Arranging Pop Horn Parts
Logic Pro’s included software instruments place a lot of emphasis on rhythm section and synth sounds. And that’s fine. But what about brass and woodwind sounds? Unfortunately, the included library has scant few brass samples to work with, and what is there is nowhere near the caliber of the other sound categories. Horn parts have been, and continue to be, an important aspect of arranging in so many forms of popular music. And it is unfortunate that it is often overlooked in our DAW based world.
Icing on the Cake
Horn parts are the icing on the cake, not window dressing. They can add excitement and groove to a piece of music. Whether you are working with one, two, three, four, five, six, or a full fourteen piece brass section doesn’t matter. They can add a sophisticated polish to an arrangement. But how do we write for them?
Arraging Two or three Horns
Sure, you can study big band arranging and learn about the different closed position and open position voicings, inversions, substitutions, doubling, etc. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Modern pop styles of music often had a smaller horn section, usually with two or three horns. Think of old Motown and soul records, James Brown, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Tower of Power, etc. They are all based on smaller groupings of brass and saxophones.
What Third-party Horn Sample Libraries to Use
Here are a couple of third-party brass sample libraries that I enjoy working with for these sorts of pop style horn parts:
Vintage Horns from BigFishAudio
Vintage Horns has a nice rough and ragged unpolished quality to it that adds realism and grit to these pop style horn parts. The tuning and timing is slightly randomized between the instruments for a nice thickening effect when they are layered together. All the basic articulations are included and it is very simple to work with.
Session Horns Pro from eInstruments
Session Horns Pro is more sophisticated and does a lot more. In addition to all the individual solo instruments, it offers various ensemble groupings with various “smart voicing” options, as well as performance functions to create parts for you. It also has a more fully fleshed out set of key switch based articulations.
Both are hosted within Kontakt.
Two Horns – Thirds and Sixths
At its most basic, simply having multiple horns play a part in unison or octaves (depending on their range) can be a powerful grooving way to create a riff or funky motif. But what about harmonizing two horns? The simplest most melodic way is to use intervals of a third, or a sixth, depending on the range of the instruments and of the notes required.
Following are two simple examples of two horns playing two different style parts, both using the same type of harmonies. Don’t let the notation fool you, some instruments (tenor sax in the first example) sound an octave away from where they are notated. The first utilizes probably the most common grouping of two horns, trumpet and tenor sax. They are playing a fairly up front part, and utilize the “fall” articulation for dramatic impact.
The second example utilizes alto sax and flugelhorn, for a softer more mellow type of accompaniment part. They alternate between short marcato type articulations followed by longer swells, used for slight crescendos. The effect is an unobtrusive part designed to support a melody.
Two Horns – Thirds and Sevenths
But these aren’t the only options for two horns. We could have them outline the qualities of the underlying harmonies by playing the third and seventh degrees of the chords they are supporting. Here’s a simple example, again using crescendo key switches to add dynamics to the sustained notes.
What about adding a third horn to the arrangement?
There are lots of possibilities for three note voicings. What about keeping the third and seventh degree of the underlying chords, and adding a “colour note” as the third voice?
Here is the same example as above, with a third horn playing the ninth degree of the minor seventh chords, the sixth of the major chord, and the thirteenth of the dominant chord. This may not be to everyone’s tastes; some may find it too “jazzy”. There are more conservative choices for a third note, but I find this adds an element of sophistication to the harmony. Notice too that the range the instruments are playing in affects the quality of the overall ensemble part. The trombone and tenor sax parts are in the upper (versus lower) end of their comfortable range.
What about adding a fourth horn? Or a fifth horn? And what happens if some notes are doubled? What about the spacing between the notes? Close voicings have a very different type of impact than voicings with the horns spaced farther apart. These are just some ideas to get you thinking and experimenting.
Arranging Pop Horns Explained
If you are interested in learning more, I’ve put together a 90-minute series of video tutorials exploring various permutations and approaches to arranging pop horn parts.
Check them out here:
These samples work very nicely, but I certainly hope the Logic Pro developers eventually will pay more attention to horn samples. I think they are an unfortunately often overlooked aspect of pop music arranging.
They add a sense of class and polish, and groove that really make an arrangement shine.
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