I have arranged the song “Deacon blues” by Steely Dan for orchestra. I use the notation-software “Sibelius” together with the sample-library “VSL Special edition 1″for writing the score, but the playback of Sibelius with VSL can not come close to a real orchestra performance. Though Sibelius is capable of interpretating all standard dynamic signs, it lacks the possibility to fine-tune single notes and in reality musicians play not exactly, what is written in the score. Real musicians are able to create musical phrasing. They decide to shorten this quarter-note, that it sounds more like an eight, they will hold a note to the beginning of the next bar, even if the note ends before the bar-line. They will create accellerandos and ritardandos, even if they are not notated. At last the dynamic range of instruments can not be described by just standard notation symbols like forte, piano and others. At last an orchestra is leaded by a conductor and the conductor is the one, who decides about phrasing, dynamics and timing of the orchestra. So how can you reproduce the conductor with Midi?
The “VSL Special edition” is a stripped down, basic version of VSL’s famous sample-library. Just basic articulations and limited velocity-layers are included, but I was curious how far I can go with the product, if I invest as much attention to detail as possible.
The playback of Sibelius lacks musicality and expression. I am working with Sibelius 5 and I heard, that Sibelius 7 has some new playback-features: For an example you can “conduct” now the timing with tapping on the keyboard of your Windows or Mac-computer. But I doubt, that somebody else than a real conductor could achieve good results, because you have to do this then in real-time. I prefer the way of editing, because you have all time in the world.
Back to “Deacon blues”: I exported a standard Midi-file from “Sibelius” and imported it to Logic. There I could edit everything much more detailed and comfortable. Then I was first shocked by the amount of events. How could I edit this all, where should I start? At last I figured out a good method, which I want to share:
1. I loop little segments of the arrangement like eight bars or ten bars
2. Then I concentrate on the little segment working from the deepest voice to the highest, from the double-bass to the piccolo-flute.
3. During the editing process I mute all instruments and start first just with the bass solo. When I am happy with the musical expression and phrasing I unmute the next instrument above, usually the cello. Then I edit the cello together with the bass, so I can adjust the phrasing to match the bass, whenever they play something together. I try to achieve the impression of a fine ensemble, which play with congruent phrasing.
4. When I have finished the work for one group of instruments, for an example the strings I listen at last carefully to the whole group regarding the balance of the instruments. Can I hear the leading melodies? Is the accompany overpowering the lead-voice. Can I hear each voice of the chord?
5. If I want to feature a voice more or less I adjust the velocity of the instrument (within the little passage, which I am working on). In my opinion adjusting the velocity works much better than the standard mixing-procedure of automating volume-curves. Especially an acoustic instrument sounds different depending on its loudness. So when I increase the velocity I switch at the same time to other samples, which are recorded to present the instrument playing louder. If I would increase the volume I would just increase the volume of those samples, which are intended for quiet parts of the music and the result would be less realistic.
6. When I am done with all groups of instruments, strings, winds, percussion, I go on with the next eight bars etc.
7. When I am done with the whole arrangement I start to listen to the complete track: What’s about the transitions between the eight-bar-sections? Are they inaudible? If not I work on the transitions to achieve fluid developments regarding dynamics.
8. At last I open the tempo-editor and work on the timing: I draw many tempo-curves for long developments like riterdando and short ones like little phrasing-details. I separate different parts of the music with different basic tempos. For an example I apply a slower tempo for the intro and a faster tempo for the verse-section, but within the different parts the tempo will also vary.
10. If you are still not satisfied you could consider to mix the different groups with volume automation. I would create then groups for strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, but in my case I was already satisfied after the steps one to nine.
Next time I can hopefully present the result of the effort. I think I spend two months before everything was finished.