The Adventures of Don Chapman

I lead an exciting life.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Orchestrating Chris Sligh's CD

American Idol contestant Chris Sligh's former band, Half Past Forever, has just released their new recording Take a Chance on Something Beautiful. Chris and I were both raised on classical music and we both like orchestra stuff, so Chris asked me to add some of my trademarked fake orchestra to his tracks. If this bores you, just scroll down to my previous posts about my visit to the American Idol show : )

When I was a little boy I saw my first synthesizer at the Knoxville World's Fair. It was a Synclavier, one of the first super [and super expensive] synths, and I was absolutely enthralled by it. Since then I've always been obsessed with synthesizers and have especially loved re-creating symphonic textures.

What's wonderful about being alive today is that you can literally have an entire orchestra at your fingertips. A typical software orchestra library will cost far less than a synth module would have a few years ago. I can remember pining away for a $2000 Roland module about 10 years ago, and the Garritan Personal Orchestra today costs $199. The technology is amazing - wouldn't Bach have flipped!

Here's how I orchestrated Chris's music. Chris gave me a CD of the songs which I ripped and loaded into Sonar. Then I improvised around with the Garritan Personal Orchestra until I came up with something I liked. If my noodling flowers into complexity I'll shift into composer mode and actually write it out.

Once the part is composed to my satisfaction I'll play it into Sonar, performing the part right along with the song, playing in violin, viola, cello and bass parts separately.

The nice thing about the Garritan library is that I can control volume with my keyboard's expression wheel. The part isn't just a static sample but a living, breathing, musical part. This is very important for realism. If I have a soaring string line I may double or triple it with different string samples to thicken the sound.

Once mixed, strings are sometimes felt and not heard, except for choruses where you hear the soaring string lines. Strings really add a professional, epic, big-production feel.

I added strings to:

Know: This is Chris's big pop hit. My favorite part is the jumpy string part on the intro and midtros - I can envision an orchestra bowing away one day behind Chris at the Grammys! Listen to an MP3 excerpt from the 2nd verse.

In a Moment: Chris calls this his "Edwin McCain" song. My friend Cliff predicts it will end up in a movie soundtrack.

Need: I made great use of the Garritan tremolo patch on this song. On the intro, Chris asked me to double the guitar lick with strings. I love the sound of electric guitar and strings. Hear a clip.

Sometimes it helps to visually picture a mini-movie in your head. In this case, I envisioned someone reaching out, stretching their arms, and tried to mimic that in the string line that struggles upward. The lyrics tell the story: "Don't let go, don't let go of love, don't let go, it's everything that you need." Hear a clip.

Cry Tonight: We thought we were done, and Chris played the final mixes for me as we drove around town in my new Tribeca. When Cry Tonight came on, I said "Oh no, I hear strings!" Chris had wanted strings on this one but time was running out so we skipped it. I went home and whipped some up, and they turned out to be my favorite arrangements on the recording.

You might hear artists say things like "I'm hearing such and such..." and you might wonder what that means. For me it's kinda weird. When Chris played the stringless track for Cry Tonight I actually heard strings - my mind fills in what it wants to hear.

Chris also wanted a little orchestral intro so I created one based on the chord progression of the intro. The beautiful french horn sound is from the EastWest Symphonic Orchestra library. If you turn it up and listen closely you can hear a slight "gurgle" in the french horn when it reaches the top of the melodic line and takes a "breath." French horns are not the easiest instruments to play and you would hear a little gurgle like this on a difficult high note. The realism of this sample is amazing. Hear a clip.

We were finally done. Unfortunately I was just starting to get on this synth orchestration kick and felt the strange urge to create an orchestral interlude based on Cry Tonight. I orchestrated part of the second verse of the song, going into the chorus. This lyric is the title of the CD: "Is this just romance, or will we take a chance on something beautiful..."

I turned this part of the song into a movie score. To add even more realism to the string I blended the Garritan strings with a violin patch from the EastWest library - if you close your eyes you can hear the violinists playing with vibrato on some notes - very realistic. Chris and Adam loved it. Since it was in the same key as How Long, they used it as an instrumental intro, making a perfect ending to the perfect album.

Here's a clip from the 2nd verse of the recording.

Here's my orchestration of that clip. I really like the string line in the chorus and use it in the orchestrated version.


  • At 8:25 PM , Blogger Chris Sligh said...

    Thanks Don for all your writing about Chris, and all your work on his behalf.

    I've been thinking that Chris is struggling with the challenge of all that has happened to him in the last several weeks. It must be hard to "stay within himself," to "stay grounded" and natural, however one wants to say it.

    I started out my blog as a satire for Chris and Rudy Cardenas. What started as clowning around has taken a change for me, however. Rightly or wrongly, I feel like I've taken on Chris as his alter ego. As a fellow Christian, I've felt like I was experiencing his challenges.

    So the blog has taken a turn. I know he enjoyed the early blogs; he told Rudy so. I hope I'm doing him justice now. It's hard, with my empathy for Chris, to focus solely on the satire now. Please let me know if Chris would like me to keep this "Secret Blog of Chris Sligh" up, or if he'd like me to end it. I'm willing to do whatever he'd like.

    Last year, my animator friend and I created the Goldfish Patrol for Taylor Hicks, which I think helped Taylor win it all. We do this for fun and not for profit. We sell nothing. We pick our favorite and we support him.

    But it is all for Chris--so let me know if he'd like me to continue or to quit. I'm ready to support him, as his brother in Christ, in any way he wishes.

    Best always.


  • At 3:10 PM , Blogger Don said...

    Well, I can't speak for Chris (although I do know he's read your blog and gets a kick out of it) but I check your blog at least once a day for a good chuckle and so do my friends that know Chris. We have what is known as "Slighitis" where you can't get any work done because you're surfing the net for news and blogs about Chris:

  • At 4:00 PM , Blogger sandmoran said...

    Do you know if Chris still gets to read the Sligh-ku poetry written for him on the A.I. Message Boards? His fans there are really hoping that he does.

  • At 4:07 PM , Blogger Badpacifist said...

    Thanks Don for filling us all on on this wonderful CD. I was very curious on how this little indie came together! Can't stop playing it.
    I also want to thank Rod for the "Secret Blog" because it gives us all a way to proxy say to Chris what we would like to say. No American Idol rules are broken and we also can all share with him what we all believe he is going through. He would never have the time to do what you as the persona of Chris Sligh, has done. So if he has a bad day and needs support he can always check it out. After all the Sligh Christian family, and its a really really big one, is all praying for him.

    Missouri The Fro Me State

  • At 9:33 PM , Blogger adamfisher said...

    "Chris also wanted a little orchestral intro so" ...

    I hate to detract from the meaningful conversation going on here, but I must point out that it was my idea to have an orchestral introduction to Cry Tonight!

    - Fisher

    PS Check out my personal blog where I depict how I used my studio genius to achieve the "HPF" sound.

    Fisher's Blog

  • At 9:00 AM , Blogger Doug Pedigo said...


    I attented your worship ideas workshop a couple of years ago in Greenville which my wife and I enjoyed. In the past I was heavily involved in synth orchestrations and sequences for our church contemporary ensemble as well as doing some session work for a studio in our area, but in recent years have fallen behind the technology due to huge time constraints. I enjoyed your blog on Chris' band's CD and enjoyed hearing the clips. Would you ever consider leading a workshop on computer sequencing and all that's involved with software synths and the like? Man, I would enjoy the refresher course and a chance to have some concentrated time in catching up with technology. Just a thought. Thanks.

    Doug Pedigo
    Cumberland Baptist Church
    Knoxville, TN

  • At 8:58 PM , Blogger rob said...

    don.the half past forever album is great dont get me wrong.but i have to agree with some of the reviewers on added music to the band seems to overpower chris"s voice at times.the demos had a rougher edge and his voice was more prounounced.did you put added tracks on every song?it was a little much but the album is still good.just want your opinion or if anyone else has said something to you.

  • At 12:15 AM , Blogger Don Chapman said...

    I'm sitting here in Hollywood discussing this with Chris and what we think you're hearing is the mastering process. After mixing a CD, you usually send it off to some big $$ mastering place where an audio pro will tweak the problems you're talking about. Since this was done on a low budget, they mastered it themselves. It still sounds great, but once they get some dollars under their belt they'll probably remaster it. Hopefully this will bring out his voice a bit more and set it apart from the band.

  • At 7:43 AM , Blogger rob said...

    don since you are there with chris.let him know that he should sing a song in the lines of trouble or in a moment.these songs showcase his voice.i think if he did a song like these he would blow the audience away.

  • At 8:48 AM , Blogger rosalee said...

    This is a great blog! I had been wondering where the fake strings came from. I ordered the HPF CD but have not received it yet. I assume that you are credited there.

    I love your arrangements. You're the George Martin of HPF! Now go create their Sgt. Pepper!


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  • At 8:15 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    My friend and I were recently discussing about the ubiquitousness of technology in our daily lives. Reading this post makes me think back to that debate we had, and just how inseparable from electronics we have all become.

    I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside... I just hope that as technology further innovates, the possibility of downloading our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's one of the things I really wish I could encounter in my lifetime.

    (Posted using Net5s for R4i Nintendo DS.)


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