Bethlehem Suite 1. Handmaid Published

Anativity_9924cfter much blood, sweat, tears, consternation, anger, begging, and finally acceptance, I have published the first completed track for Moments of Comfort and Joy. As mentioned in an earlier post, this is the first movement in a three movement piece I’m calling the Bethlehem Suite. Each movement will reflect a different aspect of the Nativity: Mary, Joseph and the atmosphere of that night.

Writing

I knew this first movement would be a gentle, piano-based piece. I can’t actually say where the C-Fm progression that begins the piece came from, but the whole piece then flowed out of that. The form is a simple A-B-C-A-B-C with a coda at the end. There ended up being four instruments accompanying the piano: oboe, cello, handbells and high strings. The four instruments weave in and out of the piano lead – in fact, the piano part can stand alone as a solo piece.

The accompanying instruments come in and out in such a way that they build. The handbells and strings don’t enter until the second half and then play through the end. The oboe and cello come and go as needed, with all five instruments at the finale.

I broke stride a little with the piece, writing in Sonar rather than Finale. I’ve been trying to write other pieces for this project using notation in Finale and have been finding it awkward and slow. By composing directly into Sonar everything seemed to go much faster. Primarily, it was the ability to quickly and easily play the parts into the sequencer on a keyboard and make easy and seamless edits that made the difference. I know that you can theoretically do that in Finale, too, but I’m more facile with Sonar. After getting all the parts set I created a “cleaned up” version where all the notes start and end exactly on the appropriate beat and imported that into Finale to create the score.

One last note: I recently updated both Sonar and Finale. I love the Sonar update – they keep making changes that increase the workflow and add useful features to the program, especially some of the new processing plug-ins and instruments. Finale, on the other hand, I updated because my old version of Finale wouldn’t play nice with Windows 10 (and I waited too long to learn this to downgrade back to Windows 7 – the window, so to speak, was only 6 weeks). I dropped $150 updating Finale to find the only differences between the old and new versions were a new color scheme and the ability to access a few new instruments for playback. All of the frustrations from the older version (especially the lack of ability to nudge elements around the score until they are just where I want) are still there. In all, I wish I had never updated to Windows 10, necessitating the update to Finale 2014.

Recording

Once everything was written and in notation format in Finale, I created a brand new Sonar project and played in the piano part again. Once I was happy with it, I created a tempo track from the piano part and imported the cello, handbells and strings from the old project. The cello is the old standby, Garritan Gofriller, the handbells are from a sample library I discovered years ago, and the strings are from the library that came with Kontakt. The handbells are actually a blend of two patches – the clangy bells and the much mellower hand chimes. Once I’ve completed all the pieces for this project I will see how many use handbells and decide at that time whether to re-record them with real handbells. I’m thinking about it.

Piano VSTThe piano is the Addictive Keys, of which a stripped-down version comes with Sonar. I liked it so much I upgraded to the full version (which is exactly what they wanted). It has an intimacy that is outstanding, although, as will be seen later on, I did have to smooth it out even more.

The oboe is from the Garritan Personal Orchestra library. It’s actually one of the earliest versions of the library – 3, I believe. They’re up to 5, now. Like most sample libraries, it’s all in the playing. I printed the part from Finale and plugged in my old friend, the WX5 wind controller. I used this to play the part into Sonar with all of the breath control of a real wind player. I think the results speak for themselves (when you listen, ask yourself if you think it sounds like a real oboe).

Mixing

Mix WindowHere is where things really got interesting. The mix ended up taking me longer than any other part of the process. I ended up making a lot of EQ changes to make everything fit without getting too muddy, and even ended up changing the string patch to the one used here. The first one was more of a pad, but was so harmonically rich it was taking up all the space in the mix, leaving no room for the other instruments.

So, there ended up being six audio tracks for five instruments, since the handbells are two samples blended together. I rolled off the lowest end on the handbells and strings (especially with the handbells I wasn’t sure how cleanly they had been recorded). A further notch in the bells removed an unwanted resonance that was sticking out. The cello has a bit of a dip in the low end just to keep it under control as the mix was still getting a bit muddy.

Piano TrackThe lion’s share of the processing when to my piano. As can be seen from the screen shot, I added two processors to the Sonar Pro Channel (note that all the individual instruments had the console emulator on them). Those other two processors are the TDR/VOS Slick EQ that is high-passing and low-passing a little bit, and making some strategic cuts in certain ranges. Here’s a trick – the cuts that I wanted when all the instruments were all playing resulted in a slightly too lean sound when it’s all by itself at the beginning of the song. What I did (as you can see in the composite tracking window, below) was to start the song with the gains at unity (no cut or boost) and the high-pass filter all the way down (letting everything through). Then, when the cello enters they begin to engage and are to their full setting when the strings and handbells enter half-way through. Finally, the compressor is just smoothing out the attacks, removing whatever residual harshness was left (I wanted a really smooth piano part!)

Reverb ChannelThe reverb is my old standby (I’ve finally mixed enough to have standbys!), the Cakewalk version of Overloud’s Breverb, set to my favorite, the Warm Orchestra. Don’t blame me for not being creative – for this type of music this patch just works. the Solid EQ from Native Instruments is just providing some musical narrowing of the frequency spectrum, and the Sonar EQ is following up with a few notches to, again, take care of some nasty resonances that were sneaking through. I’ve listened to enough podcasts to know that EQing the reverb return is the secret weapon of many pro mixers, so I’ve been experimenting with it myself, and I love how it opens up space in a mix without killing the reverb tail completely.

2-Buss ChannelFinally, the 2-Bus is relatively simple. I made a slight dip around 280 hz because there was still a little muddiness clinging to the sound (not warmth, not richness, muddiness). The two additional plugs are, again a standby, VOS Density Mk III compressor and Cakewalk’s Boost11 limiter, just in case there were any digital overs. I did have to back the compressor off a bit because the mix was sounding a little squashed, but especially because when the other instruments entered they were pushing the overall volume down too much and I was losing the piano.

So, here’s the video – a scrolling music video from Finale. Another niggle about the new version of Finale – the scolling playback is screwed up, and when it switches to a new part of the score, if often doesn’t have the music centered on the view, so I have to stop playback, adjust the view, and restart, editing it all together in post. The old version worked flawlessly. On the plus side, I tried out FastStone Capture for my screen capture and the video is so much smoother and clearer than my old videos using CamStudio. Definitely worth the 20 bucks.

Finally, let’s end with the composite tracking window. Not as huge as the rock mix I did last time, but not bad given all the automation lanes involved. As always, your feedback is appreciated!

Comp Tracking Window

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