In this part of the How to Make Epic and Orchestral Music, we will create basic rhythm, define our form and start working on our string section, including our string ostinato! Let’s get started!
Watch the video for this part
It’s a good idea to define the basic rhythm when the chords are done. Basically, we already have the “main” rhythm, because it is defined by these five chords (tip: how often chords are changing is called “harmonic rhythm”). But we want to expand it now. Rhythm helps define the dynamics and general feel of the track, so that’s what we’re going to do now.
Rhythm helps define the dynamics and general feel of the track, so that’s what we’re going to do now.
Create a new track, and load a drum instrument. You can also use Taikos that come with Kontakt Factory, or other cinematic drum set. At first, I decided to use free Taiko drums offred as a freebie by Strezov Sampling (Thunder X3M Taiko Freebie). Later on, I switched to Epic Toms by 8Dio. Thus, you may notice on some screenshots that instead of “Epic Toms” or “Epic Drums (prev. Strezov)”, my track is called “Strezov Taikos”.
For now we’ll just focus on these four basic bars of music. Later on we will shift everything as needed. Remember, these are bars 1-4.
Open your drum track, and let’s make some rhythm (based on free Strezov’s taikos).
It doesn’t matter if it sounds good right now – most probably it won’t if you’re using a different library. Right now, we just need the basic rhythm idea. Basically, try to use some low drums and some middle drums to get the rhythm.
As you can see, I have placed a strong beat at the beginning of each of the first three bars, and then two stronger hits in the fourth bar. They are marked as yellow – and if you’re reading a paperback in greyscale, these are the beats on C4 note.
I have also added additional elements, take a closer look at figure 4.8 that shows an entire full bar:
On Figure 4.8 you can see that I double some beats – this way I can achieve a different color of the sound.
I have doubled the first hit, and added additional hits before the next bar. I did so by experimenting. I played some keys on my keyboard, keeping the tempo in mind, and this is what I came up with. If you don’t have a keyboard, you can just place some notes in the bar, loop it, and see how it works. If you like what you hear, you’re good. If not, try to make changes.
Generally, we have a strong hit, then nothing, then a weak hit on 1/4th of the bar, and two hits at the end. That’s our basic rhythm.
But that’s not all, because the reason these “notes” have different colors is because I also changed their velocities, like on the next image:
Strong hits are, well, stronger, and weak hits are rising in intensity through velocity control. This way we also improve the realism of the track. No instrument is ever played the same way all the time. We’re humans, and we’re not perfect. Another thing about realism is the timing. As you can see on the image above, I have perfect timing – the notes, in most cases, fit the grid perfectly. This isn’t very realistic, but we will change it later using something called “humanization”, a feature offered by many DAWs.
It’s time to work on the form. We want to start gently, with the piano, and then introduce some drums and strings. After all, we’re working on a simple trailer piece. We will use a basic AAA form, which means we will repeat the music all over again. In case of trailer music (especially our tutorial piece), a simple AAA form, with the same theme gaining in intensity, is fine.
So let’s keep the first four bars of piano where they are, at the very beginning on bars 1-4.
Let’s call these four bars our basic section of music.
Then, copy the section, so that you have eight bars of music already – yay! We will move our basic drum piece to that second section of music.
Copy and paste method, like everything else in music, can be either good or bad. It all depends on what you’re trying to make and what genre you’re dealing with. Sometimes it’s OK to just copy things all over, and sometimes it’s not.
This is what we should have right now:
Repetition in music is a powerful tool that sometimes is a blessing, and sometimes a curse. Sometimes it’s all right to just copy and paste pieces, and sometimes composition must be a lot more original. For this track I decided to base everything upon core chords progression and build everything upon it, adding more and more elements while progressing towards the grand finale. That’s what you often do in epic trailer music.
From Chaos to Order
Now, I want you to start ordering things. I want you to group all string instruments in Strings section, all percussion instruments in Percussion section and so on. Different DAWs do this in different ways, but in most cases, you can create a separate track, and then “attach” other track to it, “grouping” tracks this way. For example, I grouped “Strezov Taikos” (“Epic Drums”) by dragging it into the “Percussion” group. As you can see, I’ve already created a few more tracks on that screen. We’ll get to that in a moment.
For one, this helps make things easier to navigate, as you group instruments and tracks by their “family”. But also, this will be very useful in the end, when we do the final mix of the track. Grouping instruments allows you to add FX to entire groups, not just single instruments. From now on, start making groups of instruments. We will need the following groups: strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, choir and FX, basically. We will group our instruments this way. Create these groups now.
Building Upon Chords
From now on, we’re going to do many things, but most of them will be based upon chords. Chords shape the “feel” of the track we’re making. They are made of couple of notes, and music composition and orchestration (and voicing) is all about using these notes in proper manner. Some are doubled many, many times; some are used as decorations; some sound long, others are used to create short and fast passages or special effects.
Thus, you will notice we’re going to create “bass line” with the root elements of our chords, we will use fifths of the chords from time to time, and we will use thirds from time to time. We will also use other notes from the A Minor scale to build melodies and additional elements.
Basically, this is how you make music, using scales and chords.
Now we’re going to test my method of teaching – I’m going to describe specific sections by bars, and then I’m going to show you what to put into these bars.
Good trailer music never forgets about string ostinato and arpeggio. That’s what we’re going to do now, and it’s going to add “life” to our track. We’re going to introduce basic short strings right at the second section of music, and we’ll start with some low cellos.
If you haven’t done so already, create a new track, and group it with “Strings” section. Call this group “Violas”, and load violas ensemble to your Kontakt.
Here goes another tip. Take a look at figure 4.12.
In Kontakt, you can press the little arrow next to “Purge” in the instrument’s interface and click “update sample pool”. This will delete all the samples from the RAM. The next time you press a note and play it, the samples for this particular note will be loaded into RAM again. This can help you save resources if you have a less powerful computer.
Anyway, I’ve loaded Violas ensemble from Cinematic Strings 2 library.
I’ve loaded Violas ensemble, and turned off reverb – do you remember about this? Please do, your CPU will thank you.
I’ve also set the articulation to staccato. Articulation is how the same instrument can make sounds in different ways. For example, the sustain articulation produced long notes, while staccato produces short notes. You’ll hear that in just a moment.
Open the midi editor for your Violas track. As always, it should be four bars long to match the piano chord progression.
That’s our simple Violas ostinato. Ostinato means a repeating rhythm made of short notes, and it’s a good way to add dynamics to your tracks.
Let’s see what we did here for a single bar, number 5, as shown on figure 4.15.
Long notes at the top are our piano chord notes, and bottom short notes are our staccato violas. Can you see the similarities? The lower viola notes are our tonic note, A, and top notes are C, which is the third note of our chord. For now, we ignore the E.
The entire track is build upon the scale and the chords, which means it uses the notes from the scale, but also uses the notes from the chords as often as possible. Other notes are used, of course, but the core of the track is build upon the chords. I know I’m repeating myself, but this is very useful knowledge.
Oh, and everything fits the rhythm.
By the way, most DAW programs allows you to display notes from other tracks while working on another track. These notes are usually transparent. It makes our work much, much easier because we can see our piano chords in our editor while editing other instrument’s track.
Let’s take a look at all four bars.
In second chord, we use G and B, in third we use C and E. In four, we have A and C again, and in fifth chord, we have G, B, D, F and G again. F is not a part of that last chord, but it is still a part of the A Minor scale, so everything sounds good.
Pay attention to velocities, so the notes won’t sound too aggressive for now.
Now it starts to sound like actual music.
There’s something missing, something that would soar throughout the track. It’s a good idea to add long notes to our string section, such as those made by Cellos. Long notes can act like a “glue”, gluing everything together. Of course, everything depends on the composition itself, sometimes we use long notes, sometimes we don’t.
Create a new track, four bars long, and group it with Strings section. Put it below Violas. Load Cellos to Kontakt, turn off the reverb, and select “sustain” articulation. Then open the midi editor (from now on, I won’t repeat that procedure, you should be pretty good with it by now).
Again, everything is based on the chords. Here, Cellos provide us with bass line in C3 octave. For the purpose of this track, we’ll stick to simple bass line. Now, in most cases, bass is created upon root notes of the chords. As you may recall, in root we have A, G, C, F and G. I decided to skip the last G, and make the F longer.
Why? This way, in the final bar of the single section, we create tension, because the last chord with added F note doesn’t sound “right”, but this tension is released soon enough, when we move to A Minor chord. In music, it’s all about building and releasing tension.
Remember about velocities, we want the cellos to sound gently now. This is where things get difficult. My Cellos are gentle, and they also have this rise and fall movement to them. I achieved this by changing the modulation using Midi CC control, like on figure 4.18 – glowing green :). So why does it get difficult to explain?
Because every library is different. If you use Cinematic Strings 2 just like I did and copy the notes, their velocity and modulation exactly as I show on screenshots, you’ll get the exactly same sound. But if you use a different library, then you will have to figure out things by yourself – change expression, modulation, velocity and volume to balance the sound as you see fit. You will be constantly doing this when producing your own tracks, as production requires you to create balance between all the instruments. This is quite important: producing music requires knowledge, experience and attention to details – through these things people are capable of creating wonderful orchestral pieces we so enjoy.
As you follow this guidebook and you realize that after copying my screenshots your track doesn’t sound right, don’t be afraid to ignore my velocity and modulation settings, and set your own to create balance in your own track.
Also, notice how the notes overlap each other. If the library has “legato” articulation, this overlapping of notes will trigger it. Legato in case of computer music means smooth, natural transitions between the notes that adds to the realism of the track. Most professional libraries offer legato articulation, while most free libraries don’t.
Now, overlapping triggers legato – but some libraries require that the overlap goes before the beat, rather than after it. This means that you overlap the next note in the earlier bar, rather than overlap the sounding note on the next bar.
Look at figure 4.19 – this overlap will trigger the legato, and it will work fine. But let’s assume the beat is on the 6th bar, and in this case, the new note may be a bit late. To make it sound perfectly on time with the beat, you should overlap the notes earlier, like on figure 4.20.
Figure 4.20 shows an earlier overlap (a bit exaggerated here to illustrate the general idea) – you may need to experiment with the overlap to make sure the legato transitions are well timed. Again, some libraries need this, some don’t.
Anyway, this is what we should have so far:
By the way, in traditional score notation, we have a different order of instruments. Percussion is always at the top, then we have brass, and strings are at the bottom. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about that for now.
If you really want to pursuit orchestral composition and you want to do things all by yourself instead of hiring a pro who will translate your MIDI into real score, you should learn about traditional notation and really worry about making everything as it should be ;).