Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

June 05, 2013

Orchestral Manoeuvres

No, not those British guys with skinny ties and blip-beep synthesizers. I really ought to cool it on the punning post titles. Anyway, I've just recorded a song with an orchestra (virtual, not real—thanks, Korg X3) and it's been a trip, not only in terms of mixing the sounds but figuring out where to put them.

I'll start with the main body of the song, for which the pans are fairly straightforward:
  • L acoustic guitar
  • 60L tambourine
  • 20L piano (left hand)
  • C lead vocal +  reverb
  • 20R piano (right hand)
  • 60R tambourine reverb
  • R acoustic guitar double
You might recall from a previous post my pan-the-reverb-mirror-image trick, which I used on the tambourine. At this point there appears to be ample space in the stereo field with which to work.

Enter the 22-piece orchestra. For my first attempt, I followed this panning chart (as best I could; as far as I know Audacity pans must be multiples of 10). Yet for all its visual elegance, when translated to sound these placements made little sense to my ears. I then tried panning the orchestra in clusters: percussion 60-80L, woodwinds 30-50L, strings 30-50R, brass 60-80R. Though this separated the sections of the orchestra nicely, within those sections instruments blurred into one another.

I finally came up with a symmetrical pan:
  • 90L oboe
  • 80L trumpet 1
  • 70L violin 1
  • 60L tubular bells L
  • 50L kettle drum, viola
  • 40L French horn
  • 30L snare drum, cor anglais
  • 10L glockenspiel, tuba
  • 10R bassoon, double bass
  • 30R timpani, clarinet
  • 40R trombone
  • 50R cymbal, cello
  • 60R tubular bells R
  • 70R violin 2, violin 3
  • 80R trumpet 2
  • 90R flute
Everything is panned mirror image, and I've scored the composition such that an instrument and its mirror are usually playing the same line, either in harmony or in unison.

"Score"? How do you score if you don't read or write music? Very carefully. Take one section at a time (the order I chose was brass, strings, percussion, woodwinds), and in each section, start with the lead instrument. That's generally the part that will jump out at your ear first. From there, you're essentially scoring (and recording) in pairs, for once you have any instrument you also have its mirror image. Occasionally, i.e., with the French horn/trombone and of course the percussion, I strayed from the harmony/unison approach and created contrapuntal lines to spice things up a little.

How do you mix an orchestra? Very carefully. The first step is to mute the entire orchestra and mix the main body of the song. I'll then mute the song and mix the first orchestral section, let's say brass, on its own. Repeat with strings, percussion and woodwinds, mixing each in isolation. From here, I'll try out different combinations of orchestral sections to see how they're playing off each other. Once you're satisfied that any two sections are in balance, listen to the full orchestra and recheck levels. It's one of those paradoxical situations where everything should be audible but nothing should stand out. The final test, naturally, is to bring in the song, tweaking its level vis-à-vis that of the orchestra as a whole.

And voila: follow these steps and at bare minimum you'll have a decent rough mix.

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