From MIDI-Mockup to Real Orchestra: It’s a Trip

GPO founder Gary Garritan takes a walk on the wild side of Moravian MIDI mock-down madness. Most digital orchestrators know how to do an orchestral MIDI-mockup. The process of taking an orchestral score and creating a MIDI sequence of it using orchestral samples is no bit of rocket science: The goal is to make the M
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GPO founder Gary Garritan takes a walk on the wild side of Moravian MIDI mock-down madness.
Most digital orchestrators know how to do an orchestral MIDI-mockup. The process of taking an orchestral score and creating a MIDI sequence of it using orchestral samples is no bit of rocket science: The goal is to make the MIDI version, or mock-up, sound like the real thing. But we had a brainstorm and instead of the usual going from orchestra to MIDI-mockup realization, we decided to go from a MIDI-mockup to a real orchestra. We called it a MIDI mock-down and liked it so much that we had a competition to see who could do the best one.

Some may wonder “isn’t it the goal of some sample developers to ‘replace’ an orchestra”? Not so! My goal is to point people to the real thing and to real players and demonstrate how orchestral tools can facilitate the move to live orchestra. And sponsoring a competition would accomplish this goal.

Why? How? What?

Well it all started with an idea. A desire to do something special for musicians. Many musicians were buying orchestral libraries but few would have experience with a live orchestra. It’d always been a dream of mine to have my works played by a real orchestra. What if we could give musicians the opportunity to work with a real orchestra in the form of a competition?

So we ran the idea by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra and Petr Pololanik, who graciously donated the services of the orchestra, and a date was set for the performance. Emmy Award winning composer Hummie Mann, composer/conductor Andy Brick, Film Music magazine editor Mark Northam, well-known arranger David Maddux, game composer Doyle Donehoo, Frank Spitznagel, well-known New York theater musician, film composer Jonathon Cox and percussionist Michael Salamone all piled on.

Winners were chosen, fun was had by all but what about . . .

Going from MIDI to Orchestra: How To . . .
Many composers and orchestrators today work on their computer and make their music using MIDI files or sequencer files (such as Cubase, Logic, Cakewalk, Digital Performer, or other programs). Going from sequencer or notation programs to a playable score can be a daunting task. Ideally you want a separate individual track and/or channel to represent an individual instrument. It’s important that when you import a MIDI file that each person in the orchestra has their own staff.

But the first step in going from a MIDI rendition to a real orchestra is to prepare the sequence file for the conversion to notation. When I work I have a sequence file, an export file, an import file, and a notation file. The export file is the file in which you quantize all the note on/off durations and split out any multi-instrument tracks. It’s quite a process, but in the end it saves you an enormous amount of time if you do this step correctly. This is the step where you actually undo most of the tricks you used to make the score sound good.

The next step is to prepare a score. There were a number of scores, in a number of different styles written by a number of different composers in different countries using different sequencers and notation programs. Whereas each and every score may be a perfectly acceptable in and of itself, it’s critical that we made every effort possible to standardize the scores that will be represented in the concert. And the lack of proper score preparation can spell disaster for a successful performance.

Now although some of the winning competition pieces were done in sequencers — like Digital Performer or Sonar — proper preparation involves a lot more than just importing MIDI files into a notation program and printing. What is involved then, in preparing a work for rehearsal and public performance? If you’ve ever built a piece of furniture from IKEA, or put together a bicycle, or model ship you will know it is best to follow the instructions.

The Conductor’s Big Score
Before you begin it’s important to know your orchestration. This is the most important thing to begin with. Before you can begin entering your music, you have to set up your score. This would include adding the correct number of staves, setting the clefs and braces, adding measures, and displaying instrument names.

The next thing to do with any score is to analyze the separate parts. The conductor should have a clear idea of the phrasing and articulations for each instrument. Study each separate part and think like the instrumentalist. MIDI-sequenced renditions don’t indicate to the player where to phrase nor give them time to do necessary things. It’s important that winds and brass have time to breathe, percussionists have time to move to other instruments, doubles have time to switch instruments, and brass instruments have time to have mutes placed. Look for awkward fingering problems, difficult intervals, breath marks, and turns; and, if necessary, simplify them for the players. Try to anticipate any problems the individual players have. Check for markings. It’s important that each instrument plays in its range. Some of the submissions had parts beyond the typical range of the players and they had to be modified accordingly. Also, knowing the limitations of the instruments is important. For instance, making sure there is no unplayable chromatisicm in harp.

Unfortunately, just because you can finesse a library to execute a difficult passage doesn’t mean that an actual player can execute that same passage. It’s unrealistic to expect virtuosic performances by nearly every member of the orchestra.

Breathing is always an issue with composers going from MIDI to live, as well. Nothing like the endless single-note sample loop to mislead a composer. Similarly the various legato tools out there are lovely but they don’t tell you how long the bow is. Few know that at any dynamic level, basses can play a longer slurred passage than violins. The reason is simply that the bow is longer and the player can therefore spend more time before changing bow direction and thus breaking the slur. String phrasing is critical and is another sure bet for problems in a score coming from a composer new to the transition from MIDI to live.

Dynamics is another issue when going from MIDI to live. Many scores from MIDI composers transitioning into live often consider dynamics something that is static or virtually static — rather than ever-changing and flowing. This ever-changing dynamic must be set forth in the score.

The harmonic and rhythmic structure may also need clarification. Check to see if any harmonies clash with the main lines or whether some lines need to be enhanced with espressivo. The score should be checked to make sure the rhythm is clear and ascertainable. No instrument should play a wrong rhythm. Are tempi markings clearly marked?

The conductor’s score helps the conductor familiarize himself with the music and provide the big picture of the upcoming performance as a whole. A good conductor thoroughly analyzes and studies the score. He internalizes it, becomes intimately familiar with it, and immerses himself so that the music becomes a part of him. The conductor then has no doubt how the music will go, or how to direct the members of the orchestra.

Parts is Parts
After the conductors score is analyzed and checked, the next step was to break out the individual parts for each player. Whether the instruments in the conductor’s score are written in “concert” pitch or “transposed” pitch depends on a number of things. Many Hollywood guys use concert scores. And some prefer transposed. With transposed scores it’s easier to talk to the players in their language.

Regardless of whether the conductor’s score is concert or transposed, the individual players must get their parts transposed into the key of their particular instrument. The trumpet, for instance, is in Bb and must be transposed a whole step. The horn is in F, and so on.

Some of the winners prepared their own parts, which were very good, and others needed help. With the deadline rapidly approaching and much work to be done, we simply could not get all the parts done in time. Four different works for 65 individual players is a lot of pages. Toward the end we needed help on a couple of pieces and turned to a professional score preparation service. We used the services of Robert Puff of RPM Seattle Music Preparation ( RPM took the notation files in Finale and Sibelius and converted them into separate instrument parts.

With both the conductor’s score and the player parts, it’s essential that you have a uniform system of numbering bars and measures. The conductor must have a clear and unambiguous way to direct everyone to specific places in the music where they may need to re-start.

Practice + Perfect
After putting in a great deal of time and effort into preparing the conductor’s score and the individual player parts, it was time to rehearse. Just as one has to manipulate MIDI data to get the right performance out of a computer and samples, a conductor has to rehearse multiple times to get the right performance from the orchestra.

The first day of rehearsal we didn’t know what to expect. The orchestra began by running through each piece without stopping, then rehearsing the rough spots. The stop-and-start detail work for the rough spots seemed tedious. The players were very helpful during rehearsal. They chimed in where they thought something could be notated or phrased better and they seemed to be genuinely interested in the success of the performance.

Too often it is natural to react too quickly to the first run through because it doesn’t sound just like the MIDI. Many are accustomed to hearing a MIDI version where every instrument is in perfect tune and every player intonates perfectly, where dynamic ranges are compressed, and mistakes are never made. Prolonged exposure to MIDI produces an affliction known as “MIDI-itis”. Imperfections and humanness were apparent during the first rehearsal. The real orchestra did not sound exactly like the MIDI-mockup, and I had some unrealistic expectations. But listening to all those players, what made it great is that nobody was perfect — but when it was all put together — it was great.

And despite our best continuing efforts to prepare, there were errors in the score that became apparent. For instance, in winner Richard Birdsall’s “Knights and Magic,” the horn was not transposed, which was obvious on the first take. Also, the second horn was struggling with a very high part not normally in the range. When we transposed the part down an octave, it worked much better.

And then as the first note sounds then bursts into glorious orchestration the night of the performance I knew then that all the effort was worth it. The concert thrilled, and will remain an unforgettable memory long after the passing of the one-time moment of the performance.