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ARTICLE - The Most Common Mistakes When Recording With an Orchestra for the First Time. 

Updated: Jun 28

Recording your music with an orchestra for the first time is a special experience, and something that you will never forget. However the task can prove to be an intimidating prospect, and there can be a few common pitfalls to look out for.

In this article we break down some of the most common areas composers struggle with in their first orchestra recording sessions, and offer some solutions for overcoming them.

With these tips you will be putting yourself in the best position for success.

Read on below to discover the article! 

1. Make sure your music is feasible to be played by real people 

We are so used to samples being able to do everything we ask of them that sometimes it's easy to forget about how the music will translate on to the real instruments. Take some time to work out if your music is indeed playable, and if any tweaks are needed to the parts to make things more comfortable for the players. Just like us, each instrument has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and usually where one is not suitable, there is another that the part is perfect for.Idiomatic writing in the score - general rules when preparing the score to ensure the music is feasible to be played by real people - Are you able to list some of these please?

Strings - Providing the orchestra with a diverse array of interesting techniques that offer a myriad of textures, strings are best used for fast passages, large consecutive leaps and long sustained notes or melodies. Spanning the full range of the orchestra, strings are a versatile tool, providing thick textures, chords (1-4 note chords), soaring solos, or prolonged sustained notes.provide a cheat sheet PDF of the range and how fast each orchestral instrument can be expected to play (just the very basic things). - Are you able to list some of these please?

Woodwinds - Much more varied in timbre and playing style, woodwinds are fantastic for delicate staccato passages, runs and melodic (or countermelodic) purposes. The main rule with any instrument that requires air from the performer - there needs to be space to breathe! For this reason, long drones or consecutive complex passages are not best suited to woodwind or brass instruments. Due to the construction of woodwind and brass instruments, passages can get difficult when there are large consecutive leaps, particularly of over an octave - it’s best to leave these to the strings!

Brass - Similar to woodwinds, brass are best suited to passages that allow gaps and spaces to breathe, alongside more linear writing that negates the need for extreme, consistent leaps. As with all instruments, but from experience, this is particularly noticeable with the brass, and is vital to ensure you stay within the usual range of each instrument - this means avoiding notes that are too high or low for that specific instrument’s capabilities. Remember, the more you push the ability of an instrument, the harder a piece is to play!

These are just a few pointers to get you started and to prepare you for your recording. However, do not stress if this is something you are not confident in - there is always help available throughout this process to ensure the score, performers and recording is to its full potential!

For a more in depth guide to orchestration and score preparation, Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration and Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation are a perfect place to start.

Make sure you understand the limitations of the instruments that you are working with.

2. Not Booking enough session time / Trying to cover too much music.

When it comes to recording, ensure you have a clear but realistic plan of how much material you want to record, whilst also being aware of the project’s budget and difficulty. It is essential to make sure you are booking the correct amount of recording time for your material, which, as a general rule, you can expect 5-6 mins of medium-difficulty music per hour of recording time. 

Resist the urge to squeeze in as much music as possible to your session. You may have been saving up for a while and want to get the most value for your money, but we find it pays to focus on quality over quantity. It's much better to have one stunning orchestral recording on your portfolio than five average ones. If you are desperate for more time to include more music in your recording, it may be beneficial to apply for grants or other such funding streams that provide support to musicians striving to afford such fantastic opportunities as this.

There are three parts to the equation for figuring this balance out: difficulty, time and budget. If you have followed the basic pointers when preparing your score, and there are no extensive intricate or technically demanding passages, you may be looking at a medium difficulty piece (although this is very subjective, and identifying this does take practice!). Make sure you are realistic with yourself, with your budget and the true time it may take to record such music - it is easy to get carried away and it pays off in the long run.

If you are unsure on how much time you need you can reach out to the orchestra team for guidance, they will be able to listen to your mockup and review your score to advise on the correct length of session. 

As a general rule, we find that 6 mins of medium-difficulty music can be recroded per 1-hour session.

3. Lack of musical preparation

As the composer, it's essential that you know your music inside-out for the session. You should expect and be prepared to answer any questions from the conductor, orchestra leaders etc. As time is precious during orchestra sessions, it is very important to be able to answer these questions quickly. This may appear to be a daunting task at first, however, it is good to remind yourself that everyone in the room only wants to assist you in creating the image you have for your compositions. This means that no question is wrong, and every suggestion and request is taken with the utmost sincerity and enthusiasm.  

When reviewing your score, it can be useful to print a full version of the score and pencil in areas of specific interest. Consider what you are trying to say and achieve with each bar, phrase or page and how can the musicians or conductor help you achieve these goals. But remember, the rubber is your friend, as this may all be subject to change in the flow of preparing for, and during the session. It is usually best to schedule dedicated time to ensure this can be done in the greatest detail. Such points of interest can be good topics of discussion when meeting with the music director / conductor in advance of the session. If you have any questions, make a note - these meetings are the time to find answers to any queries you may have.

Know your material inside-out and are prepared for any questions that will come your way during the orchestra recording session.

4. Make sure you understand the recording process.

If it’s your first time recording with an orchestra then it's a good idea to do some research into the recording process. Knowing a little more about what to expect will help you feel most comfortable during the session and keep your mind focussed where it should be, on your music.

As part of the process, and as you will see in the video, recording sessions can get very detailed, sometimes thinking about the music in a bar-by-bar context to ensure the best result is produced. This is why it takes time to record only a minute of music - it has to be perfect! You will have to answer questions and know your own mind, so understanding the process will allow you to preempt potential issues or questions that may arise.

There are several videos on YouTube offering a “fly on the wall” perspective of orchestra sessions including a couple with NFO from our 2023 sessions with Eric Turnnessen.

- Link to Eric Turnnessen video - NFO fly on the wall - 

Understand the orchestra recording process so that you know what to expect in your first session.

5. Have a plan in place for the what comes next

So, the excitement of the recording day is over! It is easy to feel a little lost after the big deadline has passed, so having a plan in place for what comes after the session can be useful. Check in with the orchestra recording team about how you will receive your audio files once the session is finished (this is something to be considering in the planning stages of a project, it is important to ensure you receive the files in their most useful format for your project goals!). If you are a pro tools user you can request the pro tools session files. If you use another DAW you will need the stems for each take to be exported and sent in separate folders. 

Next comes mixing & mastering. Do you plan on completing this yourself or will you be working with an engineer for this? It is nice to attempt this, but you have to be realistic and brutally honest with yourself - do you have the skills to get the absolute best out of the raw recording? 

Have a plan in place for how you will release your music after the session.


When it comes to anything in life, it is important to remember that to gain experience, you first need to be inexperienced, and with that it is normal to feel the nerves, and make mistakes. However, throughout the recording process there is a team of experts, all supporting and encouraging you, sharing their knowledge and ultimately only strive to get the best out of you and your music. It may feel alien or daunting, but through diligent planning and a little brutal honesty as to the goals and limitations of the project, you will leave with a stunning recording, a testament to the hard work and all you have learned throughout the exciting recording process. We hope you enkoyed this article!


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