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Critique my first piece? - Lord Thayer - 02-05-2017

Hello everyone, I'd like to start by saying that I'm really excited to find a community like this! 

A small excerpt about me (feel free to skip this paragraph): I played guitar in a rock band for about 13 years in which I wrote most of the music. I have always been passionate about video games and video game music, which bled into my rock in the form of chiptune-style synths, strings, and other "easy" orchestration patches. Late last year, I had an epiphany while looking at my beloved dog, Roslyn, that I didn't want to try and tour around and stuff anymore, and that it was time to finally start pursuing my lifelong goal of being a composer for video games and film. I have no formal music education (somewhat typical of young rockers), and in fact never learned any music theory whatsoever until recently (I currently have a very basic foundation established.) I have read a couple of books on MIDI orchestration now (some of the info seemed a tad dated, but helped me understand the world I have only viewed from the outside considerably) and decided to set a goal of releasing one orchestrated piece on the first of every month, starting February 1st.

Okay, now that that's out of the way, maybe we can move to the good part? I'd really like to have my first piece critiqued by people who know what they're doing, and I'd like it to be honest but fair. My mom telling me it "sounds just like hollywood music", while great for my ego, does not help my development :p I'd really like pointers on how to make some of it feel more realistic or natural--any areas that made you think "god, that sounds fake", or maybe it all does that to a seasoned ear! Tips on mixing/mastering would also be greatly appreciated, as until now, my experience with reverb was limited to a rock setting where it was basically on or off--only now am I starting to understand pre-delay and other elements. If it's relevant, I'm currently using mostly Spitfire stuff (Albion and a few others) although I'm going to transition to less generic string/orchestra sections next time; probably Los Angeles Scoring Strings and some 8dio stuff.

Anyway, I've talked enough! Thanks so much for your time.

https://soundcloud.com/lordthayer/the-call-to-adventure


RE: Critique my first piece? - Otto Halmén - 02-06-2017

Welcome aboard, Lord Thayer! Smile

Let me just say right away that you've certainly got the chops for this, so keep it up. Smile

As to the piece:
+ Thematically, you're in the right place. It sounds like a call to adventure. Smile
+ There's a nice variety in the instrumentation. By spreading out the winds and chromatic percussion along the different parts, you get a rich arrangement that hints at worldbuilding.

? The reverb sounds like a plate (no pre-delay, ultra-wide, slight pew sound on percussion attacks). Did you use OldSkoolVerb? I put a question mark because this is an unorthodox choice for modern works, but you MIGHT be able to pull off a retro Hollywood sound with it, if that's something you want to do. Smile

- The woodwinds and brass don't have a whole lot of ambience, and sound a bit small and up close. Try bringing up the reverb (or just the early reflections if you feel that too much reverb kills the sound) a bit.
- The main melody lacks phrasing. Try singing the part by yourself to see where you would take small pauses to breathe, and play the parts accordingly. Singing something also helps you get a good feel of articulation (i.e. which notes should be long, short, emphasized, and so on).


RE: Critique my first piece? - Michael Willis - 02-06-2017

Hi Thayer! Your name makes me think of a town near where I grew up that had a street called Thayer Avenue Wink

I hope you'll be happy to know that I waited until I had access to a decent set of headphones before listening to this (left them at the office over the weekend), and didn't read Otto's review until after listening to it, so as not to sully my opinions.

I think the composition is fantastic, musically speaking. There's great use of the introductory harmony to lead into the main theme, and I really liked the subtle countermelody that underlies the theme. The interpolation of the woodwind part fit in just right, instead of feeling like you suddenly switched to a different piece of music.

You have some kind of tom tom or something near the beginning that in my opinion has a sound that doesn't fit in. To me it sounds like it comes from an analog drum synth, I'm wondering what kind of sound you would get if you used a timpani or some kind of orchestral tom tom. Of course, that's my opinion, you are the composer and that sound might be exactly what you're going for.

Is there a piccolo involved in those little warbling phrases, or just the flute section? I don't quite have the ear to distinguish with everything else going on, but if it's just the flute section, definitely try doubling some of those phrases with a piccolo (an octave higher) and see what you think.

Don't be afraid to give a bit more velocity to the brass parts, particularly the trumpets. Yes, it's easy to overdo it and make the brass seem really in your face, but in this case I think the primary theme really calls for it. We're going on an adventure here! It's supposed to be in your face!

I'm curious what orchestral collection(s) you're using, and like Otto I'm wondering about details on the reverb, as well as any other audio processing that you're using.

EDIT: Heh, I just noticed that you already mentioned Spitfire.


RE: Critique my first piece? - Lord Thayer - 02-06-2017

Thanks so much for the thoughtful replies! I had a feeling this would be a great community to be a part of.

To address reverb first: I have a couple of Waves reverb plug-ins (I use Reaper as my DAW, Kontakt as my sampler) the H1 which I suppose is more of a standard one, and one called IR1 which is a convolution reverb. I tried using the IR1 first, since my books mentioned that this is the best method of reverb for orchestral stuff, but it just sounded crazy to me--way too wet. I know that this is mostly due to my inability to actually work this (or any) reverb effectively, so I'm going to find some videos to help me understand how to get the best sound of them before I put up my second piece next month. I used the H1 on basically everything and left most of the settings as-is, while attempting to push some instruments "back" using the predelay only, but I don't feel I really succeeded. I think I'm getting myself kind of stuck by trying to follow the information I've read on making my pieces sound "real", while also wanting it be more of an in-you-face, cleaner sound that I associate with more modern hollywood and video game music (big fan of Final Fantasy and Zelda soundtracks.)

As far as instrumentation goes: I used the tom samples in one of the Spitfire Albion tracks as well. I kind of felt like they were too intense and hollywood-cliche for what I was going for, but it's all I could work effectively before my self-appointed deadline :p Maybe I'll figure out a way to tone them down or get a better sound out of them. In the B section, I switch to a Kontakt-library basic Timpani sound.

With the winds, I used two different Spitfire libraries: The Albion, which divided it into simply "Winds Hi" and "Winds Lo" which I was not a big fan of--but again, deadline. Otherwise I know I just would have worked on this one piece for weeks and weeks Tongue And then a Spitfire standalone flute library, which may be where some of the inconsistencies come from. Next time, I'll be looking to use separate instrument tracks for sure. The brass were the same way--Hi and Lo--, and I used one Kontakt trumpet solo to try and help some of the articulations be a bit sharper. Working with a full horn section definitely made me more fearful of them--they are so powerful! I'll definitely work on allowing them to do what they do best, instead of trying to push them play nice with everything. And you know, my book (A Guide to MIDI Orchestration) actually told me to try singing horn lines out so that they'd be realistic, and I totally forgot until this moment. Message received.

I'm definitely going to take all of this into consideration, as I'm only in the writing stage for my next piece now. Reverb is going to be one of my big focuses this time, although I also need to learn a bit more about the mastering phase. I will be looking for information on use of reverb and EQ for orchestrated music on my own, but if you guys know of any videos/articles already, I'd be grateful Smile


RE: Critique my first piece? - Otto Halmén - 02-06-2017

In case you haven't seen these already: http://mattiaswestlund.net/?page_id=29

There's a relatively concise explanation on how reverb works in virtual orchestration. The main thing to take home is that the perceived distance depends on the topology and overall level of reverb in addition to pre-delay, and those depend on the would-be seating positions and emission patterns of different instruments. Smile

There's a nice article on general considerations when mixing a virtual orchestra as well. Smile

As to mastering, it depends a lot on your target platform, so if you're working on a commission, it's probably the easiest to simply ask the sound guys what they want. Smile


RE: Critique my first piece? - Samulis - 02-06-2017

Spitfire is very wet to begin with, meanwhile Kontakt sounds are very dry to begin with. What I mean is, spitfire has baked in full reverb- you actually should hardly need to add any on top. The downside is obvious: wet things in one hall and dry things in no hall don't typically work well together. Pouring reverb generously over both will over-saturate the wet and leave the dry with something to be desired. Therefore, it is best to add reverb to the dry to get in in the same wetness as the baked wet stuff, then add a very gentle reverb over the top to hold it all together.

The trick to using spitfire (and other wet libraries like EWQL SO) is to mix in the close mics ("close" "overhead") and avoid far/room mics; this will add more clarity and reduce the amount of wetness. When using EWQL SO, I've been known to turn down the main mics and rely almost entirely on close mics at time just to get a tone that is clean and incisive rather than lurid and damp.

When you use a reverb, you should always adjust the wet/dry mix. It should almost never be above 50%, even on bone-dry sounds. I find that IR reverb goes well between 10-30% wet.

On other reverbs (e.g. QL Spaces) you will notice that there is no wet/dry mix but rather a wet volume and a dry volume. For this, set the dry volume fairly high with wet off, then slowly increase wet until it has a pleasant sense of space without ruining the incisiveness of the articulations. Reverb is way too easy to overdo, and about 80% of my own early works are now the sonic equivalent of swamps. When you first start out, reverb is always the ultimate "soundgoodizer"- it just makes everything sound all big and spacey and round. But the ultimate desired effect is to find equilibrium between room and clarity.

For comparison, here's an example from the realm of live recording.

Here's a live concert band recorded with some "mid" mics just a few feet from the stage. There's a good balance, but the reverb sound is unpleasant and it's in general a bit tinny.
https://instaud.io/rXK

So we might add reverb. In this case, let's instead use a far microphone position- this is *basically* what reverb would sound like. As you can hear, it's like listening to mud, but has a lot of missing space.
https://instaud.io/rXJ

Together, this makes a pleasant mix with the best of both worlds-
https://instaud.io/rXL

Something to keep in mind is the "bands" of your composition- it's important to make sure that what is in each register has room to breathe and be heard. This is particularly important in the bass area, as heavy "cinematic" toms and such tend to fill up that register with waves of muddy thudding. Most reverbs have options to filter out or reduce their effect on certain frequencies, and this is an excellent option to do that so long as the reverb isn't baked in there (like Spitfire).

Often times, it's very easy to go "big" but very hard to make that "big" sound right because elements start stepping on each others' toes.

A good practice you can do to help is to do a "build up" piece where you slowly add elements into the mix, such as this-
https://instaud.io/private/58dbee0afc5e5258c300ad592d3e9db173af912c

You want to be able to at least identify elements in the mix (of course, some elements are supposed to be background and not easy to isolate, but they should still be clear that if you are locked onto that element, you can follow it)

As far as phrasing is concerned, this isn't quite something you can pick up from a book or even very well private instruction (at least not without a lot of it). You need to listen to how real musicians phrase things.

Here's an example of an old piece played live solo:
https://instaud.io/leG

You'll notice every few notes there is a break for the player to breathe. This also allows the music a moment to pause, like a comma or a period. If you're working off a music written to words, these breaks are easy to find and phrase to, but phasing your own material can be a lot more difficult. If you've gotten this far in theory, you may have encountered notes called "pick-ups" or "approach tones". Typically in a phrase, we have a starting point, going to a peak, then down to a cadence which ends the phrase. You may then experience either a rest or another phrase immediately.

Another portion of phrasing has to do with the meter and style of the work. Here's a live example of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear", a popular Christmas song-
https://instaud.io/GiJ

In this case, the third beat of each measure (it is in 3/4) gets played short, which is common to dance music. This trick (long-long-short) is a great way to phrase any triplets or 3/4 measures and adds a lot of liveliness to the sound.

Here's a virtual case-
https://instaud.io/private/59c3d7c82f0450f1145bc592845dd2e502cdf773

You'll notice how in the start, we are introduced to a motif, or common musical fragment, that starts loud and then goes to a quieter lower note. This "Push-pull" motion is a very common one in music. This phrase gets explored throughout the rest of the piece by several woodwinds- you'll notice after each "duuuuunn-dunn..." there is a short break, where the player would breath, then the exploration.

We could imagine this piece something like this:
Hiiii there,
Hiiii there,
Hi hi hi hi hi hiiiiii there,

bassoon (after pause):
hi there, I hope you are doing well,
hi there, I hope that your day is great,
hi there, it is a quiet spell, oh
hi there, I think it is but fate, oh yes

english horn:
and hi there, I think I'm doing well and
you are, without worry and indeed
hi there, it's all just going swell and
hi there,

bass clarinet:
shuddup you double-reed,

flute:
hey now, that's no way to talk to a
bass-oon, now go away you
ba-ffoon, that's right you go away you
ba-ffoon

clarinet:
he told you right, now sing out you

oboe:
o-boe, that is my name it's pretty don't
you think, but really I just play the
high notes, watch me do that
again now,

flute:
ok oboe it's time to stop,
my solo is better than yours ever was...

everyone:
YEAAHHHH!

(bass):
-eaahhh-huh...

============
After the nightmares (and my immense songwriting royalties) subsist, you might see how assigning random words to music can help realize the phrasing intrinsic to the music. It's a lot more like text than one might suspect.


RE: Critique my first piece? - Michael Willis - 02-06-2017

(02-06-2017, 09:02 PM)Samulis Wrote: shuddup you double-reed
Sam, I'm in tears at how poignant and touching your lyrics are.

Thayer, I hope you'll be happy to know that I've played your piece multiple times, just because it's great fun to listen to. I only wish it were the beginning of a long epic symphony with lots of other themes and a few reprises on the introduction.


RE: Critique my first piece? - peastman - 02-07-2017

That's great!  I'd say you're on exactly the right track.  It's interesting, complex, and sounds like movie music.  My only real suggestion is to second what Samulis said about adding more variation to the dynamics.  This happens on lots of levels.  Within one measure and one part, some notes are louder than others.  And then also have changes in the relative volume of different instruments, to keep shifting the attention around between the parts.  Perhaps an instrument will suddenly get louder when it's doing something important, but then after a few notes it will back off to let other instruments come through.  And on top of all that, it's good to have frequent changes in the overall loudness of the music as another way to add variation.


Quote:Working with a full horn section definitely made me more fearful of them


Horns are awesome!  They're by far the most subtle and expressive instruments in the brass section.  Trumpets or trombones have one thing they do well, and as long as that's what you want, they're fine.  But horns can do lots of things well.  Experiment with using them for quiet, legato parts.  Horns make a really good melodic instrument.


RE: Critique my first piece? - Otto Halmén - 02-07-2017

Oh, and one more thing. Sounds like you were already pondering it, but if you've got the bits to get a full section-by-section setup, do it! While a simplified setup with "high strings", "low strings", "high brass", "low brass", and so on may be easier to jam and perform live with, a piecemeal setup will truly unlock the composer within you. I'm not saying you need e.g. 16 discrete tracks for first violins, but if you've got things set up roughly the way they are on a classical score, you've pretty much got every imaginable tone color at your fingertips. Smile


RE: Critique my first piece? - Lord Thayer - 02-07-2017

This is by far the best feedback I've ever gotten on a forum. I'm going to take some time and really try to digest all of this information and see if I can get a noticeably better sounding piece next month. I look forward to having more to say in this community than "please rip my piece to shreds."