Dealing with clicktrackophobics

Inexperienced players sometimes have difficulties with playing to a click, especially if they are from a classical background. Their playing becomes very stiff and unemotional. In rare cases it can also happen that people are constantly playing in front of or behind the click. This comes from the habit of with classical orchestras the conductor sometimes deliberately being in front of the orchestra in his conducting. Of course with a click track, everything should be dead on, but its hard to do that if you are used to another way.

If their performance really suffers from clicktrackophobia (I made that word up), you might try a pass without the click. Now its the job of the conductor (you?!?) to keep them in tempo. Actually, this makes recordings much more natural, but it takes a great deal of practice on the part of the conductor. Try rehearsing it at home with the aid of either a live recording or a file from your notation software. It also helps - and I recommend it - to have all players leave one ear uncovered. This allows them to hear much better what those around them are doing as well as hear their own instrument better. But remember: If you are recording seperate sections, you need the click track!

Live percussion, done yourself

Even a single live instrument can spice up a track considerably. Doubling a line played by VI violin section with one live player adds a tremedous depth to the music, as you will know. But unless you play the instrument in question really well, you need to hire someone to play the stuff, which costs money. Money you very likely do not have.

I have found that with most small percussion instruments, in the context of a large ensemble, you can get away with only moderate playing skills, enabling you to do the part yourself. What I like to do is use sampled big percussion (timpani, bass drum, tamtam,...), but record the small stuff (bongo, triangle,...) myself. You can find lots of nice percussion on yard sales for unbelieveably low prices. Lots of people sell perfectly fine instruments this way. Get out of the house (scary thing to do for a composer, I know) and buy a bunch of percussive instruments for your arsenal. Get a nice microphone (I love my Oktava MK 012) and start recording.
Of course, percussion samples very well, so almost all of the sample libraries you can get are very, very good. But still, I think nothing beats a live performance.

For light drum tracks try recording yourself playing a cajon. Done right and with a bit of post-production it sounds very much like a real drum kit and for quieter tracks works very well. Playing errors can easily be corrected later on with Flex Time in Logic, so if you are not always dead on, don’t worry.
Have a listen to the track UH Gameplay 3 on my Soundcloud channel. There is a live cajon, heavily EQed. For the most time, programming all the subtle dynamics and maintaining the groove involved in a percussion track takes far longer than just playing the thing in and correct a few timing errors. Try it out for yourself!

Principles of Orchestration on Northernsounds

Today I have a link tip for you:
If you want to learn more about Orchestration, you have lots of possibilities at your disposal. By far the best of course is to take private lessons (preferably with me - shameless plug^^), because nothing beats pestering some real person with questions.
The second best approach are books of which there are many, some of them I will discuss in a later post.

One famous book is by composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, called „Principles of Orchestration“. You can buy it as a book, but the fine folks at Northernsounds took the time to painstakingly prepare an online version, which is available on their forum. You get the real deal, with lots of interactive content. Korsakov’s book primarily deals with classical romantic orchestration, but 99% of this applies to film music just perfectly. Reading the book will give you a deeper understanding of how the orchestra works and your music will most certainly benefit from it.

So head over to Northernsounds - Principles of Orchestration and become a better orchestrator!

Choosing which instruments to record live

You will constantly have to face budget cuts. If they tell you beforehand, you'll be fine most of the time. Where it gets really annoying is if they do after you've written lots of music and then you are told that they need to cut the budget for recordings, which means: Fewer players.

When deciding which instruments to record live and which have to done with samples, there are two big questions:
1) What is your kind of music? If you feature a solo instrument quite heavily, you should record that one live under all circumstances. For ensembles, think about using one or two real instruments per type and making it bigger with samples.
2) Which instruments can you replicate will with samples. In most cases, percussion can be done with samples, if necessary. One exception would be the timpani, they tend to sound better with real players. A piano, if only used for support and adding rhythm, can also be sampled pretty well. I'd tend to retain the brass section; if your piece has lots of soaring brass, it might actually be cheaper to hire real players then to spend ages programming samples.

Also never forget that any piece will only sound as good as its arrangement - if your piece is not arranged very good, even the best live players cannot make it sound good. So double check your arrangements before recording :)

Think in groups of bars

Even if it may seem outdated and soooooo "classical" to you: There is a reason why most composers think in groups of 2, 4 or 8 bars when writing lines. A melodic arch consisting of an even number of measures, with two parts of the same length is pleasing to the listener. It allows you to let phrases flow. Because the listener hears a familiar form, s/he can concentrate on listening to the things that make your particular music special. Instead of focusing on the alienness of an unfamiliar structure, there is room for a deeper emotional connection. Of course there are situations where you will want to break that "rule", but in general try to stick to it.

Sealed Headphones vs. Leaking

Leaking is a big problem when recording, especially with quieter passages. What is leaking?
Leaking means that you can hear a bit of the headphones on the recording. Some people then proceed to use totally sealed headphones. But these make your players play badly because they cannot hear themselves when wearing them. If you have big problems with leaking and need to use sealed headphones, at least let them wear it only over one ear and leave the other uncovered. If you have the technical possibilities to do so, better automate the headphone mixes so they go down on very quiet passages and go out nearly completely when the players have a very long break (you can of course just edit those parts out anyway). You can have them come in with a count-in a few bears before the player has to resume playing. This is complicated, though and you need to make sure the technology performs up to your standards!

Major is not the only mode

This one is for my music students, who constantly surprise me by only using Major chords :)

It is quite funny to see how lots of people seem to forget there are other modes, too. Use them! Take minor, for example: Even if your piece is not set in minor, you can and should nevertheless use minor chords in it. The minor parallel of a chord can easily be used as a replacement. If you want to use F Major, but do not want to stress this resolution to the tonic so much, use the parallel minor chord of d minor instead! You can also use minor chords for starting modulations into other keys. Also, keep in mind that minor chords sound different from Major chords, but not necessarily "sad". This is what they told you in elementary school, because it simplifies things nicely. Trust your ear!

Not to mention the existence of church modes... these are a totally different world and incredibly useful and will be the topic of a later tip.

Quantizing audio in Logic Pro 9 with Flex Time

Most of the MIDI-centered composers I know (including me) tend to mostly ignore any audio-related new features in software because we generally do not need them. Recently I needed, or rather had the joy to, record some live percussion. Most of the time everything was dang on, but sometimes it just didn’t groove!
I then remembered the new Flex Time in Logic 9 and liked the results so much I wanted to tell you :)

Flex Time in Logic Pro 9

If you set the Flex Mode on an audio track, Logic will analyze the material depending on the mode you are in. For percussion, „Rhythmic“ is the correct mode. You can then move single notes/hits around just like you can do with MIDI data in the Piano Roll. Very, very useful and the results are great.
Maybe that’s old news for you, but I was pleasantly surprosed and secretly vowed to from now on make sure I try out ALL new features on software.


Find suitable instruments

When having someone play something, of course the most important thing is that this person knows his or her trade. But you should not forget the influence of the actual instrument. Usually performers have their own instruments, but it can happen that they need to use an instrument provided by someone else. If then the results are far less satisfying than expected, it may have to do with them playing a different instrument. They might not be familiar with this particular instrument, which most of the time isn't a big deal: Give them a few minutes and carry on.

In some cases, however, the instrument itself may just not have the right sound for the project. With stringed instruments it usually comes down to the strings used. Use different ones and try again. Woodwinds and brass have temperature issues. Besides affecting the tuning, they also sound different when they do not have the right temperature. If the sound of the instrument doesn't fit at all (happens rarely, but it can), try to get another instrument. EQing and editing later doesn't do the trick most of the time, unfortunately! You can also try to add some samples instruments later combining the best of both worlds.