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One of the joys of my home studio is having the opportunity to create virtual orchestral scores. This really is a pleasure and something that would not have been available to many people as recently as 5 years ago!

Anyway, given that I don't have any formal orchestration training, I have been learning how to orchestrate with virtual mockups and lots of books on the subject (and a lot of scores!)

During this time (and I'm still learning, I have no illusions there) I have learnt to divide up the strings amongst the various choirs, how to write chords for woodwind, arrange ideas for brass, etc. Basically I have learnt to treat the virtual orchestra like a real orchestra building a sum from the constituent parts. A Bottom Up approach to composition and arrangement ...

...and now I am wondering whether this is a good idea.

A couple of recent events have started me thinking about going in the other direction: adding the melodies and harmonies as I wish without consideration of who would actually play it. After all, the average listener doesn't care how the results were achieved provided it sounds good. The success of the Gladiator soundtrack proved that realistic orchestration is not particularly important to the general public.

One of the events was going to a seminar and watching some live virtual scoring. The composer was incredibly fast and effective but was clearly not worrying about building the track up with correct numbers of instruments, etc. The final sound was more important and it definitely worked well.

The other thing that influenced me was working with some new samples from Project SAM, specifically the Woodwind Orchestrator. This really has a Top Down approach, aiming at a final sound rather than picking out the individual instruments.

Testing out some other new samples this weekend I've been trying to see how well I could effectively 'play' the orchestra. I used the Project SAM Woodwind Orchestrator mixed with Westgate Flutes plus the entire woodwind section from the Vienna Instruments Special Edition, 2 mute trumpets from East West and The Trumpet from SampleModelling.

Using a combination of various controllers (Modwheel, CC7, CC11, Breath Controller and actual key velocity) worked very well at allowing me to blend in various aspects. Particularly nice to hear the trumpets come in as I hit the keys harder.

Unfortunately I don't have anything to actually show for this at the moment but I do think this will influence the way I work in future. I'm sure I'll go through afterwards and tweak individual parts but this definitely seems like a viable option for putting down the basic outline.

Ok, so this post was more waffly with less point than most of my blogs but I'm hoping to hear from other composers on this and hear how they do things.

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Comment by Mike Torr on April 13, 2008 at 8:35am
Hi James, and congratulations on being the featured composer! I don't know why I haven't stopped by before, but having read this blog I intend to read your others too. Most interesting.

You have addressed an issue that's been on my mind a lot. As I come from a very mixed musical background, I am often in a situation where I have too many options - for example, top down or bottom up, what style/genre, etc. Although this has its advantages in terms of flexibility, it can also be quite stifling because you don't know how to begin something.

I think many of the comments from others here have hit the nail on the head. It's all about being able to adapt quickly and use whatever tools are appropriate in each case. It's clear to me that this is a business in which it is impossible ever to stop learning and progressing: there's always something that you don't know or have never tried. That's one of the great things about it!
Comment by James Semple on April 8, 2008 at 3:04am
Thanks for the comments guys, much appreciated! I agree that a combination of top-down and bottom-up seems to be a good way to work. I need to spend more time working on top-down composition/arrangement.
Comment by Adrian Ellis on April 7, 2008 at 2:21pm
Cool post James. Not waffly; I like your open 'here are my thoughts about x' blogs.

Your process mirrors a lot of stuff I've thought about and wrestled with myself. I started out very top down, and only recently got bottom up. I apprenticed under a composer who works very much in the manner you described you had seen at the workshop, but was also trained and could and had orchestrated his music. I had a chance to have work performed by an orchestra for the first time recently and it was INCREDIBLE how much work it was taking my 'top down' sketch and turn it into something actually playable and would sound like the mock up. 1:30 min. piece and it took HOURS of painstaking work to get it 'right'.

One of the reasons I wanted to start composing in a way that reflected real people playable parts, was simply according to the axiom "Dress for the job you WANT, not the job you have". I don't want to assume that I'm stuck in midi-land forever.

On the same hand, so much of the work we do has crazy deadlines and tiny budgets, and still must sound huge and professional, so the 'quick and dirty' approach that yields those results is necessary. I guess in the end, each situation will require a different approach. This is something my mentor said often - each project will have different requirements, whether it be your writing M.O. or even file naming conventions and how you archive your sounds.

I think it's smart to be able to pull out either working method, and even a combo. You have to be able to foresee the final product and it's requirements.



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