Today is the third and last part of the how to create an orchestral song series! I hope you’re really fired up now, because today is the day we will put it all together: your musical choices, your preferred ensemble and of course the ways you want to shape those chord progressions into a beautiful orchestral accompaniment.
Missed an episode?
- 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.
Don’t forget to download the awesome checklist I’ve created for you!
Creating an orchestral template
The first step you need to take is to open a new and empty project in your DAW, add some MIDI tracks and load all the virtual instruments you need. This is your very personal orchestra!
When you load your instruments, be sure to pick the “master keyswitch” version of every instrument. This way you don’t have to add all the different playing styles manually. Don’t be surprised if opening and loading your project takes at least half an hour afterwards – that just comes with high quality samples and is totally worth it. Whenever you want to work on this particular project, just open the file and go make a pot of tea or something.
I find it easy to work with multi-timbral tracks and load every orchestra section on a different track. They told me it saves CPU. (I’m not a computer geek. I’m a musician.) When you use this trick, assign every instrument in a section to a different MIDI channel, otherwise they will all play every part.
Recording and editing the song basics
Before actually starting to orchestrate your song, you actually need to record the song basics. Start with your usual guitar or piano part and then add all the vocals. Edit them the way you’re used to (cutting off startings and endings, a bit of tuning here and there, etc). Also immediately record all additional vocals, so you know immediately if an orchestral part goes well with it.
Creating all orchestral parts
Just take it section by section. Sometimes I just use strings, other times I add woodwinds or brass. A great way is to play the complete voicings on your MIDI piano, copy it to every instrument in that particular section, mute all notes and then unmute every melodic line for the right instrument.
Now you have all MIDI parts recorded, let’s make them sound their very best.
First things first: add keyswitches. These are notes outside the instrument range that change the playing style. Very handy if you want staccato or legato parts, or bowed versus pizzicato phases.
When opening your virtual instrument plugin, you should see a list of all keyswitches and their effects.
Then, check all parts for velocity. Make sure musical phrases are all in the same velocity range and add or enhance accents.
If you didn’t record the parts with a MIDI keyboard, but added all notes with your mouse, this is a good time to select every damn note and humanize the position. I strongly advise against humanizing velocity, because that ruins your hard work from the previous step.
The separate parts are done now! Time for some light mixing. Pan all instrument sections globally to their normal position in a live orchestra.
Then add a nice reverb. I prefer one that’s impulse response based, because it is the easiest to actually work with. More dry signal for instruments in the front, more wet signal for instruments in the back. It’s not difficult at all!
Don’t forget to also mix in your vocals and piano/guitar part, if that was’t only for sketch and support for playing the orchestral parts.
Here you are, a very great sounding demo of your first orchestral song!
If you’re really good with the technical details and mixing is your strong suit, you can take it from here yourself. Otherwise, go find a nice mixing engineer to team up with to make it sound perfect (and to make a new friend!).