Good day, fellow UGers!
I want to start a series of articles about the art of orchestration and orchestral composition. I will cover a wide range of topics, such as instrumentation, harmony, melody, instrument synergy, modern techniques, dynamics, composition, et cetera. I will try make it as simple as possible, without using complex terms or hardcore musical theory, also I won't focus on old-fashioned classical orchestration, we live in a modern world, so we need to know about modern orchestration. This guide will be useful for both those, who want to write orchestra/movie score music or just those, who want to add some more flavour in their metal, rock, pop, etc. songs. Of course, such complex topic as orchestration requires at least a basic knowledge of music theory, instruments, tones and music structures.
1.1 Equipment/software choice
As you, my reader, probably don't have a full orchestra at home, it's almost obvious you will work with virtual instruments. Of course, some of you will get lucky and have a chance to have your music performed/recorded by professional. But the rest of us, mortals, will have to spend lots of cash on VSTs, DAWs and hardware upgrades.
I will not talk much about the gear, as the guide is not about choosing your MIDI keyboard or setting up your DAW. I will just say that you must use whatever DAW/ audio workstation makes you feel comfortable, don't listen to anyone saying "OMG you can not write cello parts in this crap!!", every decent piece of software is capable of doing everything you want to.
As for the instruments, VSTs (virtual libraries), of course, sound worse than the real instruments, but you can a really great sound out of good VSTs and plug-ins. Vienna Symphonic Library, for example, provides some really great sounds of almost every instrument you need to write some serious orchestra arrangements.
MIDI keyboards also come very handy, but they are by no means essential, but may speed up the process for you, especially if you are familiar with playing keyboard. But the lack of the MIDI keyboard isn't a problem really, you can always set up your DAW to use your computer keyboard as a MIDI input device.
If you are a complete beginner in music, you will want to learn some basic things first, such as notes, intervals, rhythmic notation, dynamics and some compositional concepts (bass part, solo, etc). But if you are familiar with writing instrumentals in any other genre (except the very basic stuff, like rap and trance - that doesn't help much) you should be already capable of understanding everything in this guide.
If you can read sheets and scores it's great for you, as you can learn new concepts and ideas just from reading and analyzing classical or modern orchestra sheet music.
2. Orchestration Basics
2.1 What is it?
Let's keep it short - orchestration is the process of arranging a musical piece for an orchestra. Simple as that. But we will cover both adapting your ideas to the orchestra and writing the music specifically for orchestral instruments.
2.2 Instruments of the orchestra
First I will discuss the instruments themselves and then their ranges and usage :
Stringed instruments (from higher to pitch to lower) - Violins, Violas, Cellos, Double Basses.
In the classical orchestras violins are usually divided in the First Violins (Violins I) and Second Violins (Violins II). Nowadays it's not always like that, you may divide the violins or not, it all depends on the exact musical piece you're working on. Usual full orchestra contains 16 Violins I, 14 Violins II, 12 Violas and about 9 Double Basses. But, once again, this is no strict rule, you can use any amount of those listed you want.
Wood-wind instruments (from high to low) - Piccolo, Flute, Bass Flute, Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Bassoon, Contra Bassoon.
Yes, it's quite a lot of instruments, considering the fact these are only the basic ones. Of course, you should use only the ones you need.
Brass instruments (from high to low) - Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone, Tuba.
There are a lot of derivatives of those listed, but since most of us will use software instruments, we don't have the range restrictions of the hardware instruments, so we don't need to use, for example a Piccolo Trumpet to play a bit higher and a Bb Trumpet to play a bit lower.
Piano - it was considered to be only a minor part of the orchestra back in the old times. Only the Russian School were using the pianos. But nowadays piano has become such a powerful tool and instrument that it can play any role you want - solo, bass, melody, harmony, whatever you want. Modern movie scores are a brilliant example of piano usage (composers such as Hanz Zimmer and Clint Mansell can make piano really shine) because of it's wide range, good synergy with other instruments and a great variety of techniques to express emotions or create moods.
The Harp - widely used in the old time, rarely used now, the harp remains to be a great harmonic instrument, used for accompanying. But since there are no punishments for using instruments how we want, it's possible to write a great solo for harp, using maybe arpeggios or just single long notes. But the harp does not fit every mood or music piece, so it's a good advice to be careful with it's usage.
Percussion - anything from a usual drum set to japanese Taiku drums or Latin Bongos can be used to create the percussive lines, you always have to look for the best-fitting percussive instruments for your piece, but never neglect the power of holding the rhythm and the groove using the percussion.
2.3 The Range
Every instrument has its own range. Even when software allows us to extend the range, it's advised to stay in the realistic range for each instrument, otherwise it will just sound horrible (we don't want that, right?). It's pretty easy if you have a chart of the instrument ranges. One can be found here :
(or you can just google "orchestra range chart" if you don't like this one).
So, that's all for the first part, I feel like you may have some questions after reading this one, especially for those not familiar with things like this. So feel free to leave you questions in the comments or just e-mail it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay tuned for the part II where I will discuss the panning (seating), melody and usage of instruments to enhance it! Have a nice day!