ARTICLE: Composers - How To Prepare For an Orchestral Scoring Session.
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
Recording with a live orchestra is an experience that all composers dream of. Nothing can beat the experience of hearing 50+ musicians perform your music.
The process of recording with an orchestra can however, be extremely intimidating, especially if it’s your first time working with an orchestra or aren’t accustomed to working with sheet music.
Perhaps you have booked yourself a shared session to record some portfolio pieces, or maybe you have a film gig which includes the budget for a live orchestra recording (lucky you!)
In this article we will share with you some tips on how to prepare for your first orchestra recording session, so that you can record with confidence and enjoy the session to the max!
The final stages of composition
The final stages of composition is where preparation for the orchestral recording begins.
You want to have a clear vision in your mind for how you want the piece to sound. Some key things to think about during this stage include:
What are the lead elements of this piece? Are there any solo lines, or is the orchestra mostly playing together?
What are the most important moments?
What is the emotional tone?
Think about the balance between instruments, where is the lead melody, can I cut or add parts, Is the tempo right?
By carefully considering these things, you can make any final tweaks that are needed to the orchestration to make sure that your creative vision will be faithfully translated into the orchestras performance.
Imagine the orchestra performance in your head and use this to guide you in the process of finalise your piece.
Choosing your ensemble size
Once you have finalised your composition the next step is to choose the ensemble size for your piece.
If your piece is of the "film music" style then you will mostly likely be working with the standard set of orchestral instruments which are as follows:
Strings - Violin, viola, Cello, Bass
Woodwinds - Picolo, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon
Brass - Horns, Trumpet, Trombone, Tuba
Percussion - Timpani, Bass Drum, Suspended Cymbals, Glockenspiel
Additional instruments - Piano, Celeste, Harp
The main thing to think about when it comes to orchestra size is how many voices you need for each section. For example, does your piece have multiple melodic lines in the flutes?
A standard chamber orchestra lineup consists of the following configuration :
1st Violins (6) 2nd Violins (6) Violas (4) Cello (4) Bass (2) Flute (1) Oboe (1) Clarinet (1) Bassoon (1) French Horn (2) Trumpet (2) Trombone (2).
Using this ensemble will still give you a full, cinematic sound, but because we have single woodwinds, we can only have 1 part per woodwind instrument. If you have mutilple lines for each instrument in your mockup then you will need to increase the numbers as shown in the lineup below:
For a larger orchestra ensemble, the following lineup would be a good starting point:
1st Violins (10) 2nd Violins (8) Violas (6) Cello (6) Bass (3) Flute (2) Oboe (2) Clarinet (2) Bassoon (2) French Horn (4) Trumpet (3) Trombone (3) Tuba (1).
An orchestra of this size gives you much more freedom and allows you to have multiple parts for each instrument in the winds & brass. A larger string section also gives a richer and more lush sound.
Remember, more doesn’t necessarily better, and you would be surprised at how powerful a small ensemble can sound. If you are not sure you could ask a peer for advice, or seek the guidance of an orchestrator/arranger to help you figure out your ensemble.
Deciding on your ensemble size early in the process will greatly help you when preparing your music for the scoring session.
From Midi mockup to score - Arranging your music / Working with an orchestrator
An orchestrator can work with you to translate your midi mock-up into sheet music parts for the orchestra to play from. They may offer suggestions on which instruments should be playing the lead melody at which point, orchestral colours, tonal clashing etc.
A good orchestrator will use their exeprience to make tweaks that enhance your piece and deliver the maximum emotional imapct, whislt also ensuring that you can make the most of the ensemble you have available. Its important to remember that whilst the orchestrator will have their own tastes and thoughts on your piece, it is ultimately your music, so don't be afraid to assert yourself and get your ideas across firmly.
It can be useful during this stage to give them some audio references if you have a specific sound that you are going after. This could be an example form a film/game score that you love, or a classical piece.
Working with an orchestrator can help take your composition to the next level.
Review your parts
Once you have created all of the parts with the orchestrator it’s time to review them against your original mock-up and decide that you are happy with everything.
It’s ok if things have changed slightly, as this is all part of the process of getting your music ready to be recorded. It can be useful during this stage to involve a friend or peer, as they will be able to look at things with an outsiders view and pick up on details that you may have overlooked.
Understand the recording process
To get the most out of your orchestra scoring session it is essential that you spend some time researching the recording process. This will allow you to know exactly what is going on during the session, so that your mind can remained focused on your music.
At a Northern Film Orchestra scoring session we typically follow the following process for each cue.
- Orchestra performs a full run through of the whole piece/cue.
- Conductor splits the piece into several "Chunks". (Chunk 1 - Bar 1 - 34, Chunk 2 - Bars 35-55 etc).
- Rehearse and record Chunk 1 - 3 takes
- Rehearse and record Chunk 2 - 3 takes
- Rehearse and record chunk 3 - 3 takes
- Final run through of the whole piece.
Meet with the conductor
It is generally advisable to meet with the conductor before the session if possible. This will give you a chance to discuss the finer details piece and for you to tell the conductor what kind of sound you had in mind.
If you aren't recording to a click track then you can also talk about the tempo of the piece and any areas where the orchestra will speed up/slow down.
Meeting with the conductor ahead of the session can help to put your mind at ease.
Meet with the production team / engineers
As well as arranging a prior meeting with the conductor, it can also be useful for you to speak with the recording engineer, even if its just for a friendly introduction.
Ask them too explain the microphone setup to you and what to expect in terms of sound. This is also a great opportunity for you to let them know about any specific things in your piece that need extra attention. For example, they may be planning to mic the wind instruments as a group rather than individually, but your piece has some nice flute lines that you would like some extra detail on. You could ask the engineer to add a solo flute mic for the flute lines.
Bring detailed notes to aid you when listening from the booth
On the day of the session emotions may be running high, and you may feel a little overwhelmed if its your first time recording with an orchestra. Take sometime before hand to make detailed notes in your score so that you can know exactly where things are up to during the session. Make a note of how many "chunks" your piece is split into and what the bar numbers are. Highlight specific moments that are important to you, as well as any solo lines. Doing this helps you to know what to listen for and makes the process of giving feedback much easier. Example of useful feedback during an orchestral recording session: "Can we go from bar 17 again but this time more gliss on the strings and the flutes a bit louder please?"
With all your preparation complete, you can rest easy and focus on enjoy the recording experience.
The stage is set. Now is your time.
Recording with an orchestra is a worthwhile investment for all composers and with a little help from this guide you should find the experience to be unforgettable!
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