A Producer’s Guide to Working With Live Orchestra

The first time you sit in a recording studio with a live orchestra playing the score for your project is a moment you will never forget. But getting to that point can be complicated and fraught with problems. While these are mostly the responsibility of the composer and other members of the music team, as a producer, you need to understand the process and how it works.

Studios and Musicians: Recording sessions are normally either 3 or 4 hours, depending on where in the world you are recording. Absolute maximum, you can record around 30 minutes of music in a session but that is not always possible and rarely desirable. Most people would budget for up to 20 minutes a session. Bigger movies will record far less than that, as little as 2 or 3 minutes, but that, for many people (including the musicians!) is just too slow to maintain momentum. 10-15 minutes a session for me is great.

That means for a 60 minutes score you need 4 – 6 sessions which means two or three days of recording time.

Book Early: Studios and orchestras get booked up months and months in advance. Studios and orchestras that are either the best value or the best quality, are obviously in particular demand. Often recording studios have been pencilled in before the composer has been hired. We always aim to get something in the diary six months in advance where possible. Booking at the last minute is often simply not possible or extremely expensive. We recently bumped into a problem in LA where the big film studios had block booked studios for months and months to make sure they could get in when they needed to. So we either had to book over 9 months in advance or at the last possible moment, neither of which are what you want.

How much does it does? This is a very rough rule of thumb and you need a detailed quote each time. Recording a 60-90 minute orchestral film score can cost anything from $30,000 up to $1,000,000 and beyond. In London or LA, a reasonable average for musicians and studio is around $100,000. Yes you can record much cheaper in Europe and it can sound great. But you do get what you pay for and London and LA players will give you a better performance quicker so if you are looking for the best possible score, London or LA is where you should be looking. If you have $50,000 or less recording budget then Prague and Budapest are both great.

The other alternative is to add a small number of London or LA players to samples so you get great quality players inside your budget. That can work very well but usually isn’t the all consuming Hollywood sound many people want.

How many musicians? That big cinematic orchestra sound is 50+ musicians. 75 is a good number. You can get a great sound with fewer players but it won’t be the uplifting, wall of sound John Williams sound. Not every cue in your film needs 75 players. Often we book an A orchestra and a B orchestra so the A orchestra handles all the big cues and the smaller more incidental cues are played buy the less expensive B orchestra which might be only 40 players.

Who books the players? An orchestral contractor. They have a long list of players and put the line up together. They are responsible for coordinating the actual players on the day and they will give you the quote as to how much the whole thing costs and deal with what rights you acquire.

The Team. Composers don’t do this all by themselves and there will be a team of other people involved. Orchestration is a significant cost. This is the process of taking the composers demo and turning it into written score that musicians can play.

Many composers are more than capable of doing this themselves but it is very unusual that they have time. An orchestrator or team of orchestrators is therefore needed. 60 minutes of music can cost anywhere from $10-50,000 to orchestrate. There are union rates for this and like composers there is a wide range of orchestrators at many price points. If the orchestrator is coming out of the composer’s side of the budget, this isn’t your responsibility but unless you are doing a package deal, it is your concern.

Score Prep. On larger movies there is always a score preparation team who actually layout the scores, print them out and put them on the stands so everyone has the right music at the right time. This is vital. A well laid out score saves time. One missing player’s part can cost you valuable minutes. Remember if your 3 hour session is costing say $25,000. Allowing for tea breaks (about 30 minutes out of a 3 hours session) that’s $166 a minute. Therefore If finding the first clarinet’s missing piece of paper takes 5 minutes to sort out, that’s just cost you almost $833 dollars!

Package Deals: It is relatively common to hire the composer, give them the whole music budget and leave them to sort out how much to spend on orchestrators, orchestras etc. This is simpler in many respects but there are problems. The decisions the composers makes as to how to allocate their budget, directly affects what you hear on screen. How many players, the quality of the orchestra, how experienced the orchestrator is – all this has a bearing on what you will hear on screen.

If I was a producer, I would want to make those decisions. In other words, you might choose to spend more on your orchestra because you want a sound that is right up there with top block buster movies or less because it’s mainly an electronic score. Delegating those decisions to the composer alone might not be in your best interests in the long run.

Can your composer actually do it? You need to be really sure you know how much of this your composer knows, and how much they are relying on other people to carry them through. That is not always a bad thing. A really amazing, distinctive electronic musician supported by a great team of people who know how to work with live orchestra, can be a good solution.

If you suggest live orchestra and your composer starts telling you how wonderful the samples are and how you don’t really need it, then that should ring alarm bells. But you need to know. You need an honest conversation about their level of expertise. When your $100,000 recording session crashes and burns, that’s a very bad time to find out they can’t actually do it.

Who else is in the team? The composer may well have a number of assistants, pro tools engineer, even people writing additional music. Additional music warrants another article actually but from your perspective you need to be certain you know who is writing the music and that they are all properly contracted. You really don’t want to hire a semi-famous composer who hands the whole project off to his or her assistant, straight out of college, to score. If the assistant doesn’t work under the same roof and is not a full time employee, there could be all kinds of contractual problems. Make sure you know who is really writing the music.

Mixing. The music needs to be mixed and depending on the nature of the score that can take more or less time. A 60 minute score can be mixed in a day if it is very simple and all the cues feature the same line up of players. Sometimes composers will be able to mix the score in their own studio but if it’s a complex surround mix, it is normally better to go to an outside studio. It’s also about getting another pair of ears to hear the score and the scoring mixer often has their own creative take on the sound. A complex score with a lot of pre-records, split sessions and synth tracks might take days to mix. Mixing can be expensive therefore and once again you get what you pay for so it needs to be quoted and put in the music budget.

Music Supervisors are essential. They can help with all this stuff and the sooner they are employed on a project the better. This is particularly true if you have commercial tracks, licenced music or even members of the cast singing or whistling well known tunes.

Union or non-union. If you work in London and LA you are normally working with union players on a union rate. This comes with terms and conditions. The big advantage is that you will be getting the best players in the world at a flat rate, so all union musicians cost more or less the same. However, in the US there is no such thing as a complete union buyout, so any union score will involve paying residuals to the musicians. In London there is a buyout within certain conditions, hence it’s popularity with many big studios as you get world class musicians without residuals. In Europe, and non-union in the USA, it is a usually a complete buyout with no conditions whatsoever. What rights you are acquiring is absolutely vital and you need to know that right up front before any decisions are made about where to record.

But I preferred the demo! Live orchestra won’t sound the same as the demo. Most producers absolutely love the sound of the live orchestra but be warned, it won’t be exactly the same as the synthetic demo. Many producers become so familiar with the demo they can be surprised when they hear the music come to life with the orchestra.

What’s wrong with samples? The live orchestra has an emotional impact that your audience will connect with immediately. There is a power to the sound, particularly in a movie theatre that the samples even now cannot match. An orchestra recorded in 5.1 will transcend anything a sample can come close to. The audience won’t know why, but a live orchestra will instantly put the project on the same level as movies or TV shows with much larger budgets.

It’s one of the most cost effective ways of increasing the production values of your project without breaking the bank.

“I don’t want the big orchestra sound”. Of course not. More and more movies and TV shows go for a sound design, electronic score. We do that all the time, probably most of the time nowadays. Many producers want a smaller, more focussed, arguably more contemporary sound. The sound of psycho drama or Nordic noir for example. You might only need a small string ensemble to overdub the samples. That can work very well. If it’s largely electronic or sound design oriented score, adding a very small number of players can make all the difference.


Go for it! It’s so worth it. If your project is worth all the effort you’ve put into it, don’t put up with a sampled solo violin. It costs a few hundred dollars to record a solo player and it will lift your project onto another level. A small recording budget can bring huge rewards so never underestimate how amazing the results can be.


Before and after!


Three samples demos and the live orchestral recordings.