I’m really excited because this is the first part of a mini series on how to create an orchestral song! Writing a full-bodied orchestral accompaniment for your song isn’t difficult at all, and in the upcoming couple of blog posts I will teach you some of the basic skills you need:
- Prepping your song: Basic tools you need, how to analyze and prep your song and choosing your ensemble.
- Voicings, harmony and polyphony: Different techniques to arrange your basic chords into something bigger.
- Putting it all together: After theory it’s hands-on time! I present you my action plan for producing this baby. (Online 27/4)
And of course I have created a very practical and actionable checklist for you to go with it all!
First things first, I want to make two things clear:
- You need a great song to start with.
Make sure it is a good song with just a melody and a basic accompaniment on piano or guitar. Elaborate orchestration can make a bad song sound fancy, but it can’t make a bad song suddenly become great.
- You don’t need an entire orchestra to get an orchestral sound.
Not only are there excellent digital replacements for actual orchestras consisting of 60+ human beings (imagine how expensive THAT would be), I mean this also in the sense that you don’t need all the instruments to play at once, or even make an appearance in a song. Maybe you only need strings and some woodwinds, for example.
Tools you need
Your instrument of choice
These two go hand in hand. Not only do you need these to create the basic outlines of your song, of course you will record the final vocals and probably your favourite accompanying instrument will still play a role.
A Digital Audio Workstation is just a really long term for your favourite software to produce your songs. Mine is Logic Pro, but if you use something different, that totally okay too! However, it needs to be able to do the following things:
- Recording audio
- Recording MIDI
- Editing your audio and MIDI takes
- Compatibility with some high quality virtual instruments
- Compatibility with plugins for reverb, equalizing, etc
If you’re using Logic or Cubase, then you’re totally fine. I know that Pro Tools has really great recording and editing options, but I have no experience with their MIDI processing and compatibility with virtual instruments. I do not dare to give a verdict there. However, your average free recording software doesn’t really cut it at this stage.
This is essential if you want to create your orchestral parts quickly. I once used the point and click method, but that takes ages. Additional benefit is that you can skip the step of humanizing your parts, because they’re already played by a human.
For a great orchestral sound, you need a realistic orchestral library. Virtual instruments are a gift from the gods when it comes to orchestral music for broke composers. Nowadays, the libraries are of such high quality that in the hands of a pro, you can’t distinguish samples from a recorded score.
My personal favourite is East West, but others swear by Native Instruments or Vienna.
Basic home studio setup
I assume you’re reading this, because you already are a songwriter, know how to write and produce a basic song, and now want to take it to the next level.
However, for those of you who aren’t: You can’t produce a song without some form of studio. It doesn’t have to be big and super-duper-professional, but I recommend the following basics:
- Computer with above mentioned DAW and virtual instruments
- Audio interface
- High quality monitor speakers
- Studio headphones
- Cables to connect everything, including instruments, microphones and MIDI keyboard.
Now you’re all ready and set, let’s get to work! (Finally!)
Analyzing your song
To create a suitable orchestration that actually makes sense, you need to analyze your song a bit. No, you don’t need to do a full chord function analysis. That’s really too much of a hassle and not necessary at all. Howver, you DO need to hav a clear view of the following:
What is your song about? What is the subject? What is the feeling of the song? A song about a walk in the woods needs a totally different ensemble than a song about anger.
What parts does your song have? How many verses, how many choruses? Do you have an intro and an outro, a bridge or an instrumental solo part? Write them all down in order. This will help you to build up the intensity of your orchestration.
What chord progressions do you use for all those parts? Write down the entire chord structure of the song, so it’s easier for you to create all the voicings and separate parts.
Choosing your ensemble
A traditional orchestra basically has 4 sections: woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings (I named them in this particular order because that is the order on a written score. Lots of pop songs use strings to add a classical touch. Brass is also used a lot, but more in a bigband setting than in an orchestral way. A lot of big classical pieces also have a choir added to their orchestra.
Besides these traditional parts of an orchestra, there are two sections I always consider when creating an orchestral song: band (electric bass, guitars, drums, keys) and exotic instruments that you don’t find in your regular symphony orchestra, such as theremin, or celtic or asian instruments. Yes, these do fit in categories such as woodwinds or percussion, but I group them apart because of their particular sound.
You don’t need the entire orchestra when writing an orchestral song, as I said. You can choose certain sections, or even parts of sections, for example strings, low brass and a xylophone. Or all woodwinds except the flutes, plus your acoustic guitar. Get creative!