No Orchestra? No Problem!

(Nah, just kidding. Just some thoughts on how to write orchestral music even if you don’t have a live orchestra to practice on, on a daily basis)

Ten years as an orchestrator (my first professional orchestration job was in 2002 for the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra), and the huge, blank orchestration music sheet still has the power to terrify me.  I know by now that writing does not necessarily get easier as I grow older in the craft.  Yes, there are plenty of things I can do much better and much faster than before, but there is still so much to discover, and there’s still so much more I want to accomplish.



(Currently orchestrating a teleserye – i.e. a primetime soap – music theme for the ABS CBN Philharmonic)

Here in the Philippines, I do not know anyone who is solely a full-time orchestrator, one who does not do any other kind of arranging.  My stint with Ambientmedia allowed me to do that on a daily basis for six whole years, as I worked as an in-house arranger for FILharmoniKA.  But even then, I had to take on other kinds of work because there’s just not a whole lot of orchestra stuff going on in the country.  
Now, working as an independent arranger, I find that when I get orchestration gigs, the deadlines are usually very tight.  It has been that way ever since I remember, but now the disadvantage is that I don’t have the benefit of being in an orchestral environment every day.  It’s like being a piano player and not having daily access to a good piano to practice on. 
To remedy this, I have found that it helps if I:

1) Read scores daily.  Whether jazz, classical (thank you IMSLP), big band or chamber music, I try to schedule quality reading sessions within my day regardless of how busy or hectic it is.  And thanks to technology, I can even do this in public nowadays without looking (too) dorky.  I’ve hoarded a lot of scores in my iPad, thanks to Forscore.  It helps me sneak in some quality score reading time while hanging out with my hubby in coffee shops, waiting in airports, or waiting backstage during gigs.  My favorite scores have their corresponding mp3’s loaded into the device as well.  Whenever there are passages that move me in some way, or passages that I feel will be useful for my current projects, I replay and replay and reread.  
Play orchestral music in the car.  For those hours spent in horrendous traffic
Play in orchestras.  Fortunately, I still get hired as pianist/keyboardist in shows with orchestras, even though I have to admit that my sight reading still leaves much to be desired (I’m still working on it).  Blame it on the hours spent sequencing or writing notation instead of practicing my sight-reading.
Attend concerts or rehearsals whenever I can.  Whether it’s a student orchestra or the best group in the country, listening and watching is always useful.  
Write on a daily basis, deadlines or no deadlines.  In 2010, I started working on a personal project, a composition for the AMP Big Band.  Guess what?  It’s still only 2/3 done.  But always having that project to work on, even when there are no orchestration gigs forthcoming, allows me to consistently “train” that part of my brain that thinks up sounds in a large ensemble context.  



Arrangement for INC Choir - Video and Notes

Last July, we had the opportunity to provide music for the Iglesia Ni Cristo’s 95th Anniversary. FILharmoniKA plus some friends and reinforcements. It was a wonderful night and I had a great time writing arrangements for the praise songs.

I’d like to feature here one of my arrangements for the 95th Anniversary. “Mga Alipin Sa Malayong Silangan” (Servants from the Far East) was composed by the National Artist, Lucio San Pedro. The Tabernacle choir already had their own arrangement of the song, and my task was to write the orchestra part to accompany the choir.

Here is a video of the song: (please wait for it to buffer first and then scroll to the 1:00 mark)’

Alipin Sa Malayong Silangan

So how do I tackle an assignment such as this? I’ve tried many methods, but here’s a simplified and generalized workflow that I use a lot:
1. First, internalize the material given. Take into account not just the melody, but the lyrics as well. What is the message? Who is the audience? In this case, the material is a song of praise to the Lord God. From internalizing the material, I can get a good overview of the outline of the arrangement already. If the line goes “Praise Him, Praise Him,” repeatedly, then that will probably be a majestic section. (Unless the client or artist specifically calls for a more intimate or tender treatment). On the other hand, the verses where the song seems to be narrating a story seem to call for more subdued devices. More on that later...

A side note on internalizing a given song: If I have been given an audio file of a song to rearrange (meaning there is already an existing arrangement) and I am required to make a completely new and original arrangement, I usually don’t like spending much time listening to the old arrangement. Instead, I play the audio file a few times, notate the melody on paper or software, and work on it from there. The reason for this is I find I’m freer to think of new environments for the song in question when I’m not too familiar with the old arrangements. But for songs that I’ve heard hundreds of times prior to rearranging them, well, that’s a story for another blog post...

2. Make a rough outline or sketch of the arrangement. Following my notes from the previous step (e.g. where I determine the peaks and valleys of the songs to be roughly located), I do a quick sketch of the arrangement. I like doing this step on a condensed score staff paper, with the melody written out in one of the staves. This way, I don’t need to flesh out everything at once. It gives me free rein to jot down contrapuntal lines that come to mind, not necessarily fully orchestrated at this point. If the song/melody is the FOREGROUND, here now the PRIMARY BACKGROUND begins to take shape. Lines or blocks of music which support and enhance the melody. The BACKGROUND usually consists of many levels. Also, the foreground and background usually shift from one instrument or instrument group to another. And instead of writing out the full orchestration, I can just specify here, “string pads” or “horn beds” or “majestic brasses”, something along those lines.

For this song, if the section called out for a majestic treatment (such as the repeated “Praise Him, Praise HIm”, or Purihin, Purihin) I’ve put in trumpets, trombones, horns, cymbals and drums.

3. After the rough sketch, I flesh out and fill in the details using notation software. Here is possibly the most tedious part of the orchestration process, but it also can be the easiest in terms of need for ideas - since I have already plotted out the whole song in a sketch. I already have the major counterpoints in place, the accompanying devices, and the only thing left now is to decide (with more detail) what instrument gets to play what. Here is where I decide how many string parts are needed for a particular section, or how I will voice them.

Here is also the stage where I still tend to consult orchestration books. Sometimes I forget about the ideal ranges of instruments, especially if I’ve not written for them for quite sometime. (Of course, the consulting part is skipped when I’m really in a hurry - and I just tend to go with the stuff I know instead of trying out new things).

Many times, stages two and three overlap. Sometimes I like to do sketches up to three sections, and then if I’m running out of ideas, I try to flesh out the sketch. And then, from that fleshing-out, I get more ideas for the remaining sections. I also use the playback function of the software here, but only to check for errors, and also to get a general overview of how the piece is coming out.

4. Lastly, I play back the arrangement on the software, and try to revise. Sometimes I need to erase certain parts, in order to lend more clarity to the arrangement, and also to make the “big” parts stand out more. For instance, if I find that one of the sections is a really busy one in terms of accompaniment, I would delete notes from the previous section in order to not overcrowd the melody. I’m still of the school of thought in music where the main melody is the main feature of the arrangement.. All else is written to enhance, clarify, and solidify the message. This does not mean that arrangements should be oversimplified. My most favorite arrangements are those that have the depth and complexity, but they feature the melody so well, that it can only be magic.

Also, check out Gerard Salonga’s arrangement of Sumilang Na, which has become one of my most favorite arrangements for the year. Been also studying the score for this one.

 Subscribe in a reader

Related posts:
MIDI vs Live Recording: An Orchestration Exercise
On Johnny Alegre Eastern Skies part 1

MIDI vs. Live Recording: An Orchestration Exercise

Here is an arrangement and orchestration I did around seven months ago, of Vanessa Paradis’s Divine Idylle. The original recording was arranged in a 60’s-inspired style. For this project, we made new versions of her songs for the orchestra, which were really different from the original arrangements. (to listen to the original recording of Divine Idylle, view her music video in Youtube.)

MIDI VS. LIVE arrangement

Now, here are the two “realizations” of the arrangement I did for this song:

The first one is a MIDI version. The bulk of the samples are from the Vienna Symphonic Library, with a few Kirk Hunter Strings and some East West instruments. It doesn’t have vocals yet here... Also, I posted my draft mix, in order to illustrate some stuff that could be improved on (which I will go into detail later). Listen to this one first.

Divine Idylle MIDI version ©Carmel House Studios, 2009

(Pardon the copy-protect thingy, I had to insert annoying “reminders” throughout the mp3 clips so as to discourage unauthorized use)

The second one is a live version, recorded by FILharmoniKA at Carmel House Studios. I sang a demo vocal in it, in French. (I did my best, ok?)

Divine Idylle LIVE version ©Carmel House Studios, 2009

To be able to compare the two, side by side in your own DAW or sequencer: Set the tempo to 90 BPM, create an audio track for each mp3, then start them at bar 1. Just mute or solo one track if you’re listening to the other.


Now let’s look at how the MIDI version could’ve been improved on, based what we’ve heard from the live orchestra version. (Or if there are parts of the MIDI orchestration which I prefer over my live orchestration)

1. BAR 2 onwards: MIDI version has too much reverb on the snare drum
- this was pointed out to me in one of the orchestration forums I frequent.

2. BAR 2-10: I spent a lot of hours automating the MIDI string tracks in order to have them imitate the sound envelope of a large string section’s attack and decay (on slow-moving lines), and I thought I was able to make a convincing sound, till I heard the live version. I think strings are one of the most difficult instruments to realize in MIDI! Because even when you’ve got the sound envelope right, there are a vast number of other factors to consider: String players usually don’t perform their vibratos at the same time, and at the exact same speed, and there is some sort of “sympathetic vibration” going on.. their overall sound is just massive and lush.

A technique that a mentor of mine shared with me, which helps a lot in MIDI orchestration is this: DON’T quantize your arrangements, as live players don’t play at the exact same millisecond anyway.

3. BAR 2-5: MIDI version used an English Horn.. but an English Horn was not available during the live session, so I had a Clarinet substitute for the English Horn lines. I think it worked nicely, though.

4. BAR 6: The attack of the Trumpet Ensemble on the MIDI version could’ve been less biting.. the live trumpet players were able to adjust to the mellow treatment of the strings on that particular line.

5. BAR 9, live version: Wrong note on the brasses.. whoops!

6. BAR 23: Hmm, I don’t know whose sound I prefer over the other here, the MIDI trombone ensemble, or the live one (a matter of preference in mixing). I sometimes like that “brassy” sound to the trombones in that register (which I did in the MIDI), even in a ballad setting.

7. BAR 27: I revised some string lines for the live version here because in the MIDI version, they just seemed to “drift off”.

8. BAR 36: Again, something I find difficult with MIDI strings: attaining a soft and “round” sound. Too often, the string samples are too bright or too striking. For a soft passage, one has to play the samples softer, but the softer velocity layers in samples don’t have that intensity or life which live players bring to the session. I’m sure there are workarounds here (maybe use a small cello ensemble along with the viola part?). VSL already contains some of the “darker” string samples out there, but will still need a lot of tweaking to achieve a convincing mellow sound.

9. BAR 44-45: Okay, that MIDI oboe didn’t quite pass the test for “almost sounds live”. Notice how in the live oboe recording, there are small, almost unnoticeable “breaks” in the line, which occur during the player’s key-switching. In my effort to make my MIDI oboe sound legato, I forgot that small but important detail, thus making the MIDI oboe sound really MIDI, as if a keyboard was playing the notes (which is what we really want to avoid in MIDI orchestration). I wonder if using an Oboe Legato patch could’ve solved the problem?

10. BAR 46-49 Now here’s one part where I liked the MIDI strings, because they seemed to have life in them. But the line would’ve worked better if the string reverb was brought low, even if only in this part.

11. BAR 50-51 The woodwinds in the MIDI were too “up front” and too loud to be convincing.

12. BAR 52: Another instance where I prefer the mix of my brasses in the MIDI over the live one.. I would’ve liked the trumpets to “blare” a bit, especially in that register, but they were somehow drowned out in the live version. I wanted the brasses to be up front here because they were a “response” to the woodwinds in bars 50-51. Again, this is a matter of preference rather than a textbook rule.

13. BAR 55: In the MIDI version, you could still hear the woodwind lines, but notice how they were drowned out in the live version (or to put it better, they “blended” well with the other orchestra instruments that they doubled in unison). As an arranger, I would’ve liked the woodwind lines to have been heard, but in reality, they would’ve really been smothered by the rest of the orchestra in that register, also because of the dynamic level of that part of the piece. I’d admit that this is where my weakness in mixing lies.. in MIDI, I sometimes make the mistake of highlighting a certain passage in order to make it come out, even if by “live orchestration standards,” the passage could not have floated over the rest of the orchestra. (Unless, of course, we are talking about a soloist, in which case the instrument will really have its own separate mic).

14. BAR 78: I forgot to put the crescendo mark on the brasses (which was there in my MIDI), so they just sort of drifted off in the live version. But I think the “drift off” worked better.

15. BAR 81-84: Hmm. It’s only now that I realized I forgot to put all my cymbal washes into the live version. He he! Too bad, it would’ve really added to the effect I’ve intended.

- - - - - - - - -

There.. hope you liked this mini-analysis!


 Subscribe in a reader

Related posts:

Theme from Ipis Man
Things I Learned in a Forum



FILharmoniKa's Kumpas is out on the market! Go get yourselves a copy, and support Philippine orchestral music.


For only P285, you get all these cool tracks:
(side comments regarding the arrangements are mine)

1. Laki Sa Layaw - arranged by JD Villanueva
- elegant orchestration. Stravinsky meets Copland meets San Mig Light.

2. 214 - arranged by Ria Osorio
- with a hint of electronica.

3. Kanlungan - arranged by Marvin Querido. Featuring Noel Cabangon on vocals
- sentimental, very moving

4. Muntik Nang Maabot ang Langit - arranged by Marvin Querido

5. Tao - arranged by Marvin Querido. Featuring Sampaguita on vocals.
- one of my favorite tracks

6. Banal na Aso, Santong Kabayo (by Dong Abay)- arranged by Ria Osorio
- I really enjoyed making this arrangement because this song is one of my favorites. It's sure to become a classic Pinoy Rock song.

7. Ang Huling El Bimbo - arranged by Ria Osorio. Featuring Ely Buendia on vocals.
- Had a hard time with this one because the original is so deeply etched in my mind, as I've been a fan of Eraserheads way back, but I needed to make a new version. I tried to make the arrangement sentimental/nostalgic.

8. Paglisan - arranged by Marvin Querido

9. Salamat - arranged by Dennis Catli/Sharon Feliciano
- lively, good vibes

10. Himig Natin - arranged by Gerard Salonga. Featuring Wally Gonzales on guitar.

11. Next In Line - arranged by JD Villanueva

all tracks conducted and produced by Gerard Salonga

I really enjoyed working on this album. The songs which were assigned to me were songs which I already liked, and knew by heart, back in high school. So it was real challenge to get the original versions out of my head and try to make new ones.

Buy, buy, buy it! Happy

Here's a clip from IMEEM. You can also hear it played in NU 107.

 Subscribe in a reader