Orchestras are indispensable to professionally recorded music. Whether you are talking a full symphony orchestra or a small chamber group, the music they make can add a level of depth and emotion that is not achievable in any other way. But it takes work to get it right. And believe it or not, the hardest part of recording orchestral music actually occurs during rehearsal.
Orchestrators have an interesting job in the music world. They take a completed arrangement and assign instruments to the various parts. Their job is to take the arranger’s vision and make it come alive with sound. Long before the group ever sets foot in the studio, the orchestrator needs to know what the finished sound should be. And that takes us to the hardest part of recording orchestral music: balancing and blending.
Getting Balance and Blend Right
At Supreme Tracks, a NY-based remote recording studio, they record orchestras of all sizes. They know a thing or two about balance and blend. From their perspective, balancing and blending an orchestra is about creating a rich musical color that evokes a certain emotion. Every line needs to be heard succinctly without creating a muddy wash of sound that only gets in the way.
When an arrangement is properly balanced and blended, a trained ear can pick out certain instruments as they play their lines. To those with untrained ears, it all sounds perfect. They have no idea why. They just know that it sounds right.
On the other hand, an arrangement that is not properly balanced and blended sounds off. You might be able to pick out certain instruments that are just too loud. You might hear other instruments and know they are off, even though you cannot explain what it is you are hearing.
You Have to Know Your Instruments
To be a successful orchestrator, you have to know your instruments. That goes much further than being able to tell the difference between an oboe and a flute. Knowing your instruments means knowing everything about them, how they are played, what they can accomplish, and so forth.
Here are just a few things orchestrators need to know:
- Instrument Range – Certain instruments have certain ranges. They cannot play notes above and below their ranges, making them useless for certain types of arrangements.
- Instrument Register – Although range and register are often confused, they are not the same thing. Register is essentially pitch. Some instruments have similar ranges but drastically different registers. Not only that, but a single instrument can also produce a different tonal quality at different registers.
- Physical Limitations – Orchestrators also need to know the physical limitations of each instrument. There are certain things you can and cannot do with a violin, for example.
Knowing your instruments is the foundation of blending orchestral music. Blending with an ear for instrument resisters offers a perfect illustration.
With a set of instruments having very discernible registers, creating vertical distance between lines can result in a very full sound that presents an almost chorus-like vibe. On the other hand, instruments with very similar registers can be blended in such a way that they support the underlying arrangement by becoming part of a colorful background.
One final thought here is that orchestration can make or break an arrangement. Getting lazy and skipping orchestration in favor of keyboard-generated strings can save some money at the studio, but it can also ruin what could have otherwise been an incredible arrangement.
The hardest part of recording orchestral music is blending and balancing. But it is worth the effort. Achieve the right sound and the orchestra can change absolutely everything.