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Conducting Part 1

Introduction and score preparation

When I give lectures, one question I get asked a lot is “What is the difference between conducting for a concert vs conducting in the studio?”

It is much easier to say what is the same.

The conductor is the leader. If you think of the orchestra as a pack, the conductor is the alpha dog. The best leaders have a natural ability to fall into this position. Other people can get by in front of an ensemble, while still others are never going to be able to stand in front of ninety people and command their attention. If the conductor is not respected as the leader then things get messy. Let players doubt your talent (that will happen in all orchestras), but never your authority! The conductor must be clear, concise and confident. If he is not, they will just ignore him. They will never look up from their music, and they will look to others in the orchestra to sort out any questions. Whether recording or performing live, the conductor’s job is to beat time and cue people. That is about where the similarities end, however!

The big difference is the music. In a concert hall scenario the music has usually been played many times before and the players know it. In the studio we are always sight reading, even the conductor. We make changes, sometimes lots of them. Being able to communicate and manage these is one of the essential talents of a studio conductor. A lot of people have input into how the music should go, including the producer, director, composer, and orchestrator. The conductor has to distill this variety of input into succinct and effective instructions for the orchestra.

I think the best way to explain what I do is to give a rundown of what happens at typical session.

RIPD sessions 5121

I like to get to the scoring stage at least an hour before we start. If it is a large orchestra and I have not seen the music I will get there even earlier. In many cases I do not get to see the scores until the session, so this is my first chance to look at them. As most scores are hybrid, I will also grab some mockups and have a listen.

I have a simple three-color system for marking up scores: tempos in purple, cues in green, and notes from the booth in blue. The colors are not important, any three will do.

I look for tempo markings first. If they are not above the string section I will mark them there as well as highlighting them on the top of the score. For tempo changes I mark them as + or – in bpm. For example +3 would mean we get faster by three beats per minute. This is a much better system than saying ‘slightly faster’, as I have no idea how much ‘slightly’ is. If free clicks (the count-off to the start of recording) are not marked already, I will also decide those. A general rule: below 80 bpm, four free is enough, above use eight. Going into 3/4 I use six free unless the tempo is very slow. Going into irregular times like 5/4 or 7/8 I use four or eight as they are easy to feel. You need enough time for the players to get ready and absorb the tempo. Too short and someone will miss the entry, or you will have a noise just before the music starts as players scramble to get their instruments up. Too long, and frustrated players will not get ready soon enough, and then there will be noise when they do!

While considering these factors, I am also looking for places where we may need to stop and start again, or do a ‘pickup’ (more on these in Part 2).

Here I have put together a few bars as an example of what I would look out for and why.

Look out for this 26Brass
The horns and low brass will come off on 4 at the end of bar 25 in order to breathe before 26. The trumpets will not end early, as they do not play in 26. I will need to tell the trumpets to add a comma to the end of the bar so they end at the same time as the others.

Violin I has to cross from the E string to the G string. They will end the Bb early in order to get to the G string for the beginning of bar 26. The top part of Violin II also has to cross strings; however, the bigger problem here is that going from a tremolo to a motor rhythm is impossible to do in perfect time without leaving a gap. There is no way that this will be tight unless they end the tremolo at least a whole beat early, and even then it is very hard to pull off. Viola will also break between bars 25 and 26 as they ‘charge’ the bow for the marcato.

With a beat rest none of the above would be a problem, and if this were a concert piece that would naturally happen and no one would notice. But in the studio we might have tracks to line up with and synths that do not breathe. The picture may require us to sustain to the barline, or the composer and director may want the live session to follow the sound of the mockup, so these things become issues. The solution in this case is to cheat and do a pickup from bar 26.

Even if shifting strings and articulations weren’t problems, there is still a tempo change that will make it impossible for the violins to line up with the click and each other in bar 26. This alone is grounds for doing a pickup for 26.

If the tempo is slow, around 80 bpm or lower, and there are motor or syncopated rhythms, I will make a note to use eighth note clicks. I will tell the Pro Tools operator right away so they can prepare the click track. In the example above, I would ask them to prepare clicks into 26 in the new tempo.

If the score has a rhythm section or percussion pre-lays, I make note of where we have to groove with them. In general, the orchestra is happiest listening only to a click track, but if there is a groove we have to play with, we will turn it up for that section. Sometimes I will have the orchestra listen to the track before we play it and point out what we have to line up with. I will also make note of any tricky click changes that we should listen to before we play. I check for any mute changes: are they fast and exposed, and is there a risk we will make noise? If so I will work out a way around it.

Chowshank ScoreNext, in green, I mark major entrances I would like to cue. Players in our sessions tend not to get lost, and since they are sight reading most of the time, their heads are often buried in their parts. Despite all that, if you can cue a player before a solo or big entry it is still good. If the entry is in the woods or the brass, I draw an arrow from the strings as that is where my eyes are most of the time.

By now the players are arriving, so I will say hello to my friends and try to make it around to meet anyone new. Then I will grab my pens and scores and head to the podium and set up my headphones. I use ear canal type headphones. I have these just sitting in my ears so I can hear the click and the tracks but can also hear the room naturally. I see many people using large, over the ear headphones when they conduct. I do not see the point in this; if you have both ears on, they are uncomfortable, they take you out of the room, and you spend all day taking them on and off. If you have only one ear on, they are even more uncomfortable and block out half the room, so you never can tell where a question is coming from. I will tell the monitor mixer what I would like in my own headphones, which is usually just click, some harp, woods, and any tracks we may have to play to.

While I get this set up, the contractor will bring me a list of principals’ names. Usually I know them all, but this is invaluable if you do not know the orchestra. It is much better to talk to players by name. I tend to address sections by the name of the principal too.

Depending on who the composer and team are, they may have a recording order ready. Others rely on me to come up with one. Once all the setup is complete, we are ready to record. Read on in Part 2.


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  1. quick question-
    about the strings consideration:
    “The solution in this case is to cheat and do a pickup from bar 26.”
    do you mean punching in with the recording starting at bar 26?

  2. Hi Tim:

    When you conduct, how important are your music (sight) reading skills? I studied classical guitar at the conservatory of music a long time ago, anything other than the G cleff still makes me pause for a second; never mind transposing instruments where I literally have to look at transposing tables and write down the note names to figure out what’s going on. Sibelius is fantastic in getting everything correct on paper with automatic transpositions, using the right cleff etc., but obviously when you’re on the stand you are on your own. I can usually tell when something is off but in some modern music, e.g. with free tonality, it is sometimes really hard to tell and if a horn player would hit a wrong note I might never notice. Can I just trust that the players are top pros who will get it right and will correct themselves, so I can focus primarily on the ‘big picture’ (the overall score and the film)?



    • I generally do not have to worry about them hitting the wrong note and intonation problems usually sort themselves out. I spend more time tightening rhythms and working on the ends of phrases. But I do have be able to find wrong notes in the score or make changes, re-orchestrate or even compose something on the fly so being at one with the score is important. Plus, if the players started to doubt your abilities, you could lose them. But many people hire me (or any conductor or orchestrator) to help them through. Knowing the orchestra inside and out is not a pre-requisite for landing a major score these days. So, I would not worry about it, but if you were to do an orchestral gig, maybe get another conductor or have someone in the booth who has the skills you don’t so if something does come up, it can be sorted.

  3. This is a really insightful read, Tim! I have a question about your color codes. Do you ever mark dynamic changes (i.e. hairpins, diminuendos, crescendos, fortes, piano, etc)? What is your reasoning for leaving that out of your color codes?
    Thanks, Tim!

    • Hi Jeremy, good question. I have found that if I go crazy marking up everything, the score ends up a mess. We make a lot of changes. Even the best orchestrators can not totally get inside the composers head and nail every dynamic so it is really common that dynamics and hairpins get massaged, sometimes several times. I like to keep the score clean so when I put the changes in, I am not having to get rid of my redundant ones. The one time I will mark it is coming into a page turn. If the next section is a dramatic change in dynamic, I will mark it so I know how to lead them into it and don’t look like an idiot when it goes to solo flute and I am still asking the strings for more!


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