Hello again! For all those that missed the first article about the Strings section of the orchestra, please take a while and read through it here. There are some tips and tricks that I’ve covered and I won’t be repeating here. In this article, I’ll be covering the Woodwinds section of the orchestra, what makes it special and how we can process all and each individual instrument. Again I’d recommend you study a little bit of the instrumentation and orchestration theory behind the Woodwinds (this means reading Stellita’s articles starting here). Happy reading!
For the most part, the Woodwinds section of the orchestra is used as a utility / auxiliary section (since we are mainly talking about modern TV and Film music). What makes it special though, is that from the three major orchestra sections (Strings, Woodwinds and Brass), the instruments that form the Woodwinds section, have the least coherent timbre. For example, we can say that you can’t mistake an oboe for a clarinet as you may mistake a viola playing in the high register for a violin. Their unique character is what makes each one of the Woodwind instruments a perfect candidate for solo passages! Also keep in mind that a Woodwind’s “color” changes drastically relatively to the register it plays (excluding the Clarinet).
MIDI Sequencing and Arranging
Everything I’ve covered about Time and Dynamics during the “Sequencing and Processing Strings” article can be used for the Woodwinds too.
As the name suggests, Woodwinds need air! So give them air to breath during phrases. Try not to overdo it with endless legato passages, as there is a high risk of killing the performer… er… I mean the performance. Don’t underestimate the value of the “rest” in music, especially while writing for solo instruments. Placing rests between phrases will help you achieve a realistic performance; it will let the music “breath” and will emphasize the role of the instrument.
A well thought out arrangement can help you solve many problems that will arise during the mixing process. Woodwinds tend to have lots of low-mid frequencies. If you have a busy orchestration, make a virtual map of the role the Woodwinds play during each section of the track. If they have a supporting role (i.e. doubling the lines of the Strings) keep them in the background (dynamic wise), but when they have a main role (i.e. solo) try to keep other instruments out of the way, either by using good counterpoint, or by using instruments and registers that don’t interfere with the “frequency body” of the Woodwinds (more on that latter on the mixing section).
Woodwinds are a great tool to add depth and realism in your composition, though many composers disregard them as weak instruments and others just forget about them. Going back to instrumentation theory, we can see that Woodwinds are capable of some fantastic effects. Flutter, grace notes, octave runs, falling effect, overblows and trills are some of the most commonly used “weapons” of the Woodwinds family. These effects can spice up your composition and make it come to life. Because some of these effects are difficult to reproduce with MIDI sequencing techniques, many libraries come with articulations of pre-recorded effects. A sure bet if you want to increase the production value of your music.
Now let’s examine one of the most difficult effects to reproduce with standard MIDI techniques, in the hope of achieving a realistic sounding result. Say we want to put a flute octave run in our composition but our library doesn’t have an appropriate articulation. How can we make something close to the real thing without making the result sound cheesy and cheap? Well as we said during the article about the Strings section, to achieve realism through MIDI we need to reproduce the Time and Dynamics of a human performance. With that in mind, we can start placing the notes for our octave run. First we need to make sure that there is no quantization. Allow some of the notes to start a little early and some a little late, while making sure that they overlap each other. Make minor adjustments to the velocity of each not, while keeping the first and the last as the maximum. Bring up the expression (CC11) automation and make a curve that start at the first note, goes down a bit till the middle of the run and comes up at maximum just before the final note. Now duplicate the MIDI track and assign the first one to a legato articulation and the second one to a staccato articulation. Go to the staccato track and bring further down the velocity of the intermediate notes. Mix the staccato track lower than the legato one, as we don’t want to overemphasize the attack of the notes. The staccato track is there, only to support the sound. Listen and adjust the velocity and expression curve accordingly. (Note: With some libraries you won’t need the staccato track as the legato one could suffice if the scripting was done appropriately)
Remember how we said that the Strings section can sound a lot better when combining two different sample libraries together? For the Woodwinds it is very difficult to find two libraries that work well together, so most of the times you would do better with a single one. There is also another reason you should avoid doubling the libraries for the Woodwinds. The number of players that are supposed to be playing in the Woodwinds section, doesn’t consist of the huge amount of players as the Strings (they don’t need to), so when combining two libraries, you may end up with an unrealistic and overpowering sound. On the other hand, because most non-dedicated Woodwinds libraries will provide you with patches of the whole section and not of individual instruments, it is a good technique to mix that kind of libraries as a second layer (lower than your main library) thus providing support to your overall woodwind sound. When you do, be extra careful with the fundamental frequencies the instruments produce. If you have long sustained notes, the fundamentals frequencies might become more prominent than they should and you’ll end up with a sound close to a sine wave. To overcome this problem, lower the velocity of the supporting library or turn it down a few dB from the mixer’s fader. This should keep the fundamentals at bay. If it doesn’t work, you can use EQ to tame the naughty frequency! And with that we jump to…
The Mixing Process
Concepts of mixing include the frequency, panorama, and space placement of each instrument. Last time we discussed about how Strings are placed within the orchestra and how we can use EQ to our benefit. Below I’m going to describe how we can make the Woodwinds “sit” in a classical orchestra and various other tips and trick to spice up your compositions.
Since this time we have more Sections of the orchestra to deal with, I have attached a basic mixer set up to show you how we can organize our tracks.
In this example, we have First Violins, Second Violins, Violas, Cellos, Contrabasses, Flutes, Clarinets, Oboes, Bassoons and a solo English Horn.
The first thing we need to do, is rout every patch and articulation of an instrument to a single track. Current VSTi and samplers, have multiple outputs, so the only thing we need to do, is to select the same output for each patch of the same instrument. Thus the staccato and legato patches of the First Violins, will be routed to output A of the VSTi. The same goes for every other instrument (see picture).
Now that we have a single fader for every instrument, we need to group them in Sections. Create two auxiliary tracks (depending on your DAW, this may be referred to as “Group track” or “Bus track” etc.). Name the first one “Strings” and the second one “Woodwinds”. Now for each individual instrument, go to the output section and select the corresponding auxiliary track (“Strings” for the Violins, Violas etc. and “Woodwinds” for the Flutes, Clarinet etc.). Leave the English Horn’s output to the “Main Bus”. We want to be able to mix it separately from the other Woodwinds as it is a solo instrument and it plays a leading role to our composition.
The last thing we need to do, is add an FX track for our reverb. Create an auxiliary (Group, FX or Bus) track and insert your favorite reverb to the first input.
That’s it. We are now ready to start mixing!
As most of today’s orchestral VSTi have advanced routing options due to the existence of samples from multiple microphone positions, I strongly urge you to read the manual and learn what your VSTi is capable of. For instance, if your VSTi has the ability to rout each microphone position to another output, you might want to take advantage of that, by separating the outputs of your close and room microphones. This way you will have greater flexibility during mixing.
Panorama & Positioning
In the orchestra, the Woodwinds are placed in the middle, between and just behind the Second Violins and the Violas. As always, the bass instruments of the section are placed on the right side (as we look at the orchestra from the conductor’s position) and the ones with a higher register, are placed on the left side. Below I present some numerical values you can use as a guideline.
- 0o indicates the center position.
- A ‘-‘ before a number indicates the left side.
- A ‘+’ before a number indicates the right side.
Flute: -15o to 0 o
Clarinets: -15o to 0 o (behind flutes)
Oboes: 0o to +15 o
Bassoons: 0o to +15 o (behind oboes)
Of course, if you don’t want to replicate the orchestra’s layout, you can improvise with the panorama settings. I gave some guidelines during the previous article (“Sequencing& Processing Strings”), which you can use for the Woodwinds too.
Regarding dynamic processing, refer to the “Strings” article as all the main principles are the same for the Woodwinds too.
Up until now, there are few libraries that provide individual patches for each woodwind instrument. Most libraries out there have articulations for the full Woodwinds section, something that won’t suite everyone’s needs and especially composers who are after a realistic sound and orchestration. These libraries are better used for supporting reasons. When you deal with full Woodwinds patches or with the Woodwinds group track, consider the following:
- Woodwinds are masters of the middle frequencies. As such, you need to be extra careful when EQing.
- Mixing is about balancing all instruments and all elements of a song. Making the Woodwinds sound fantastic on their own, may result in a bad overall mix. When making EQ adjustments, do so while hearing the overall mix (or at least the so far mixed elements you have worked on).
- Everything here is a guideline. Your ear must be the final judge of everything. Mix is an art too so although there may be some rules… there actually are no rules.
- Between 200 and 300Hz you can find the body and warmth of the Woodwinds. Beware however because too much gain will make the sound muddy and it will mask every other instrument (i.e Strings) on that region. A subtle rise is enough to make the sound more intimate and closer to the listener. (Keep in mind we are talking about full woodwinds patches)
- In the 300 to 700Hz region reside most fundamental frequencies of the Woodwinds. It is the most difficult area to tame, because any boosting or cutting will alter the sound drastically. In there you’ll find all the “boxiness” you’ll ever (not) need and Woodwinds have a tendency towards a boxy sound (especially when there is a bad recording involved). Try to avoid boosting! One other important thing to keep in mind about these frequencies is that (depending on your library and orchestration) you must be extra careful because when cutting, you might weaken too much of the fundamental frequencies. To make my point clear, try a deep cut anywhere between 300 and 650Hz. You’ll immediately think that the sound became clearer, BUT let the Strings play along and you’ll realize that the Woodwinds have gone for vacation somewhere in the back of the stage. While letting the Strings play, AB the Woodwinds with and without the EQ to grasp the difference it makes to the overall sound.
- You might want to use a boost at around 1 to 2 kHz to compensate for any cutting done at frequencies we discussed previously. This is a good region to cut though, when you want a darker and distant sound. Also here you might find irritating frequencies (especially from the English Horn) that you’d like to tame with a notch filter.
- At around 3 to 6 kHz you’ll find most of the important harmonics. Boost with a wide bandwidth if you want a brighter sound or cut to get the Woodwinds back in the mix.
- Between 5 to 10 kHz is the “air” of most Woodwinds. A minor boost with a high shelf will “open” the sound. It might also bring up the noise of the recording or the gust sound from the players mouth so adjust to taste.
We covered the basics of reverb on the previous article so I want repeat anything here. I believe in some point in the future there will be a dedicated reverb article for orchestras, so stay tuned.
The Audio File
In the following audio example, I’ve orchestrated the Woodwinds above the Strings track you heard during the previous article. I used two libraries to demonstrate the weakness of the full patch against individual instruments, but also to point out the help it can give as a supporting track.
The first part is the individual instruments exactly as they were orchestrated.
The second repetition is just the full patch library where you can hear (depending on the register the original instruments where written) that the orchestration has changed (oboes have been replaced by flutes etc.)
The third part is both libraries together, where you can hear how the full patch supports the original orchestration if it is mixed very subtly and lower than the individual instruments. Of course this “cheating” tactic is not recommended if you want a faithful representation of the sound.
In the fourth part, the Strings come in. No EQ has been added. It is the final version (final part) of the previous article’s audio file: Two libraries, one with EQ and an algorithmic reverb and the other with stage and room microphones.
During the final repetition I have applied a very wide 4.2dB cut @ 720Hz to the Strings. I did this for demonstration reasons only, so you can understand the mentality of a mixing engineer. Most of the times, to make an instrument stand out in the mix, we need to focus on other instruments. As a fundamental rule due to psychoacoustics, reducing a frequency with an EQ produces a more natural result than boosting the same amount. So what I did in the final part was to reduce some middle frequencies from the Strings where fundamentals of the Woodwinds exist, to make the later stand out.
The levels of the Woodwind’s and the String’s (after the initial fade in) groups stay the same throughout the track. Observe what changes in the Woodwinds when the strings come in and what space each instrument occupies. The 4.2dB cut is too much for an orchestral recording, so I want you to hear what difference the EQ makes in the Strings too. Do you believe that the EQ has helped the Woodwinds stand out? Was it necessary? Maybe with the EQ you feel that the String’s sound was weakened? Does anything sound wrong with the EQ applied? Did the EQ help the overall sound after all or not? Please feel free to comment below!
I hope I was of some help with your exploration of the Woodwinds section of the orchestra and you enjoyed reading the above lines as much as I did writing them.
Be well, creative and experimental!