Recording an Orchestra at Abbey Road – Lessons learnt

By Richard Pryn •  Updated: 06/28/22 •  8 min read

Back in early June this year (2022) I was given the opportunity to have a couple of my trailer music cues recorded with live strings and brass…wait, recording an orchestra at Abbey Road Studios!!!???

Amazing!

Those of you who are working composers/producers know that it is not everyday that you get the chance to hear your music recorded live at such a prestigious studio by some of the world’s best musicians. So as you can imagine, I was quite excited.

Lessons from recording an orchestra at Abbey Road Studios

As soon as I heard that I was going to hear my music in Abbey Road studio 2 I thought to myself, ‘This HAS to be a podcast episode!’ And that is exactly what I set out to do.

I wanted to take this opportunity to create a teachable moment out of it, I would record myself before the recording and after the recording. I was too distracted during to take voice notes.

What this has turned into is a group of lessons that I have learnt about recording live that I want to share with you. I will say that these lessons have come up almost every time I have recorded live with sections like these so I think it important that I write them down too.

Abbey Road Studio 2

When I arrived at the studio I was greeted by the team; our engineers, orchestrators, and musicians. As I sat down I was handed a copy of the score and a latte, ‘today is going to be lots of fun’ I thought.

The whole process was amazingly smooth and easy and the sound was outstanding.

As the session started I began to take notes as we progressed through the cues. Some of the lessons came from my own tracks and others from hearing my fellow composers’ work.

What can you learn from this?

It all boiled down to six lessons. Only six yes. But these lessons are actually hugely important for any composer looking to have their work recorded with ease and also to get the most out the musicians. Some of the notes apply to details in the DAW and others apply to planning for actual people playing those crazy MIDI arpeggios.

Use Expression More

This one came up each time the strings and brass sections played their longer notes (legato/sustain). When the orchestra played those longer more lyrical phrases I began to hear to true beauty and importance of using modulation/expression in our long patches.

I often overlook this stuff as it can be such a subtle change in the box but the moment an orchestra plays it live all of those subtleties are then accentuated hugely. So I made a promise to myself to work more with my modulation in my MIDI.

I do use modulation a lot when “humanising” my string lines but sometimes I get lazy and decided to just let rip (not like that) and push the mod to 127 and leave it there. Thereby missing a huge amount of detail in the process.

The tricky thing is that we are of course working with samples so the effect of the expression does vary wildly from library to library BUT if I know it is being recorded live I know that the expression matters a lot.

Think about ‘playability’

This is a tricky one as it involves a certain amount of technical orchestration knowledge, i.e. having an idea of the ranges and sweet spots of each instrument and what is easy and hard to do.

To save me creating a course on technical orchestration you can make it easy on yourself and the musicians.

  1. Keep it simple
  2. If you go to the highest register of the instrument make sure it is not to fast or complicated
  3. Keep it simple

I know it sounds obvious but one of my arpeggios involved chromatic movements at the top register of the violins. The result was that we had to move the part down and octave (after several minutes of practice).

You may be thinking ‘why does this even matter?’ and it comes down to getting the best sound and making sure it is recorded in the first couple of takes. This equates to the session not overrunning and incurring extra costs.

Utilise Interesting textures

This one is a bit of a curveball in that you would naturally create the textures with patches in your DAW but what you can do is instruct the musicians to try and mimic those textures using their instrument. This can be as simple as putting a note above the part that says something like, “rub the strings with the flesh of your thumb”. Or something like that.

What this translates to is more interesting recorded material.

This does involve you getting your hands dirty with the score or at least passing notes over to the orchestration team (if you have one) as to where about in the track you want these textures and how you envisage them happening.

Don’t underestimate “simple” writing

This point has kind of already been covered. But it really does deserve it’s own section.

Simplicity in composing and production is so often overlooked and mistaken for “childlike” or “cliche” or “rubbish or “severely lacking in enough musical knowledge to compose technically advanced music with an enhanced and full vocabulary”. Or something like that anyway.

Let’s take a minute though. Think about some of your most favourite music. I reckon 99 times out of 100 you could play that piece of music in four lines (bass, melody, and two harmonic lines). This applies to all music and this is how you should approach your music.

Most of what we do as composers is orchestrating and producing. Once we have the initial idea ready (chord progression and melody) we then set about orchestrating and designing the sounds that are going to communicate that set of sounds in the way we want.

I’m not advocating simplistic writing in every situation I am only saying that sometimes less is more. Can you communicate your musical idea with less, mix with less, imply the harmony with less?

Again, this translates to an easier session as the players can focus on nailing the part they have to play and you get the tracks done well within the allotted recording time.

One or two of the tracks we recorded on the day had some very simple parts (unison brass, two note arpeggios etc) and it sounded fantastic. What’s more the players smashed it first take! #winning

Embrace fuller brass harmonies

This is an interesting one to follow the last point about simplicity as I am now going to ask you to think about your brass harmonies. I often use brass as a two part line; bass notes and top line.

When hearing some of the other composers brass sections, especially in act two, I could hear they were utilising 3 and 4 part harmonies and it sounded lush and rich and full.

I would like to start to take those elements and add a little more harmonic flavour to my brass chords to really fill out the sound some more.

Orchestrators rock!

Previously when I have recorded with an orchestra of any kind I have been producing and/or orchestrating the session.

What this means is that I have prepared the scores for the players from my Logic files and then during the recording session I have been following the score and communicating with the conductor about the performances.

I loved doing it and I was self taught in so much as that I taught myself how to read music. I sat down with pieces of classical music and “read” the score as the pieces played. Mostly Debussy and Grieg who I love dearly.

In this Abbey Road session I was not the orchestrator or the producer. We had hired an orchestration team to prep the scores from our logic sessions.

What this looked like was that they turned our MIDI into scores filled with expression, dynamics, articulations etc. This in itself was amazing. What they also did, which for me was the cherry on the icing, was that they used their own technical knowledge to get the most out of the tracks and the players. They added extra lines, moved the ranges, changed the articulations etc.

The result was a completely smooth recording that basically ran itself. The other composers and I just got to sit back, drink coffee and enjoy the show.

Frequently asked questions:

How do you prepare your Logic session for real players to play it live?

The first thing you have to do is to make sure your Logic session is completely tidy. What this means is:

  1. Making sure you save your file as a project alternative or a new project
  2. Cleaning up your notes so that they are all the right length with all the gaps where you want them
  3. Making sure your automation/velocity shows where you want the players to play loud or quiet
  4. Grouping all your similar sounds into stems
  5. Make sure all your tracks and regions are named properly and clearly
  6. Colour code your stems (this isn’t essential but it does make for easy navigation)

Do I have to be able to read music to record an orchestra?

Absolutely not. The most important part is for you to have a clear picture of what you want the music to sound like. If you are recording an orchestra there will be people who’s expertise you can lean on like the conductor and engineers who will assist you in getting the sound you want.

Richard Pryn

Hey there. I am an award winning composer for movie trailers, including Bladerunner 2049, Diablo II, WandaVision, and loads more. I am the founder of The Trailer Music School where my aim is to teach everything I know about music composition, production, and generally being a functional human being. I podcast, blog, vlog and jog (sometimes). I also love coffee, nachos and self-improvement. I live with my wife, three kids and numerous pets. I am also known by my pseudonym, Richard Schrieber (it’s a long story).