How to Orchestrate your Music?
How to choose which instruments plays which parts and which voices is incredibly important for shaping the overall sound, tone and balance of your music composition.
Today I have the honor to interview Enrique Ponce, an experienced composer and orchestrator who will share his tips and tricks with you.
Listen to his Amazing Music first
1. Hello Enrique, what is your background & story as a composer?
I guess you could say my musical career has its roots in what we call the “band world” here in the U.S. I started off on clarinet at the age of 13 (which in this profession is late) and picked up the piano not too long after that. Piano eventually became the primary instrument and I zeroed in my focus on my keyboard technique throughout my high school and undergrad years.
I earned my Bachelor’s in Commercial Music from the University of Texas at El Paso, and my Master’s in Scoring for Film, Television, & Video Games from the Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain. It wasn’t until I was about halfway through my undergrad that I really began pursuing a career in scoring for media.
The dream up until that point had been to be the next Beethoven or great concert composer; but there comes a time in everyone’s young life when the “what are you going to do?” question begins to incessantly bombard you from all directions.
This is what led me to scoring for visual media. I’d say my single greatest influence is the music of John Williams as well as many of the Russian Masters such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I pride myself in my orchestral abilities and I owe this to the 10+ years of having played in ensembles combined with my penchant for lush orchestral works.
As of now, I’ve recorded my music with both large and small orchestras around the globe (Spain, Hungary, England, Macedonia) for various projects and am eager to continue advancing my musical career.
2. What are your top tips on orchestration in cinematic music?
Know the orchestra in the real world. Cinematic music, in my opinion, is one of those genres in which it becomes way too easy to sound generic. Several factors contribute to this problem: relying on sample library ability, trying to sound like the top Hollywood composers all the time, or not having enough color in your orchestration.
I cannot stress enough to those wanting to go beyond sample libraries – GET AWAY from the idea that your samples are your friend. Sample libraries are a great tool, don’t get me wrong, but they often mislead or stunt a composer’s potential when writing a cue. Samples will always sound like samples, and you must understand that a real (professional) musician can easily outplay your mighty computer.
Go out there and make friends with people in your local symphony orchestras. Learn to hear past your samples and know that it is going to be ok. Many composers might avoid runs, or certain types of lines simply because they can’t program them well enough to make it sound good in the mockup, or the samples aren’t even capable of playing back such a line.
At this point, your samples are dictating your writing when it should be the other way around. I have some mockups of my works that I knew ahead of time would be recorded live, and there are certain moments that are without a doubt unconvincing, but I knew it would work live.
It goes without saying that this type of thinking only works if you have enough budget on your project to hire an orchestra, which is a luxury these days. If you’re trying to achieve “live” results when you know you won’t have the money to record live, then maybe an orchestral soundtrack isn’t the best fit for your project.
Try to have something in the sound that is YOU. It is perfectly acceptable to have influence in your music from famous composers, but it reduces artistry when you try to only copy other composers. I know that clients sometimes want the Hans Zimmer sound, and that’s OK!
However, try and put your own twist on that, and you’ll eventually create your own little signature. This is easier said than done, and requires years of practice. Basically, you have to come to know yourself and who you are as a composer when sitting in front of the piano. It’s a bit of a weird transition, but once you go through this, you’ll realize then you’re able to think independently of references and you’ll be thinking musically in terms of what to say, rather than how to sound.
Listen to soundtracks that are off the beaten path. If all you listen to are big block buster soundtracks, then you’ll have a lot of writing that is thick strings and horns blasting long notes. While it can certainly be effective in certain films, it can often hinder you when you’re working with indie filmmakers.
Some soundtracks have to be more intimate in order to work with a certain project. I think a composer has to be like a chameleon, and if you’re only able to write trailer music and nothing else, then you won’t be very effective with most projects that come your way unless you are in a position in which you are only getting that type of work.
For anybody early in their career or just starting out, you need to be adaptable. Have a fundamental understanding of string writing (that isn’t ostinato work) and know how to incorporate the woodwinds into your scores. Personally, I think the woodwind section is the section most composers don’t know what to do with, but it is the section that can add a ton of character and life to your cue.
3. Are there any common mistakes you see composers do in orchestrating their own music?
This goes back to the sample libraries a bit. Not everything that comes out of your machine will work in a live setting. I often see composers writing with too much harmony in their parts – this will saturate your sound in the real world. My suggestion to this is to familiarize yourself with what’s called 4 part writing (SATB writing). Obviously, the orchestra has more than just 4 voices, but the same concepts apply; simply on a larger scale.
The other big mistake is that composers let themselves be fooled by microphones in their mix. Microphone techniques can often mislead how present an instrument is in the orchestral setting. A lot of composers think in terms of only color in an orchestra, but there are other dimensions such as presence and weight. Know how much presence the instruments have and plan your sonic palette around what you’re going to feature.
Another big one for me is when composers just write music blindly without taking into consideration who is playing it. Sometimes we can get excited and write a Star Wars level cue with the assumption that any orchestra can play like the recording orchestras in LA or London. You will quickly learn that not every orchestra drives like a Ferrari, and that some won’t have the ability to play such technically demanding music. Always know WHO you are writing your piece for and adapt to their strengths and weaknesses.
4. Can you give one single tip on orchestration per instrument family (strings, brass, woodwinds etc.)?
Woodwinds: Listen to chamber works for these instruments. You’ll be surprised of all the ability that is hidden behind these small but complex instruments. While they may be good for runs, they can be excellent for pairing and coloring.
Brass: Great for a big sound, but can also be great for somber writing. Know the most effective range for these instruments and how they can be used together and individually.
Strings: Understand how to orchestrate strings to be in the front of your sound as well as in the back. Even though it is the largest section, it’s not always the loudest. You can have beautiful accompaniment with the strings that won’t get in the way of a different featured section. It might be the loudest in your sample library world, but this isn’t always the case in a live setting.
5. How can we practice orchestration to improve the balance and clarity of our music?
Write for real instruments. I’m not saying to go out and hire an orchestra just for you. Start with a quartet, or couple woodwind players. Write for a single instrument with piano accompaniment. You’ll learn a lot from the player when they tell you “yeah I can’t play this.” This will train you to think with instrumental ability the next time you’re sitting in front of your DAW.
6. What’s next for you? Any interesting projects you are working on/planning?
A few. I can’t talk about everything just yet… I’d say I’m excited to continue working on a Thai television series I’ve had for about a year now. The show is based in Phuket, Thailand.
7. Thank you so much for sharing your insights Enrique, where can people find you online?
My name is Mikael “Mike” Baggström, and I am a composer, sound designer, artist, video creator, coffee lover, and true nerd…
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