing MIDI mockups make this possible. The director will hear each cue hundreds of times against the picture and come to know every hook and melody. Every conceivable musical direction can be discussed before the project gets anywhere near the studio. Occasionally, cues do still get rewritten on the stand, but I've been to hundreds of recording sessions and at none has the composer had to start rewriting a cue, with the orchestra waiting. In fact, I know of an extremely successful TV composer who informs his clients that the only changes he's willing to make at the studio are dynamic markings, and I think he's right to do that. After all, what's the point in the new approval process if the client will go back on their word at the last minute?

Overtime with a large orchestra can easily run into four figures — it's not hard to burn £100,000 in a few days with a full orchestra at somewhere like Abbey Road or AIR.

DAWning Realisation

In the past, the orchestrator's job would typically involve taking a composer's sketch and expanding it, 'changing' parts of the composer's work or adding new melodies, counter melodies and melodic fragments; there was plenty of scope for imagination and creativity. But now, the details of the instrumentation and arrangement in the composer's mockup will already have been signed off before the orchestrator is involved, which means there's much less scope to embellish things. So, essentially, the main focus of our job is to 'realise' the MIDI performance as a score that real musicians can play.

That sounds simple, but MIDI mockups are generally not hugely idiomatic when displayed in notation form. For one thing, the sessions comprise so much more than notes: in particular, there's a lot of extra MIDI information used to switch articulations and inject believable expression into the sampled instruments. You can't just switch to your DAW's score view and hit 'print'! It's our duty to interpret these sessions, and generate a score that's as faithful as possible to the sound of the demo, rather than to the data used to create it.

So... why are we still called 'orchestrators' and not, say, 'MIDI transcribers'? Well, our job may have changed, but the skills required to do it remain the same. A deep and powerful knowledge of orchestration is essential when laying the MIDI parts down in notation form in scoring software such as Sibelius, Finale or Dorico. We still need to understand how instruments work, and know what is and isn't physically possible for an instrument or musician. We must spot any hiccups before they hit the stand at the session.

The Art Of The Possible

We also need to be able to work quickly: the whole project's production schedule and workflow have a huge bearing on how much time an orchestrator has to complete their job. The time from a composer first seeing the picture to the very last recording session ranges from a mere few weeks to a few months, so the speed at which orchestrators and copyists are expected to work can be genuinely challenging.

Arguably, it's more important today than ever for a professional composer writing to picture to have an interesting musical voice, and to capture the mood and vibe of a scene, than for them to be particularly diligent in terms of orchestration and harmony. That's not to say that composers don't have a good handle on orchestration — many are excellent orchestrators in their own right — but simply that their primary focus must be the picture they're writing against. Unfortunately, the speed at which they work and the sampled instruments themselves can sometimes mean losing sight of real-world constraints, by which I mean, what musicians playing real instruments are capable of. The note ranges of virtual instruments may be appropriate to real-world norms (they're sampled, after all), but they can still be played loud and fast for as long as your mood dictates. A composer can easily be too wrapped up in the pressure of delivering great-sounding music on time and within budget to consider whether flautists can actually play for 12 bars at 120bpm in 4/4 without taking a breath. Indeed, I frequently find that composers allow insufficient time for the breaths of wind and brass players. This is not a criticism by any means, just an observation and something to be aware of if you're new to orchestration.

Some composers use breath controllers to avoid this problem — they finger the notes on the keyboard and literally blow MIDI data into their mockups. But a simpler tactic I use when assessing mockups is to expel air as I play the part back; this costs nothing, and helps me to determine, broadly, if the line will actually be playable. It's important to remember, though, that playing louder requires more air to be blown through the instrument, particularly on lower-pitched instruments such as the tuba; when faced with a series of repetitive notes in the winds or brass, it's often wise to leave quite a few rests in the lowest instrument, rather than have them play on exactly the same beats as the others. (Having instruments like the tuba play only on the strong beats can also provide natural accents.)

The flute's lower registers can be made to sound more powerful in a  sample-based mockup than they can in real life. The orchestrator needs to spot when this happens, and to figure out how best to make the part work.The flute's lower registers can be made to sound more...

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Published August 2019