Whenever you have the feeling that your score is messy and the melody is hard to understand, the chances are that it is so because of a lack of separation. This problem occurs when new elements are added without structuring them properly. This is by far one of the most common problems you see in beginners orchestrations.
Whenever a new element gets added, it needs to fit into one role. Every new musical element should focus on adding richness and not adding unwanted complexity. The simpler you can make it, the better and clear it is. Typically these roles are Melody, Countermelody, Harmony, Rhythm, and Texture. Good layering focuses on separation for a clear and organized sound.
The bad example
The key to a clear-sounding results is to keep it simple. My first attempts in scoring were horrible. In my mind, I had the picture of the entire orchestra, and I was convinced to write for every single voice in it. But as soon as I had fifteen voices just playing the melody, it was already a total mess. I couldn’t even pinpoint what sounded so horrible, and I thought that all of this could be cleared up by “mixing and mastering”.
Sadly it’s not – and it took a while to understand that I don’t need ten cello voices. Since then, I try to reduce the voices to the absolute minimum. Of course, it’s not always that easy, and I need to hold myself back quite often, but the more time you spent in your DAW, the easier it gets.
Nowadays I organize my scores in different layers. They vary from track to track but usually they are: meldoy, countermelody, harmony and rhythm.
But let’s take a look first on a bad example to understand the problem a bit better:
In this track are a lot of things going a bit wrong.
- First of all: Volume – Every voice plays on a loud level that doesn’t allow the different layers to separate. Usually, the melody needs to stay in the foreground, but it’s impossible with the low brass playing that powerful and breaking through everything. Separating voices in fore- and background by different volume levels is by far the easiest and quickest way to give your track more depth.
- Range: We have an entire orchestra at our hands, but there are a few basic rules regarding the orchestration. It’s straightforward to mess your score up when melodies, harmony, countermelody, and ostinatos are all in the same range. Melodies tend to be on the higher end because higher instruments break through the orchestra with ease. Low-end instruments give a warm and full sound, but you should avoid writing complicated patterns for them when the full orchestra is playing.
- Tone Color: It’s tough to understand melodies and countermelodies when the same instruments play them. It might be good to arrange the melody for brass and the countermelody for strings to get an easy separation.
- Articulation: Whenever a voice has a rhythmic purpose, it’s a good idea to try out staccato, marcato, or pizzicato articulations. Legato or sustain might be a bit overkill and way to heavy for faster rhythms.
Tools to help you keeping it clear
I use two main options when I’m trying to figure out how to build up my track. This is also a general approach to scoring that is quite common. If you have a different approach you might try it out for yourself.
Goal:It needs to sound impressive on the piano!×DISMISS ALERT
I try to plan out the track with some piano voices and already divide them into general layers. This helps me to record the piano one by one. I’m by far no expert on the keyboard, so I don’t struggle that much with complex chord patterns. On the other hand, it’s way more organized, and I can simply copy patterns later on when starting with the orchestration itself.
The general rule here is: It needs to sound already impressive on the piano. If it does not, keep changing and adding voices till it does. It’s a common misconception that it gets way better later on by throwing in instrument after instrument. If you want further information on how to make it sound interesting, i shurely can help you with this post: Scoring Elements – Keep your Music interesting
Sketch it out!
My biggest problem was always that I began to throw in everything right at the beginning, without even having a clear idea of the tone color I wanted to achieve. A simple spreadsheet is unbelievably powerful once you give yourself the time it needs to be set up.
Important:The key is not to put in just the instruments you want to have in each section but to give them already a role.×DISMISS ALERT
Especially in the harmonies I really struggled to separate them into fore- and background. But once you dipped your feet a bit in this organized approach, it’s such a powerful tool. Of course, I change things when it comes to the orchestration; sometimes, things don’t work out as I had them in mind, or I have better ideas midway. But whenever I want to give the score a new input, it is straightforward to understand which new elements I can add or remove and which layer I can put in the foreground.
Bad example and how to solve it
Going back to our bad example, we have a lot of things we can approve. First of all, we need to set up the main layers for the score.
Harmony and Bassline
Whenever I start, I implement the basic chord progression right at the beginning. It’s a habit, but the Dubble Bass is always the first thing I put down. This has a few main reasons:
- The Bass always plays the root tone of each chord. If you really need to add an interval, do it by inserting an octave or the quint. Avoid other intervals as far as possible and leave them to the harmony section.
- With the root tone in the background, you immediately hear any clashing sounds when adding more elements.
- The Double Bass has a full and rich sound and fits in nearly everywhere. The Tuba, on the other hand, has a strong independent sound that sticks out way easier.
- The articulations for the double bass are really clear, and you can give the score a good drive by adding staccato and pizzicato rhythms.
The biggest error is adding a few instruments all in the same spectrum when adding the harmony. A good piece of advice is to spread the chord out on more than one octave. You can do this very easily by octavate the third. When adding a Cmajor chord for the cello, its no longer C2-E2-G2 but C2-G2-E3 for example.
Tip:By stretching out the chords in the harmony section, you cover a wider range and get better results with fewer voices. This means that you have more options for melodies, countermelodies, or other musical patterns.×DISMISS ALERT
When adding more voices to the harmony, it’s important to not over orchestrate each note. In this case, it’s enough to have some string playing the chords. Especially full brass patches tend to get muddy really fast, so I decided to give the Tuba and Trombone just one note out of the chord progression each to play.
Melody and Countermelody
When it comes to the melody and the countermelody, we need to keep one basic rule in Mind:
Important:Melodies and Countermelodies tend to be played by instruments with a higher pitch. Due to acoustic physics, higher pitched sounds get through the orchestra way easier.This means that we don’t need as much different voices for the higher melodies in comparison to the middrange harmonies.×DISMISS ALERT
With this basic rule in mind we take a look to our spreadsheet and decide how we want to orchestrate these two layers.
The basson and the cello are used to get a full sound by adding range in the midds. The French Horn and the Trumpet have different tone color than the strings and the basson, so we can use them to add simple musical patterns.
Now that we have a quite simple but powerful orchestration, we can add some minor details. I added a simple ostinato pattern with some violins and a few simple percussion hits to give the track a better drive.