Short Interview with Orchestrator, Arranger, and Copyist, Jason Poss

Jason Poss IMDB

Q: Could you give us a brief overview of some of the tasks involved in your profession of preparing music for a recording session?

A: Music preparation is the work of creating printed music for a recording session. Usually the term is just used in reference to creating musician parts (music copying), but it also includes orchestration, arranging, printing and librarian services. Basically, music preparation begins when the composer releases the composition.

As an orchestrator, I take over when the composer completes the sketch of the composition either in a digital or a written form. It’s common today for composers to deliver a MIDI file and an audio file (MP3) of the music for orchestration. From there my job as an orchestrator is to assign the notes of the sketch to the proper instruments and make any necessary adjustments. My role is to use the live ensemble to realize the composer’s vision for the music.

There are things that work in a sequencer or when played at the piano that don’t translate well to other live instruments. As an orchestrator I have to be aware of these peculiarities and make sure that the music is written in a way that will enable the players to sound their best and facilitate a smooth recording. Additionally, composers often come to me for my ability to look at their composition and figure out how to give it a little extra spark. They expect me to be able to read between the lines of their composition and find those places where the orchestration can enrich the composition and take things to yet another level of emotionalism and excellence.

Once the orchestration is complete, individual musician parts must be created from the orchestrated score. Contrary to the marketing promises of notation software, this is not a simple one-click process. A professional music copyist pays careful attention to how the music is laid out on the page for the musician. Good copyists understand how make the written page look like it sounds to the player and lay out the page so that the eye can follow it smoothly. This makes sight-reading much easier, reduces errors in the session, and enables the players to focus more on interpretation than just trying to read all the notes.

I should also note that music proofreaders are essential in this process. Proofreading is often overlooked by amateur music copyists. Proofreaders check every note in every part against the score and may also recommend better enharmonic spellings (i.e. G-sharp vs A-flat), proper page turns, and ensure consistent labeling and notation across all parts. The keen eyes of a proofreader help eliminate potential problems long before they reach the session where they can cost money.

Once the parts have been created and proofed, they are printed on high-quality paper to reduce glare and make turning pages quieter. The pages are then bound into booklets for each musician. If there is more than one cue, all the booklets are collated for each musician by the music librarian. The music librarian then transports the music to the recording studio, makes sure every musician has the correct parts, and remains available at the session to make any changes, print new parts, or perform any other unforeseen on-site tasks.

Q: Why should either of the negotiating parties (Composer/Company) allot a portion of the Music budget to a professional Music Preparation company like Sarawak Songs?

A: Proper music preparation actually increases the value of the project in a few ways. First, good orchestration makes the music sound better, but it also enables the recording session to run smoothly. Poorly orchestrated music often requires more time in the studio for the musicians to get right because it is harder for them to play. That’s because you can end up with musical lines that aren’t idiomatic to the instrument, or require awkward techniques. Poor orchestration also requires more work on the part of the engineer to create a good balance. All this eats up precious time during a recording session. I’ve heard some engineers say that they feel a good mix starts with good orchestration. That definitely mirrors my experience.

Poor musician parts can drag a session down in a lot of unexpected ways. There are obvious things like frequent note errors that can grind a session to a halt, disrupt the creative flow, and waste studio time. But there are also subtle things that individually seem small yet have a cumulative effect. Poorly copied and printed parts can cause lackluster performances because the musicians are focusing more on reading the page than on giving their very best performance. Parts that aren’t copied well also don’t inspire confidence from the players. This can lead to a lot of unnecessary questions, which slow down things even more.

In many ways you can think of music preparation as insurance for a smooth recording session. Sure you can try to cut corners on it, but you may end up paying more in the long run when things don’t go as planned. I’ve seen more than one session bogged down because of poor music prep. It can make sessions run into costly overtime, require more time fixing problems at the mix, or just result in a performance that doesn’t live up to expectations. Sadly, people often blame the players or even the composer because they don’t have anyone in the room who understands that the real problem may lie in the music preparation. (This is also a reason why some composers have long relationships with certain orchestrators and music prep teams. They make the composer look and sound good to their clients!) 

Make sure music preparation is a part of the budget from the beginning. Otherwise you could end up wondering why things didn’t turn out as well as you expected at the end. If you’re going to spend money on the best studio, musicians, and engineer you can afford, you’ll want them to be able to give you their best work. Great music preparation ensures they’re able to do that.