Tutorial: Battle Theme - Part 2 (Instrumentation)

• Jun 19, 2020 - 22:27

See part 1 (Drafting) here: https://musescore.org/en/node/306672
I'm going to do things a little differently with this part of the tutorial. Instead of an entirely step-by-step guide, I'll provide some important pointers on the topic: instrumentation and arrangement of your battle theme.

First, here's a little secret: the draft in part one? Not necessary. You can create an entire battle theme with the instruments already in front of you. I've done it. And some impressive results can come out of that, as it is (more or less) raw inspiration that takes shape on the staves. But that is quite hard work, and it's easy for you to get lost in the score. That's why the draft is handy - it gives you an outline, a template, a starting point. But enough of the rambling, let's get into how to make your battle theme sound amazing (in Musescore).

Note: There's two styles of arranging in my book - there's going for what sounds good, and there's going for what can realistically be played. They aren't mutually exclusive, but I can really only give advice on the former, as the latter is outside my area.

So how do make sound good? First comes choosing the instruments. Choose...all the instruments. Well, all the instruments you think you'd ever want in your score. Don't worry whether you'll end up using it or not; if you think it fits the piece, add it. This is the canvas on which you'll paint your score; you'll need a suitable pallete. There's melody-inclined instruments, rhythm-inclined instruments, bass-inclined instruments, and probably others. With percussion, I like to have 2 or 3 drumsets so I can have a variety of percussion (more on that in a bit). Be sure to organize the staves to your liking. Upon creating the score, head to Format>Page Settings and extend the Height to accommodate the entire score - it's a lot better than Continuous View (something about having page borders, probably).
Use the preview window to find the point at which the score fits as you scroll up in the "Height" text box.

Then, if you want, head to the mixer (F10 by default) and change around sounds. E.g. changing the Sine Synth instrument to an actual Sine Wave sound, or changing the three drumsets from "Default" to "Power," "Electronic," and "Orchestral."

Alright, now for some actual tips. I'll just give them at random, for the most part. Here goes:
- Do the percussion only after you've notated all the parts into the instruments you want. The percussion can muddy the waters, and you want the notes to sound good by themselves - though rest assured that percussion can make anything sound good.
- Layers. Try layering instruments, having more than one instrument play each part. It greatly expands the vocabulary of sound at your disposal. For example, one of the first techniques I learned was layering strings underneath a melody line, namely a sax. The extra reverb on the strings really rounded out the harsher alto sax sound. This is especially useful for the bass - you can have a synth layered on top of an electric bass, or a sub bass (pitched an octave down) to lend it an extra-deep quality.
- At the same time, do not have every single instrument playing something at all times. You don't owe it to them to give them a part. Only add what you feel is appropriate. Don't obscure the melody too much.
- You might not have worried much about it during the drafting phase, but here, articulation is extremely important. Apply rests, staccatos, and held notes wisely.
Adding articulation where there was none before. Gives the line some character.

  • Equally as, if not more, important as articulation is dynamics. With Musescore 3, dynamics has taken an extra prominent role as playback supports mid-note dynamics. Musescore can actually sound decent!
    Using dynamics so instruments sound less stale and more natural.

  • Related: mixing. You'll want to make sure the sound is "balanced": not too much high, not too much bass, the percussion shouldn't overshadow everything, etc. That can be very hard to judge, though, so don't worry too much about it. After all is done, compare your new song to some of your favorite, best-sounding songs in your personal library, and tweak it accordingly.

  • Don't fall into the trap of copying and pasting and calling it a day. There is always more to be done, more parts than just four can be had. Don't be afraid of adding all the little touches that make music come alive. Things like grace notes, background chords, arpeggios, and the like (see "Articulation"). However, don't lose sight of the core parts - melody, bassline, harmony.

Now, a whole section on the elephant in the room: percussion. I didn't go over it in part one, but percussion is arguably the second most important aspect of the battle theme. Next to "form," I'd say. I'm no drummer, but here's what I've gathered:
- The bread-and-butter of percussion is the "back-beat." Essentially, snare on 2 and 4. Infinite permutations can arise from building around the back-beat.

  • The percussion often dictates the current pace of the music. Sometimes you'll want to take a break from 2 and 4, maybe only hit the snare on 4, or even on 3 (half time). And other times, you can speed up the pace with a metal-sounding snare-on-every-other-eighth-note. Or maybe don't sound the snare at all.
    Snare only on 4 to slow down the pace.

  • The bass and snare alone usually can't carry the percussion. The hi-hats and ride cymbals can create a sense of constant motion through repeating patterns. They can also go crazy for a barrage of treble sound if required.
    At the same time, hi-hats have a constant rhythm that grounds the entire song.

  • Drummers use ghost notes, or really quiet hits, on the snare to add rhythmic texture. Combined with the next point...

  • The way to really level-up your programmed percussion is through the use of dynamics. Accent some notes, quiet down others. To do this effectively in Musescore, click on a note and scroll down in the Inspector until you see "Velocity." It should be set to "Offset: 0," so change that 0 value to, say, +20 or -20. The volume of the note will respond accordingly.
    Here's where Velocity is located. Adjust the number to be quieter or louder than the current dynamic mark.

  • ...you can create a very nice beat that sounds like the famous Amen break. Snare on 2 and 4, but also on the 8th, 10th, and sometimes 16th sixteenth notes, which are much quieter; bass on every eighth note that the snare is not playing.
    This is not the Amen break exactly, but it has the same feel. It's all about those ghost notes in the snare, interspersed with the bass drum.

  • Crash (and splash, and chinese) cymbals can be used to mark the beginnings of phrases. It helps smooth sudden transitions between different instruments in adjacent phrases. Additionally, cymbal rolls can be used before a crash to make it even smoother: use the default crash cymbal (hotkey C), add a tremolo to its stem, and set the velocity way down to around -50. The alternative is a line of 32nd notes with a crescendo.

  • And a final note on percussion: this is all really my own style, which is just an easy way to make it jam. Sometimes you don't want your battle theme to jam, though; sometimes you want it to be dark, or epic. You don't have to follow a 2 and 4 pattern; you don't even have to use a drumset. If your battle theme is orchestral, most of these points are moot.

Lastly, head to the mixer again. And then, pan all your instruments. Turn those knobs every which way. Judge your score and try to achieve a balanced sound for both ears on average. This will make the score sound 2x better, every time. Beware, though, of instruments suddenly sounding quieter as they are brutally isolated from their brethren. Then, if you're up for it, mess around with soundfonts, reverb, and compression in the synthesizer for a unique sound.
And then be sure to remove any unused instruments and staves.
Pan 'em!

Ending the piece: my last bit of advice is to create some sort of ending, whether it be a fade-out, a single chord, or an entire coda. Leaving it at the loop point is usually immensely unsatisfying.

To see many of these pointers in action, check out the fully arranged version of the draft I made for part 1: https://musescore.com/daforlynx/tutorial-battle-theme


"Firsties! (Part 2 ...)" Let me now be the first one to go on record saying just how much I appreciate you taking the time to make these two posts – and the methodical thoroughness by which you did so. I think that I will be poring over these posts, and the accompanying (thank you!) scores, for a very long time. "Priceless ..."

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