Friday, February 4, 2022

Sunrise on a Snow Day

The score for this piece is available on MuseScore. It's the follow-up to my song Trip to the Harrowing Woods, in which I wanted to see what would happen if I doubled every guitar part to make it sound like an orchestra of guitars. For that song, I think I didn't go big enough. I like that song, but I didn't quite reach my goal. So I decided to make it happen, whatever it took.

Orchestras have a lot of string players because they need to be able to play very loud using only the acoustic sound straight out of the instruments. That's not all, though. There are also some interesting things that happen to the sound waves when you have that many musicians all playing the same thing- or rather, almost the same thing. It would be impossible for every single cello player, for example, to sound 100% completely identical to every other member of the cello section. Each musician is going to play slightly ahead or behind the group, because humans aren't perfect. Every note will be at least slightly out of tune, and even if everything is played in tune and in time like a superhuman, the physical distance between each player means that even identical sounds will be slightly out of phase with each other. That means that the highs and lows of the sound waves aren't going to line up. All of these little differences add up to the rich sound of a large ensemble. It's why a choir sounds different than just a louder version of one person singing.

There are a few ways to approximate this sound as a guitarist. Chorus effects, along with reverb and delay, can make a single guitar sound bigger and fuller, but it never quite sounds like more than one guitarist, at least to my ears. While a Chorus effect on a guitar may claim to make it sound like multiple guitars, it just sounds too perfect to me. I can tell that it's one guitar, and usually that's okay. But for this project, I knew there was going to be only one way to get the sound of fifty guitarists in a room- I had to play this forty-five times, over multiple days.

Okay, let's take a step back and talk about the composition. When I recorded Trip to the Harrowing Woods, one of the biggest limitations I had was the fact that I was trying to record everything off the top of my head. That's what I do most of the time, but for this project I decided I needed to write some sheet music to make the process easier on me. Instead of having to remember things, and coming up with parts as I went along and then having to remember those too, I just wrote it all out ahead of time. It's roughly an ABA form, with the A sections in F major-ish, and the B sections in Bb Minor. I say -ish because writing in sheet music gave me the opportunity to get more creative and chromatic because I was able to look at the music from a top-down perspective instead of writing one part at a time. The modulation to the distant key of Bb Minor feels pretty smooth because I had already been using chords outside of the key of F by the time the B section rolls around.

After I had the music, I looked up how many members there were in an orchestral string section, and played each part an appropriate number of times. For example, I found that an orchestra typically has eight basses, so I recorded the bass part eight times. I did this with guitar part, matching it up with an equivalent section in a string orchestra, and playing the part that many times. That wound up being forty-five times recording a four minute song. As I'm writing this, I just finished on Wednesday night, and I started on Sunday, recording whenever I had free time. But like I just said, if I wanted it to sound like that, I had no choice but to record everything that many times.

One idea I had early on was to write the Guitar 1 part as a solo, and I stuck to that. While all of the other parts were recorded directly into the computer with no amplifier sounds, I ran Guitar 1 through an amp sim and gave it a little more in the way of audio effects to make it stand out from the rest of the group. I didn't need effects other than EQ and reverb on the rest of the guitars because the massive amount of tracks took care of it for me. I didn't want each guitar to be colored too much by effects, because that would probably add up to some nasty sounds that I don't feel like discovering right now.

This really was a mission of discovery. My choices were to put in the effort and see my idea through, or just... not do that. The choice was pretty easy, although the process sure wasn't. I think the final result was worth it, but I doubt I'll do another one of these any time soon. I have some ideas for where to go next with this genre of "guitar orchestra", but the idea of doing something more complex with this format feels a bit daunting. This wasn't even a hard piece, but playing it that many times meant I made plenty of mistakes I had to fix. But there's still a part of me that wants to write something faster and crazier. Maybe one day...

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