The last four days have been electronic or beat-based, so I was in the mood to go back to some orchestral instruments. My sample library acquisitions over the last couple of years have been as much of an expansion for me as when I got my first sampler in the late 80s, my first really good workstation synth in the late 90s, not to mention what digital audio workstations (DAWs) have done to make professional-level production achievable in the smallest of spaces.
I’ve made use of the Eric Whitacre choir library before, but wanted to do something that really featured it, so it was the first thing I loaded. In a rare fit of confidence, I started recording from the get go: the first three notes and opening chord were the first things I played. In fact, I improvised almost the entire piece, which is why some of the chord changes are a bit slow to show up. You’re hearing the process of my brain telling my fingers what should be happening next.
- Hymnos Ray Toler 3:12
With the choir pretty much complete, I simply doubled the MIDI track to the pipe organ. That really changed the character of the thing. If you’ve never been to a concert featuring a large pipe organ, it’s very difficult to convey just how powerful they are. A pipe organ can play notes lower than any note in the orchestra, and that amount of low frequency energy is incredibly visceral.
Originally, pipe organs were entirely mechanical, and far more complex than you might think. In simple terms, a pump of some kind creates an air flow. When the organist presses a key or a pedal, valves open to allow air to flow through to the appropriate pipes. Most organs have several sets of pipes for the different voices, which represent other instruments like flutes and horns. The organist can choose which voices play by pulling out small knobs called “stops” (because they stop the airflow when they’re pushed in). This is where we get the phrase, “pull all the stops out.”
These days, pipe organs have a lot more digital controls managing the mechanics, but the fundamental process of moving air through big pipes is the same. Every pipe organ is custom made for the space it will be installed, and almost everything is made entirely by hand! The specific instrument you’re hearing in this piece is the Rugby School Chapel organ located in the UK. It has a total of 3,721 pipes!
Ok, We’re Done Here
With the organ now in place, that was supposed to be that. Supposed to be. But if you’ve been reading any of my posts before, you already know that I have trouble knowing when to say, “when.”
In the first swell, I decided strings would be nice. And they were. And you know, if they hired a choir, organist, and string section, they’d probably hire horns as well, right? And trombones. After orchestrating the initial section, I realized that the climax in the second section could really become something… more.
In this regard, compositionally, I think I succeeded. Programming an orchestra is different than writing for it, and I’m still in the beginning stages of my skills with that, but you can still hear what it would be if performed by a live group.
The final touch for the climax was the addition of percussion, including timpani, piatti, and a triangle. I think there’s a bit more I can do here, and I also want to revisit this in the future to add woodwinds to the arrangement.
What’s in a Name?
As always, what the hell do I call this thing? It feels sacred, or at least mimics sacred music, but it isn’t. It has elements of majesty and that “this is the voice of the Lord” aspect, especially in the climax. That’s not what I was writing, but if I were to cast it that way, people would accept it as so.
It obviously had the feeling of a hymn, but wasn’t. I decided to look up the word, which lead me to the greek root, “hymnos.” A hymn is a song of praise and, most commonly today, is associated with Christian songs of worship. A greek hymnos is also a song of praise, often to the gods, but also to the heros of the day. It could be to an olympic champion, Zeus, Odysseus, or a hero of war.
So it’s a song of praise to someone or something. Perfect. “Hymnos” it is.
Master or Servant?
In audio production, there are three primary phases: tracking, mixing, and mastering. Tracking is recording each of the individual parts. Mixing is balancing everything so that it sounds good1There’s a lot more to this than that sentence, but I’ll save that for another day.. Mastering is taking that mix and doing the final polish and sheen to make it ready for release on whatever the final format will be. These days, that’s normally a streaming service and it nearly always involves compressing2Reducing the range between the softest and loudest things in the audio. the audio in some way.
And here’s where I’m a little bit sad. Unless you come to my studio, sit in my chair, and listen to the uncompressed3By this I mean audio compression, not file compression. mix, you won’t ever hear this music with the same impact. The first time I listened to that musical climax at full volume, I actually teared up. Part of that is the power of a giant major chord, but a big part was the animal reaction to volume. It overwhelms.
And this presented me with a bit of a problem when it came time to master the recording for release. This piece has incredible dynamic range. Compression removes some, but not all, of that emotional impact. The soft parts aren’t quite as soft, and the loud parts aren’t quite as loud.
But these are the compromises we have to make in a world where Spotify or Apple will turn your music down for you if it’s too loud, because listeners want the volume to be consistent, not emotional. It’s why I still buy CDs of orchestral music.4Oh, who am I kidding? I still buy CDs for all my music.
Spitfire Studio Orchestra, Symphonic Organ, Eric Whitacre Choir
Gullfoss, Pro-L 2
Source Image Credit: Pexels (Public Domain)
- 1There’s a lot more to this than that sentence, but I’ll save that for another day.
- 2Reducing the range between the softest and loudest things in the audio.
- 3By this I mean audio compression, not file compression.
- 4Oh, who am I kidding? I still buy CDs for all my music.