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How to Make Your Orchestrations Sound More Balanced

Rules, rules, rules. Don’t they know we’re MUSICIANS, man? We gotta do what we gotta… Oops, sorry. Your writer was flashing back to a decade so hip he doesn’t even remember which one it was. The subject is orchestration and arranging, and the rule for today is, “Avoid muddy sounding arrangements by observing low interval limits.” This is particularly important to those of you who have invested in huge orchestral sample libraries and are frustrated to find your arrangements sound “growly” instead of “lush.”

The basic principle is simple: if you have a bunch of instruments playing low notes at the same time, things will sound very murky. For example, if the bass violins are pounding out their lowest E and F notes (theme from “Jaws”), adding a tuba or contrabassoon playing G1 and A1 will sound muddled – the difference in frequencies is just too close. In general, if you space your orchestral chords with wider intervals on the bottom and smaller ones on top, they will sound more balanced. In much classical music you’ll find, for instance, that the cellos are often simply doubling the bass part one octave higher – always a safe distance away.

Fortunately, orchestrators through the years have formulated a Low Interval Limit list, which identifies the lowest pitches that can sustain each musical interval. Check out today’s Word for the Day entry for more on this.

Here are some specifics to get you thinking in this manner. Consider Middle C to be “C3.” If you want to include a major third in your chord (a basic element of a major triad), the lowest pitches that can effectively play it are B1 (an octave plus a half step below Middle C) and D#2. A much wider interval – say, a major seventh – can be built around a pitch as low as F1 and be clearly defined. Note that the tritone (augmented fourth/diminished fifth) is so recognizable that it can be played very low and still hold up.

This applies to all sections of the orchestra (or to your dance track, for that matter). Each section – woodwinds, brass, and strings – is constructed much like a vocal choir, with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass instruments. So pay attention as you score music for basses, tubas, and bassoons against cellos, trombones, and clarinets.

Musical rebels out there, understand that we’re not saying, “Don’t do this.” We’re just pointing out that if you DO break the Low Interval Limit guidelines, it will sound a certain way.

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