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  • Why composers add woodwinds when brass & strings are ff

    What is the point of having woodwinds play a tutti passage when the brass and strings are playing ff or louder? You can barely hear them (if at all) with the possible exception of the piccolo. Do the woodwinds add volume? Subtle color? Do the composers just want to give the players something to do so they don't get bored? I have just put a ton of time into programming woodwinds that will probably go virtually unheard in the final mix. Therefore, I wonder what is the point of having them there in the first place?


  • I know what you mean Jay, when I write a heavy passage I hesitate to add woodwinds, it is a LOT of extra work and at the end you just don't hear them. When the passage is ff-fff good luck hearing the WW but f-ff it does make a big difference having the WW.

  • As long as the WW is a Piccolo Flute, you will hear it without any doubt! [+o(]

    /Dietz - Vienna Symphonic Library
  • This is a great question, Jay. I remember thinking this when I was first learning about orchestration. I was self-taught, at that stage, and it was always mysterious to me that, although I knew the winds were playing in some ff sections, I really couldn't hear them. I went through a long spell where I just felt terribly naive, so I didn't even question it: it was a fact -- mysterious and impenetrable. Then, a few years ago I began to think that this was a sort of ethical, participatory thing -- getting all the musicians going in the big climaxes, as a means of expressing the industrial ethic of the orchestra... well...

    Anyway, these days I'm leaning toward some sort of psychoacoustic witchcraft. Perhaps these instruments are being heard, even if there is no conscious, perceptual awareness of them -- they influence the colour of the brass and strings, without being explicitly recognized themselves. The ears and the brain manage to become quite a mind-bogglingly complex compressor/limiter, when necessary, so you're probably enjoying some bleeding-edge (not ears, hopefully), Darwinian "Dynamics" plugins!

    Mind you, there's also something to be said for the fact that, having written them into the score already, it certainly wouldn't do any harm to just leave them. So the great Masters may simply have left them, unconcerned whether they were clearly audible or not. (hmmm... that's some dreadfully thin ice...)

    oh, oh... but wait.. what about spatial effects at the conductor's position? Many of these composers were conductors of their own works, and from the conductor's position it's much more likely that the winds could be heard (or perhaps more "felt"), simply by virtue of their position on the stage. So maybe it was a spatialization trick; a way of getting a fuller, more rich and balanced sound *on the podium*??? Maybe?

    It does look cool on the score, though. mmm...


  • Good comments J. For me, it may be a psycho thing [:O]ops: - but I 'feel' it adds 'glue' to the sound. If the Tutti was a piece of wood - without the WW's, the wood would have visible cracks and small splits. With WW's the wood appears more polished (or glued together).

    Sorry if that doesn't make sense - hope it does.


    (plus if you don't give the VI WW's something do on these tutti passages, I hear they will sabotage your Syncrosoft dongle - you don't want to go there [[;)]] )

  • When mixing, consider that in a real orchestra recording situation the brasswinds are 1-2 meters further away from the stereo microphones then woodwinds, sometimes more and without spot mic. Therefor brasswinds have slightly less energy then they could have at arrival at the microphone position.

    In other words, the seating positions of the different instruments are traditionally already considering the non-linear dynamic ranges of the particular instruments. That phenomenon is something you have to adjust in the virtual mix with different 3D concept.

    I guess all wind instruments are recorded at nearly equal or same distance, but that's something Dietz may answers.


  • Steven Scott Smalley went into this question for quite some extent. As a personal conclusion he ended up with the concept that the orchestra is all about strings and brass, with the woodwinds to *soften* things. With woodwinds you soften strings, but you also soften brass. In a full tutti which should sound as loud as possible he actually strongly recommends to leave the woodwinds out, because of their softening effect.
    Still, his scores he gave to the students were full of tutti with woodwinds. When I asked him about them he replied that at that time he had a supervising orchestrator above him who insisted to put in woodwinds. Maybe this ethical aspect being one of the most probable answer to the why-question.

    For my personal orchestration this concept of the woodwinds as a softening device really improved my writing.

  • Yes, Rob. That makes perfect sense. Sometimes analogies like that are the best way to understand more abstract ideas. Cheers.

    Mathis. I certainly agree with the notion of woodwinds "softening" the strings and brass. And I bet it could be quantitatively shown to be the case, as well. This is where I imagine the psychoacoustic multi-band compressor/limiter coming in... I think it's probably something to do with the way the ear/brain attempts to smooth the spectral content, particularly in the middle registers of the spectrum where it is most sensitive, in order to extract as much information as possible. It's a bit like the way in which fear can invoke a heightened aural perceptivity, in which an acoustic environment that seems on a casual listening to be mere broadband noise, suddenly takes on an infinite variety of sonic details... things that go "bump" in the night! After all, from what I understand of it, loud and soft are only perceptually different for a rather short period of time, psychoacoustically speaking. Once your "wetware" compressor/limiter kicks-in, it's all about feature extraction. And having a whole WW section blasting to their hearts' content is certainly a "feature" worth extracting!



  • Concert Ă  mitraille et d'instruction pyrotechnique.

    Herb, when do we get the silent stage cannon samples?

    Guy & Jay, add a confetti cannon instead of too much woodwind. It worked perfect in the past.

    The biggest orchestra to date got together in Boston in 1872 for the Gilmore Peace Jubilee, celebrating the end of the Civil War. Over 4,000 instrumentalists were present, including over 300 violins, 100 cellos, 100 double basses, 24 clarinets, bassoons, and French horns.


    <a href=">

    Concert Ă  mitraille (Ber-lit-haut)

    Heureusement la salle est solide... elle résiste!" [Fortunately the hall is solid... it can stand the strain!]

    Herb recording the cannon samples, and Dietz tinkering with Maxwell's Silver Hammer!

    The Cannon at Al Zubara:


  • I get and agree with Smalley's point about softening, but I would characterise it instead as rounding, rather than softening - I can't believe that the addition of wind makes the overall sound quieter.

    Put another way, with a brass/string fff, the brassy sound would dominate, producing a somewhat harsh expression - in other words, sounding like a "brass tutti with some strings". I've always felt that the addition of wind rounds the brass sound out, so it sounds like a "full tutti". My explanation of this is that the wind fill in some of the harmonics that are missing from a brass/string combination, without necessarily being heard as individual instruments (with the honourable exception of the piccolo), but I admit that in the cold light of day this sounds a bit like voodoo.

    Taking it piece by piece, if you have tuba, bass trombones, trombones and horns at the bottom of their range playing fff, I would expect that to experience an audible rounding if you added bassoons, contra, bass clarinet and clarinets (at the very bottom of their range) - however, I wouldn't expect you to be able to necessarily pick those instruments out in the way you could pick out the bones.

    Just an opinion.

    Kind Regards,


  • in traditional tutti writing, woodwinds served to strengthen the upper partials of the overtone series. the only real value of doubling louder instruments at pitch might have been to glue other winds in higher registers to the overall tutti. it seems important to note that the instances of flat out wall-of-sound writing was relatively infrequent when compared to more sparse or quieter writing where more nuance and color is heard.

    contrasting that with film music which tends to be more "aggressive" much sooner and for sustained periods, scott smalley's observations begin to make more sense, especially when considering how fast a composer must write. he once remarked dryly that beethoven would likely not get a job in hollywood. he (a former flautist) also referred to woodwinds as the barnyard animals of the orchestra.

    his point about using them to soften a texture did not mean to actually make things quieter, just to make them seem like they're quieter. his thoughts have to do with perception and to that end, he feels that a greater sense of power is conveyed through string and especially brass writing, while woodwinds are there for color and effect only when they can be heard. furthering this point in a world where product needs to be cranked out quickly (and paid for at four measures per page), if something can't be heard, there is little sense wasting time on it. again to that end he openly acknowledges that film music and concert music, while having some similarities, are really two different beasts.

  • Great pics, Angelo.

    I've also read that woodwinds, particularly flutes, reinforce the high harmonics of the strings, and that you miss the brilliant sound when they're gone.

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    @mathis said:

    As a personal conclusion he ended up with the concept that the orchestra is all about strings and brass, with the woodwinds to *soften* things. <snip>
    Still, his scores he gave to the students were full of tutti with woodwinds. When I asked him about them he replied that at that time he had a supervising orchestrator above him who insisted to put in woodwinds. Maybe this ethical aspect being one of the most probable answer to the why-question.

    A few other considerations regarding this...
    1. There was a point in days gone by at some sessions when virtually everything was doubled. This gave the composer or arranger the option to change the instrumentation on the stand.

    A similar mentality used today is, "When in doubt, leave it in!" You can always tell a player not to play a passage at the rehearsal or session, but you can't add a player that's not in the score. (At least not without costly delays and copyists frantically cranking out a new part.)

    2. As mentioned by other posters, adding woodwinds in tutti FF passages is more about color than volume. When registers are carefully noted, they can slightly change the timbre. Piccolo and contrabasson in particular can have notable timbral effects. In some situations they stick out too much, so other woodwinds are used to homogenize them a bit. That said, in a fortissimo tutti with full brass (especially the large brass sections used in some recording sessions) the effect can sometimes be so minimal, that I don't even bother. Most of the woodwind effect just gets buried.

    3. I think it really has a lot to do with the performance situation too. There are some small things I will do differently depending on how a section is going to be recorded or performed, how a final recording will be used, and what the demands are of the people paying the bills. [[;)]]


    Without going into any theory why it could not work, let’s have a look at some passages where tutto writing in forte fortissimo works. Then we see what this tutti passages are, and why they work perfect.

    Examples of forte fortissimo (ff) tutto and ff tutti continuo writing

    La Damnation de Faust
    Partie 2 Menuet Des Follets

    Page 26, measure 113
    Fully stacked ff woodwind, brass and string chord

    same score page 26, measure 125,
    Fully stacked ff woodwind & brass chord


    Les Hugenots (M. Mayerbeer)
    I. Ouverture

    Page 3, bar 14
    Woodwind and brasswind f to ff crescendo


    Symphonie Fantastique
    II. Un Bal

    Page 33, bar 120 cont.
    Woodwind, horns, two harps and strings ff continuo writing


  • Les Huguenots by Giacomo Meyerbeer

    A long tutti passage in ff, page 17, measure 94 cont.


  • "subtle color" is basically beautiful fuzz. WW's in a tutti section work 100% better with a live orchestra. The sound of tutti orchestra is always a struggle to achieve with synths - the ww's are the hardest to get to sit right in a full mix - you want them to be audible but if you add a few db they really mess up the mix as a whole. WW runs in particular tend fly in and out with a real performance and get either squashed or amplified in a synth rendition. Also the blending of ww doubled tutti lines is so much more fulfilling with real instruments - and it's not just a mixing issue - just as violin overdubs don't sound like a violin section - I tend to leave out WW doublings on tutti lines unless I am writing for a live orchestra - except for flute and picc which add an extra high sheen.

  • Apart from the composed score as it is, there are many factors who are of importance till the music is recorded to the medium. For Example:

    The difference between woodwind and brass instruments
    is that woodwind instruments are non-directional. This means that the sound produced propagates in all directions with approx. equal volume. Brass instruments, on the other hand, are highly directional, with most of the sound produced straight outward from the bell. This difference makes it significantly more difficult to record a woodwind instrument accurately. It also plays a major role in some performance situations.

    The Balance Engineer
    Microphone positioning is entirely the personal choice of the balance engineer. What is too close or not too close in microphone positioning. I think it is here where the main trouble starts doing it all in the box, respectively being able to come up with a convincing mix made with samples. In a symphonic orchestra session, the spot mics are mixed in real time, where at a multitrack scoring stage recording session the tracks are mixed later. For one week I tested the dynamic and balance possibilities with VSL samples, including tutti and mixed groupings at all dynamics from ppp to fff. This means that I did not compose anything then making test scores especially for this purpose. This to get an understanding how to handle the virtual apparatus in the best possible way. There are several more factors who have to be translated from the real situation to the virtual orchestra production.


  • PaulP Paul moved this topic from Orchestration & Composition on