How to create an orchestral song #3: Putting it all together

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How to create an ochestral song #1: Putting it all together • CharlotteBax.nl

Hey guys,

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?

  1. Prepping your song: Basic tools you need, how to analyze and prep your song and choosing your ensemble.
  2. Voicings, harmony and polyphony: Different techniques to arrange your basic chords into something bigger
  3. 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!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! • CharlotteBax.nl

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.

Finishing touches

Now you have all MIDI parts recorded, let’s make them sound their very best.

Key switches

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.

Velocity

Then, check all parts for velocity. Make sure musical phrases are all in the same velocity range and add or enhance accents.

Humanizing

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.

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! • CharlotteBax.nl

Mixing

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!).

Want more? Become my Patron and get access to the complete “How to create an orchestral song” ebook with additional content, extra worksheets, tables, and examples.

Download the complete guide to how to create an orchestral song • CharlotteBax.nl

 

How to create an orchestral song #2: Voicings, harmony and polyphony

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How to create an ochestral song #1: Voicings, harmony & polyphony • CharlotteBax.nl

Hey guys,

In this second part of how to create an orchestral song, I will show you tons of ways to transform your basic guitar or piano chords to interesting harmonizations.

Did you miss a part of these series? Here you can find everything at a glance:

  1. Prepping your song: Basic tools you need, how to analyze and prep your song and choosing your ensemble.
  2. Voicings, harmony and polyphony: Different techniques to arrange your basic chords into something bigger
  3. Putting it all together: After theory it’s hands-on time! I present you my action plan for producing this baby. (Online 27/4)

Don’t forget to download the awesome checklist I’ve created for you!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! • CharlotteBax.nl

The orchestration process in a nutshell

What you will be doing through the entire orchestration process is basically the following:

  • Pick a section of your song;
  • Decide on the ensemble section you will be using for the basic accompaniment;
  • Pick a voicing;
  • Pick a rhythmic form to execute said voicing;
  • Repeat to thicken your arrangement;
  • Add additional polyphonic elements if applicable.

As a general rule of thumb the verses are more straightforward and simple, choruses are fatter and more elaborate. Try not to give everything away in the first time a section appears, but build it up to a climax or anticlimax.

Picking a voicing

Chords played in a higher range sound lighter than chords played in a lower range. However, if you take your chords too low, they sound muddy and incomprehensible. Based on the natural harmonic series, you can simplify your chord to a power chord or just a unison octave.

If you’re self-accompanying on piano, chances are you already do this instinctively, to keep your songs bright and clear. Great job! Now remember this when you start to write your orchestral harmonies. Based on this principle I made a small list of voicings that ALWAYS work.

Of course, this is not a set of rules – experiment and find your own signature voicings!

High & narrow

Played in a high range and with the chord notes as close together as possible. This sounds really light and fragile. I usually pair this with a bass note in a medium range, to keep it cohesive.

Medium & narrow

Played in a medium range and with the chord notes as close together as possible. This is a really straightforward way of accompaniment. I use it almost all the time when I’m singing and playing the piano simultaneously. On the piano I pair this most of the time with unison octaves or power chords in my left hand.

Medium & wide

Played in a medium range with notes spaced apart. Not exactly a really convenient way of playing the piano, but when used in strings or brass, it sounds quite epic.

Low & wide

Basically the same as above, but in a lower range. This has more body and goes very well with strong voices.

Power chords

Power chords are chords without a third. I use them as a pianist quite often in my left hand as bass. These are really convenient as a filler to give an arrangement instantly more body.

Doubling

When you’re in a really low range, even power chords can start to sound muddy. To give my bass some extra body, I use octave doubling quite a lot. When used in very high ranges, it has a little spooky effect, especially when used with string harmonics. Octave doubling is also very useful in flute/piccolo parts to make them stand out more.

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! • CharlotteBax.nl

Rhythmic form

It’s kinda boring if you pick a nice voicing and just play whole notes, as some kind of pad. Sometimes it’s xactly what you need, but more often it’ not. Time to make it more interesting!

The quickest and easiest way is to add some kind of rhythmic component to your voicing. I’ve listed a few for you:

Pad

As described above, this is a very basic way to add an orchestral touch to your song: just let some section (usually strings) play long notes and you immediately crate some romance or drama.

Pulsating pad

This is one of my personal favourites: just rhythmic pulsating of the same notes, usually in eighths. Harmonically it is very calm, but because of the repeating staccato notes, it still has some kind of drive.

Arpeggios

Instead of playing all notes at once, try arpeggiating them, one after the other. It gives some sense of movement, even with only one instrument. It’s even more fun to layer arpeggios, this can create a very cool effect!

Rhythmic motifs

Instead of just a pulsating pad, or a simple arpeggio, you can also create small, repeating rhythmic motifs. A bit like a guitar riff. You can let all the instruments in a section play the same (or a similar) motif, but you can also mix it up to create something that sounds more polyrhythmic.

After creating the basic orchestral accompaniment, you can fill in the details by adding ornamentation, chord additions, and countermelodies.

Of course you are not bound to just using one method, or only the ways shown above. Combine, freestyle, customize and find your own signature sound! This is just a starting point.

Download my super-actionable checklist for an orchestral song to transform your song into something super epic!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! • CharlotteBax.nl

How to create an orchestral song #1: Prepping your song

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How to create an ochestral song #1: Prepping your song • CharlotteBax.nl

Hey guys,

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:

  1. Prepping your song: Basic tools you need, how to analyze and prep your song and choosing your ensemble.
  2. Voicings, harmony and polyphony: Different techniques to arrange your basic chords into something bigger.
  3. 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!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! • CharlotteBax.nl

 

First things first, I want to make two things clear:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 voice

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.

DAW

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.

MIDI keyboard

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.

Virtual instruments

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!)

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! • CharlotteBax.nl

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:

Character

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.

Song structure

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.

Chords

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!

Want to get hands-on already? Download my super-practical step by step guide to creating an orchestral song to transform your basic song to a fully orchestrated version!

Download your orchestral song checklist and get started right away! • CharlotteBax.nl

How I created my December Song cover

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How I created my December Song cover • CharlotteBax.nl

Have you already seen it? On Youtube?

A few days ago, I uploaded my version of Peter Hollens’ December Song for his cover contest. Check it out!

 

Give it a thumbs up if you like it 🙂 This is the original song by the way:

 

But how did I create this cover? I’ll tell you a bit about it!

1 – Print & analyze

Peter made a lot of MIDI files and sheet music available for this contest: from easy choral arrangements and piano arrangements to his own 8-part difficult a capella version.

I printed that version, an easy choral version and the original piano accompaniment. The easy choral version I used to analyze the music: which chords progressions were used?

2 – Practice & transpose

When I had figured out the chords, I could very easily practice the song. What key was comfortable to sing in? Even half a tone could make all the difference (I guess that’s why Peter’s original is in the key of freaking G flat with the annoying amount of 6(!) accidentals).

3 – Orchestration

I knew beforehand I wanted to make a sweet orchestral arrangement for my December Song cover, maybe with some electronics subtly mixed in. This takes quite some time, as there’s a lot of detail to it. For some parts I created my own melodic lines derived from the chord analysis. For other parts, I referenced or copied the printed sheet music.

   Learn how I create my orchestrations!

4 – Vocals

During orchestration, I also add in the vocal parts using some ugly synth sound. At the end, I replace them with some nice recordings. This was the first time I would actually do the majority using my chest voice and only the high notes in head, so that was quite scary! But I think it turned out quite well!

I listened to a lot of the entries, and there was some serious competition: really good singers, a few piano entries, a cello entry, someone doing sign language and even an electronic dance version. Fingers crossed and hoping Peter notices my entry and listens to the end!

Usually, I record my voice 3 or 5 times per part and make everything into a sweet Enya-like choir, but this time I only used 1 track per part and added some subtle stabilizing plugins, such as a bit of fattening, compression and pitch correction. I believe every singer should use a little pitch correction, even if you’re the best singer in the world. It makes your vocal lines a little tighter and that helps to blend them into the rest of the music.

5 – Mixing

Well, this one is kind of self-explanatory. Even if you only use 1 instrument and a voice, you need to find the right ratio.

If you’re working on something bigger, it’s important to take breaks: even if you can work on a mix for 10 hours straight while only pausing to refill your teacup, you get so immersed in your mix that you can’t hear it right anymore. Take a break for a few days and then revisit the project. You can make some tweaks with a fresh hearing.

6 – Video

Ah man, that dreaded video. I’m really not the video type of person. I’m not scared of people hearing me sing, but looking dorky on some video is a whole other kind of story! First I recorded my face playbacking to my own recordings. It was awful. I don’t have a good quality camera and I certainly have no talent for playbacking! Though I did wear a nice blouse. I basically looked like a Christmas present with shiny fabric and ribbons and stuff 🙂

Anyway, that playback recording was horrible, and totally not suitable for a good entry for this December Song cover contest. So I decided to do something else! A lyric video. Thank you iMovie for your beautiful backgrounds and endless possibilities. And not to forget the user-friendliness. I love that. So now I had a lyric video. It may not show me as a person, but at least it looks ten times better!

 

Have you ever participated in a Youtube cover contest?

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Style copying: 5 steps to using someone’s musical style without losing your own

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Style copying: 5 steps to using someone's musical style without losing your own • CharlotteBax.nl

As a composer, there comes a point in your career when someone asks you to write a piece that sounds like “composer X”. For example a film producer who want a score that sounds like Mozart for a historic drama, or a score with the sound of some other movie’s score. For example they want a scene that sounds like the Breaking Bad intro.

It’s not weird or uncommon that people ask for this, or when they send a mockup of the film with some tracks added to make clear what they want.

Howver, there is a little bump in the road: you can’t just copy some other music. That’s plagiarism. But how can you write music, using some other composer’s style, without losing your own sound? Without braking any copyrights? Charlie to the rescue with 5 steps to style copying!

5 steps to musical style copying • CharlotteBax.nl

1 – Listen to inspirational music

Don’t only listen to the example track someone sent you, but check out the entire album. Look for other music by that composer. Find music that originates from the same period and genre. Spotify is your best friend! Mark your favourites, create a little inspo playlist or write down what parts really inspire you.

2 – Analyze what you hear

Analyze the music. Try using your ears and a piano, or get hold of an orchestral score. Look at used rhythms, chords, melodic characteristics and what instruments are used in particular functions, for example melody, countermelody, pads, arpeggios.

Take notice if a composer uses particular instrument doubles for a part. For example I use harp doubled with celesta quite frequently. You could say that’s a characteristic for me as a composer.

I know lots of musician really hate this part (guilty too!) but trust me: it’s totally worth it to actually know what the hell you’re doing.


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3 – Compare to… you!

You probably noticed lots of things while analyzing your inspirational music that you like. Things you like to do yourself. Little things like a certain chord progression, or a particular instrument double, or a little motif that caught your eye (or ear)…

Make a list of all those things, but only – and I mean ONLY – when you really like said chord, motif or thingy.

Long long ago, when I was a young student in Groningen (that really is long ago!) we had to write a piece using the style of Ennio Morricone. Our teacher showed us the movie Cinema Paradiso (check it out, it’s very beautiful. I even cried) and we had to choose one of the musical themes to work with. I chose the title theme and these things really captured me:

  • Very long melodic phrases
  • Phrases often start with an anacrusis
  • Countermelody does a lot of 3rd / 6th parallelling
  • Pedal point
  • All filled in with arpeggiated chords

4 – Choose your characteristics

Now it’s come down to picking the characteristics you want to work with. Do you need to write something that sounds like it could’ve been written by said inspirational composer? Choose more characteristics. Do you have a lot of creative freedom, make it more your own thing by choosing less features!

Two questions that can help you:

  • Which characteristics are most typical for this composer?
  • Which characteristics suit my own style really well?

5 – Style copying – write that stuff!

Time to make it all your own! Write your own thematic material and crate something beautiful from it by using some of the other composer’s features.

Don’t stress out if you don’t use everything you wanted to use,and don’t be afraid to try something you initially didn’t choose. Remember this is a trick, a formula, not an absolute rule. It’s important to have fun!

 

Want to hear an example? Check out my “Morriconic” music.

   “Cinema Paradiso” by Ennio Morricone on Spotify    “Child theme” by yours truly on Soundcloud

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