I know this month’s theme is about technology and all the hot new gear out there, but I wanted to step back from all that and share a bit of wisdom I’ve learned the hard way: when you’re composing, compose.
Don’t orchestrate, arrange, record or mix at the same time. Writing, orchestrating, recording and mixing are four independent processes which use different skills and different parts of your brain. Trying to do even two of them at the same time is distracting and counter-productive. It takes you out of the moment and diverts you down numerous paths that beckon seductively but will ultimately waste your time and weaken your finished product.
Separate the Processes
Nobody writes their best work sitting in front of a DAW loaded with samples and plugins. It’s simply too easy to get lost in the details. I’ve done it more frequently than I care to admit. Invariably I end up spending an hour trying to make the horns sound amazing, only to realize the part doesn’t fit, it obscures the melody or that I should be using cellos instead. You know the saying about carts and horses? Composition is the horse, and it should always come first.
Nowadays it seems terribly old-fashioned, but I much prefer writing at the piano. The only technology present is either my Zoom recorder or Sibelius running with my three-line piano template. If I’m at the stage where I’m writing to picture, I’ll use Logic with a piano sample loaded. In all cases, I’m working with a diminished sound set and don’t have the ability to orchestrate, choose sounds or effects or make anything sound great. I actually find this liberating—I don’t need to worry about the finished product, I can focus on writing a great melody and interesting chords and rhythms, and leave all of my other decisions until later.
Why use this technique?
Why use this technique? The simple answer is that composition and orchestration are two very distinct activities. Composition is about melody and accompaniment and writing with clarity. While composing, you want to be focused on creating an ear-catching melody and devising an accompaniment that supports it and moves the piece forward. You need to make sure the melody has plenty of breathing room and that none of the other lines obscure it. You want to craft an interesting bass line that anchors both the melody and the harmony while being rhythmically interesting and flattering to the other elements.
Focusing on these tasks is paramount—without great writing you’re going to have a much harder time orchestrating and mixing your piece, and you’re liable to get frustrated in later stages because your piece has problems that are difficult or impossible to fix at the 11th hour. These are often those unfortunate moments where you say to yourself, “Well, it’s not my best work but it’ll have to do.” Wouldn’t it be nice to always write your best work?
The other problem with writing, orchestrating and mixing simultaneously is this: with the plethora of excellent sample libraries, effects and soft synths out there today, it’s easy to make anything sound amazing, even if it’s musically bland. When you write on piano, you don’t have those sonic crutches. It has to be well-written. If not, you’ll know instantly. You need to rely on your sense of melody and harmony rather than amazing-sounding samples to wow your audience. This may seem out-of-date, but I guarantee you, even if you’re writing the most thunderous, Hans Zimmer-like score, a few beautiful melodies and interesting harmonies will make your score 100 times better.
I had a composition teacher once criticize a piece I wrote because the piano sketch was too repetitive. And it was. Of course, it sounded great in my head with all of the orchestration ideas I had, but musically it was monotonous. His point was that the music itself needs to go somewhere. Even if you start with a stripped-down ostinato and gradually embellish it, it will still be much more engaging than the same ostinato repeated verbatim for 24 bars, even if the orchestration is magnificent.
Do I write with a stripped-down setup all the time? No. Sometimes it’s inspiring to start with a rocking drum track or a beautiful synth patch. Some pieces are so reliant on sonics that you need to hear those sounds in order to write. But even with these pieces, I always try to avoid getting lost in the trees and not seeing the forest. I try not to worry about the right reverb, the perfect bass sound or whether to use banjo or mandolin. And sometimes, once I’m inspired, I’ll step back from my DAW and figure out the melody and harmony at the piano where I’m not distracted by details.
Most of us need to spend time as part-time orchestrators, sound-designers and mixers, but we also need to remember that our primary job title is composer, and composing starts with great music.