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Welcome to deBreved

Breve n. \ˈbrēv\ In British English, the note with a rhythmic value equal to two whole notes.

We have all read, been told, and done so many different things relating to the art and practice of orchestration. However, I feel there is a disconnect between what the text books tell us, what many orchestrator’s perceptions are, and what the orchestra actually does. I am going to put it all together and debreve you on what is really going on.

DeBreved is a practical summary and addendum to the many existing orchestration resources. Think of it as “The Missing Chapters” of your orchestration textbooks. I am going to clarify some existing concepts and conventions, and challenge some others.

Be sure to read the Introduction, The Orchestral Default, Over-Notation Nation and A Neglected Relationship before anything else. This will explain exactly where I am coming from so everything else will make sense. It’s worth noting that I use the term orchestrator to refer to anyone who is orchestrating, whether it is a composer working on his or her own score or, in the case of Hollywood, a dedicated orchestrator working under another composer.

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Article Index

deBreved, the Tim Davies Orchestration Blog I have been thinking about writing a book about orchestration and notation for quite a while. The problem with this idea is time; it would be a long time before I got everything I wanted to say organized. Books are also an old medium, and do not allow multimedia and interaction. It then came to me that a blog format might be a better way to go, so here it is.  » Read More

The Orchestral Default
In order to notate in a clear and concise manner, one has to understand how an orchestra will interpret any particular dynamic, rhythm or articulation. For instance, what happens if you give the violins a naked whole note and a piano dynamic marking? Even with a minimum of information, the orchestra will impart some life to that note; there is an organic trajectory to all phrases. Now what if you add an articulation or hairpins?  » Read More

Over-Notation Nation
Many people these days over-notate their music. I propose three theories for this. The first is that most people do not spend a lot of time working with a live orchestra so they do not have a lot of ‘match practice’. When they do get their time with the players, they want to make sure they have everything spelled out, and so they often overdo it. Thinking they are doing the right thing,  » Read More

A Neglected Relationship
One thing I find neglected in the major orchestration texts is the discussion of notation. Grammar is just as important a concern in music as it is in literature, and it is very important that we understand how notation works when stripped back to its essence. While the orchestra can be very forgiving when it comes to making sense of your notation, you will get a better performance, make your point more clearly, and save lots of valuable time and toner if you think about the impact of your notation.  » Read More

Dynamic Affairs
With a little understanding of dynamics and how they work, you can use their default to your advantage. Everyone knows that p means soft and f means loud, but there is a little more to it than that. Many people these days might relate dynamics to a MIDI controller value. pp is 10, p 30, mp 50, mf 75,  » Read More

Parlare del niente, a rant about nothing
Niente means nothing! As such, I like to think of it as an effect, not a dynamic. It seems that a lot of people think players are computers and can really play at no volume. What happens when a player sees a note with a swell that starts with niente? It is impossible for many instruments of the orchestra to start from absolutely nothing, so instead they try to come in as softly as possible.  » Read More

Divide and Conquer
There are five sections in the string orchestra, playing five parts, but quite often we need more than five notes at once. There are two ways to get the extra notes: use double stops, or divide sections (divisi). In 90% of situations you should choose to divide. There are issues with double stops that I will explain in the next article. So how does the string section divide?  » Read More

Double [stop] Trouble
The double stop is the most misunderstood (by orchestrators) and ignored (by players) orchestration device EVER! I know that is a bold statement, but after many years observing the orchestra from the podium and seeing what they play and what they don’t, I can say it with assurance. Keep in mind, we are talking about writing for the orchestra here, not for soloists or chamber music. There are three things you need to think about before you decide that you need to write a double stop.  » Read More

The More You Bow
There are many cool French and Italian terms for different bowing techniques. The texts have explanations of each of the different bow strokes, but these explanations range from excellent to confusing to plain contradictory (just google détaché). These terms refer to things the section does ‘under the hood.’ As an orchestrator, it is important to understand these, as they are the rudiments of string playing. Remember that in the end,  » Read More

What You See Is Not Always What You Get
Make sure you have read dynamic relationships before this article. What information do we have here? Three things: a pitch, a duration, and a dynamic. Pitch is not important to this discussion so let’s not worry about it; everything we talk about applies for any pitch that is considered to be in the standard range. If we give this information to a computer, it would give us a waveform that looks like this: To make the computer sound like this,  » Read More

Tremolo and the abstract truth
Tremolo is a great effect that can be used to add tension and weight or a shimmering texture. Tremolo is a fast oscillation of the bow, unmeasured by default. Tremolo, like harmonics and pizzicato, is a technique where the use of samples in composition has given composers a false sense of reality. For some reason, just like sampled timpani rolls, sampled tremolo is performed way faster than I have ever heard it in the real world.  » Read More

A Trilling Experience
Trills and fingered/keyed tremolos are the same thing, an oscillation between two notes. If the interval is a half or whole step it is called a trill, and if the interval is larger it is called a tremolo. It is common for players to think of them all as trills, the tremolo description appears to be an academic one based upon the notation. Trill notation is easy in tonal music with key signatures.  » Read More

Swell Enough
As I keep pointing out, there is a lot of phrasing that will happen naturally. However, we often need to indicate when to swell. Conventional wisdom is that in this case (Ex.1), they will go up one dynamic. I have found that more often than not, all sections of the orchestra go up almost two levels. The lack of a target dynamic may also lead to a question from the orchestra so I find it is best to put one in to make it obvious.  » Read More

In Touch with Harmonics
[2022 Harmless Update]
I snapped, I have had enough, I have mostly given up on trying to record harmonics on sessions. Like you’ll see in the discussion below, it is really hard. Also, due to the nature of what people write for harmonics, the samples actually work really well, better than humans in most cases. But I found a middle ground. It came about on a session where the players could not get it in tune to my ears,  » Read More

It’s the Pizz
There are three techniques where real world sounds and possibilities are easily misrepresented in the sampled world. They are In touch with, Tremolo, and Pizzicato. Pizzicato is the technique where the player plucks the string with their finger. The loudest pizzicato is really only equivalent to a mezzo forte with the bow. Many a person has done a mockup with forte pizz balanced against arco strings and brass,  » Read More

It’s Staggering
A common device that I see a lot of is ‘stagger breathing’, and I have some problems with it! Not the concept itself, just the way it is carried out. I often see a stream of notes in a woodwind part, perhaps copied and pasted from the violin part, and the words, ‘stagger breathe’ or ‘breathe when necessary’. The latter I find particularly humorous, as they really have no choice. Even the world’s most intelligent flute players have no way of knowing the best way to break up a line until they have heard the piece a few times or looked at the score.  » Read More

The French Horn
From longing, to sinister, to epic, the sounds of the horn are incredibly diverse. There are so many different colors that the horn is capable of, but not many people understand the physics of the instrument and what the player does to make all those cool sounds. The texts have not done a great job of explaining it. There are links to my chat with Jim Thatcher throughout, however the whole video is posted at the bottom of the page.  » Read More

The Wagner Tuba
Like the cimbasso, the Wagner tuba is a mystery to a lot of orchestrators. Wagner tubas are also often referred to as tuben. This is just the plural of tuba in German. First of all, some quick history; but as that is not my strong point, I will let someone else explain it. Here is studio legend Jim Thatcher talking about the instrument. Wagner Tuba vs the Horn
The main physical difference,  » Read More

How to Score
Scores should look good and be easy to read. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been sent scores by students or hopeful orchestrators using terrible layouts. Perhaps they saw some online (never trust anything you see online, unless it is on this site of course!) or got advice from a friend who had a friend that went to Berkusc or UCLNYU! Session scores are different from concert scores for several reasons.  » Read More

String Section Sizes
When I started working on large orchestral scores, the string section sizes were pretty standard, and similar to the concert hall where each lower section shrinks by two players. So for example, a standard orchestra might be 14 first violins, 12 seconds, 10 violas, 8 cello and 6 basses, or “14/12/10/8/6” for short (in the film world where we lump all the violins together, so this is often condensed further to “26/10/8/6”). After many years of orchestrating,  » Read More

Extreme Australian Orchestration
[Updated January 2022] Hard to believe that I originally made this video in 2013 and it is now 2022! While several things have changed since I made the video below, my process is still the same, so it is still relevant to anyone interested in film orchestration. “What has changed?” I hear you ask. The main thing is that I now use Keyboard Maestro for all my shortcuts instead of Quickeys,  » Read More

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. Whether recording or performing live, the conductor’s job is to beat time and cue people. That is about where the similarities end, however! In a concert hall scenario the music has usually been played many times before and the players know it.  » Read More

Conducting Part 2
The session starts, and the contractor will come out to announce the project, introduce the composer, and maybe also introduce the director or anyone else important. They sometimes say a few words, and then we are off. After the group tunes, I call the first cue. It is important to call out any version numbers, as sometimes we have more than one version of a cue. I will say it a bunch of times to make sure that everyone knows.  » Read More

Conducting Part 3
That was great, now lets make it better
There is nothing like working with the greatest sight readers on the planet. But even if they get every note right on the first run, the magic is not going to be there yet. My theory is that it takes at least three runs before the real magic happens, when the orchestra gets the correct tuning, timing and balance. For my example let’s assume this is an easy-to-medium difficulty cue.  » Read More

Conducting Part 4
99% of what we do is on click track. We are also sight reading. The most important thing is to have a clear downbeat. That is what the players look for when their heads are buried in their stands. I try to do a very clear pattern, a tiny bit ahead of the click (and I mean tiny, not like the concert hall). Never conduct ‘along’ with the click. It is possible to make them play behind or a little in front by adjusting where I am in relationship to the click.  » Read More

Is it ‘Ahh’ or ‘Aah’? Choir Session Tips
There are a number of differences in how I approach conducting a choir as opposed to how I approach conducting an orchestra in the studio. You usually only get a single session to record the choir for a whole score, so here are some tips to get everything you need. You need to emote
While I have said I do minimal gestures and stay out of the way with the orchestra, leading a choir is very different.  » Read More

One would think that if you want to make a small string section sound bigger, you could just record it twice and the sound will double. Unfortunately, this does not work too well. There will be a tinny or fuzzy sheen to the sound. Listen to the strings on Coldplay and Christina Aguilera songs and you will hear what I mean. Even though there are two separate takes, players have a unique talent for being able to play the same phrase pretty much the same way every time.  » Read More

Stating the obvious, why say it twice?
Over the years I have noticed that people have developed a habit of saying the same thing twice, often combining an articulation with a text description of said articulation. Some of these are standard conventions that I just think are a little silly, others are things I have seen people do without thinking. A lot of my approach has to do with thinking like a player and trusting them. A wavy line up to a note means to rip into the note,  » Read More

Jazz Part 1
This is the first part in a series of articles where I will explain how to take a simple melody and turn it into a jazz tune, complete with appropriate harmony, voicing, bass part, and notation for a session or performance. I will explain and demonstrate the basic concepts of jazz. These are the cheat notes that even a drummer should be able to understand (I should know, I am one).  » Read More

Jazz Melody and Voicing Part 2
Saxophones and Rhythm Section
Once you have a handle on how chord progressions work and how to write simple piano voicings, the next technique to master is the ‘thickened line’. This is where a melody has three or four notes harmonizing under it that each move with the melody, most often in parallel motion. Believe it or not, it is much easier to write in four parts rather than three, as with three you have to think more carefully about which chord notes to leave out.  » Read More

Jim Thatcher Part 1
Jim Thatcher is the most-recorded horn player working in Hollywood today. He has been the principal horn on virtually every session I’ve conducted in Los Angeles. In part one of our interview, we’ll talk about how Jim first became a serious horn player and what led him to the studios of Los Angeles. We’ll also talk about some of his experiences as a session player over the years. Check back soon,  » Read More

Jim Thatcher Part 2 & 3
In part 2 of my interview with horn player Jim Thatcher, we dive in and talk about the range of techniques available to the horn and the wide variety of tonal colors it can produce and more importantly, how they are produced. In addition, Jim explains just what those horn players are doing with their hands up inside their bells. In Part 3 we talk about stopping and mutes. These videos are a great companion to my post about the horn,  » Read More

Endre Granat Part 1
Endre Granat is the most recorded violinist and concertmaster working in the studios today. He has served as concertmaster with everyone from such silver age legends as Miklos Rozsa and Henry Mancini to currently active composers like Marco Beltrami and Christophe Beck. In part one, Endre and I talk about how he got started in the studios, how things have changed over the years and the demands placed on studio musicians.  » Read More

Endre Granat Part 2
In Part II of my chat with Endre Granat, we discuss some of the mechanics of playing a stringed instrument and Endre demonstrates standard bowing techniques. He breaks them down into three categories. Legato Staccato ‘Bouncing’ Legato is the default bow stroke; no additional notation is needed apart from slurs if you want more than one note per bow.  » Read More

Endre Granat Part 3
In Part III of my chat with Endre Granat, we discuss how the bow can be used to change the color of the sound. Sul Tasto and Sul Ponticello are demonstrated as well as how bow speed and pressure effect the sound. Make sure you check out Part I and Part II of Endre’s interview and Guide to a Good Bow Job and It’s the Pizz.  » Read More

Finale Tips
I will be moving all of my finale tips to this page. Please note all examples are done using Finale 2011. For examples of how to do some of these things in the ‘other’ program, Philip Rothman of NYC Music Services has kindly translated them. Here they are. Scores
Large Time Signatures
1. Document Options> Fonts>Notation: Time (Score) = EngraverTime 40 Plain
2.  » Read More

There are many books and internet resources out there. Some are a little dated or express the opinion of only one person (a bit like my blog!) but it is worth reading as many as you can. Please let me know of any more really good ones to add to the list. One of the most concise I have found for use as an everyday reference is Alfred’s Essentials of Orchestration by Dave Black and Tom Gerou.  » Read More

Jazz Notation – The Default
This post and its companion, Jazz Notation – Drums and Chords, present the material from my talk on January 11, 2014, at the Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas, Texas. Thank you to Makemusic for their sponsorship. Introduction
I get a lot of scores sent to me by composers and arrangers both young and old. I see a lot of things that do not need to be on the page,  » Read More

Jazz Notation – Chords and Drums
  This post and its companion, Jazz Notation – the Default, present the material from my talk on January 11, 2014, at the Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas, Texas. In my previous post on jazz notation, I discussed some of the ways that understanding the band’s default performance practice can help you to write cleaner, more effective notation. Here are a few more tips for producing scores that are easily readable and will get you the performance you want.  » Read More

The Debreved Studio Conducting Insensitive Workout
I think a lot of the workshops and courses out there are missing PART 2 where you have to do all of the things I mention in my articles. So let’s just pretend I am going to run my own workshop. This could work standalone, or actually be really cool as an addition to one of the existing ones. 9:00 Meet and greet over oat milk lattes and vegemite on toast.  » Read More

Error Code 7 – A Deep Dive: Part 1
Introduction My friends at Hollywood Scoring wanted to test out bringing their own recording gear into the iconic United Recording Studio A, which has been 'closed' since the beginning of 2023. They invited myself and a few others to write for a small orchestra. I was also on hand all day to conduct or help in the booth for other composers who conducted themselves. I consulted with contractor Noah Gladstone and engineer Adam Michalak on what ensemble would be best for the day.  » Read More

Error Code 7 – A Deep Dive: Part 2
Part 2 This is the second half of my discussion of the piece I recorded with Hollywood Scoring, where we look at the melodic section of the piece from bar 32 onward. Be sure to check out Part 1 so everything here makes sense. Main Theme I recently bought a new piano and walk past it on every trip to the kitchen. I remember as soon as I got confirmation that this session was happening,  » Read More

Tenuto Uh-Oh
I have been on many rants about the abuse of tenuto in current notion practice. I see scores needlessly littered with them. They can be of use, but in my experience 98.254% of them I see out in the wild are redundant. In my film orchestrating and arranging I rarely use them. I can go an entire 100-minute score and count the number of tenutos on my fingers. I have been trying to work out what they mean in all contexts,  » Read More