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Topic: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

  1. #1

    Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    I need a bit of orchestration advice. In the score for my musical, I try not to double solo vocals with instruments. But sometimes the intervals are tricky, and I think the singer will need a little help. (I am using my own voice at pitch for the men, and transposed down an octave for the women, as a guide. I am good enough to have been cast in musicals for regional and off-Broadway theaters, but don't really consider myself a singer. I figure my own abilities are about as bad as you can get and still be cast in a professional production, and if I can sing it without part or all of the melody line in the accompaniment, then anybody who is likely to play the part can as well.)

    When I have an instrument doubling the melody,I been very conservative, following RK's advice. In chorus numbers, I give the full melody line to a single instrument in a different octave if possible, or in both octaves (middle range for men and women) if men and women are singing together. By a single instrument, I mean one reed, the French Horn, or 3 violins in unison.

    With solos, an instrument doubles the voice an octave above or below, if possible. If I have to put it in the same register, I try not to use the whole melody, but rather the just the most important notes -- usually the ones that are sustained or help get the singer over difficult intervals.

    My question (finally) concerns the oboe. With my sample library, it sounds okay when I double a solo female vocal with the oboe. I am wondering if this will actually work in practice, because orchestration books say that the oboe tends to cut through everything else. I worry that it may overpower the singer (i.e. the listener hears more oboe than voice). On the other hand, my gut tells me that a human voice and lyrics that make sense in the context of the story will always be more interesting than the instruments.

    To give you a little more info about the number in question -- This is a very dramatic and emotional female solo. The accompaniment in the choruses (where I think the singer will need help) consists of block chords, very soft and sustained (from bottom to top): Bass Clarinet, French Horn, 2 Flugel Horns, and oboe (which is doubling the note sung by the singer when she lands on the chord). Accompanying all that are piano arpeggios and pizz string bass. My alternatives to the oboe would be flute (which sounds a little too rich to me) or the first violins (which sound a little weak isolated up there over all the winds). I also have a clarinet available, but it sounds a bit too piercing on the higher notes. The oboe sounds best to my ear, unless it would call too much attention to itself in real life.

    All comments appreciated.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  2. #2

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument


    I would love to help you, but it is impossible to give a definitive answer without knowing:
    a) what these difficult intervals are,
    b) how high/low the voice part is,
    c) the tempo and maybe other factors.
    In other words I would need to see the score.

    I would say that judging from your remarks you are doing most things right, but I would certainly not let the oboe double the voice in low or medium register. You might double the voice an octave higher on the oboe, where the latter is thinner and capable of quieter expression. I don't see why the clarinet can't play softly in doubling at the unison, though.

    My final thought would be to trust the singer alone if possible. It is surprising how well they will do with just helpful chordal support.

    Terry Dwyer

  3. #3

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    Thanks, Terry.

    You actually did tell me what I want to know.

    In the printed version of the score, I intend to make all the instrument parts that double the vocal solos optional. But if the singer needs a little help, I'd prefer to write the doubling myself and pick the instrument that I think best suits the character of the piece rather than to have the musical director make that choice from production to production.

    The soprano vocal part goes from a D below the treble staff to the G above (as I said, it's rangy) with a lot of sustained notes.

    I think transposing the oboe an octave might take it too high. I might try it with the clarinet in unison again, though. I don't know why I didn't like it on the staff the last time I tried it. It might be the particular sample library I was using. Or the fact that some of the long, sustained notes are on the throat tones and sounded weak compared to the higher notes. But I might be able to make that less apparent by tweaking the volume of individual notes. In any case, it's worth investigating further.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  4. #4

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    I would not double the solo female voice with any instrument if it's truly a solo. Concerning the timbre of the female voice the flute comes closest but I would still not personally use it because the solo female supposed to be featured but here's what you can do: you can put some of the solo line in the piano sparingly to help her with pitch and intervals. The piano will not stick out and it will sound as though the soprano is doing it all her own in my personal opinion. ~Rodney

  5. #5

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    That's a somewhat tricky call to make, ejr. In "serious" music, vocals aren't doubled by instruments. But there's a long tradition in musical theatre, that poor, poor cousin to classical/serious music, that vocal lines are often doubled by instruments. Perhaps one reason for that is it makes the melody line stand out even more, and traditionally in musical theatre, composers and most of all producers are very interested in having songs with melodies the audience remembers. Listen especially to the golden age musicals like those by Rodgers and Hammerstein and you'll hear lots of examples. This is one convention the trail-blazing Stephen Sondheim broke from. You'll sometimes hear only the barest pulse of a chord progression underneath some very difficult vocal lines, and it sounds great, but it's one reason many groups avoid doing Sondheim - it's just too hard!

    I would say it's strings doubling vocals which is most common. Woodwinds sharing bits of the melody is also heard.

    So, I wouldn't be afraid of going against the academic preference for vocals and accompaniment to be strictly separated. - But the oboe probably would be a dangerous choice for doubling your female melody line.


  6. #6

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    Yes, Randy. I think that's the heart of the matter. Musical theater really isn't opera. Although most of Sondheim's shows straddle that division -- and I certainly marvel at his scores -- his shows don't run very long. Many of them are done as concert performances. Opera companies have staged SWEENY TODD and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. So, I think his work is best regarded as a subgenre and not applicable to what you and I typically think of as musical theater.

    BTW - The reason that R&H's orchestrators put such an emphasis on melody is that a lot of their stars couldn't carry the tunes without it. Simple as that. They sometimes changed it in revivals, or if they had an opera star as one of the leads, but Mary Martin reportedly needed the whole melody line all the time. (Even Sondheim was restricted by his stars, early in his career. He wrote all of Merman's songs to be belted because, he said, she'd sing everything like that anyway.)

    That said, generally speaking, in the theater I feel like the melody needs to be in there somewhere more often than in a concert or a recording studio. You need to hear more of the rhythm section, too, than in orchestral music. It's just the way things are on stage, where performers have to act as well as dance and the staging can be extremely technical. The music does not have the overriding importance that it does in concerts or opera. (If it did, they wouldn't cover the pit.) I am not saying that everybody doesn't want it to sound as good as possible, it's just that, however brilliant the score, you still have to keep the dancers together and the star in tune. Otherwise, that's all people will notice.

    So, what I take away from this thread is: I shouldn't use the oboe for doubling, but I should double with another reed or strings where I think it is needed. It's tempting to put the melody only in the vocals, because it does sound better when I listen to the playback. But if I turn off the Oos and Ahhs choir libraries that I am using while I orchestrate this, and sing along with the instruments, I can usually tell where it needs a melody. As an actor and theatergoer, I know how it is "supposed" to sound. I just get thrown, occasionally, by a particular sample set (the oboe sounds more subtle than it would in real life, the clarinet less expressive, or whatever.) I think what was bugging me about my clarinets (Westgate library) is that on the sustained patches notes tend to crescendo and wail a bit at the end if they are held long. I am now using the dim patch for the longer sustained notes and this sounds better (full strength at the beginning and a very slow dim that never quite ends until you lift your finger from the keyboard). Not perfect, but definitely better.

    Thanks, everyone.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  7. #7

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr View Post
    ...I think what was bugging me about my clarinets (Westgate library) is that on the sustained patches notes tend to crescendo and wail a bit at the end if they are held long. I am now using the dim patch for the longer sustained notes and this sounds better (full strength at the beginning and a very slow dim that never quite ends until you lift your finger from the keyboard). Not perfect, but definitely better...
    Hmm, this begs the question, ejr - why aren't you using the great clarinets in GPO? You have complete control over the sound of those, with no swelling or fading to wrestle with. With mod wheel, or using CC1 or 11 in whatever way you do with your set up, you could have the clarinets doing exactly what you want.


  8. #8

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    For something like this I suppose I should have. But I have used the Westgate clarinets & French Horns throughout this score and I was aiming for consistency.

    Similarly, I have used the JABB trumpets, trombones, and flugelhorns in this piece, resisting the temptation to include the occasional trumpet or trombone from another library -- even GPO.

    I was hoping to make my demo sound more like a small pit orchestra than a movie score with an unlimited number of musicians. Or, at least, to help me better imagine how my music would sound in the theater. If I use the sample libraries of two instruments of the same type (for example, two Bb Clarinets) it seems like two alternating players, rather than one changing his articulation.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  9. #9
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Apr 2006
    Suburban NYC

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    Hi EJR,

    I always enjoy your pit orchestra threads. Along with Randy and myself, you seem to be one of the few other forum members working on musical theater orchestrations.

    I agree with everything that's been said before. We still don't know the pitches/register of the subject vocal solo, but I've always liked clarinets when I need to have the melody in the orchestration, as well as soft strings, sometimes both. I almost never double the melody in the same octave being sung; usually below. Of course, for jazzier modern scores, saxes work well too, but I know your pit is a more classical-sounding ensemble. Don't think I would use oboe unless it was voiced a third below the vocal melody; not to double it for sure.

    I think we all agree that having the melody in the orchestration is a matter of utility; less often in modern scores, but if a singer/dancer needs it, it's still done. Another possiblity if you're not sure the singer(s) will need it, is to write the orchestration without the melody and then just cue it in the clarinet/string/whatever ... the MD can make the choice at rehearsals. Kinda like a "Plan B" already in place.

    It sounds like you already are etching the melody in the orchestrations, a good thing if you decide not to do a complete doubling of the vocal melody.

    Good luck with your project and I hope we get to hear some of your orchestrations here someday!


  10. #10

    Re: Doubling Solo Female Vocal with an Instrument

    Thanks, Frank.

    I appreciate all everyone's ideas and comments -- especially steering me away from doubling with the oboe, which I was about to do (and probably would not have been happy with the results).

    I agree with basically everything that was said here, as a general principal, and adhered to it in most cases. But this was a problem number. The leading lady, who has just fallen in love with the leading man, now must say goodbye to him before he heads off to war. Her emotions are all over the place. I build the melody around short runs to longer, sustained notes. The verses are orchestrated lushly and romantically (strings in three and four part harmony) with occasional answering phrases and ornamentation from the flute and oboe (later replaced with a harmon muted trumpet and flute in octaves, a la Tunick). The choruses are scored with flugelhorns and the French Horn (still lush, but cooler than the verses which are mostly strings). Piano chords under the verses and arpeggios under the choruses. String bass under all, just anchoring the fundamental. (Bass clarinet, too, an octave above the bass when it goes low.)

    I think the reason that I need the full chord in the instrumentation for the choruses (as opposed to simply allowing the soprano to provide it) is simply because the vocal part is built around runs up to sustained notes. The singer doesn't hold them as long as the orchestra holds the chord (because that's when she needs to breathe). The winds are tacit during the runs up to the note. So, when she goes off the upper note of the chord, another instrument has to keep holding it, otherwise the harmony seems incomplete and there is an emotional let down. If it is sustained like this, all the rest of it works (the orchestration, the structure of the melody, etc.) to nicely match the mood and capture the character's rapidly conflicting emotions.

    I think what bothered me is that using any wind on the same note as the singer sounded too obtrusive to me. Dropping the melody down an octave made the chords sound out of tune (it put the dissonant notes in the lower voicing). If I raised it up an octave, it sounded too high for the clarinets or oboe (the lowest note of the singer's runs is the D above middle C; the sustained notes -- the ones that would be doubled -- start at the C above middle C and range up to the G above the staff.) While the flute could do it, there is a flute run (down the scale) into the choruses and to have it suddenly jump up an octave and sustain a very high note, though probably technically possible, just SOUNDED like it was a lot of work for the musician and called way too much attention to itself.

    Here's what I finally did: For the first chorus, I doubled the singer's part an octave higher, but used all 6 violins in my orchestra. This sounds much better than just the three first violins doubling at the unison. The extra players keep it from sounding too thin. It is very high, though. So, I didn't want to repeat it for subsequent choruses, for fear of fatiguing the listener. In the second chorus, I had all ready transposed the second voice down from the top of the chord up an octave and given it to 3 violins. Now I replaced the wind which was to double the singer with the other 3 violins. It sounds nicely transparent over the two flugelhorns. The French Horn is tacit this time. The third chorus immediately follows the second chorus, rather than having another verse between the two. Here I vary the orchestration again. Violins & Viola in three part harmony, the top part doubling the singer at the unison again. The French Horn, stopped so that it sounds a lot like the trumpet with the harmon mute, is under the strings. Flute and clarinet alternate rapid runs up and down the scale, above the vocal part. But there is still enough "space" for the leading man to sing answering phrases in the baritone range. It's a very active number, which should capture the mood, but not so much so that it sounds confusing or too weighty. This is just what I was after. It soars, as it should, especially at the end. Good thing, since this number closes the first act.

    Thanks again to all.

    Allegro Data Solutions

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