We own all three thirds

What the heck does that mean?  I’ll get to that.  Here’s the story:


Today I was reviewing a composer’s piece on a forum.  The piece was orchestral in nature, later (much later) an electric guitar came in but up until then, the piece was orchestra based.  It started with an adaptation of a folk melody played in low strings, bowed.  All instruments with the exception of the guitar (I assume, since the composer is a guitar player), were MIDI triggered sample libraries, like many composers do these days.


What I heard was the low strings bowing what is a delicate melody but with all their might.  The strings were playing a strong forte at least, which to my ears didn’t fit the melody.  Also, every note of the melody was exactly the same volume level and the same intensity of tone.  No string player in the world would do that, even if they could!  It’s just not musical!  Yes, consistency is a desirable trait in a trained player, but not robotic consistency!!


With today’s sample libraries, it’s possible to coax a very convincing performance out of them IF you know what you are doing.  Which brings me to my title:  “We own all three thirds”.


In our modern time, as computer-based composers, we are responsible for the three pillars of a finished musical product:


  1. The composition
  2. The performance/rendering of that composition
  3. The presentation of that composition (the final master recording)


If any one of these aspects is weak, the entire composition is compromised.  Since this assumes the composer is trying to market their music as a finished recording to a client, then any flaw in any aspect as enumerated above will hamper the commercial value of the piece.


So as composers, we own all three thirds of the process of delivering a finished piece of music to our clients and audience.


It’s not enough to write the notes.  I know talented composers who can write amazing notes, but their finished MIDI realizations are lacking expression because they haven’t taken the time to practice their MIDI chops.  In fact, some of these amazing composers don’t know what a MIDI controller 11 or 7 is, or even how to assign one on their controller keyboard or edit them in their DAW!!  The commercial viability of their music will suffer, no matter how great the notes are, particularly in light of just how many composers there are out there that are getting the gig because they have awesome MIDI chops!!


It’s not enough to have great MIDI chops and sample libraries.  I hear too many great sounding pieces that are just giant plodding blobs of chords with no sense of orchestral balance, no contrapuntal movement, no dynamics, and on and on.  Excellent composers of orchestral music have spent tons of time listening to orchestral recordings and studying scores, orchestration and even conducting.  It’s possible to “play at the surface” of orchestral music and by sheer force of talent produce something that works, but for overall depth and versatility in the medium, there’s just no shortcutting the study part.  Yet another third that gets neglected!!



Now we might have great libraries and a great composition but there’s no sense of space in the mix, or it’s to wet or too dry or the oboes are as loud as the trumpets (impossible in the real world) or just any number of balance issues that completely kill the illusion of a live orchestra (assuming that is what the composer is going for).  Even if the composer is trying to emulate a “larger than life” Hollywood style score, knowing how that is even accomplished by studying those recording and mixing techniques is required to make it convincing!!  That and lots of listening to orchestral recordings of all types, not just film scores and trailers!!!


As composers, we MUST consider the performance of each of the parts we compose.  A quick glance at any classical score, even if one doesn’t read music, will show a great amount of detail in markings above and beyond just the pitches and rhythms.  There are markings for articulation, phrasing, dynamic levels, changes in dynamics, even different dynamic markings from section to section based on the inherent volume of the instruments comprising the sections!!  All of this was conceived at the same time as the notes, not something that was arbitrarily overlaid on the notes after they were written.  Samples won’t do this for us simply by living in RAM and being triggered!!


We must realize that composing with samples is so much more than how many great libraries we can buy and load up in the gobs of RAM we have.  We actually have to treat these libraries like they are musical instruments!!  I was having a conversation with a super talented composer who comes from the rock world and we were discussing an orchestral piece he was working on and I mentioned that his strings sounded static.  I asked him:  “When you play a power chord on the guitar, you don’t just let it sit there after you play it, don’t you move the guitar in relationship to the amp to influence the feedback as the chord is ringing, you might add a slight tinge of finger vibrato or slightly detune one string without thinking about it.  You might flick the whammy bar or mess with the volume knob”.


In other words, the player adds expression to their chord, even if it sustains for 4 bars.    But this same composer turns around and loads up a string patch and holds a note down for 4 bars and does nothing to influence the expression of that note and then wonders why someone tells them that their piece “sounds MIDI”.  Again, some time in deep listening to orchestral music will begin to reveal these subtle but vital details that will make our MIDI orchestrations ultimately be much more convincing and importantly:  Marketable!!


In closing, we are responsible for:

  1. The notes
  2. How the notes are rendered
  3. The final sound of the product.


Which of the three thirds is lacking in your composing process?  Get some feedback from a more experienced composer if you are unclear and get to work.  There is so much great information out there on each aspect of our craft.  As composers we control all aspects of a piece of music and we must strive to attain mastery in each of the aspects.


At least until we get successful enough to hire orchestrators and engineers!!! J


Until next time, remember:  It’s not the gear, it’s the ear!