JULY 24, 2023

Composing for Shark Week with Budapest Scoring Orchestra

Composing Shark Week Music

Rich Tozzoli - One of my favorite series to write for is Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, as the music has to fuse with the powerful, mysterious, relentless focus of one of nature's great predators. Always seeking to push my sonic boundaries, I decided to record a piece that incorporated the talents of the Budapest Scoring Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary. 

The Process Begins
With that objective in mind, my mission was now to get the music out of my head, into the world of Pro Tools, out to the orchestra, and then back to me for final mixing and production. However, orchestra players don’t read computer MIDI notation (i.e. musical instrument digital interface), they need written sheet music. These are, in some ways, two completely different worlds—writing music on computers for computers, versus writing music on computers for humans. The middleman here was the use of Sibelius, which can directly take the software instrument MIDI tracks and turn them into scores and parts that the orchestra can read.

A Hybrid Production
So how do you channel one of the great creatures of the ocean into a piece of music? For me, it was the knowledge that this would be a hybrid recording, blending my orchestral and percussion libraries inside of Pro Tools with the epic sound of the Budapest Scoring Orchestra. I would also incorporate real drums and percussion into the final mix for added impact. This hybrid technique, which is often used on blockbuster films, delivers the epic sound I was seeking. Like the creatures themselves, I wanted this piece to swim uncomfortably around you until the attack came with a mouth full of sharp teeth. The rest was up to the picture editors.

Since there were no brass or woodwinds in this piece, I decided to use only the strings from the Budapest Orchestra. Not only did this keep my workload tighter, but it kept the budget reasonable, as I didn’t need to hire the entire orchestra. Between the double basses, cellos, violas, and violins, they have a full range of over seven octaves with a virtually unlimited palette of sound to create with.

Computer vs. Reality
Good string sample libraries sound great—often larger than life. But they are not alive. Real players can bring emotion, feel, and sonic detail to your music that libraries cannot. Also, the Budapest Orchestra records in the beautiful and historical Rottenbiller studio, originally built in 1951. When these seasoned performers all play together in a great room with top notch microphones, special things happen. Combined together with the sample libraries in a hybrid production, it makes for a powerful creation.

Deep In It
I’ve always composed, edited, and mixed inside of Pro Tools—it’s a one-stop shop. Once I had the outline of the piece developed using string libraries from Vienna Symphonic and Spitfire, I layered in the percussion tracks to help build tension. This “mockup,” as it’s called, would not only be the guideline for the real orchestra to record with, but a foundation for the final product.

Using only cellos and double basses for the beginning of the piece, it delivers a dark and menacing sound that fits the image of a shark in the murky distance. By waiting until later in the track to bring in the violas and violins, I’m able to keep the tension climbing, all the while I constantly keep in mind that the real players would be performing these parts. I had to make sure all the note ranges I wrote with on the computer were available to the actual instruments. A helpful site for this is the Vienna Symphonic Library Academy, which provides detailed information on each orchestral instrument.

When recording with an orchestra, proper orchestration (i.e. the arrangement or scoring of music for orchestral performance) is essential. Orchestrator Kristin Hevner, who is also my longtime composition teacher, helped bridge the gap between what I had recorded in Pro Tools and the actual sheet music for the players to read. Using the latest version of my music notation software, Sibelius Ultimate, she reviewed every measure of the violin, viola, cello, and bass parts. She has been using Sibelius since it was first released, so the process was smooth.

Orchestration is also where the composer and orchestrator notes not only the dynamics and feel of each part, but also which instruments are transposed (such as the double bass). Hevner adjusted a few voicings between the violas and cellos and corrected anything she felt the players needed to see on the score to translate the music properly. We checked, re-checked, and then exported the final sheet music in PDF form for each part and sent it off to the orchestra. Sibelius had done its job.

Organization is Essential
With the composition locked and the score orchestrated, I finalized the arrangements for the recording session. Working with Balint Sapszon, the CEO of Budapest Scoring, I arranged the specific scope of the session, the price, and reviewed the all-important details. Along with a properly orchestrated piece, session preparation is absolutely critical to a good orchestral recording.

Budapest Scoring records on Pro Tools, so I needed to deliver my mockup as 24-bit, 48kHz .PTX files, along with a PDF score for the conductor and parts for the string players. The score from Sibelius needed to be in A3 size for score and A4 size for parts, all in portrait orientation. Bar numbers in Pro Tools had to match the bar numbers on your score, and all had to be uploaded to them at least 24 hours before the start of your session. Every detail matters at this stage if you want the session to flow smoothly.

The Orchestra Recording
I logged on to the session with their provided links, streamed the audio through LISTENTO, and received video and talkback over Zoom. While I did feel that the pressure was on with a whole orchestra sitting in front of me, ready to record my music, I also felt confident with all of my pre-production and their experienced recording staff.

The conductor introduced me to the orchestra onscreen, and we briefly discussed any last-minute notes. Each player had headphones on, and my mix was fed from the control room with a click track. That’s their guide, and they typically record along with it if they choose. From there, it was in their hands, and after a few passes, they deftly nailed the whole piece. Since it was under two minutes long, they were able to run a second pass in the allotted session time. This helps in the layering of the final, as it's like having double the number of players!

Mixing and Production
Within a day, the files from the session were emailed to me. They record with a complement of superb microphones and are a highly skilled production and engineering team. The files included seven channels of room mics (L, C, R Decca tree, Outrigger L and R, and Surround L and R). Also, the sections were mic'd, which included 40 string players in total—violins, violas, cellos, and double bass. With the second pass included, the total was 80 players and 52 channels of recorded audio. The tracks were imported directly into my session, and playback was flawless.

My first reaction was how big, wide, and human the sound was. That kind of dimension is virtually impossible to achieve from string libraries and reverbs, no matter how good they are. They did a superb job in both the playing and the recording of the piece.

Being that this production was hybrid, the real power came from mixing the depth of the real players with the intensity of my orchestral libraries. Combining both elements helped deliver the epic sound I was striving for.

To make the percussion more intense, I had drummers David Koch and Ray LeVier add their kits to the track, both with mallets and sticks. Combined with the percussion samples, they helped deliver a real punch to the bottom of the track.

Final Thoughts
Simply put, there is nothing like hearing your music recorded by an orchestra. It’s majestic, inspiring, and musically enlightening. It’s especially powerful for a longtime Pro Tools-based composer to be able to take ideas and translate them to a hall full of amazing musicians halfway around the world, and then have it in my computer two days later. Thanks to the potent hybrid combination of Pro Tools and Sibelius, it was all possible. I’m already planning the next piece!

Richard Tozzoli Avid Sibelius Composer of Shark Week

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    Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated award winning composer/mixer/producer. His music has been on over 1500 series in 40 countries with shows ranging from Discovery's Shark Week to Pawn Stars, Alaskan Bush People and NBC Olympics.

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