On to Orchestration

8:49 pm

The Orchestration I course at Berklee, with Ben Newhouse, is turning out to be quite informative, extensive and enjoyable. I’m learning loads of new things each week (and not having to grope around ‘experimenting’ in order to do it).

This past week had a number of interesting workshop activities.

First was a short section extracted from Bach’s Chorale #185. The activity was to arrange the first four (full) bars of the following for full strings (Violins I and II, Viola, Cello and Double Bass).


I ended up with this. Here’s the MP3:

Bach Chorale 185 Excerpt – MP3 – 192kBps – 595kB – 0:25 min.

Turned out that this export wasn’t what I’d originally produced. As it happens, when you close a SONAR project and then reload, Kontakt 3 (the plug-in we’re using as a sampling synth) doesn’t reload the actual instrument configuration that was saved. Thankfully, I’d saved a preset, and was able to reproduce what I’d really wanted:

Bach Chorale 185 Excerpt – fixed – MP3 – 192kBps – 599kB – 0:25 min.

The difference is subtle, but the second one should sound less like mush.

The next workshop activity was also interesting. We were given a 4-chord progression – Am – F – C – E – which we then needed to orchestrate as a harmonic arrangement. One of the examples for this activity was Ben’s “Desperaux’s Love Theme” (more of Ben’s work here). I had some fun with this. I hope this is what he was expecting. Here’s the music, with a melody added after the progression is established:

Harmonic Arrangement – Am-F-C-E – MP3 – 128kBps – 770kB – 0:48 min.

Finally, the week’s assignment was kind of the reverse. We started off with a melody and chords:


From this we needed to come up with an orchestration around the melody for full strings. I chose to write for solo cello (duh) but unfortunately, the Kontakt 3 sample library doesn’t include a solo cello sample, so the ensemble legato ‘voice’ had to suffice. It’s a little electronic sounding, but gets the point across:

String Orchestration – MP3 – 128kBps – 525kB – 0:33 min.

Overall it’s been an ‘extra’ education (above learning orchestration) getting up to speed on Sibelius 6, Kontakt 3 and SONAR 8 PE all at the same time. The SONAR course from last term left me with just enough information to get going – far from what was promised in the course description. That’s life, I suppose. One of the only valuable things from that course was a SONAR template with a preset mastering plug-in all set up. I load my finished audio exports into that, tweak EQ as needed and export as a master to 44.1kHz/16bit for MP3. It rounds things out nicely without a lot of work.

Getting Sibelius 6, Kontakt 3 and SONAR 8 to all play nice together has been challenging. I’ve worked out a system where I can compose in Sibelius, export MIDI to SONAR and then load a String Orchestra preset into the Kontakt plug-in. At that point the Piano Roll view provides a quick way to delete Sibelius’ MIDI CC data (I keep the Velocity) and start adjusting Modulation and Expression to get dynamics.

Coming up with that workflow required about a week of experimenting and understanding the various quirks involved – like Kontakt’s annoying habit of resetting the instrument volume faders to -6db (or less) if the volume is adjusted in ANY way in SONAR. That was pretty frustrating, let me tell you. Once the volume has been modified, it’s no longer possible to set the corresponding Kontakt instrument to anything more than -6db. If you do, it just gets reset when playback starts. Not sure what’s going on there, but deleting Sibelius’ exported MIDI CC#7 (Volume) data before playing back takes care of it as long as you don’t touch the track’s volume. I tend to bounce each MIDI track to its own audio track – as hot as it will go without exceeding 0db – so I don’t usually adjust the MIDI channels’ volume faders anyway.

Lots of good things to say about these three software packages, once you start to get below the surface and get comfortable with a workflow. The bulk of time is now spent actually composing, rather than fighting with technology – as it should be!

Sibelius 6, in particular, is pretty impressive. It’s about as close to a music word processor as one might imagine. Once you get handy with the key combinations, you can literally type your music into the staff as you go, pausing now and then to reposition the cursor with the mouse. The thing even understands expression and technique entries, and will play back pizzicato mezzo piano, follow crescendos and diminuendos and play fermata and staccato notes if that’s what you’ve indicated. Pretty cool.