APPROACHING A NEW ‘CHOIR’ OR SECTION OF THE ORCHESTRA CAN BE DAUNTING IF YOU’VE SPENT TIME HONING YOUR STRING ARRANGING AND PROGRAMMING. CHRISTIAN SHOWS THAT WITH THE RIGHT BRASS LIBRARY (AHEM) RE-PURPOSING YOUR STRING CHOPS CAN BE THE BEST WAY TO START TO UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH COLOUR AND TIMBRAL NUANCE A BRASS SECTION CAN ADD TO YOUR ARRANGEMENTS.

1st TEAM vs IMPACT SUBS

As a working orchestral composer who didn’t receive any formal training, I understand the reticence to throw one’s cloak wider than perfecting the masterful art of excellent string writing, arranging and programming. The minute you go beyond those 5 conveniently arranged stanzas (staves for 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos and basses) the choices become overwhelming!

I also feel that the brass and woodwind sections have been sidelined into football-style “impact subs” to provide stereotypical colours as an overdubbed layer to soundtracks without thinking of them as an integral part of the symphonic landscape; ensconced within the rank and file, as opposed to simply sitting on top - “OK we have our strings bed, now lets whack an oboe on for that plaintive bit, or that low brass phrooooar for the arrival of the alien spaceship”. 

I hope this film gives a very quick example of how you can simply take your string parts and transfer them into brass sections; to use them not only as individual voices, but beautiful choral sections of their own; that you don’t need to divisi (split up your string section into more than 5 voices) if you want to retain that rich bottom end as your string section rises to a climax; that a trombone section can do it without the dirge you often get with a thick bass, cello and viola harmony; that to get plaintive you don’t need to always turn to the cellos; that a horn section can break your heart just as well without breaking into a brassy fanfare; that a high string ostinato need not be some violins daintily feathering some short notes, but that some softly played trumpets can suddenly bring a welcome touch of John Adams, or Jerry Goldsmith, to your score.

JULIE LONDON vs AXL ROSE

As you can see in the video, the chops you have learned for strings can instantly be transferred to brass with the only caution being the dynamic ranges. With strings, the louder they get, the brighter they become. It is just like your voice - from a soft whisper to a loud wail, it’s still you. However, with brass there is a key crossover point when it becomes…. well…. brassy. It is like suddenly swapping out Julie London for Axl Rose (excuse obscure references). So if you’re wanting the brass to stay within the realms of support and not a full fanfare, imagine them as two instruments working within the same modulation table. So you’ll need to suppress stuff going over that break point, whilst not allowing your expression and modulation tables to get too low as they will disappear entirely.

THE BRASS CHOIR

Are brass directly comparable to strings…? Well yes and no. A very basic line up would be (from high to low): Trumpets, Horns, Trombones, Tuba(s). Do they work the same way as strings? Again, no. The way I would describe it is as folllows:

  • Trumpets - Violin range, very much a lead instrument.
  • Horns - The cellos of the brass world. Refined, reflective and expressive with a huge range.
  • Trombones - Imagine a section made up of violas and basses. It’s just something about their build; they’re just so difficult to play, so they have the same interesting timbre, but more measured confidence you would expect of violas and basses.
  • Tuba - see below!

The final consideration for brass is that of reinforcement - a softly pumped tuba under a pizzicato, or indeed bellowing in unison with the basses, can add a rude foundation to the bottom end and put the dominant cellists back in their boxes!

Naturally such a refined set of instruments deserves enquiry beyond an implied “just cut and paste” ethos. But I hope also this tutorial helps to break down the reticence to go beyond the familiar realms of cat gut, horse hair and wood.