Composition tips

COMPOSING TRICKs, TIPPs and HINTs

GENERAL:

– try singing the melody line. Good melodies are often sing-able

– when modulating to a new key, try changing the arrangement as well, to make things more
interesting

– make middle voice/harmony instruments (not melody or bass) play at half or double tempo to
add texture

– choose your focus/subject instruments and make sure that they are always clearly heard
(volume, EQ)

– try a little compression on sampled instruments that don’t have an even intensity, EQ if they
lack an even timbre (make them similar by subtracting or adding a common group of
frequencies).

– compare your mix with others from this forum and live players on recordings

– if you add other ensembles to an orchestra like a rockband or a lot of synthiestuff, compress
and limit the rockband like hell to leave space and dynamic range for the orchestra

– When you write a melody, sometimes it’s a good idea to look at ways you can cut down the
amount of notes in the melody, while still achieving the same feel – don’t be afraid to be a bit
relentless in doing so

– something I always think of when scoring is – sometimes less is more

– on’t have too many different things going on at once. It makes for cluttered sound. If you look
at scores, even in tutti passages, there may only be two ,three, or four different ideas
happening at once.

– If a mix sounds cluttered or muddy, the first thing I always do is change / simplify the
arrangement, before I even think about volume levels / compression / EQ etc. etc. Be ruthless.
No matter how much you may love that trombone countermelody, if it’s muddying the mix it’s
gotta go!

– Start with a simple melody. Develop chordal structure first to assist the melody, then, instead
of chording, break that chord into an intricity of parts throughout the orchestra. Like
sculpting, less is more, so the idea is economy of notes (so when the orchestra swells you have
somewhere to take the piece.)

– What emotion are you trying to convey in the piece? If you don’t feel emotion when you’re
listening back to the composition, stop, either rewrite or start over.

– Play the pieces in bar to bar. If scoring, look at ways to humanize your score like expression
controllers and bpm editing. Do not move ahead until the previous bar is where you want it.
Massage the dynamics using expression cc#11 until the section sounds convincing. A-B your
mixes

– Be picky!! Make sure each Inst. sounds the way u want it. Go back and redo stuff that u notice
isnt right a week or 2 later in retrospect (even if your piece has already been delivered..)

– Nothing should have perfect sync, maybe once in awhile, but making every track start a bit
apart will make it sound more realistic.

ORCHESTRA:

– if you put some soft EQ on the higher frequencies of your strings you sometimes get a nicer
color and bow-sound to your ensemble

– if you like to add more warmth to your brass phrases, try to support the lines or stacc parts
with contrabsassoon or bassoon (depends on the key range)

– don’t forget to use the tuba

– If you play a fanfare/march trumpets line, try doubling it with piccolo higher octave

– moderately fast harp plucked notes doubled by tremolo violins or violas is one of Horner’s
most frequent effects

– reducing release of woods and winds samples to 150-170ms is very useful for most patches

– Write what you want to write but realize the ‘tools’ (samples/patches) you have to work with. If
you really wanted a solo french horn for the melody and a flute (sample) just plain sounds
better – use the flute. Don’t be pig-headed about this. When the Philharmonic plays your stuff
change it to solo french horn.

– ‘sweeping’ triple octave violin lines are even more powerful with woodwinds doubling
(especially clarinets, flute, and piccolos.)

– Cimbasso is perfect for ‘mellowing brass’ parts

– in string arrangments have the 1/2 violins play the accompaniment while the violas and cellos
play the melody (my son’s who plays the viola has requested this)

– double the harp with a timps (p or pp)

– sometimes think of your choir as a member of your percussion section.

– a good orchestrated piece barely needs eqing, mastering or too many changes on volume
levels. it just sounds good

– for crescendos: medium – use a harp glissando and sus. cymbal roll crescendo-ing up to the
target downbeat

– large – use a timpani roll crescendo with a timpani hit and crash cymbal hit on downbeat

– hollywood – use everything but the kitchen sink

– double the timpani or bass pizz with piano one octave lower

– use a little lfo-pitch detuning on sustained string harmonics chords for that ‘The Shining’
touch

– Bassoons add great warmth to orchestrations

– Flute and harp together are great for glissando effects

– Timpani will add punch to the brass especially in action oriented cues

– some 40Hz of EQ on bass instruments will give you that bottom end you can feel through the
speakers

– Woodwinds are great for colouration, not just solo work. Flutes can thicken up a string melody
by playing unison

– In the woodwind family, an octave doubling is usually more effective than unison

– French Horns, Cellos and Bassoons are great for those stirring “low end” melodies. Male choir
blends in here nicely too

– Brass staccs can be accented with picc flute and xylophone

– Cellos are great in not only playing the root of a chord but also playing unison to the violins. It
gives a spread of string melody from the left to the right

– Let your musicians breath! Not only brass and wood, but also the other instruments. Phrasing
is derived from breathing. Always sing your parts.

– Improving your orchestration and composing technique isn’t all about what you put in. It’s
also about learning what to cut out.

– in order not to write unplayable parts, stop breathing while starting your horn line at the
chosen tempo. If you get red in the face before the line is over, stop your sequencer, put a rest
in and start from the top again for the next line

– Unless your creating a Fanfare or Military type Piece, Try to not use a click. Try to keep stuff as
flowing and “liquid” as possible. Its easy to keep track of stuff with a grid or click but without
the subtle “human” time deviations , mid orch. can sound really mechanical.

– Play in EACH line . Dont play in String or Horn part all at once as though they`re Chords…

– Use as many Dynamic possiblilities as yur samples will allow…

– Harp chords sometimes sound better when slightly (very quick) arpeggiated

– Try more adventurous combinations of Inst. Thats the High point of these sample Libs. (Think
Bernard Herrmann) The possblilities have not been tapped

– Harp with vibraphone octave lower is a nice touch

– Harps with vibraphone octave lower 16th or 32 rest behind the harp adds a magical feel.
Double the harp with a glockenspeil (glock octave or 2 higher) again for that magical feel.

– Phrases with glockenspeil doubled octave higher adds more pronounced phrasing

– Don’t do what I just realized I DO!!! Like stated earlier make the timing uneven (not too much
however) and add slight tempo changes throughout the piece

– Learn how to actually write music, in your pieces add the signs like cresc. dim, grace notes etc.
It will enable you to write it so it could actually be played by an orchestra.

– In brass staccato passages try these combos:
– Trumpet in the higher register, 1/2 violins doubled with very little piccolo/flute added,
– French Horns, clarinet, viola octave lower then trumpets
– Trombones, bassoons, cellos and timpani in bass
– Tubas, basses and contrabassoon in 8va
– Use bass drum doubled with a hard timpani strike for the prominent beats.
– Of course if it is not only staccato playing then either use divisi or double the intruments that
add the most colour and power.

– Last of all experiment and takes courses, there is no better way then using both

– Try to keep your sound transparent: Double in the unison only if you absolutely have to
(because you’re after a specific effect or sound). Unison doubling tends to make the sound very
thick and heavy, but it increases the perceived volume of a part only marginally. Therefore it’s
no good solution if a line doesn’t get through and needs to be heard better. Try to double in
octaves instead, or (as mentioned before) cut out other parts. Another good solution is to have
a line double different other lines consecutively.

– I use crossfading patches for all notes longer than staccato and for all instruments of the
orchestra. You can achieve a lot of articulations (sustained, marcato, crescendi, …) with them
and play very intuitively and expressively

– Edit your trumpet sounds for more realism:

– I’ve found that the trumpet sections in most orchestral libraries tend to sound rather synthy. A
solution is to edit the filter settings: I found that crossfading trumpets sound most realistic
with a moderate amount of filtering. In most sample libraries, either no filters are used at all,
or the filter settings are too drastic, producing a very synthy sound. Try to find a balance

DRUMS:

– Please remember when programing drums that human drummers only have two arms and two
feet and that the parts of the drum kit are seperated by physical space. Do not have your
drummer banging on 6 different crashes while playing 32nd notes on the open-close-open hi-
hats while double pedaling the kick

2 thoughts on Composition tips

  1. Although I have never studied Timpani I have a hankering to compose around Timpani. I enjoyed your lists of do’s and don’ts to improve on composing and wonder if you can direct me to an internet accessible tutor on Timpani.

  2. Henri Vartio

    very useful… helped me alot.

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