© Chris Shutt 2020
Over the last year, I have been working on a variety of projects. Some of them I have now been able to publish and others I am still working on. Finding time in between these projects to refresh and improve my knowledge can be hard but I feel is essential if I am to develop as a composer. It’s always good to learn new techniques and ideas to help keep developing my musical style. I’m sure even John Williams or Hans Zimmer would tell you they could still learn something new about music composition. Over the years I have read countless blogs, articles and forums, watch hours of videos and taken several courses. One set of courses I have found particularly helpful are by a company called Evenant. I am currently working through “Cinematic Music I: From Idea To Finished Recording” by Arn Andersson. Using some of the ideas and techniques discussed in the course I have written this piece, The Enchanted Forest.
The Enchanted Forest – The Breakdown
Like Together, another composition I have posted on my website, I thought I would put a little more information about the piece.
Structure – (Intro) A A B A
The piece follows a fairly standard structure of AABA. There is an introduction which helps set the atmosphere of the piece before the introduction of the main theme/melody. The theme is initially introduced in the woodwinds with a light accompaniment of pizzicato strings along with a celesta and woodwind ostinato. The strings then take the melody and the piece builds to the end of the 2nd A section. A contrasting B section then brings the intensity of the piece back down before the final A section which returns with the brass taking over the theme.
Key – D minor (1 flat – Bb) and F Minor (4 flats – Bb, Eb, Ab, Db)
The piece is written in the key of D minor (or D Aeolian – D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C) with the final section modulating to the key of F minor (F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb).
I started with a very basic chord pattern of Dm (i), Gm (iv), Dm (i), Gm (iv). To add some interest, and a sense of magic, I substituted the second Gm with a G major. This then gave me a chord progression of Dm (i), Gm (iv), Dm (i), G (IV). Just as a side note by sharpening the 6 note of the scale (Bb to B natural) we are hinting/modulating to the D Dorian mode (D, E, F, G, A, B, C). Modes are a fascinating subject and one I will not say I have totally mastered. One of the best explanations I have found on Modes is by Paul Thomson. Check out his YouTube channel for more information.
To create and develop the second part of the chord progression I switched the G minor for a Bb major. I often find swapping a chord which is a third away from the original chord to be a good substitution. This is possibly because the chords share 2 of the 3 notes which make each other up. In this instance, Bb and D. To keep the more uplifting feel to the end of the progression I replaced the second D minor with a C major and ended with a slight surprise chord of E major 7. Again we are hinting/modulating to a new key or mode. This time it could be said I have moved to D Lydian as both the 4th (G to G#) and 6th (Bb to B) of the scale has been sharpened.
Finally, I added a little more interest to some of the chords by adding some 6ths, 7ths and 9ths. To do this I just played around with some extensions to see what I liked with the melody. The final chord progress I settled for section A was: Dm, Gm9, Dm, G, Dm, Bb7, Csus6, E7
In this section, I wanted to bring the intensity of the piece down before the big finale. I also wanted to keep the chord progression simple to help the sense of a pause or waiting. Again I started with a D minor chord but instead of going to a G minor I went to an Eb major chord (3rd down). Eb is not part of the D minor scale. The normal note would be an E so we have flattened the 2nd of the scale. We could now say we have modulated to D Phrygian (D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C). To help build into the returning section A I re-introduced the Gm before ending on an Ab major. As you will notice Ab is not part of the D Phrygian scale but it is part of my new key F minor. The Ab flat chord also contains an Eb which is the leading note (7th) of my new key. The chord progression for section B was: Dm, Eb, Dm, Eb, Dm, Eb, Gm, Ab.
Section C (or Section A)
This could be labelled section C or the return of section A in a new key, F minor (F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb). The melody and chord pattern is the same as the first two sections but played a minor third above. The only harmonic change is at the end of the section where the piece ends on an F major chord instead of the expected F minor chord. This just gives the piece a finally uplifting finish.
Midi Mockup Tips
1. Good Orchestration: Like good orchestration, a good midi mockup starts with a good arrangement and voicing of the melody and harmony. If you are trying to get a realistic-sounding orchestration then the best way to achieve this is to arrange it like an orchestrator. Simple things like keeping the low end open and saving the smaller intervals for the higher instruments are a good starting place.
2. Payable Lines: Also writing lines for instruments that are realistic. If you have an instrument that requires a breath make sure you leave spaces for the players to breath. Take the opening A section of this piece. The melody line is played by the woodwinds. Every bar or two I try and leave a small break where the players would take a breath.
3. Use Multiple Articulations: Using different articulations can also help create a more realistic sound. If you listen to the strings in the first two A sections you can here a range of different articulations being used. In the 1st A section, the majority of the strings that are playing are playing pizzicato. At the end of the 1st section A, there is a run which is a mixture of staccato, spiccato and legato articulations. Then when they take the melody I use a mixture of legato, staccato and marcato articulations to add some humanism to their playing style.
Depending on your sample libraries will depend on how you achieve this. I tend to use key switches to move between different articulations but you can also open up separate patches and split the line between the different patches to achieve the same results.
4. Use Dynamics, Expression and Velocity: Most sample libraries will come with dynamic (CC1) and expression controls (CC11). These controls allow you to add even more realism to the instrument, turning your playing into a performance. Even if your library doesn’t have these controls you can fake it by automating the volume for the track within your DAW. If the articulation is short or it is a percussive instrument think about varying the velocity of the notes. Lots of libraries come with patches that are called round-robin. This means there are several recordings of the same note and velocity. This helps prevent what is called the machine gun effect. This happens when the same recorded note plays over and over in quick succession. Even if your library has round-robins you can further help by using varying velocities when programming your notes. A drummer is not going to be able to hit the drum at the small velocity every time.
5. Understand Your Sample Libraries: Like playing an instrument the more you use and practice with your sample libraries the more you’ll understand how to get the best out of them. You may notice that in the piece (see video below) a lot of my string lines seem to be ahead of the bar line. This is because CSS (Cinematic Studio Strings) has a built-in attack delay that is linked to the speed of the legato transition, which is determined by the velocity of the note! It was strange when I first started using the library and it took time for me to understand how to use it properly. Having now understood how to use this feature in the library it allows me to create a lot more realistic legato lines.
Now you’ve read the above please re-listen to the track below. I’ve taken a screen capture from my DAW so you can follow some of the main parts as it plays. Not the greatest screen capture ever but hopefully good enough to follow along.
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
Sample Libraries Used
Cinematic Studio Strings
Cinematic Studio Brass
Albion Volume 1 & Albion One
Olafur Arnalds Chamber Evolutions
British Drama Tool Kit
8dio Epic Taiko Ensemble
8dio Epic Toms Ensemble
8dio Epic Frame Drum
Mercury Boy’s Choir
Suggested Additional Reading or Watching
VI-Control – Got a question about DAWs, samples, equipment….. It’s probably been asked before here, if not you can ask and someone will know the answer!
Evenant Music – Great courses plus good free articles as well
ThinkSpace – Some useful articles. Like Evenant they offer paid courses. Also, check out their YouTube channel. Guy Michelmore is a legend!
Music.TutsPlus – an old one but some good information.
Blakus – Composer – amazing midi mock-ups
Daniel James – Film and game composer, right lad!
Christian Henson – Composer and founder of Spitfire Audio – great industry knowledge
Mike Verta – Famed for his mega long live stream feedback videos
Rick Beato – Great for music theory
Paul Thomson – Composer and the other founder of Spitfire Audio
Alex Pfeffer – Good for the aspiring trailer composer
Ashton Gleckman – Check out his behind the score videos
CineSamples – Sample library company but have some useful tutorial videos
Spitfire Audio – Sample library company but have some useful tutorial videos
Joel Dollie – The dark art of mixing!