film music

Orchestration and the Modern Composer

What role, if any, does classical orchestration play in the modern digital composer's life?

Isn't it a bit elitist to assume everyone needs formal studies just to be a good composer? And isn't the study of traditional orchestration a bit outdated in a lot of contemporary film scoring?

The answer to both these questions is a resounding YES!

But there are some caveats...

When you study formal or classical orchestration, you are essentially learning the what, how, and why of the orchestra. I compare the study of orchestration to the formal study of a particular instrument. Do you need weekly lessons to become a competent pianist? No. I know plenty of pianists who are pretty amazing who have never taken a formal lesson in their life. But there will always be a limit to what you know unless there is a transfer of information, either from you and your own studying, or from someone else more knowledgable who has already gone through the learning process. It is entirely possible to learn on your own, but it's often a quicker process to learn from someone else rather than through self-discovery. 

Orchestration is more or less about "what works", and we know what works by looking back at examples. Does this mean we have to stick to established patterns? Of course not. No classically trained musician learns about music then simply copies what they learned. The past is always looked at with the goal of moving forward. We look at the past to learn how to proceed. If not, we find ourselves doing something "new" only to find out it's been done for the last several centuries.

Regarding the application of samples and orchestration, there are two common paths we can take as they apply to orchestration.

First, we can see samples as a means of "mocking up" an orchestra note for note. Composers, in my experience, who work like this are often more "trained" (though not always) when it comes to orchestration, composition, and theory. More often than not, their compositional style utilizes the traditional orchestra as well as traditional compositional techniques and structures. With this in mind, samples are a cost- and time-cutting tool to achieve an orchestral sound through realistic samples rather than live instruments. Therefore, intimate knowledge of the orchestra is necessary for this to work well. The more realistically the samples are programmed to match the sound of the orchestra the better. Below is a fantastic example of this concept:

Secondly, we can see samples are merely individual synths that happen to sound like instruments of the orchestra. More often than not, I find these composers are less focused on following traditional orchestration. They usually explore the samples for unique sounds and combinations that "sound good", often without regard for "realism". The sum total of the outcome is more important than replicating traditional orchestration in their music. When more orchestral settings are used (rather than as assortment of various samples) they often take inspiration from music they have heard in the past and build their orchestral timbres off of the popular orchestral idioms. Below is an excellent example of this concept (note: Bill "follows" certain orchestral ideals, but the execution of such leads to a very different "contemporary" sound):

Both of these paths are equally valid in my eyes. I have heard fantastic music come from both camps. Ultimately, it's up to the skill of the programmer. The only reservation I have with the first path is that as samples become better and better, your strict orchestrational mock ups will become outdated and have the potential to sound empty and, more importantly, emotionless down the road. My reservation with the second path is that your music will often be restricted to the world of samples and you may find yourself in trouble when dealing with live musicians down the road (which can lead to the same emotionless problem).

As you can imagine, I would propose to you all that there is a balanced middle ground we should all strive for. Strict traditionalist need to be willing to present their music to their audience in a way that is clear and impactful when dealing with samples (after all, isn't that what orchestration is all about: clear and concise delivery of a musical idea?). Strict synthesists need to be willing to learn and adhere to more traditional musical posturing in their music or they risk sounding dated and stale in the coming years (after all, classical music has proven itself to be a long-standing musical tradition, tried and true); furthermore samples are not the end all be all and if you want your music to come out of the sample world, formal study is tremendously helpful for this.

Again, formal study and self-study are equal in my eyes. One happens to be a bit quicker (for most people, at least), but as long as you learn the relevant information along the way, you'll be in a much better place to mature and grow as a musician.

"All this wonderful knowledge and experience I have gained through studying what I love has really stunted my maturation and growth" said nobody ever.

Interstellar (and 5 other times the organ kicked ass)

It comes as no surprise to many of us that Zimmer would seek to push the limits musically in Nolan's latest boundary-breaking space odyssey Interstellar. There is a reason the dynamic Nolan-Zimmer duo is making such great waves in the world of cinema. Like them or hate them, they are a force to be reckoned with.

I've always been fond of Nolan's movies, though I'm hesitant to put them on the same list as some other of the "greats". Interstellar, like the Batman trilogy, Inception, and the Prestige, is another sort of story-telling vehicle than most other movies, which in many ways, placing it in a realm of its own.

As for Zimmer's role in the creation of this galactic epic, he was spot-on in his choice of the organ as a driving musical force. This isn't the first time we've heard the organ in cinema (even in Zimmer's own music), but Zimmer used the organ in some cool ways many aren't accustomed to hearing. In fact, many aren't accustomed to hearing the organ at all.

The organ was the perfect choice because the instrument is so colorful. It's such a visual instrument, bombastic and flamboyant, but capable of the most tender and intimate sounds. Organs aren't just awesome sounding, but they are crafted to look great too. They take up such a large space wherever they are built. They become the space. The room itself is the instrument. Hearing the organ from the sound system and seeing freaking space, galaxies, and wormholes on screen was itself transcendent. You felt present in the score and the film as well.

So, before we go giving Zimmer too much credit, let's step back a bit and check out some other examples of the organ being used awesomely. Not to overshadow what Zimmer has created in the Interstellar soundtrack, but the organ's been around a looooong time and Zimmer barely scratched the surface of the instrument's capabilities.

In no particular order (click title for links):

1. Pårt's Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem

It's hard to beat Pårt, let's be honest. His musical influence over pretty much all contemporary music, especially film music, is astounding. And when he busts out the organ (which is pretty frequently) you best get ready for some action. The YouTube clip I attached begins in the final moments of the piece. Of course, I recommend the whole thing, but it's an hour long.

2. Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony

This piece (3rd movement linked here) is just plain fun. Listen.

3. Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb

I love this quirky piece. A lot. The solo sections are beautiful, but the organ writing (as with all of Britten's keyboard writing) is outstanding. I've linked to the second half or so of the piece when the organ just booms over the choir. When I performed this piece live in college, the organ was so loud I couldn't hear anything else. My ears were ringing and my body was shaking. Just like when I saw interstellar. I couldn't help but draw that comparison when watching the movie in theaters.

4. Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra

Speaking of comparison, it's hard to avoid drawing parallels between Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey... Including, also, I think, the use of the organ. But who knows for sure.

5. Duruflé's Requiem

This is just lovely. Lovely. In so many ways. The organ does so much to add to the general texture.


2015 FAQ

On a personal note, I love getting emails from you all! I really do. There is a part of me that has wanted to be a teacher for most of my life. I didn't have someone who at the very least pretended to know what they were doing re: composing/midi/production when I was growing up, so I had all sorts of unanswered questions and curiosities about this sort of thing.

BUT, as much as I appreciate the emails, I have let a LOT of emails fall through the cracks. I'm terrible at responding in a timely manner. Not all the time, but enough to make me want to create this list so I can forward it to all y'all (as they say here in Atlanta where I am spending Christmas with my family) when the questions and inquiries start pouring in.

On to the list:

1. How old are you? You can't be THAT young!?

I'm 24 as of October 2014. Is that young? Depends on who you ask...

2. What equipment/software do you use?

DAW: Logic Pro X

Monitors: Yamaha HS7's

Interface: Steinberg ur22

Controller: Alesis QX49, Yamaha Motif XS8

3. What sample libraries do you recommend?

I can't speak for a lot of other types of libraries, but when it comes to orchestral libraries, I prefer the ones with the most natural sounding room tone and attack.

Winds: Berlin Woodwinds, VSL Woodwinds

Brass: CineBrass, Spitfire BML series, Hollywood Brass

Percussion: Spitfire Orchestral Percussion, East West Symphonic Orchestra

Strings: Spitfire Mural, Hollywood Strings, 8dio Adagio/Adagietto/Agitato

4. Can you teach me lessons about Logic Pro or sequencing in general?

Yes! Shoot me an email. Lessons are $40/hour for weekly lessons. $50 for irregularly scheduled lessons or single sessions.

5. How did you get started in the music industry?

From what I've gathered from speaking with industry professionals, making it big in the film music industry is all about "who you know". My first film scoring gig was actually through my grandfather who mentioned me to a friend of his. This friend was a long-time film and television guy and was looking for some music for his first feature. After that, I worked on some of my friends' film projects (most notably Zach King) and from there, things have continued to grow. A lot of clients find me through my YouTube videos and tutorials. The rest hear my music in other projects floating around the internet. My music has been on television as well (National Geographic, SyFy, Spike, etc.), but those sort of gigs rarely pay off. No one pays attention to TV music, much less watches the credits!

6. How do you recommend I go about getting film scoring gigs?

As mentioned above, connections are key in the film scoring industry. Talking to your filmmaker friends from school and getting in early on their projects is a great way to get started. As for practical things, I would focus on getting a resumé put together as well as a website and SoundCloud profile. Only post things that you are proud of. Look around for other people at your skill level and do some honest comparison. If your work is lacking in quality (compositionally or production-wise) you probably shouldn't post it. I HIGHLY recommend you post with caution.  Don't catalog every piece you've ever written. I frequently go back and delete old posts that I've outgrown.

7. How do you go about charging your clients? What should I charge my clients?

Remember: there is no set price for composing. Every composer is different. I don't like discussing my exact rates with other composers, to be honest. But for starters, you'll be working within the budgets of your clients for a few years as you get projects under your belt. That's the way it is. I have established my rates after working with clients all over the world for 5-6 years and figuring out what the basic market value these days is. Then I add some value for the unique services and skills I bring to the table and there is my number. Again, work within client budgets for a while, then after you've established yourself as a composer people want to and like to work with, you can set a fair rate for yourself and your clients.

8. Can we collaborate?

Potentially! I love collaboration, to be honest. It's more exciting to me than composing alone. Shoot me an email and pitch your project.

9. Will you compose for my such-and-such project for free?

Most likely, no. "IMDB cred" isn't really a comparable trade for the hours and hours of work I will pour into your project, not to mention the years of higher education, thousands upon thousands of hours of practice, and tens of thousands of dollars I've put into my craft. There are, always, exceptions to this, but they are few and far between.

10. Are you able to mock up my music with more professional sounding samples?

Yes, assuming the project/style aligns with my skill set. Email me for inquiries and rates.

11. How might I obtain a license to use your music in a film project?

Ask me. Not all the music I've posted online is available for licensing, but if you like the sound of something, it can't hurt to ask!