Brass Tacks (Part 2)
Concluding lump of our introduction to blowy things and horn sections.
The concluding half of our introduction to brass. This month Jeremy Buxton studies blowy things from the band's end — how to write, how to choose and how to section.
THE CLASSIC mistake made by bands searching for a brass section is to choose a player before they've chosen a style. Make sure you know what sort of brass sound/arrangement/approach you want before auditioning.
First, what sort of horns — trumpet, sax, trombone, or a mixture? Listen to other bands to see what they make of the combinations. Once you're over that decision, take a couple of songs and add potential brass lines (write them down if possible) before auditioning players. This will give you a better idea of the overall creation of sound. Leave space for solos at the audition, and see what they come up with in your music. They'll have ideas of their own — or should — so allow them to contribute. They could come up with a real corker.
Adding horns to your band should be a positive development, not a monosyllabic mire. It doesn't matter if there's a brilliant technician running round with mind-boggling solos, if it doesn't help your overall sound, forget it. Don't expect the Phoenix horns to walk through the door, your lot will need a little time to adjust and get things right. There are several ways to achieve this.
Rehearse horns on their own. This gives players a chance to learn in a concentrated atmosphere. It's easier to direct the sound in isolation and doesn't break-up full band rehearsals to get the horns right.
Rehearse the band at different volume levels. A good one this. It's better to go quieter. You'll find it really shows up mistakes because it's easier to hear everything balanced up.
Write songs with the horns. The first horn line ideas are nearly always developed further to reach the final product, so try to save rehearsal time by working that development into the songwriting. It's far better to reach a decision before you start to rehearse the song. Try not to push the section too hard, they have to feel confident in their lines before they can play them really well. Encourage your horns. Make them feel part of the band. So how can you use horns most efficiently? There are different requirements of single horn players and sections.
Single horns. Often misused! The single horn is not allowed to blow over everything. Use them sparingly, see if they can play inside synth or guitar lines to produce a more solid backing and be choosy about when they solo. It may even be an advantage to see if they can sing backing vocals or play a little percussion just to ensure that they don't play too much.
Sections. These can be so effective. To get the right sound you must decide what you want them for. If you have a synth, work synth and horns together to keep off those brass presets... don't cheat! There are more interesting sounds to blend. Experiment with other presets or your own sounds.
The band line up will vary how you use horns. It is easier for synth and horns to blend, and for guitars and horns to contrast. Don't be frightened to experiment, though, you could find the next 'new' sound.
As a general rule, the sax is warmer than the trumpet, but trumpets are far more percussive giving more attack to the music. Hence if your style is towards r'n'b, for example, you should think of the warmer sound of the saxophone whereas a funkier style is more suited to the 'brassier' trumpet. So an r'n'b section would line up two tenor saxes and a trumpet with possibly an alto and/or baritone sax, whereas the funk section would line up two trumpets, one sax with a trombone or baritone sax. Of course, this is not a 'be all end all' line arrangement, you may just want one trumpet and one sax for your sound. You can combine the warmth and attack in many ways, such as slower or faster lines and choosing a solo instrument to suit your song.
Stage positioning is also important and it will be dependent on image and sound. If your horns are to be "heard but not seen" stick them at the back. The sound will be miked through the PA so it should just sit nicely inside the overall sound. If they are visual, out front — just behind the lead singer (to the side). In such a case, the horn sound will carry more naturally from the front of the stage.
A final point to consider is that many serious players these days, play more than one instrument — trumpet players, flugelhorns — sax players, tenor/Alto or baritone. These can provide further diversification of sound if you use them properly. But above all, always concentrate on what you want to achieve with horns — it will be the difference in making or breaking your sound.
Feature by Jeremy Buxton
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