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23 August 2010

Confessions of an orchestrator

Tim Davies Image: Tim Davies  
© Paulina Freidel

Stranger: What do you do?

Tim: I orchestrate music for movies and games.

Stranger: Wow, you write music for movies.

Argh! If you meet a mechanic, do you assume they also make cars? Or do you think that your dentist is just doing that until they become a doctor? Maybe those are extreme examples, but I have a job that is not widely understood, even among musicians. The day I decided I had done enough conducting to introduce myself as a conductor was a big relief. At least everyone knows what that is.

So what is an orchestrator anyway? Anyone reading this site would know what orchestration is. It is an art, a skill, part of the composition process. But, in the Hollywood sense, what is it?

You have all heard of certain composers labelled hacks or hummers because they do not orchestrate their own scores, but 99% of composers in Hollywood, historically and currently, use an orchestrator. In simple terms, there are three types of composers working: those who could orchestrate, those who could but know it is not really their thing, and those who can't at all. All use me.

In the case of the ones who could, I save them time and have often thought of things they have not - they were busy trying to hit the picture and please the director. It takes a lot of time to write a film cue. You must compose it, program a mock-up on your computer, play it for the director, and then keep changing it until he is happy. Good orchestration takes a lot of time, and these composers don't have it. To make a tutti orchestra sound there are around 35 lines of music in the score.

What about the others? Modern film and game scores have many types of music, and composers come from all kinds of backgrounds, many have never studied the orchestra. They can write something for orchestra because they have a sample library that sounds something like an orchestra. They then need me to take that idea, flesh it out and make it work with the orchestra.

There are also people who fit somewhere in the middle. They know a little, enough to sketch it out in their computers, but they also know that I will bring their music to another level.

So, then, what do I do?

Once a cue has been written and approved by the director, I get sent the files. Standard delivery is a midi file, mix and audio stems. Stems are audio files of each section of the band that the composer has rendered with his computer. Sometimes it is detailed material - I get woods, brass, strings, percussion and other elements. Sometimes I get some rough strings and notes on what to do. I load this into Digital Performer so I can see all the midi and hear all the stems. The midi then needs to be cleaned up. If you do not clean it up, quantise and split polyphonic parts out into separate lines and consolidate similar patches, it imports into Finale as a big mess.

After I export a new midi file, I import it into Finale and do more cleaning up. I make sure all the rhythms and enharmonics are spelt the way I want, and percussion is all labelled. I also have to transcribe any gestures (audio of orchestras making noises) or parts that have no midi, like sampled harp glisses. At this stage, a lot of work has been done and I have not even started 'orchestrating' yet. These days I have an assistant who does most of this work, but I spent many years doing it all myself and I still do the first few cues on each project myself. It helps me get into the music and the composer's head.

Now at last we are ready to orchestrate!

I start by listening to the stems and looking at the sketch I now have in Finale. I usually work on the strings first. I like to get them done for the whole cue as it gives me a good sense of the overall flow.

I have to decide which instrument gets what notes, which section I divide when I need more notes, and what to leave out if there are too many notes for the size of orchestra we have. Just because it sounded OK with a sampled violin does not mean that is the only or best way to do it with the real players.

I have to solve problems when a composer writes something impossible. On big movies we get big orchestras, but on TV shows the orchestra is often not big enough for the sound we need to make, so I have to use every trick I know to make it sound as large as possible.

I also have to write it out in a way that makes it sight-readable. We do not rehearse film scores before the session, we play it once, to check for any wrong notes and make sure it hits the picture like it should, and then we record it. On TV we will even try to get it on the first read. Knowing how to write like this is the biggest skill an orchestrator needs. The better the job I do, the faster we record.

Once the strings are done, I do the brass, woods and percussion. These I will do in phrases or sections. Every now and then I play it back. This is not to see what it sounds like - Finale playback is far from realistic, and, besides, I know what it will sound like, that is my job - but the playback will reveal any wrong notes I may have put in by accident. I then print it out and proofread it. I also send it to a proofreader to proof it once more. I should not admit it, but the deadlines mean I have to go so fast that every now and then I miss something. Sometimes it is just a dynamic, but other times it might be something more important, and having it looked at by a pair of fresh eyes is well worth it. Then it goes off to the copyist, and I move onto the next cue.

I am paid by the amount of music I do, so it is in my interest to be fast. I have always treated Finale like my instrument - it makes me a lot of money. I also use every other trick and gadget I can. I have three monitors, an X-key, a Contour Shuttle, a NanoKontrol, and a large midi keyboard. I have hundreds of Quickeys, allowing me to work without the toolbar open, and I rarely use a menu. I am known for being a bit obsessive when it comes to Quickeys, and it is true. No matter what the deadline, if I have an idea that will save me a keystroke or two, I will stop to program it.

In the last few years I have been lucky enough to break into the LA studio scene as a conductor. (This, too, is a job far different to that of a concert conductor, but that is a topic for another article.) The best part is to get to hear the notes I put on paper, to see the players, how they react and how they play it. You can't get that from reading books or studying scores. I also get to try lots of things out with large orchestras. It is not uncommon to have 8 horns (all of which can hit a top C!) and 5 trombones, all on bass or contra if needed. If I think something would sound good with 16 celli, I can do it.

Further links

Tim Davies - AMC profile
Tim Davies Big Band
Tim Davies - www.timusic.net (on Davies's work in Hollywood)
Video of Grammy-nominated 'Counting to Infinity' by Davies from the album Dialmentia
Purchase Dialmentia from the AMC Shop
Tim Davies credits

Tim Davies has been based in Los Angeles for 12 years. His day job is working as an orchestrator, arranger and conductor on film and game scores. Recent projects include The Wolfman, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Dear John, Sex and the City 2, Despicable Me and God of War 3. When he is not working on films and games, he writes for and leads the Tim Davies Big Band. Recent commissions include works for the Australian Army, the Sydney Conservatorium and arrangements for the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. In 2009 he was nominated for a Grammy for best instrumental composition for his piece 'Counting to Infinity' from his latest album Dialmentia.


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