The Real Thing

Many musicians dream of having their music performed by and recorded with a symphony orchestra. The vibrant cascading strings, majestic horns, and rising
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Many musicians dream of having their music performed by and recorded with a symphony orchestra. The vibrant cascading strings, majestic horns, and rising

Many musicians dream of having their music performed by and recorded with a symphony orchestra. The vibrant cascading strings, majestic horns, and rising crescendos are enough to give any composer goose bumps. But these aural fantasies typically remain unfulfilled; unless, of course, you have a major record label behind you. Having a large orchestra at your disposal has always seemed beyond reach for most of us - until recently.

While working on my latest album, I needed a lush sound to complement the hundreds of layered harps in the recording. Hiring a symphony orchestra seemed like the perfect solution, so I contacted about a dozen orchestras in North America. As you might expect, I was hit with quite a sticker shock. The cost of hiring a first-rate orchestra for a day ranged from about $45,000 to more than $80,000. It was not exactly in my budget; in fact, it wasn't even close!

My next option for capturing a full symphonic sound was to purchase a sampler and an orchestral sampling library. Samplers from companies such as Akai, Kurzweil, and E-mu cost between $1,500 and $3,500. A software sampler such as GigaSampler with a separate dedicated computer system might also make a good choice.

There are currently several high-quality orchestral sample libraries to choose from, including the Miroslav Vitous Orchestra series, the Siedlaczek Advanced Orchestra set, the Roland Orchestral Library, and the Kirk Hunter Virtuoso Series Strings. These libraries typically excel at particular techniques (for example, legato playing) but may be weak at other techniques (such as fast bowing). After much investigation, I concluded that no single collection would be adequate. I needed a combination of sample libraries that would complement one another. For my project, the cost of the sampler and several libraries amounted to more than $6,000 - much better than $60,000 for a real orchestra, but still a bit steep.

Furthermore, in spite of recent advances in sampler technology, sampled orchestral arrangements still don't match the grandeur of a real symphony. The powerful synergy of the orchestra members playing together simply can't be adequately captured through sampling. Uncomplicated legato passages may be acceptable for samplers; but when it comes to fast passages and certain types of articulations, sampling falls short. It seemed that none of my available options were satisfactory, and I was left on the horns of a dilemma until a chance encounter pointed me in a new direction.

While playing my harp at a Tulip Festival, I met a musician from Eastern Europe. She told me about how the orchestras of Central and Eastern Europe were becoming available to the West. After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, many symphony orchestras were no longer funded by their governments and were, therefore, offering their services on the open market. These orchestras needed hard currency and could be hired at a fraction of the cost of a comparable Western orchestra.

I embarked on an Internet search and soon discovered Symphonic Workshops ( Symphonic Workshops, the brainchild of Dr. Harry Hurwitz (see Fig. 1), began ten years ago as a conductor's workshop in Zlin, the Czech Republic. When Eastern Europe began opening up to the West, Hurwitz wanted to make some of Europe's finest orchestras available to conductors, so he developed an intensive conductor's training workshop. This workshop provided a rare opportunity for young conductors to gain experience with full-scale established orchestras while under the guidance of well-known professional conductors.

Apprentice conductors from more than 30 countries attended the workshop, which quickly grew from its origins as a conductor's boot camp into a variety of workshops throughout Eastern Europe. There are now opera workshops, a wind instrument workshop, piano workshops, a Strauss workshop, a repertoire workshop, symphonic workshops, and the Recording Fest. These workshops are held during the year in varying locations in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and the Ukraine.

I spoke with Hurwitz by phone at his office in Toronto about the feasibility of hiring an orchestra. My project consisted of ten songs totaling about 28 minutes of music with various degrees of orchestration. Hurwitz informed me that my recording project could be done at one of the biannual Recording Fests in the City of Olomouc, a small Moravian city in the Czech Republic, several hours north of Vienna.

The Recording Fest featured the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra (40 to 75 players), and the recording could be done by an experienced, professional engineer in a concert hall with state-of-the-art recording equipment. This is going to cost a fortune, I thought. You can imagine my surprise when I received a quote of only $4,200 for a 50-piece orchestra!

For the Recording Fest, an orchestra is not hired on a per-player-per-hour basis as in the United States. The charges are based on the finished recording: $3 per player per minute of final recording time. The above figure includes up to 18 hours of rehearsal for every hour of final recording. Bear in mind that not all of my songs required the orchestra throughout. Some songs needed only sections of orchestration. In other words, I could complete my project with almost 30 minutes of final music. The 50 players would cost less than $4,500, and that price might involve up to nine hours of rehearsal time leading up to the final recording. (In some cases, extra charges may be expected for engineering, hall rental, and the conductor.)

Packages are available that include all costs. For example, 40 minutes of final recording time for a 40-piece orchestra, including rehearsal time, hall rental, and engineer, would cost about $7,200. A 75-piece orchestra would cost $13,900. As mentioned earlier, my 28-minute project cost only $4,200. Prices for individual recordings often vary depending on the needs of the composer, but they are a small fraction of the costs for an orchestra in the United States.

The Liaison LinkIt is very important to have an orchestral liaison who can represent you before the orchestra. He or she knows the laws of the country where the orchestra is located, knows the inner workings of the orchestra, and knows how to negotiate with the parties involved. Stories abound about the hazards of negotiating within former communist countries. Prices rapidly fluctuate on a whim and new charges magically appear. You may also have to contend with the infamous black market, language and customs barriers, and a frustrating, Byzantine bureaucracy.

A liaison can also help with booking hotels, finding flights, arranging local transportation, exchanging currency, and hiring translators. It would be unwise for anyone to attempt to hire an orchestra in these countries without a liaison. Hurwitz and the staff at Symphonic Workshops have had ten years of experience dealing with the orchestras in these former communist countries, and they know how to make a project happen. Functioning like a personal diplomat, the orchestral liaison makes it possible to concentrate on the music and avoid an array of difficulties.

No Sputnik GearOne of my concerns was the quality of the equipment that would be used to record the orchestra. You can have the greatest orchestra in the world, but how good will it sound if it's recorded with the wrong gear? I thought about the sound quality of old Russian cartoons and envisioned equipment that looked like it came from the Sputnik era.

When Hurwitz mailed a CD of the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, I was very impressed with the richness of the sound. I was also pleasantly surprised when I received a fax of the equipment list: a Neve 8128 or AMEK Angela mixing console; Schoeps, AKG, and UREI mics; Neumann tube mics; Dolby SR; Lexicon, Eventide, TL Audio, and Drawmer outboard units; Apogee converters; Pro Tools; and much more. If they didn't have the gear I wanted, they could probably find it. Some musicians have even chosen to bring some of their own equipment. Hurwitz provided references from several satisfied customers. I signed a simple contract with Symphonic Workshops and the adventure began.

Now that I had found an orchestra with the proper recording equipment, much work needed to be done; the Recording Fest was two months away. Due to my touring schedule, I could not travel to the Czech Republic, and there was still a lot of scoring work ahead. I contacted my lifelong friend Frank Spitznagel, an arranger in New York City, to help with the arranging and scoring. We soon realized we needed more help.

The individual scores require proper notation, which includes articulations, bowings, expression marks, and dynamics. I relayed my concerns to Hurwitz and he suggested that I hire an English-speaking Czech conductor to help with the scoring and arranging and also to represent me before the orchestra.

Czech MateUnless you've had experience conducting an orchestra (especially a foreign orchestra), it's best to pass the baton and hire a professional conductor. Choosing a conductor is like choosing a producer or a mixing engineer; the conductor must be in tune with your vision and understand what you are trying to get across to your audience. There were several conductors to choose from, but after corresponding by e-mail, I knew that Petr Pololanik was the man for the job (see the sidebar "Interview with a Conductor"). Pololanik has a strong command of the orchestra, knows the English language fairly well, and is technologically savvy. Besides being a prodigious young conductor, he is proficient with MIDI sequencing and digital audio.

I decided to exchange musical ideas and prepare the scores via the Internet. After all, Spitznagel and I had been doing that for years between New York and the Pacific Northwest island where I live. Pololanik and I both had PCs with Windows 95, a Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE32 sound card, Coda Finale notation software, and Adobe Acrobat Reader. Pololanik uses Voyetra Turtle Beach Digital Orchestrator Pro for his sequencing software; I use Cakewalk's Pro Audio for my sequencing. I also have a SEK'D audio card, Samplitude 2496 software, and a Digidesign Pro Tools system on a Mac for final editing.

To keep our file sizes down, we decided to use general MIDI files to exchange musical ideas across the Internet. General MIDI files are small, and since we both had the same sound card, we knew that each of us would hear the same instrument sounds. What's more, our sequencers both had staff views so we could see the revisions in notation form while we listened to the MIDI files. Each part (violas, cellos, oboes, flutes, and so forth) was laid out on separate tracks, and each track was assigned a different channel (see Fig. 2).

My project had diverse instrumentation. Some songs required only a string orchestra to add a lush background; other songs required a full orchestra with strings, horns, woodwinds, and percussion. Certain parts of songs required individual solo parts; others called for ensembles.

Pro Audio allowed me to view the individual parts or the entire conductor's score in one view. MIDI timing resolution was not an issue, since we were using MIDI for scoring and not for recording a performance. MIDI made it easier to make modifications and communicate our ideas in an efficient manner. When the arrangements were agreed upon and it was time to score the project, the files were imported into Finale and sent in Finale format. That way, the individual parts could be printed in the Czech Republic without having to ship a mountain of scores for the 50 individual players. When special markings were needed, we printed out part of the score and hand notated it. Then we scanned the music and sent it as a JPEG file via e-mail, or we simply faxed it. For two months, Pololanik, Spitznagel, and I exchanged e-mails, MIDI files, Finale files, JPEG files, faxes, and audio files (on rare occasions) over the Internet.

Pololanik carefully scrutinized every note in the arrangements and made appropriate corrections as needed. In addition, he offered suggestions to make the scores more musical, offered better harmony changes, pointed out problems, and in some cases provided alternative arrangements. He listened to our arrangements and sent back revised MIDI files. we listened, offered comments, sent back the files, received revisions, and so on, until we "settled the score." Pololanik had a good feel for my music and understood the potential of an orchestra. Like the conductor's baton, I was in good hands.

As I mentioned earlier, for some of the songs the orchestra mainly provided background music for my harp leads. With other songs, however, the orchestra assumed more of a lead role. One of the issues that we discussed was whether to use a MIDI click track to sync to music that was already recorded. In some songs this wasappropriate, but in other songs, Pololanik preferred to conduct in a free-form fashion rather than to the more restrictive MIDI beat. In the final mix, I could make any tempo adjustments in Pro Tools. Another concern was the pitch that the orchestra tuned to. Some orchestras don't use A=440, but Pololanik assured me that the orchestra would have the proper tuning.

We narrowly made the deadline in time for the recording dates. The two-month exchange with the conductor allowed us to refine the scores and to solve potential problems beforehand. More importantly, however, the conductor was intimately familiar with my music by the time the orchestra was ready to record.

The Grand FinaleI wish I could have been there. Nevertheless, the recording went without a hitch. All of the parts were properly notated, Pololanik knew the music like the back of his hand, the 50-piece orchestra had no problems, and the recording engineer was well prepared. Pololanik's father (Zdenek Pololanik, the well-known Czech composer) acted as musical director and sat in the recording room to monitor the musicality of the project. I spoke with the younger Pololanik by phone after both days of the recording session, and he assured me that all went well and that the final DAT tapes were on their way via FedEx. Backup DATs were made in case there were any problems with shipping.

I was astounded when I heard the tapes two days later. I had several takes to choose from, with different variations if the conductor was uncertain. Each take included detailed notes. The final product was amazing. I was particularly impressed with the richness of the string and horn sections, and the soloist parts - especially oboe and cello - were simply extraordinary. Placing the orchestral audio files in Pro Tools was easy, although some of the files required editing to match the timing. The end result was well worth it. You can hear samples of the orchestra at my Web site:

Final MeasureIf you ever wished you could have your music recorded by a real symphony orchestra, your dream can come true. You can hire an orchestra through the Internet at about the same cost as a sampling setup. Based on my own experience, however, I strongly recommend that you hire a liaison and get a good English-speaking conductor to represent you.

Hiring an orchestra in the Czech Republic or other Eastern European countries is not as hard as you might think, thanks to the Internet. in the final analysis, nothing sounds quite like a real orchestra, and as I discovered, you can truly warm up your music with orchestras from former Cold War countries.

Petr Pololanik belongs to a new generation of Czech conductors. After studying the violin and conducting at the Brno Conservatoire, he received a Master of Arts degree at the Janacek Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, the Czech Republic. Pololanik's conducting career had an early start: when he was 18 he attracted considerable interest by conducting the Moravian Chamber Orchestra at the prestigious R. Wagner Festival in Germany. In 1992 he founded the chamber Capellen Orchestra, and in 1994 he became president of the Foundation for the Development of Musical Culture. That same year he was given a grant for further artistic studies at the University of North Texas. He has recorded CDs, composes and teaches music, and has worked in radio and television.

GG: It was a real pleasure for me to work with you. What was your experience like?

PP: I very much enjoyed working on your project. What was unique was how the Internet played such a strategic role. The Internet allowed us to discuss many technical and musical issues anytime we needed to.

GG: Does the Internet and technology help when working with people overseas?

PP: The Internet and new technologies are the best things that have developed in communication. Both help to pull down barriers, not only in distance, but also in the time it takes to spread knowledge and know-how. There are many positive things. The only shortcoming that I see is that a large gap is arising between people who are technologically enabled and those who are not.

GG: What has been your experience working with other Americans?

PP: I have conducted and have done recordings for Americans, British, Japanese, Austrians, and others. Generally, Americans are very easy to talk with; they make me feel comfortable and communicating with them is very friendly. Their music reflects this. American music is very free and "bohemian." Perhaps, Eastern Europeans would benefit by getting into some of the newer and freer music. Eastern European music is more traditional and structured, and Americans may benefit from this approach as well. However, it has always been enjoyable and mutually beneficial working with American composers and arrangers.

GG: How does hiring a conductor solve some of the problems relating to language and culture?

PP: In the Czech orchestras, you can find many players, and quite a few also know English. However, the main problems, I think, lie in the different mentality, different cultural traditions, and still different lifestyles. Therefore, a Czech conductor is the best solution if one wants to get the most from the orchestra and thereby save time and money.

GG: Are the musical traditions much different in Eastern Europe?

PP: No, I don't think so. The musical tradition of America springs from the European cultural traditions. So, there aren't any real fundamental differences.

GG: How many orchestras have you conducted?

PP: To date, I have worked with more than 20 orchestras around the world.

GG: What types of music have you worked with?

PP: Each conductor should be able to conduct Beethoven, Copland, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or any other style of music. In my case, I come from a family of musicians and composers who have written more then 300 works for theater, film, and television. But I think there is a more important matter: each conductor must have a taste for the subtle differences in the spirit of different types of music. In my conductor's role, I have worked with all the major musical styles: pop, folk, jazz, classical, contemporary, etc., and I always try to follow the spirit of the music.

As he edited Gary Garritan's article, associate editor David Rubin became intrigued by the prospect of hiring a large orchestra on the other side of the world. Was it really feasible? Here's what he discovered:

As many composers have learned, it's difficult to find a full-sized orchestra to rehearse and record unpublished music. Local orchestras are busy playing Brahms and Beethoven and are understandably wary of unproven contemporary works. As Garritan points out, union orchestras in this country cost far more than most of us can afford, especially for a noncommercial venture such as a demo recording. Symphonic Workshops seemed to offer a viable alternative; I decided on the spur of the moment to give it a try.

The piece I had in mind was a 10-minute concert work that requires a 65-piece orchestra with a large percussion section (including timpani, xylophone, vibes, and piano). It's written in a freely chromatic idiom that employs mixed and changing meters as well as widely varying tempos.

I contacted Harry Hurwitz and as luck would have it, the next recording fest was scheduled to begin in just a couple of weeks. The timing was tight, but Hurwitz felt that it could be done if I sent the score and parts right away by FedEx to Olomouc, home of the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Fortunately, the score and parts were already printed, bound, carefully notated, and ready to go, so I packed them up and trotted down to the local FedEx office. I was told the package would arrive in about three business days barring delays at customs; the shipping cost was just over $150.

Meanwhile, Hurwitz had made arrangements with Martin Braun, a skillful young Austrian conductor who was travelling north from Vienna to participate in the Recording Fest. He agreed to conduct the piece if the score arrived in time to prepare it. As it turned out, FedEx's estimate was a bit off; the score arrived nearly a week later. (The package traveled by air from Los Angeles to Paris and then on to Prague. It then went by truck to Olomouc. Each step introduced the possibility of a delay.) By the time the score arrived, Braun had only a few days to prepare, but he nevertheless agreed to tackle the job. In fact, he surprised me one afternoon with a phone call, so I could clarify a few points about the score.

By this time, Hurwitz and I had settled the details concerning the recording itself. I was offered the option of a high-quality multitrack (ADAT) master recorded with multiple mics, a mixing board, and a recording engineer, but that would add several hundred dollars to the project. To keep my experiment as inexpensive as possible, I chose the bare-bones route: a pair of microphones straight into a stereo DAT recorder - no mixing board; no extra personnel. We also agreed to limit the total session to about two hours (with a little latitude) to further curb the costs. The recording might not be of commercial quality, but it would provide a good sense of how the piece and the orchestra sounded.

The recording session went off without any apparent mishaps. Braun, who had clearly done his homework, rehearsed the orchestra for about an hour, focusing on problems such as articulations and rhythmic accuracy. (I know this because the DAT recorder was running throughout the session.) During the second hour, the orchestra played through the piece a total of three times; the final take was the best. It was certainly not a perfect performance, but it was remarkably good considering how little time had been spent on it. In spite of some tricky sections, Braun and the orchestra pulled the piece together and succeeded in properly capturing the spirit of the music.

The master tape arrived about two weeks after the recording session, and I quickly transferred the music onto my hard drive. After some editing and processing, I ought to have a pretty good demo of a 65-piece orchestra playing one of my compositions; it's hard to beat the real thing!