In 2018 I had the task to arrange a couple of my cues from the soundtrack of Redout for a live concert to be performed in Italy, and a year later in the UK. That’s when I opened a Pandora’s Box of nightmares. The main issue was that those cues were never meant to be played by actual musicians.
What I learned was very useful,
Redout’s soundtrack was a mix of adrenaline-inducing rhythms, synths and electric guitars with several genres mash-ups (a combination of Trance, Drum’n’Bass, Hard Rock, Dubstep and Industrial), but the two cues I was going to arrange were quite different: a hybrid orchestra inspired by modern cinematic scores (the developers gave me Tron: Legacy as a reference) with electric guitars and electronics. What I learned was very useful and that’s why I thought it would be interesting to share it.
You can listen to one of the tracks, titled Great Dark Spot, here:
Taking the first track, Great Dark Spot, as an example, if you listen to it you may notice that the balance of the instruments is nowhere near that of a real life orchestra: basses sound super deep, the brass section has little or no dynamics and violins sound always in your face. There is also a heavy use of fast ostinatos for the string section.
These were choices due to the fact that the music had to be as adrenalinic as the rest of the soundtrack and I found out that a heavy presence of pulsating electronics (accompanied by the string ostinatos) was effective in keeping the players focused during those insane 2000 Km/h races.
Writing for a real musician is a completely different thing.
Translating all this for a live performance was intimidating, to say the least. The first problem was how the hell do I translate a hybrid orchestra layered with synths for a real orchestra with no electronics whatsoever?
And the second problem was even more puzzling, as the original tracks were produced using VSTs, so I could layer as many instruments as I wanted (let’s blow up the speakers with a 60-players 1st violin section and an army of giant trombones!) and I could make them play whatever I wanted without worrying about their general well-being or union labour laws. But writing for a real musician is a completely different thing and tremolo ostinatos can be quite troublesome to play and rehearse.
Funnily enough, composer Bear McCreary had a similar issue when recording The Walking Dead main theme and the string players had to struggle with what they compared to an “aerobic workout”.
The orchestra that was going to perform the music had a string section of 12 first violins, 10 second violins, 8 violas, 6 cello, 4 basses so definitely not big enough to sustain the amount of power the two tracks needed. A solution adopted to fix this lack of balance was to amplify the string section, to make it stand out over the brass and percussions. I also looked for a Taiko Drum but were unable to find it in time for the concert, so I used a Floor Tom instead. The following is he complete list of instruments used:
The complete lack of electronics meant that the music had to go through a drastic change. It needed more movement and variations both melodically and rhythmically. This meant adding new parts for several instruments. The pulsating electronic rhythms were substituted with the percussion (suspended cymbal played with brushes and mallets on top of a Bass Drum, Floor Tom and Snare Drum).
The electric guitar was given a lot more space to shine with solos, while in the original piece it was only playing a support role to the orchestra and electronics.
The violins and woodwinds played a major role in creating the sense of movement, with fast arpeggios on top of the tremolos.
In several parts I had to use divisi in the string section to mimic the dense chord feeling of the original piece but this made the sound thinner, even with the amplification, therefore I had to limit myself to use it only when strictly needed.
The repeated arpeggios could have been quite difficult for string players (or deadly for woodwinds) so I had to split each section into two or three parts and divide the arpeggios between them, being careful about making a seamless transition. This way the players could rest or catch their breath between one arpeggio and the other and keep their stamina until the end of the piece.
This technique was very useful to keep the balance and to play with movement across space, with the voices bounce from one group of players to the other, travelling back and forth through the string section. I was very happy to see that during rehearsals the musicians managed to play the whole piece three times without being too tired at the end.
An interesting cue that makes use of a similar technique is “Obliviate” from the score of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow by Alexander Desplat, orchestrated by Conrad Pope & Clifford J.Tasner. The difference is that in Desplat’s music the strings ostinato is split between the first and second violins with one bar in common where the first section goes in decrescendo (fade out) and the second one goes in crescendo (fade in).
When needed, trying to keep the original heavy strings sound.
Extending this technique to other moments of the score, allowed me to add some interesting counterpoint that definitely helped enrich the music and make up for the lack of electronics.
I had to be careful with the doublings because the risk of sounding too much brass bandy was around the corner. I only used woodwinds doublings when needed, trying to keep the original heavy strings sound in mind without complicating things too much.
The final result was of course very different from the original track but I like the new vibe, much more breathing and dynamic. I was also pleased to see that the musicians had fun playing it. Especially the brass section later confessed that they could finally play fortissimo without holding back and mess up the hair of the players sitting in front of them.