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Classical Orchestration in a MIDI Environment

fredag 17 november 2017

As this is the very first blog entry at ArrangerOnline.com, we'll take the opportunity to have a deeper look into classical orchestration versus the ever expanding industry of sample libraries. I am Marcelino Lerma Jr, a writer and audio engineer by profession, based in Los Angeles, and a musician at heart. Although I admit, I never got any further as a guitarist, besides plucking the strings now and then to impress ladies.

With me today is Carl Falkenau, who is a seasoned composer and music producer by profession, but apparently the new kid on the block when it comes to offering music arrangement and composing services online. 

So, Carl, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. The first question I'd like to ask you is how you got this whole idea, in a time when just anybody can buy a Mac with Logic, start composing, arranging, producing, and have an array of sampled orchestral instruments at their disposal right from scratch?

Hey Mars, I'm glad to be here. Well, first of all I actually prefer Cubase, but that's just me, haha. Yeah, so I got this idea way back when people were still forced to use desktops along with their DAW's (Digital Audio Workstations), for getting any kind of respectable performance out of the machine. 

Sure, we had quite a few nice sounding sample libraries from well-renowned developers even back then, but for the aspiring music producer, the price for such a setup was steep and certainly not something you'd want to carry down to your local Starbucks one of those days when you felt extraordinary creative. 

Then came the music laptop revolution, meaning you wouldn't need a giant budget, a lot of outboard gear, and a computer the size of a 70's refrigerator in order to compose, arrange and produce music anymore. Singer/songwriters as well as bands from every possible genre started popping up, producing their own material on their own machines and releasing stuff on their own indie labels. Gradually, the variety of tools available for music producers have become overwhelming to some degree, and while there is a lot that you can learn by trying out new plugins or just stick with the stock plugins in your DAW of choice, there are still things that demand going back to the good'ol analog drawing table and learn the hard way. Preferably by an elderly, crazy artistic, white-haired guy who forces you to use a pen and an empty sheet.

In this case, I'm talking about arranging- and orchestration techniques.

Meaning you're basically left with two choices; either consult guys like Dumbledore or Beethoven if you'd want to improve your skills, or get somebody to do the job for you?

You pretty much nailed it there. Carl Falkenau at the Newman Scoring Stage

So, I get it you had a teacher at music college back in the day who looked and acted just like that? 

I actually had several, haha. But they weren't all into composing and scoring. One of them was my piano professor. However, I believe that almost anyone with talent who put their mind to it, can become a self-taught, highly skilled arranger and orchestrator. But you are sure to save yourself a lot of time by learning from those with experience in how it's done professionally, not having to invent the wheel all over again.

Well, having concluded that it may take some old school training as is often the case with any art, how would you incorporate this in an environment where the computer takes the role as both the score sheet and the orchestra, and besides arranging and orchestrating, you are basically conducting the musicians from your producer chair as well?  

Frankly, it's a lot of work if you want it to sound as intended, which naturally, is what you always want. Now, being able to utilize, in a sense, a live recorded string ensemble or an entire symphony orchestra inside your computer, with a fraction of the budget you would need to hire a live orchestra, is a godsend to modern composers. Especially for a guy like me, who used to spend hours and hours during his teens in front of a computer and mixer, layering ensemble strings from PCM-synths, equing and trying to camoflauge the obvious sample loops and horrible release trails by adding lots of reverb and editing MIDI-volume. I even used to slightly alter the pitch on one layer to make it sound more "live" when played together with the other, and despite getting pretty good results sometimes, it still sounded like crap compared to the multi-gigabyte libraries of today of course. 

But as you said yourself, the one sitting in his or her producer chair is also the conductor, and when put into perspective, that means nobody is going to breath air and life into the orchestra but you. This brings us to the second skill needed in this case, which is entirely from a technical standpoint and no doubt an art in itself as well. I'm talking about the understanding of both MIDI, as well as the science behind advanced sample technology and how to make it play nicely with the story you want to tell musically. You'd want it to feel organic, alive and constantly evolving, which means that in most situations, simply pressing a few keys and hoping for a miracle won't cut it.

Do you need a white-haired old guy to teach you those things as well?

Not really. Trial and error is mostly the name of the game here. Well, at least as long as you don't deem it necessary to go deep into the hexa-decimals, which even surpasses my knowledge. Then you'd probably need a degree in rocket engineering or something. Yea okay, I may have exaggerated a bit there. But then again, having somebody more experienced helping you out is never a bad idea.

That makes sense. Now, you are the producer, as well as the composer I might add, behind The Grim, which for those unfamiliar with the name is cinematic industrial metal. As a big fan, especially of the debut album "Sanctified" which blew me away after reading about it for the first time in a UK rock magazine, I've always been curious about how much of its content was actually produced using sample libraries?

Well, I'm glad you like it. "Sanctified" was, and still is special to me, and as you might have guessed, a great deal of it was produced using samples. Most of the orchestral parts were entirely sample based, whereas some of them got layered with live instruments, and that goes for the guitars and drums as well. I think I even might have layered the vocals with samples here and there to flesh it out even more. In my world, bigger is always better.

Wow, now I can rest easy knowing I was right. So, as a classically educated composer and music arranger, how did you become so sample-oriented in the first place?

Guess what, you wave a shiny synthesizer in front of an 80's kid who's more or less forced to practice playing the piano every day and he'll sure as hell want to try out that synthesizer whenever he gets the chance, haha. I finally got my own from my parents on confirmation day. It was easily the happiest day of my early life and from there on, I was totally hooked on anything that would involve sequencers, synthesizers and samplers in the process of creating music.

What synthesizer was it?

A Korg T3 Music Workstation. Despite not having used it for many years, I still have it to this day, and I'll never part with it. 

I totally get you. It's like your first love, only this one won't ditch you for a more experienced player.

I guess that's a way to put it.

So are there any limitations when working with samples? I mean, surely there must be, as everything is basically pre-recorded in tiny snippets, right?

Yes, there are still limitations, but not nearly on the same scale as it used to be just a few years back. Bigger ensembles are still preferable. Solo instruments, particularly in the string family, not so much, which is why I still rely on hiring solo musicians on behalf of the client for a desired solo part, if it simply isn't feasible using samples. 

Thankfully though, you don't have to alter the arrangement the same way you had to in the old days, just because it sounded synthy, you got the "machine gun effect" (the same sample playing over and over), or there were missing articulations for the specific expression you were trying to achieve. 

Which means you can get a pretty convincing "live feel" by todays standards?

If you're good at what you do, you should be able to make your arrangements sound 99,9% "live", leaving the last 0,1% to the really hardcore classically trained, with unearthly ears.

Such as yourself?

Oh, you got me! I wish I could say yes, but I have been fooled many times. Fortunately, I'm far from the only one though, as sampled arrangements are used frequently in the top charts, as well as in video games and blockbuster Hollywood movies. Apparently, Hans Zimmer even has his own proprietary symphonic library which he sometimes layers with live takes. As a funny sidenote. I once told a casting executive at an opera house that he was listening to the Stockholm Philly, when demoing my latest piece. He totally believed it, saying that you could clearly hear that it was indeed the Stockholm Philly, before clearing his throat and forcing himself to a somewhat awkward laugh when I finally told him that I had used samples. That should give you a pretty good idea.

I see, and I hope you do understand that I'll never believe my ears again when listening to supposedly live-recorded orchestras after this interview, right?

Well, you really shouldn't believe your eyes when watching your next Hollywood flick either. Those guys do it all the time with visuals, so why shouldn't we?

Haha, alright, you definitely got a point.

It was a pleasure Carl, and I'm pretty sure our readers will find this to be just as enlightening as I did. All the best until next time.

Thanks Mars. Take care.

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