Electronic Music and Orchestras

by | Jan 2, 2018

This article was written by Matan Daskal, conductor and composer of Castle In Time Orchestra.

The Inseparability of Electronics from Today’s Composition

I recently attended a lecture given by my former composition teacher, and dear friend, Professor Amnon Wolman. He spoke about how electronics cannot be separated from modern composition techniques. He illustrated his point by showing how nowadays established orchestral composers used or were inspired by electronics when composing their most famous pieces (one great example is “3/3 Light Over Water” by John Adams).
At the most basic level, electronics and music are intertwined: in order to document sound you need an electronic device. On the other hand, rock and paint will serve to document words and images. One method has only been exploited for less than a century, whereas the other has been in use for 40 millenniums. Naturally, electronics have deeply integrated the orchestral world – from ‘secretly’ amplifying performances in new concert halls to replacing paper scores with iPads (Newzik’s mission), passing by the use of music notation software, computers as instruments on stage and, of course, recording studios.

Recording an Orchestra

When an orchestra wants to record an album, they have two main options: recording a live performance in a concert hall or recording in a big studio. In both cases, sound technicians generally spread several microphones across each section and place a few room microphones. The person who mixes the album often tries to create a “see-through” homogenous sound/soundscape, one that would imitate the acoustic experience of a live audience sitting right in front of the group in the center of the auditorium.

It is extremely hard to recreate a homogenous sound when each instrument has been recorded separately in order to capture its sound in detail. I compare it to the work of a graphic designer who has received images of every single human body parts in separate, equally-sized files, and must then accurately recreate a human body. Restoring these proportions is hard. If they are not correctly restored, the final result will sound like a Picasso painting – interesting, certainly, but nowhere near representing the experience of listening to a live performance.

electronic music orchestra recording sound practices
Hybrid microphone technique recording orchestra
picasso painting woman and muses

Drums and The Orchestra

We met famous electronic musician and sound engineer, Uri “Mixmonster” Wertheim. He told us that a room full of instruments creates physically different overtones than when each instrument is recorded separately and artificially reassembled in the mixing process. These blending overtones create a new sound. The same thing happens when you combine tomato, mozzarella and basil in one bite. These blended ingredients create a new flavor, that is much more than just the sum of the existing flavors.

Castle In Time Orchestra combines acoustic classical sections, a full rhythm section and a computer. I’m finding it difficult to decide how to place each section without falling into esthetic clichés. I’m constantly looking for a raw, naked feel. Depending on the genre, drums can take on entirely different roles within an ensemble, band or recording. The essence of pop and hip-hop, for example, is to place all the emphasis on the bass drum. When performing a Brahms symphony, however, the timpani is placed behind the orchestra, far away from the audience’s ears, so its sound can melt beautifully with the rest of the orchestra. A Duke Ellington big band would most likely place the drums somewhere in between. Finally, James Blake and Son Lux equalized the sound of bassoons with that of pumping drums while mixing the following two tracks.

After a year of both handling and avoiding this issue while performing with Castle In Time, we are now working on the album and it’s turning out to be a real confrontation. I’m torn between forcing myself to take those decisions, or simply letting go and allowing the sound engineer to take control. And that’s exactly what I’ve come to realize over the years? – that the editing and mixing process is all about taking control and letting go, both at the same time.