Working with Live Musicians (ya know, the kind that breathe – let’s see your Roland do that!)
Just figuring out the best way to talk about this subject is a problem of infinite complexity, so I’ll be doing the best I can to discuss working with musicians as it applied to the GunGirl 2 soundtrack. While my two personally favorite tracks with live performers are “Anomaly” and “Libera Me,” I’ve decided to talk about “Heartless Abyss” first for it’s pretty straightforward approach and execution.
What’s that I hear? Why, yes! It is a violin!
One important thing to think about whether or not you’re writing for a live musician or not is to remember that you’re writing for an instrument, and in order for it to sound like that instrument, you must write idiomatically. That, simply put, means to write things that the instrument does well and distinguish why exactly you chose it to begin with. For example, I might have picked a violin for its control over vibrato, ability to dramatically slur when shifting positions, or for its double-stops.
I recommend as a good practice to ANY composer that you listen to solo repertoire for as many instruments as you can muster. This means listening to solo violin, solo flute, solo oboe, solo horn, and so on – and you’ll definitely benefit from listening to some percussion excerpts as well. It’ll be even better if you are able to look at the score as you go along, remember – you should be doing critical listening. When you’ve finished this, make a point to then listen to orchestral work, and listen to how those same instruments function in the orchestra. You’ll find that the writing is very different. You wouldn’t write for a solo violin the same way you’d write for the 1st violins. Interestingly, this same principle should apply to any instrumentation you use, whether it be orchestral, synths, or samples of cowbells.
Writing for instruments, sans sheet music?
So it turns out that not everybody writing music knows standard notation. I have no idea why, but I’ll roll with it because this same principle also applies when you realize you wish you had written something that you didn’t and your live performer is only available for a limited time (or when you realize it takes a really long time to prepare clean scores and parts and your client wants the music yesterday). Most DAWs come with a “Staff” or “Score” view that lets you view your MIDI data in a notational view.
For “Heartless Abyss,” which I didn’t originally intend to have violin in a few spots, I decided to add some passages on the fly before my violinist arrived. To do this, I pulled up two new synthesizers and played in the lines I wanted her to play (yes, I did say two). I cleaned them up in the staff view and had her run through the material practicing with the surrounding material so we could curve and phrase the lines as I wanted them (remember, didn’t have time to write in dynamics, articulations, and such…). After we got it perfect, she was able to pretty much fly through the recording process.
Helpful Tips for Recording with Musicians
- Performers are a lot like us composers, they like the way they play just as much as we like what we write (come on, admit it). On this note, you have to employ a certain sensitivity when asking for what you want – you have to equally communicate the things you believe they are doing well as the things that don’t agree with your vision. On that same note, you shouldn’t settle and be afraid to get what you really want, but you should definitely use compliment sandwiches. I use the same trick when teaching swim lessons to six year olds that I do when I work with performers, and for good reason! No, no… performers are not like six year olds, but they are human – and I can promise that there is no way you’d enjoy having someone constantly tell you what you’re doing wrong. The trick to getting the sound you’re looking for is to shape the sound you’re getting into that, much as you’d make a clay sculpture – you have to start with something.
- Your recording space is sensitive, but there’s no reason to be anal about it. I’m sure most audiophiles shriek when they see where I’ve been recording these performers, but in the context it’s working fine. Obviously, don’t cram yourself in a bathroom, but find a space that will give you a clean sound with what you’re working with. Drums will obviously need a lot of space and attention to acoustics, but the violin is such a loud instrument that mic’ing it close and letting subtle reflections come back creates a pleasant natural sound. One viable option is, of course, renting and going to a recording studio.
- Be prepared! Time is money (usually) and nobody wants their time wasted. This is why you must be absolutely prepared when you work with a musician. Have your parts neatly written and evaluate them from the perspective that you have no idea what the final sound will be. You are the only one who really knows how the final product should sound, so you have to be mindful in communicating that on your notation. The more you write, the more there is to follow.
In the following video, you can watch how Rachel practices her parts a few times before we go for the recording. I managed to get a few shots of her playing with the written in synth-line as well, so you can get a feel for how that was done. This was live footage and is unedited, so you’ll get a good idea of the raw session. This was started in about the final 1/3 of recording.
While you watch, or listen, here a few mixing tips I keep in the back of my head when working with recorded material that you may find useful.
- Always, always, always get as many takes as your musician is comfortable giving – for me I stick safely around three takes per passage per part. With this you can splice out anything weird that happens and get your best overall compilation. Pretty cool, if you ask me.
- Never, ever, ever overcompress. In fact, and I apply this rule with any effect, find what works at a minimal level to your ears, and then turn it back a smidge more, even if it at first irks you. This is a pretty good rule to compensate for the fact that our ears work in exaggerations. In this same vein, don’t overkill the reverb… please! True fact: Too much reverb will only make mixing and mastering harder.
- One musician + the same musician = two parts! Yup, have your musician harmonize with his or herself, or even go on some crazy dueling solos. A little virtuosi spirit never hurt anyone!
I hope this shed some light on this fun process. Next time we’ll talk about mixin’ and masterin’!