Orchestra set-up: How to play the room

The set-up of on orchestra is an important part of a composition. As a composer, I imagine how the music will sound in 3D. So I imagine where the sound comes from when I am orchestrating. I even conduct the composition for an imaginary orchestra to feel if the composition is right. So where the sound comes from is very important. Only when the instruments are placed at the same spot as I have imagined them, the composition will sound the same as in my head.

The audience can only experience my composition full, when all musicians are sitting at the spots where I have imagined them sitting.

When you look at the different ways orchestra’s are seated and hear the difference, you must but wonder why composers do not give this more attention. Look at the two orchestras below, you can see that they will sound very differently:

The musicians are seated very close to each other, leaving little air between them to vibrate.
The musicians have a lot of air around them to vibrate.

Most compositions don’t have an instruction how to seat an orchestra. Those composers let the conductor decide. This is a good choice when the conductor knows exactly what you want to hear where. But since a score is only a 2D map of your music, you better help the conductor understand this map while pointing out where important elements of the 3D musical landscape are.

You play the room, not the instrument

Let’s first talk about ‘the room’, because we don’t play instruments, but the air in the room. This is very obvious for people who play a church organ, you can feel the pedal-notes vibrate the air everywhere in the church.

When you play an organ, you don’t play the keys or the pipes, you play the whole church.

But this is true for all instruments and a whole orchestra as well. We are all playing ‘The Room’.

To be able to play the room best, a wind orchestra needs air. This seems obvious, but most orchestra’s seat musicians very near to each other, leaving little air to vibrate. Many players blow their sound into the back (or worse, the ears) of musicians in front of them. Or behind them when they play French Horn. The sound-waves get smothered, the orchestra will sound muffled. It is the same effect as muted trumpets.

This is what trumpets sound like when you use their front-neighbors as mutes.

String instruments have a natural way of requiring space, because musicians are swinging their arm and move their upper body a lot. Wind instruments don’t have this natural way of demanding space, so we have to think about that before we set the orchestra up.

Natural distance violinists choose when they are not seated.

We normally think of percussion as ‘left’ – ‘right’ but some sounds come in lower in the 3D experience (timpani) and some higher (triangle). So be aware that where you put the instrument: not only left or right, but also high or low. Musicians like it when you give their instruments special attention, so make them happy and prescribe details that show that you studied the sound of their instruments.

Left and Right: The sopranos will sound (up) in your right ear, the high bells will sound (down) in your left ear. they will mix poorly. The lower voices and bells both come from right and mix better.
Up and down: Gamelan orchestra seated on the floor in the front, will sound from a different direction than the orchestra seated on chairs in the back.

Some music has deep resonating silences, where you hear music still ringing. I call this ‘negative music’. It is difficult to get that effect when you set up your orchestra in a muffled way with different seating as prescribed by the composer. There will only be ‘negative music’ in the silences when you get the 3D projection of the score right. Not that the music isn’t nice without that, but if you want to know what I am experiencing while I am composing, you have to get this right. And of course, I have to describe it precise as a part of the score.

Let’s discuss the brass-section, because their instruments have a built in direction and they should all aim for the spot of the conductor. The air-waves will interfere at that spot and deepen the sound. The listener will experience one source of brass sound coming from the middle of the stage. For the musicians it is easier to hear each other well and adjust intonation. The distance between the two outer players isn’t important, because they need to hear each other and see the conductor. Not see each other and hear the conductor.

Musicians are set up in rows: The worst thinkable seating blocking and diffusing all the brass sounds. Musicians cannot project their music together in one spot.
Wind-orchestra set-up with lots of air to play the room and great projection options for the brass section.

When you set up your orchestra in the right way, you get an enormous sound even from a relatively small orchestra. This is important for many small local bands with only few players. When you set up your orchestra better, you get more sound with the same number of players. It’s a nice and simple trick you can apply easily.

Here is now that is done:

This is the recording set-up of Stormworks “Ark of the Covenant” by Stephen Melillo, played by ‘Das Musikkorps der Bundeswehr’. (It is a 3D movie, you can change the viewpoint of the video and watch all players from the centre of the room) The sound is recorded by the small camera microphones, this sound is already huge, but wait until you hear the recording in high quality, it’s marvellous. You find them on Spotify under “Stormworks Chapter 55”.

Great orchestra set-up, that works even better without the screens needed for the recording.

By Anneloes Wolters


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