Very High Notes out of Nowhere

Most players, especially brass players, find it hard to play very high notes without any preparation. Try to avoid having anyone come it in extreme ranges. This also applies to the lowest range in most instruments. If you want to have very, very high trumpets after they have been silent for some time, at least give them a few quiet lower notes so they can prepare. The higher it gets, the harder the embouchure is for brass players because of less space between the harmonics. For very skilled players, very high notes out of nowhere usually are not a big problem, but it always adds a bit of insecurity. Besides, is it plain rude to stress people like that. Usually you can find some way to circumvent high notes out of nowhere.

Sampled instrument volume

While any kind of sampled instrument is a great tool and can be very useful for composing, there is one thing that creeps up again and again: Instrument volume.

On many libraries, especially low to mid-price, the development of the overall volume of an instrument is not correctly set. Most instruments have a part of their range where they are pretty quiet as well as a part where they really shine. In some libraries, the whole range of an instrument has the same volume. This leads to lines that can be perfectly heard in the sampled version to not come out at all when played by real instruments.

The best example perhaps is the flute, which is very quiet in its lower register (from Middle C (C4) to about E5), but gets really loud after that. Ranging up to C7 (sometimes even higher, depending on the player), it is very piercing and easily can be heard over the rest of the orchestra. When writing for the flute, keep in mind that it is very ineffective in its lower range. You can use it in this range to add a special shine to strings, but this only works on quieter passages.

The same appies to other instruments as well. Also keep in mind that with real instruments you cannot just crack up the volume to make it loud! You can use unnaturally loud instruments as an effect and this is commonly used in sampled music, but as soon as real people have to play your piece, it won’t work.

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!

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 :)

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!