Orchestration: You’ve Got To Know Your Limitations

By • July 1, 2008

One of the “Tastes great!/Less filling!” debates among composers in the online Orchestration Forum (http://www.orchestrationforum.com) is of the ever-popular “Samples cheesy!/Live undependable!” variety. Money concerns aside, one of the complaints against the use of live orchestras is the unpredictability of the outcome. Everyone’s heard some horror story about the such-and-such symphony orchestra’s finding something “difficult to play” and/or “just not being together as an ensemble,” necessitating sampled backup at home. Is it possible that “difficult to play” and “not together as an ensemble” are euphemisms for “written or orchestrated beyond the capabilities of an ensemble that I paid peanuts for?”

Let’s be honest with ourselves, folks, or we learn nothing and risk endlessly repeating the same mistakes. In most cases, no, almost all cases, if we get stiffed somehow by an ensemble’s efforts, it’s our own stupid fault. How many clichès exist to express the principle? “You get out of it what you put into it.” “There ain’t no free lunch.” The love you take is equal to the love you make.” Et cetera, et cetera. Let’s look at why.

Samples have their limitations, obviously, but do we ever consider that even L.A. studio orchestras have theirs as well? On occasion, I’ve seen composers here do themselves in through oddball composition, questionable orchestration, or even arbitrarily restrictive work environments. By comparison, what about your bargain-basement orchestra in Outer Slobovia? Obviously, not all ensembles are the same, and should not be treated so. The words “symphony orchestra” or some variant in its name essentially tells you that it evolved around a body of music with certain standards and practices of orchestration, intonation, style, etc., which it achieves to one degree or another. When we come along with our latter-day film scores, we need to fall in line and make the music fit that symphony’s sensibilities, not the other way around. When dealing with an unfamiliar situation, if we toss out the rulebook, rather than heed it even more conservatively, we’re asking, no, begging for trouble.

When we compose for film (or any commercial application), our primary job is to deliver, on time and on budget, not make history or demo material. We are not the Stravinsky of ballet fame. And even if we were, it would be prudent to pretend we weren’t. First and foremost, we’ve got to be practical.

As context is everything, anything beyond “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in whole notes might be asking too much if the “performers” are 7-year-olds with kazoos. However, I’m trying to think of a figure that even an mediocre professional symphony couldn’t play if orchestrated to suit their abilities and experience. Where we almost always get into trouble is from swallowing an overdose of optimism (and ego) while aiming too high with our score and thinking we might get “lucky.”

How do we avoid this error? If circumstances force you to bypass experienced studio musicians, do some recon on your ensemble, facilities, and recording crew. Get a range of demo audio from the contractor and take the performances with a whole handful of salt. Independently get credits, contact previous clients, and then listen carefully to what they have to say, especially about the facilities and the recording team (who most likely will be repeat participants.) If any orchestra standouts are mentioned, take names and make sure you request them for your ensemble, even if you have to refer to them by their chair, project, and date (“principal trumpet on “Flight of Fancy VI two months ago on January 13.”)

Budget for some good project insurance, the kind that comes from conservative composition and orchestration, increased proofreading on all levels, better-than-good specs and redundancy on involved equipment and media, and the best jack-of-all-trades associate(s) accompanying you on your trip. Look for every conceivable way (such as breaking long cues up into smaller ones for digital reassembly later) to ease the burden on your ensemble. Invest in a really good conductor, unless you’re honestly good enough to save your own posterior from the podium. Contact the orchestra librarian and use the paper specs the players are used to seeing. If English isn’t native where you’re going, use Italian for verbal indications on the parts, as it’s the closest thing to a universal musical language we have. Lastly, leave room in the budget for some back-home Pro-Tools lifesaving.

The more marginal you perceive the far-flung operation to be, the better and more careful your composition, your team, and your oversight will have to be to compensate. It’s funny, but the more you might try to save by traveling to record, the more you really should invest to make sure that you accomplish your true job: delivering the project on time and on budget.

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