Saturday, August 23, 2014

Soundtrack Academy - Orchestration Interview

Here is a soon to be published interview of mine for Olajide Paris and his Soundtrack Academy. ( 
It was a pleasure to contribute to his fine site and I hope my answers prove useful to those of you who are interested. Thank you!

Brent Heflin McHenry (Soundtrack Academy - Orchestration Interview)

1) Q: So first of all give our readers a little background on you. What is your musical background? Where did you study and how did you find your way into orchestration and arranging for film? What are some projects you've worked on or are currently working on and who have you worked with?

A: My first instrument was Bb Trumpet, which I played from the ages of 6 until 13, at which time, like most boys that age I gravitated towards Guitar, and have never put one down since… I also double on Bass and have a basic fundamental level of competency on Piano and Violin as well. 
Regarding my formal education, I received my Bachelors of Music degree in Jazz Composition & Arranging with a minor in Digital Synthesis from the Berklee College of Music as well as my Masters of Music degree in Classical Composition & Conducting from the New England Conservatory of Music, both of which are located in Boston, Massachusetts.
My journey into film scoring work is unique, just like everyone else’s usually is, there seems to be some many avenues into this chosen profession… However, there are certainly a-lot more young composers entering through college film scoring programs and the like nowadays, these programs were not as prevalent when I was attending Music School back in the 1980’s.
In the early 1990’s, I was very fortunate to meet and assist the brilliant film composer, orchestrator and conductor Larry Groupe’. I was immediately drawn too and enamored with the process of scoring through watching him work. I so appreciate the task of writing to visual and narrative images, developing leitmotifs, creating unique textures and palettes in order to compose music from and most importantly, being part of something much larger than myself… scoring music to film, truly is the ultimate in a teamwork environment in my humble opinion.
I have worked on numerous feature and independent films over the years for film production companies like Dreamworks, Disney, Universal, New-Line, etc… most of which, I was and have been required to sign N.D.A.’s, so I shouldn’t mention them by name here. 
This sometimes is an unfortunate part of being a orchestrator… we don’t always receive proper credit for many if not all of our services, this courtesy usually goes to lead orchestrators who have decades under their belt.
In addition I have also worked with and for the legendary rock group “YES” as well as stints with several Cirque Du Soleil and River-Dance touring shows.

2) Q: Why should a composer hire an orchestrator? A lot of composers are classically trained and are capable of creating their own scores but they often hire somebody like you instead of opting to do it themselves. 
What does a guy like you bring to the table when working for a composer?

A: Composers need orchestrators for a variety of reasons… e.g., enhancing and developing sketches for the full live orchestra, cleaning up and scoring dense MIDI files for performance by the orchestra, taking what is essentially a lead sheet (i.e., melody and chord progression) and branching it out into full score form, even ghost-writing cues as well, especially when things get down to the wire.
It is true that many composers are fundamentally sound and can certainly orchestrate their own music… however, usually due to time constraints, they generally don’t have the necessary time to compose and then fully orchestrate their own music during the post-production phase of a film… so we are called in to help complete this part of the process.
Most orchestrators are very well versed in tradition and instrumental knowledge, so we generally know how to best represent, develop and enhance a composers music in regards to timbre coloring and control, as well providing proper weight and balance of the orchestra.

3) Q: What does a composer usually give you to work with? Is it mostly files or do you ever get actual hand written sketches? 
  •      A: Around a solid 80% to 95% are in MIDI file form, which is becoming more and more the industry standard due to the ever increasing use of DAW’s that most composers are relying on for creating their cues/scores. There is a small portion of old school composers who still prefer to sketch out there compositions/orchestrations in written form… which I personally love to see, since I come from a strong theoretical background and these sketches generally show a highly developed compositional process and sensibility.      

  • 4)  Q: What is your process like? Is there a certain way you like to work with composers or does it vary from project to project? 
      A: Without doubt, every project comes with it’s own unique criteria and demands, the majority of them however, will generally start with a meeting with the composer to establish an approach to the over-all scoring that is to follow. We will discuss such specifics as the instrumentation, timbre colors and combinations, weight and balance schemes, etc… in order to create templates that we can then apply to all the cues/music, in the hopes of creating a complete cohesive score for the film. 

  • 5)  Q: How long does it typically take you to orchestrate a score? Do you aim for a certain number of minutes of music per day or
    finished pages that you aim for?
  •       A: There is such a wide variety depending on the size of the score (staffs/parts), density, style, instrumentation, etc… However, in general, I personally shoot for around 2 to 6 minutes a day… and we usually keep track of our work in terms of bars per page (4 bars being the norm) which is how our rate is standardly determined.

  • 6) Q: What would you say is the most difficult part of what you do?
  •      A: That’s easy…. having to pump out dense pages of fully orchestrated music and clean-up vast amounts of minutia to insure exacting performances by the orchestra under extreme and even unrealistic deadlines. (12 to 18 hour days usually at deadline time, sometimes for days on end!)

  • 7) Q: How often do you find that you are re-working material to make it playable for human beings? Do you find that composers
             generally are good at writing playable parts or do you sometimes get things that simply will not translate to the scoring stage?
  •          If so how do you make that work while still realizing the composer's vision?
  • A: Making a composers musical material/compositions playable by the orchestra is the main part of our job, we many times have to take massive MIDI files, tracks, etc… that are violating and sometimes breaking quite a bit of musical convention e.g., range violations, weak timbres, unrealistic instrumental stacks/layers, and so on… we then have to adjust these events and make them realistically playable.
  • On average there is usually at least 20% or more of these type of adjustments and/or corrections having to be made… especially from composers who are theoretically less experienced and lacking more formal training. My statement is not intended to imply that less theoretically knowledgable composers can’t composed equally brilliant scores… it just means that us orchestrators have to provide more assistance and input based on our experience.

  • 8) Q: You conduct also right? Do you ever conduct the scores for which you provide orchestration?
A: Yes I do, and you will find that most serious orchestrators have experience as conductors, due to the fact that we are actually composers as well and more importantly, for what I believe is the main reason… that reason being that we are generally the ones with the most intimate knowledge of the dynamics, articulations and nuances that the music will actually requiring for any given score.

  • 9) Q: In your opinion what do live musicians bring to a score? What do they get that they're not getting from samples and more important yet how does that help to serve the film?
A: Live musicians without doubt bring the magic and the intangible qualities that make the music really come to life… samples will never replace this in my mind… as wonderful as today’s samples are, there is nothing like the real deal. Ironically, it is the inconsistencies and variances between the human players that actually create the beauty of the music in my humble opinion… even mistakes or subtle discrepancies!
The two respective camps of recording (live orchestra or sample based) are decided on purely on the respective budgets… if there is a larger budget, real players will always be preferred and utilized whenever possible, for the reasons previously mentioned, and for smaller projects e.g., libraries, etc… where the constraints demand very exacting sample mock-ups, which respectfully, can be quite astonishing if enough MIDI editing hours are put in. I do feel these mock-ups can be quite brilliant and very true sometimes… they are still not nor will they ever be the real deal though!

  • 10) Q: Do you feel like the sample centric workflows of many composers effects the quality or depth or style their writing? Like if you take a slow repeated minor or major second figure on the strings for example, super simple for a string player but pretty difficult for samples? Do you find that composers are sort of "dumbing down" their writing even if it is going to be recorded by live musicians just for the sake of the mockup sounding more realistic?
  • Less is more is my personal motto… meaning that in my opinion, a more experienced and knowledgable composer generally possesses the ability to use just the right amount of instruments to achieve any desired effect, without relying on massive amounts of samples, layers, stacks, etc… in order to get the job done. 
  • I actually find that as a orchestrator it is usually the opposite… a composer can and will rely on using varying samples/tracks in order to create a complete single string part for example, then us orchestrators have to deconstruct, combine, divide, etc… to create an actual playable part and/or section for the real orchestra, this particular example being a string treatment.

  • 11) Q: I have to ask the compulsory technical question of what is your notation software of choice? Are you a Finale guy or a Sibelius guy? I've even heard of some people moving towards Notion, have you ever worked with that?
A: I have been on Sibelius since their inception and it is definitely my main stay… I would, however recommend that orchestrators have at least a basic familiarity with other programs such as Finale, etc… for it can help secure more gigs and can be important to share the programs that peers are using on their projects. Even though I am lightning fast on Sibelius, I am striving to be equally proficient on Finale as well. 
I am personally not familiar with Notion, mainly because Sibelius and Finale are the big boys on the block… however, once again I would reiterate that if you need a particular program in order to secure and perform on a given project, then by all means, get it and learn it!

  • 12) Q: Okay, second technical question – do you ever deal with music xml? Unfortunately not all DAW’s really take advantage of it, but it seems like it could potentially save a lot of time for an orchestrator.
  • A: Yes, occasionally I need to transfer files from programs like Logic, Pro-Tools, etc… into Digital Performer, which is the main  program I personally use in order to clean-up the MIDI files… before then transferring them into Sibelius/Finale for notating and orchestrating. They are certainly useful under these circumstances and definitely speed up our process, that is for sure.

  • 13) Q: What can composers do to make an orchestrator's work easier?
  • A: In general, I would say that the clearer and more specifically a composer can define their musical needs the better… also, if they are not knowledgeable in writing for an actual orchestra, it is best to let us do what we do best and allow us the freedom and respect, in order to help their music shine.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Collaboration Quartet (Movement IV - Final Update)

I am very pleased to announce that the fourth and final movement of the Collaboration String Quartet project is now finished and the complete piece is being prepared for it's performance and recording.

The fourth movement was wonderfully composed by Alexey Kurkdjian, he has also graciously volunteered to organize a live performance/recording of it with his Quartet in the near future.

In the mean time I will be appending all of the movements and posting the score along with a basic MIDI/Audio version in order to demonstrate it, until the real performance can be performed live.

Please visit our basic Face-Book links below to learn more about myself and the other wonderful composers that were involved. Thank you!   (U.S.A.)   (Germany)    (Portugal)    (Brazil)

This Collaboration Quartet project was such a unique and rewarding experience and I sincerely thank all my fellow international composers for donating their valuable time to help bring this project to life.

In the future I hope to initiate another similar project down the road and if any Composers would be interested in suggesting, contributing, collaborating, etc...

Please contact me:
Brent Heflin McHenry at or if you may be interest in collaborating in a future project of this nature.