Thanks for this, Breed! Really solid advice here with some of stuff I haven't come across yet even through my years of personal study on orchestration. I've added some additional comments to each section regarding my own personal findings and some stuff that people might also find helpful.
At 8/17/11 03:01 PM, Breed wrote:
I've been wanting to write this for a long time, but I've been too lazy to gather my thoughts into an organized form.
There are a LOT of things to consider in orchestration and I'm going to share with you what I know, to try to help better your symphonic pieces.
1 - BREATH.
Creating phrases that flow cleanly into each other, and also "passing" the motif onto other instruments can help with this. Also note that repetitive figures- rapid sixteenth notes as embellishment or long whole-note chords- can be annoying and "boring" to players. Even in those scores of band music for young musicians you see variation and movement in the piece (unless you play French Horn or Tuba, in which cases, the primary is stuck with off-beats and/or melodies and the latter is stuck with low notes and nothing very fun whatsoever).
2 - NUMBERS.
Also note that by using different groups, the individual timbres of each stringed instrument or part of whatever ensemble you are using "pops out" better. For example, a piece where you just plop some nice chords in with a string ensemble patch, you will hear all the stringed instruments which have that range playing in unison, either recorded live as such or digitally put together from sectional recordings. On the other hand, writing individual parts allows you to both tweak the individual elements (for instance, you can make the contrabass have a bit more oomph to it or move just the cellos onto holding the melody). In classical orchestration, you can even try using partial sections (say, 6-8 violins) and pair those together to create divisions with new timbres- (2nd violins and 1st violas, for example), which can alter the sound to get a nuanced feel.
Also, for those with VI banks that have both solo and ensemble sounds, check out the differences between having a group of notes played by solo vs. a group of notes played by ensemble. Usually the timbres of the instruments stand out better with solo, while blending is better with ensemble.
3 - DIVERSITY.
Once again, you must craft your phrases to flow and ALWAYS use transitions. I cannot tell you how many songs I have just clicked away from because they don't bother creating motion towards a transition- whatever it is, dissonant chords, 7ths leading into new keys, cymbal rolls, pick-up notes, etc. it is necessarily to keep your listener engaged. When you smack them with a sharp cut, the illusion of continuity will be broken (unless you're writing for that kind of feel).
Also be sure to keep an eye on the overall form of your piece- sometimes it is a good idea to shape the piece around a change in moods- for example, sad to happy. Creating that effective transition takes practice and a lot of guesswork and attempts, but keeping the listener engaged with new patterns/motifs and parts that weave in and out will go a long way in making people enjoy the music better.
4 - PLACEMENT.
I find the best placement is to NOT go too far to the edges... you want to keep it within the central 2/3rds of the panning bar. Reverb can do a ton, but only use it with care. Use your ear to determine how much reverb is good for each instrument. I find that strings, woodwinds, and chime-percussive just soak it up nicely, while brass and drums (especially snares and timpani) can get VERY muddy very fast. Staccato notes should get very little, if any reverb.
With panning, also note that you can achieve a feeling of distance through slightly more reverb and a little quieter sound. Be sure to pan your percussion too- even just slightly. Spreading and/or doubling is a nice effect, but should only be used subtly.
5 - SCREW UPS.
I know that Finale for one has the Human Playback engine, which does phrasing, timing, velocity, speed, and all sorts of other changes to make your piece just a little more believable, depending on the "style" you select. If you are using a different program, do consider playing around with the velocity bar for each note- emphasis on certain beats can create neat feels and imitate adding accents. Even adding little things like quiet off-key grace-notes can turn your MIDIzed piece into a recording of a middle school band with a crappy mic (if you ever do find yourself in need of that feel...).
Thanks again for writing this man, some great stuff. :)