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 •

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! •

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.


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.

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


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 •


How to transcribe a piano piece to string quartet

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How to transcribe a piano piece to string quartet •

Do you ever think by yourself: “What a beautiful piece of music, if only it was written for my instrument!”

Well, how about arranging it yourself? It’s not difficult at all, you just have to keep some simple things in mind and be familiar with your own performing skills and and those of the other people in your ensemble.

Today I will teach you how to arrange a piece of piano music for string quartet! 🙂

Some basics to keep in mind

Of course, there are a few rules you have to live by.

1 – Choose a suitable piece of music

Some pieces are too easy, or just have not enough layers. For example, a piece with only a melody in the right hand and arpeggiated chords in the left hand is less suitable, because it only has 2 parts.

For this example I chose the first Promenade from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Musorgsky, because it shows different amounts of layers already in the first 8 bars.

2 – Know your instrument

What are the highest and lowest notes you can play? Can you play 2 or more notes at once? Ask the same questions to the other people in your ensemble.

3 – Keep an eye on the level of difficulty

You may be able to play fast notes or big chords, but maybe your fellow musician is not at that level yet, or just doesn’t have big hands.

These basics not only apply to a string quartet, but to all musicians, instruments and ensembles.

Learn how to transcribe piano music to strings in 4 easy steps! >> Click To Tweet

Transcribe from piano to string quartet in 4 steps!

1 – Melody

First, start with the melody. Usually, this lies fairly comfortable within the G clef range, and can be played by the first violin. When it goes below the lowest G on a violin, you can assign this melody to the cello or viola.

2 – Bass

Then, check out the bass. You can assign this safely to the cello. Watch out for notes that go below the lowest C on a cello. If this is the case, transpose the entire phrase, or maybe a set of phrases.

3 – Inbetween voices

Now it gets interesting. When there’s 4 notes in a chord, it’s obvious. Just assign the leftover 2 notes to the second violin and the viola. Maybe you need to do some transposing, but most of the time it just fits the range perfectly.

When there’s more than 4 notes in a chord, you can do 2 different things:

  • Simplify to 4 notes per chord, or
  • Get savvy with double or multiple stops.

When you want to simplify the music, take a good look at it. Are there any separate voices and melodies? Try to follow those as close as possible. Is it just chord-filling? Look at what notes you already have in melody and bass and what notes are doubled. You don’t necessarily need to add all 3 G’s in a certain chord, make sure you have the B and D as well.

When you want to keep the music’s complexity, check for every. single. fucking. double stop if it is actually possible to play. For example, you can’t play a low A and C on a violin, because they both can only be played on the G string. Unless you let the violinist play the whole piece with a differently tuned violin.

In bar 3 you can see I assigned the highest and lowest of the “leftover notes” to the viola, and the middle one to the second violin. This is because neither one could practically or comfortably play the otherwise resulting third.

4 – Articulation

This is what makes transcribing from piano to strings so much fun: you can play with different articulations! With a piano, the hammer hits the snare, and you can do that soft or loud. But on a violin you can bow or pluck or bounce, you can bow at different parts of the snares, there’s so much more going on!

How to transcribe a piano piece to string quartet •

(Clicky for larger picture!)

It’s as simple as that! You just need a little bit of patience, because it takes a little time. But I guess that double checking all those double stops goes a lot faster when you’re a string instrument player yourself!

If you have any questions, just leave them in the comment section below 🙂

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My favourite books on music creation

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My favourite books on music creation •

As with every craftsman, I keep some professional literature on my bookshelf. Well… Some? A whole boat load actually! Books from basic music theory to songwriting to music in films and games – I have a whole shelf full of useful, impressive, (sometimes boring) and very interesting resources about writing and arranging music.

But which books on music creation are my favourites? Which ones are the most inspiring? Which are the must-have titles for you to buy?

1 – The Sound Effects Bible

By Ric Viers

This book is your complete guide when it comes to recording and creating sound effects. What kind of sounds effects are there, what are they used for, how do you synthesize them? How can you build your own foley stage, what do you need for field recording, and how do you pick the best place and time? All these questions will be answered very elaborately. Creating is sound effects is way more than just holding a microphone to a creaking door!

2 – The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films

By Doug Adams

When you buy this book, I feel you have to get the Complete Recordings too. This book is full of analyzed fragments of the score, cue by cue, riddled with sketch scores written by Shore himself.

When you listen to the LOTR soundtrack, it is unavoidable that you will recognize themes and link them to certain places or characters. The way Shore braided all these themes together is very impressive, to say at the least.

This book tells you all about how the themes are related, what sub-themes are derived from other themes, how every theme develops with the story and at last a chapter about recording the bunch. A great way to dive into the creation of my favourite soundtrack of all times. I get inspired every time I open this book.

Can’t wait until The Music of the Hobbit Films will hit the stores!

3 – On the Track

By Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright

A very heavy and expensive book, but totally worth it. This is your complete guide to the world of film music. Who are in the production team, what function to these people have, what do you need to take into account when crating a film score, in which ways can you use melody and harmony, how to recordings and post-production work – literally EVERYTHING is written down in this book.

Cool bonus feature is that the book is riddled with interviews from the big guys such as Hans Zimmer and John Williams, and of course a lot of score fragments, so you can literally learn from the best!

Buy the books

Want these books on music creation for yourself? Get them through the links below!

The Sound Effects Bible - Ric Viers

The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films - Doug Adams

On the Track - Fred Karlin & Rayburn Wright

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How to up your virtual orchestration game in 6 easy steps

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How to up your virtual orchestration game in 6 easy steps •

As a composer or songwriter, there’s no way you haven’t ever worked with MIDI or virtual instruments. Sure, you can produce some music with just your voice and a piano or guitar, or record some other musicians (and that’s perfectly fine!), but eventually you want more. You want strings, exotic instruments or maybe even a whole orchestra.

Problem is, people are expensive. Every person has an hourly rate for their work and an orchestra can easily be made up of 60 people or more! And then I’m note even talking about finding a recording studio big enough…

So, people invented MIDI. People invented awesome virtual instruments which, if used correctly, can sound like the real deal. But how on earth do you create a virtual orchestration that sounds like the real thing?

This is my plan of attack!

6 steps to upping your virtual orchestration game •

1 – Create your arrangement

Firstly, you need some music to start with. Choose your instruments and write your parts down in the piano roll window. You can do this by clicking with a mouse, or by playing on a MIDI keyboard, or by importing MIDI fils rendered by Finale or… Whatever suits your style and workflow.

I use the virtual instruments from the East West Composer Cloud. They sound wonderful and you have tons of different instruments at your fingertips for a reasonable monthly fee. Comes in quite handy if you can’t pay a few hundred dollars per package. ~ €30 per month is really affordable for even students.

2 – Add keyswitches

Whenever possible, I add the master keyswitch instrument to my track, and not just legato or staccato or whatever. This way, I can change the expression of every note in a part very easily by just placing a keyswitch note just before it. When you sing or play a melody, it’s never entirely legato, or staccato. There are tons of options: portato, with or without sordino, pizzicato, slides, trills, with or without vibrato, soft or hard attacks… Anything is possible!

3 – Set the velocity

Velocity is basically the speed with which you start a note. For example on a piano: if you slowly press a key, it will give a soft tone, quickly or more aggressively pressing a key results in a harsher tone.

For my way of virtual orchestration, I do this in two rounds: firstly, I set the general velocity for every section. When I’m done, I’m on to the details: accented notes, crescendos and decrescendos.

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4 – Humanize

Logic has this great function called “Humanize”: it lets you select a part (or all) of your notes and humanize them: displacing them a little, making them a little longer and shorter or softer or harder using a random algorithm, combined with some parameters you set yourself. No human ver plays everything perfectly straight like a robot, so neither should your virtual orchestration sound like one.

5 – Tempo

Just like not every note is played the same, neither is the tempo always exactly the same. The beginning and end of every musical phrase are a little slower, and at its peak it’s always a little faster. It takes some time, but add little, almost unnoticeable tempo changes in your song.

6 – Volume

This is largely coherent with velocity. When you have soft or loud parts, sometimes just low and high velocitis don’t cut it. A crescendo or descrescendo needs to actually sound like one. Use small volume changes to enhance the effect of your velocity changes.


That’s it! Now get to work yourself! Let me know if you have any questions, or just post a link to your music if this blogpost helped you a great deal! You can do that in the comment section below or on social media. I’d love to hear from you!

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How to arrange choral music in 6 easy steps

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How to arrange choral music in 6 easy steps •

Choral music: I grew up with it. At the age of 8 I started singing in choirs.  And I still do! I love vocal music and choral music is a major source of inspiration for me.

I love how all the parts are equal – everyone gets nice melodies, no one is stuck with the same boring notes over and over again. I also believe that my roots in choral music have had major influence on how I write music. Instead of focussing on a groove or chord progression, I focus on melodies and countermelodies, and that results in a totally different way of writing songs!

Today I want to teach you how I arrange choral music. There are a few steps I always follow when I work from a single melody to a full SATB piece.

1 – Set your boundaries

Before you start writing anything, make clear what you want to achieve. What song ar you arranging? For whom? Is it a professional choir or a group of enthusiasts without any vocal training? What are the highest and lowest notes they can sing and still sound good?

For example, a (semi) professional choir would probably like something difficult, a challenge. Usually the separate members are confident enough in their own voice to keep to their part, even when the harmonies are very dissonant or the rhythm irregular and illogical. They are not afraid of solo or divisi parts.

Take a regular amateur choir and it’s a whole different story: sometimes it is only a small group and there are not enough men to divide them into tenor and bass groups. They enjoy singing as a group activity and it has to be easy and fun. You make a amateur choir much, much happier with something that hasn’t many extremes in it. So probably no high A’s for soprano’s, but a high F is still very doable.

Make sure you are familiar with the particular choir you are writing for (if it is a commissioned piece) and what the special treats of the members are. Maybe they have a basso profundo in their ranks, or a countertenor with a great solo voice. Make use of it!

2 – Get familiar with the melody

Until you can dream it backwards. Write it down, play it a hundred times, hum it when you’re on your way to the supermarket: make sure that melody gets stuck in your head and you know very part of it. It makes it so much easier to come up with bass lines, counter melodies or that extra treble for the last verse.

Besides, it is much easier trying out chord progressions and parts when you don’t have to search for the notes of your initial melody all the time. It makes arranging a bit more intuitive.

3 – Add some nice chords

Very important: adding a basic chord structure to your song. Whether you’re writing more “vertical” or more polyphonic, setting a basic chord structure is very important to give some sense of direction to your music.

Establishing some basis also gives you a nice handhold for when you’re writing a song with a lot of the same verses (a hymn for example). You can see at a glance where, when and how you can change some chords to keep it interesting. You could add a pedal tone, change to a parallel key, use a tritone substitute or add some extra chords.

Learn how to arrange choral music in 6 easy steps in this great blog post! Click To Tweet

4 – Create the bass part

The two most prominent parts are the outer parts of your arrangement: bass and soprano (last one is 9 out of 10 times the melody). Make sure your bass line sounds logical and combines perfectly with your melody, even without the filler parts!

The best way to do this, is to have som understanding of counterpoint theory: this is a bunch of guidelines created over time, based on decades, maybe centuries of experience. These guidelines are based on the movement from interval to interval and which ones sound good (and therefore are allowed) and which ones don’t.

For example, very bluntly put, parallel movement from one perfect interval to another is kinda boring, so it is discouraged in the counterpoint rules. Now these rules aren’t everything of course, but it is a good thing to get to understand counterpoint – it is still of major influence in music composition today and knowing what exactly you’re doing is a plus too.

5 – Fill in the other parts

Based on the bass, melody and your chosen chords, you can fill in the other parts: alto and tenor. The basic function of these parts is to complete the chords and make your arrangement sound like a whole. Be still aware of the cointerpoint rules – they can be helpful in making decisions on which note to assign to which voice. This way you can prevent unintentional weird things happening in our music.

Also, when something doesn’t sound quite right, most of the times you can track it back to breaking a certain counterpoint rule!

As a last notion (damn, this starts to sound like some counterpoint praise rant blog), when you know the ancient rules of counterpoint composition, it is easier to play with and consciously break the rules. For example, I absolutely love to write parallel fifths for bass and tenor because it gives a sort of simplified, folksy sound. Don’t tell our dear friend Mr. Bach though, he would cringe at the thought of it!

6 – Add ornamentation!

Yay, You got your basic arrangement on paper! Now it is time to polish it. Got any large interval jumps in your part? Try to “walk” from one note to the other with smaller steps. Got some long notes? Make them more interesting by changing it into a little ornamental melody or a tremolo.

Play your arrangement a thousand times over and find the places that need something extra. Add some divisi notes, a treble voice for the last verse, check out a music theory book for all kinds of traditional musical ornaments and don’t forget to have fun with it 🙂

That’s it! Can’t make arranging choral music any easier for you. Just do it!

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