Ah. Ah…yes. So let me preface this by saying I routinely say I’m going to start blogging more and then I don’t and then I feel bad about it and forget my login info. But — hey I’m a busy guy so there.
IF you are the least bit curious, I’m a film composer. If you want you can follow my ramblings as I try to figure this whole thing out. Let’s get started, the topic for today: instrumentation.
There are plenty of different schools of thought on this and really, they’re all correct. Some composers really enjoy just picking what is going on in their heads at the time and making a soundtrack. Sometimes this is called “eclectic” but to me these often come out feeling very disjointed. It lacks the coherence you get from a score that’s had its instrumentation plotted out. That’s the method I prefer, a cohesive symbiotic score with a singular tone to it. This doesn’t mean I don’t throw in an occasional “guest” into the mix but overall there is an ideology present throughout the film. Here’s some examples:
Composer A plots out his score for a small orchestra; small string section, woodwinds, and light brass. What happens is that the composer limits themselves to the possibilities. When they go in with the idea that there will be X amount of musicians in the room they become arguably more creative. When a composer operates within these confines they start to develop a musical language throughout the film. The audience quickly absorbs this language as part of the movie itself and the score does it’s job: supporting not distracting.
Let’s view Composer B: They have a computer packed full of sample libraries and just pull out whatever they think they need. If the brass is too weak here, that’s fine just layer on another horn patch. If the strings aren’t cutting through, same thing. More, more, more! What happens though is they do the opposite of creating a language. The tonality of the music becomes disjointed and distracting. The audience isn’t lulled into suspended disbelief by the score and is now fully aware and pulled out of the film. This is a bad thing. Most top notch guys don’t do this in a movie because they know better.
I subscribe to the former because I believe in making music that could be recorded. You also find that the moments you do need something extra like using, as I recently did, a pan drum. It provided a nice break tonally for a montage without changing anything too much. It’s a situation where if we were going to the scoring stage the orchestra contractor could easily bring someone in for that bit. Not so much with layering sections, if the brass is weak it’s probably poorly written — the same goes for strings, woodwinds, etc.. You can easily get away with throwing in extra percussion you weren’t previously using but thats partly the nature of the percussion section, there’s a lot of moving parts back there.
There are situations where Composer B’s approach is the better option. Layering is very, very common in trailer music where the whole production is larger than life. The sound design, the editing, and the music all work together to create excitement and hype. In that way, a massive impossible orchestra is the best option. It can also be effective in film too but it’s trickier to establish the music’s sense of ‘belonging’ to the picture that way so it must be done cleverly.
So what do you do? Think of your ensemble size ahead of time. Watch the movie a lot and try to visualize what the movie sounds like. This alone will tell you much of what you need to know when considering the size of the orchestra. Take that and write it down, plot out how many players will be in the brass section (good libraries have information on that ready for you). In my brass library it’s done in a standard symphony format: 4 horns – 3 trumpets – two trombones – bass trombone, tuba. That’s my preferred grouping because you can still write powerful brass but it’s balanced. I know 6 horns has become very popular but I prefer the definition in the smaller section. But know your section sizes! If you want your music to be as realistic as possible you have to write realistically.
And what if you bring it in and they want to book the real deal? Do you want to be that embarrassed? Exactly.