Orchestral Arrangements for Pop #ProductionHub

Abbey Road's John Barrett and Lewis Jones demystify the recording process from an engineer's perspective in this brand-new Q&A.

Covering everything from technical setup and venue choice, to understanding an artist’s vision even if they have no classical training.

 

Orchestral arrangements for what we call "pop" music have been around for many years. We’re proud to say the practice has been one of our defining features since the late ‘50s including Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger, strings for ABC in the early '80s, Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy, Kylie Minogue's The Abbey Road Sessions and so many more.

The tradition remains vital today as artists like Little Simz, Ed Sheeran, Joy Crookes and Jessie Ware continue to incorporate the power of orchestration in their music.

 

Can you name some tracks you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of?

Lewis Jones:

I can’t remember what I was doing last week but there are a few which come to mind! Ella Fitzgerald - Love Letters from Ella, this was a great session! John Legend - Love Me Now. More recently, Gregory Porter - All Rise and Jessie Ware’s last album - What’s Your Pleasure?
 

John Barrett:

I’ve been really lucky to have worked on all kinds of material over the years, from Take That string overdubs, to a collaboration with Jonny Greenwood and Frank Ocean for the album Blonde.
 

How would you describe your role in the recording process?

Lewis Jones:

From my side of the process, it’s all about managing expectation and getting the client/artist what they want. Depending on the level of experience of both the artist and arranger, I will offer advice and ideas to the recording session when and if I think it will help. I also know when to keep quiet and am always looking to learn new things!
 

John Barrett:

On a recording session, ultimately my work starts by planning an orchestral layout and a technical setup (deciding mic numbers, choices, track counts etc). At this stage I will try and discuss with either the artist, producer, or orchestrator ahead of time, if there are any special consideration that may influence these plans. Preferably at this stage I’ll have a few demos/guide tracks to listen to, so I can make a more informed judgment.

Then I’ll be in setting up the mics, console etc, checking the mics and signals, all of which I try to get done well ahead of time so when it gets to recording, all is checked and ready.

As soon as we start recording, I am in charge of making sure that everything sounds as good as it can, that all the musicians are happy and hearing what they need to hear to record, and that the artist is happy with the sound and performances that we record. It is at this stage that I may be required to offer guidance on specifics in performance/interpretation etc. With orchestral recording, it is important to know what can and cannot be fixed ‘in the mix’, so often my role is to advise as to balancing or editorial issues, as well as, if appropriate, helping to produce the session.

Lewis Jones

John Barrett

 

How critical is the recording venue to the music we eventually hear on record? And what challenges do certain venues offer up?

John Barrett:

The recording space can make a huge difference to the sound. For example if you want something to sound very close and dry, recording it in large reverberant hall will cause all manner of problems later on down the line, whereas recording in a small dry/non-reverberant will also make recreating a large, lush symphonic sound more difficult!
 

Lewis Jones:

Depending on the track and the vision of the artist/producer/composer I think it’s a good idea to consider the recording location. Big lush sounds need a large room with a good acoustic. Smaller rooms provide tighter, closer sounds.
 

What are the pros and cons of using a live orchestra versus creating orchestral parts digitally?

John Barrett:

The great thing about using a live orchestra is that you capture a unique musical interpretation. There are things that just happen instinctively when you have a room full of fantastic players that can take a track to the next level! There are numerous pop songs throughout history where the orchestral arrangement has made the track.

That is not to say that there isn’t a place for samples, they can be incredibly useful as a creative tool. Often when it comes to a mix, you will end up using some of the guide/demo/sampled orchestra in the mix along with the real recordings. By themselves the samples are too fake and sterile, but when tucked under a real performance they can be really useful to enhance a line or thicken a texture.
 

Lewis Jones:

I think that this depends entirely on the track itself. It’s great to have the choice to use either or. A track might need a very programmed approach where samples can be the answer.
 

There are numerous orchestral interpretations of pop tracks – what makes these sink or swim in your view?

Lewis Jones:

I think it is very difficult to do an orchestral arrangement of a pop track that is predominantly kick, snare and vocal! I think that if the track has a good string line or hook, it becomes easier to develop that idea.
 

John Barrett:

In all honesty it really relies on having a great song to interpret in the first place. Then ultimately great orchestration! I always think that if the track stands out on its own, as a unique interpretation rather than an ‘orchestral cover version’, you’re on to a winner.
 
 

Are there any challenges that come along with working with an artist that doesn’t have any classical training and if so, how are they overcome?

Lewis Jones:

I don’t really think that having any kind of classical training is an issue. You can have musical ideas without any musical education. Nearly all artist’s will employ an arranger/composer to help them out with the string/orchestral arrangement and those that can, do it themselves.
 

John Barrett:

One of the biggest challenges when working with an artist with little or no classical training or background is actually getting them to gain the confidence to describe to musicians or a conductor what it is they want exactly, or what they are hearing in their head. It can seem intimidating at first, particularly if they don’t know the technical musical terms, but ultimately even singing ideas through the talkback mic works!

Also generally in those situations, everyone (musicians, conductor, copyists, assistants!) clubs together to help describe or explain a harmony or playing style technique.
 

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