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Realistic MIDI Orchestration Part III

In the inSync TTOTDs dated 05/24/2004 and 06/02/2004, we covered a number of unconventional approaches to orchestration for adding realism. In this third and final installment, our approach is going to be more conceptual, geared towards writing for film. The reason for this is quite simply because this is where orchestral mock-ups are mainly used, particularly where budget is concerned.

As we discussed previously, part of the trick to making orchestral MIDI sequences sound real is not to use the same guidelines you would use for a real orchestra. For example, when performing a string part that calls for a section of 1st violins playing in unison, it might be tempting to try to perform each string individually. Instead, you may find that as you build the part, what you hear begins to take on too much of an electronic or unwieldy quality, whereas performing the same part with an ensemble sample and perhaps one solo violin sample performed in unison with it, creates a more realistic (and time-saving) effect. The key is to experiment with the sounds and synths you have available to see how they function in terms of what you are trying to accomplish musically. In essence, you learn to write for the sample. Don’t be afraid to try unusual things as well. Sometimes an accident can lead to something very useful. For example, film composer James Newton Howard, whose MIDI sequences are used in test screenings whenever possible, uses special orchestral hits of his own devising; – a “snapped pizzicato, two bass drums, one tuned to C, one to C#, and a tuba blat.” While not always heard in the context of the orchestra, these effects add impact to various frequency ranges, plus the reverb splash creates a certain impact as well.

When it comes to composing and arranging music for film, or any music for that matter, it’s important to remember economy and focus. Economy relates to the use of polyphony – Not from a standpoint of the number of synthesizer voices, but in terms of the interplay of the instruments themselves. For example, if you had a number of percussive sounds with sharp transients playing the same part, it would undermine their effectiveness. When it comes to recorded music, to quote jazz arranger Don Sebesky, “Less is more.” Generally, in the context of a film, focus is done for you in a way. You are given parameters that determine your musical goals, such as hit points to accentuate action, or a specific mood for a scene while allowing room for dialog to be heard. In straight music, the focus of a song would be the vocal melody and lyric content. The music must be arranged to support the vocal part and emphasize the lyrics dramatically while not standing in their way. If you arrange a song and someone compliments you on the great drum sounds, then you haven’t done your job. In film, the focus of your music should be the action, but keep in mind that a number of things are going to be fighting for sonic space, e.g. dialog, foley effects, sound design and etcetera. This will all have a bearing on how you compose: For example, in a car chase scene, drums and percussive sounds tend to get lost, with the unhappy exception of the hi-hat. The orchestra, if used properly, is quite capable of creating or underscoring excitement without percussion. To paraphrase Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, young composers tend to rely on percussion to create rhythmic motion, but as you mature, you learn to create rhythmic drive in a symphony without relying on solely percussion.

Lastly, when composing for film, try to think less in terms of melody and more in terms of texture (which relates to focus). While there are some instances where a melodic theme is very effective to identify a character or a mood, think of the dialog or the action as your melody or vocals that your music must support. Perhaps one of the best examples of orchestral texture being the focus of a composition is Symphony Fantastique by French composer Hector Berlioz. This was the first symphony ever written that could not be reduced to piano score and stand on it’s own as such. This was the intention of the composer: to think more in terms of orchestral color as the focus of the music rather than melody. In short, if you are a pianist, try to think less pianistically when you compose for film. Don’t always do what comes to hand on the piano, rather, head towards less familiar ground – the unconventional approach, which is where we discovered the secrets for creating realistic-sounding orchestral MIDI sequences in the first place.

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