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The balance in this is pretty good. Nothing sticks out like a sore thumb, and I can hear the parts as individuals as well as a whole. It's a little compression-happy, but that feels appropriate for the genre.

The melodies are good, but the piece feels a little loopy to me. The riser at 2:16 is the first time I can hear you pushing the notes around (via pitch bend), but the rest of the track, while works formally, is a little repetitive. I had a teacher who used to browbeat us (students) for writing (acoustic music) directly into Finale because she said she could hear the copy and paste. She believed that even if you were repeating a section verbatim, by doing it with pen and paper it forced you to have an intimacy with the notes and you really had to consider if rote repetition was the right choice. I think a lot of times it's easy to be caught in the same trap with electronic music. We make loops, we copy and paste them, we layer loops in different ways, and then we end it. I am 100% guilty of doing this myself. The challenge with this sort of stuff is to find ways to keep things interesting. Dance music often lends itself to repetition, but the devil is in the details. I'd try to find ways to keep phrases fresh when they come back again, or if they are repeated exactly, make sure they pay off somehow.

That said, the sound design sounds pretty good, and I don't really have any critiques on the mix.
Cheers!

Well written! This has a really cinematic feel to it, and it sits in a really delicate place between forlorn longing, love, mystery, and excitement.

The mix sounds pretty good. The viola (violin?) at 0:34 sounds a little synthetic, but for some reason it doesn't bother me much in the context of the genre. Adding a tiny bit of room reverb to this might help cover up some of the software feel of this, but in general the performance is good.
1:01 - the percussive hit on the 2 and 4 is a bit bright. I'd pull that back a touch. It's not overtly loud, but its just enough over what I'd expect for this genre that it pulls away a lot of attention after the 4 bar or so.
You've done a really good job of getting realistic performances out of your MIDI instruments which is incredibly hard. I feel like this took a ton of work.
I'd love to have heard some dubstep elements in this. As is, it sits very neatly as a genre piece. You've done everything you set out to do, and the piece evokes some strong imagery and colors in my head. That said, I really want to hear a unique twist on this. If you continue to work on this, I'd love to hear how you make it uniquely yours.

Tennon responds:

Thanks

Compositionally, this track seems to do everything you needed it to do for the genre. Sounds and feels dubsteppy!
3:54 - The lead synth here is WAY too bright. You could knock that back a good amount and it would still cut through the texture. Make sure after you rest your ears for a few hours to check your mix at super low volume. You'll hear things like this popping through the mix immediately.
Everything else sounds pretty good to me. Admittedly dubstep is not my thing but I can't subtract any points for simply being a genre I don't listen to on heavy rotation. Besides the aforementioned balance issue, you've got high marks. This is a great example of a dubstep track, but to get a score bump I'd like to hear something more uniquely 'you' coming through in this. You've got a good feel for balance, mixing, and form. You mentioned that this was 'generic'. If you want to bump this to the next level, I'd think about putting more of your specific personality into the next track (at least for competition). That said, well done!

The thin quality of the melodic synth works at first, but at a certain point I needed something a little more beefy, or something to fill out the middle of the track. So much of this sounds very hi-passy with the bass drum layered underneath, and it makes it a little difficult to glom onto anything.
4:18 - This is what I was waiting for. The hook is nice, and you built up to it very patiently.
4:53 - There's a squiggly synth on the offbeats here that sounds like it's going to be a riser building into the next section, but it doesn't quite get there. I'm not 100% sure what the function of the sound is. It works as a texture, but at this point in the track, I felt like it needed some more forward momentum so it doesn't peter out.
4:59 - I really wanted this section to open up. You did a really good job of patiently building into this section and teasing the main melody, but I felt like this should be the moment when everything explodes. Instead it sort of tapered off and ended. This track could probably be twice as long if you took this section to really develop more of the musical themes you have going on. Undertandably it's hard to write a 10min+ track under such a tight deadline, but as is, it sounds like a very promising track that wasn't quite finished.
You've got some really nice ideas here, but I think I wanted more to come out of it. The section at 1:29 where you killed the bass drum was really refreshing. The riser leading into the next phrase was great. I could use more of this sort of thing.
Great dance music always feels like a micro/macro study in tension and release. You build tension on the small scale between phrases just to release it going into the next phrase, but those phrases all collectively build tension and release them on a large scale as well until you get to that 'head exploding' moment when even people who don't like to dance feel like they need to fucking DANCE! This is all within the minimal confines of house/dance music which can arguably have really rigid rules. I think your ideas are really good, and this track has some great moments, but I think it needs a little more love in handling that tension/release relationship both on a micro as well as a macro level. Please keep working on this. There's tons of potential!

This is pretty good MIDI production!
The Braaams at 0:36 could have been more pronounced. They're harrowing and a nice violent counterpoint to the nervous strings I think they could blast a bit more. This is especially when considering the power of the brass section vs. the presence of the strings.
Speaking of which, I'd try adding a little more reverb to the strings. Not so much as to muddy them up, but 'mics' sound a little to close to what I'd expect from an epic cinematic track like this
0:53 - I love this moment. That's such a great cheeky melody and the break is perfect before the bombastic entrance at 1:04.
1:37 - those string stacks are really great! I want to hear some subtle rumbling in a bass drum here (personal opinion). Maybe a quiet crescendo between the 4th and 5th measure.
You do a good job of using the odd time signatures effectively. I had to go back and count this, but never once did I really think about the subdivision manipulation when listening casually. It means you're using the technique effectively as a composer instead of making it some sort of mathy trick. Nicely done.
2:19 - those hemiolas in the violins are really nice, but they are way louder than the brass blasts which just seems a bit unrealistic. I think you could pull those back a bit, and beef up the brass some. The East West horns specifically tend to benefit a bit from some super subtle overdrive distortion in aggressive stuff like this. If done with a light touch, it seems to really bolster their presence without breaking them up too much. In general, I want the brass to be more harrowing here. The ostinato in the strings isn't the interesting part...it's those rising lines in the low brass that really drive the section (reminds me a bit of "The Dream is Collapsing" from Inception).
2:33 - those french horns should definitely come out a bit more. Really nice writing, but they're getting buried under the strings.
In general I really liked this. I can appreciate the amount of work it took to write all those layers and mix everything. The piece was SUPER deep orchestrationally, and nothing sounded prefab. I've used East West extensively and it's hard to believe that you did this all within the allotted time for this last round. Kudos. I think you have some balance issues specifically with the strings. I'd suggest trying to compare your mix to some of your favorite bombastic film cues to get things leveled a bit better (this specifically reminds me of Hans Zimmer, and more specifically Inception, but whatever floats your boat).
Well done.

Dark! Cinematic! Chase!
I really like the low percussion right in the beginning. It's sort of like a mix between boot stomps, war drums, and muted gunfire in the distance.
The faster accented notes in the strings sound like you painted them into your DAW. When it comes to orchestral work, I'd typically recommend playing things in live so you get more variation in timing/velocity which will give you a more realistic performance. If your piano skills are anything like mine (not great) you can always go back and push notes around or semi-quantize to get things more on time.
The EQ on the tutti strings sounds a little bright when compared to everything else as well. I'd consider rolling off some of the extreme highs just a touch to help blend them into the texture a bit more and soften the attacks a bit. Realistically, an ensemble this big would have to be housed in a very large room to record everything. As such, some of the higher frequencies of the strings would get sucked up in the space while traveling to the mics.
0:43 - The arpeggios in the cellos sound a bit unrealistic. If I were actually playing this section as an instrumentalist, I'd accent the first beat of each of the arpeggios (and maybe lightly accent the high notes a little), and the subsequent notes would be much less so. If you play this on a keyboard, the effect would be much the same.
That solo viola(violin?) sounds great!
Those war horns and crying are a powerful moment. The juxtoposition is really evocative and pushes some vivid imagery.
Compositionally, I think I wanted more out of the development. It's a little on the short side. You introduce some really great musical themes, and then the piece ends, but the epic beginning made me feel like this should have been longer if it's a standalone piece. If it's programmatic (it's telling a specific storyline) or it's envisioned to be the score for a film, I would make sure to mention that.

Production is pretty solid. I was skeptical when I saw the brick wall mastering, but this is super clean and balanced.
The crash cymbal that hits on the 4th beat of the first of every 2 measures starting at 0:27 is a bit too loud. I like the accent, but it hits much more aggressively than anything else in the track and is a little distracting.
This fits pretty neat and clean into a lot of trap I could hear on the radio. Not particularly risky musically, but you do a great job of nailing the genre, and the production is super clean. I like the piano loop you use in the background as it provides a nice light counterpoint to the heavier bass and hi-hat. I think you could pull this up in the mix a tiny bit so it pulls more attention between verses. Well done!

I love the jazz/pop feel of this. It's got a bit of quirk to give it personality to boot. Those vocal samples doubling the synth are really fun.
The super quiet intro is cool, but I think you could bump the gain on this just a touch. I like how it draws you in and I think the difference in volume between the intro and the rest of the track works, but the disparation between the two sections was just a little too much.
The sibilance and fricatives in your vocal performance are really hard to hear. I think the words in the vocal line would have more definition if you made those upper frequencies a bit brighter. A little compression on the vocals would also help keep things audible when you taper the ends of the words. I like that you didn't go for hyper compressed bubblegum pop vox, but in this case, a lot of the lines can be quite difficult to hear at all.

1:20 - I love this moment. I would consider adding a synth pad with a resonance/cutoff sweep to this section under those descending synth intervals (something like 0:34 in 'Lights' by Max Tundra or a more subdued/subtle version of the sweep you have going on at 3:04 in your track).

I like the brilliance of some of those crash cymbals, but I think they could be pulled back a bit so they don't stick out quite as much.

The descending piano line is awesome.

In general, I really dig this track. The style is a unique and memorable take on some pop tropes. You get extra points for imbuing personality. There are some mix issues that I think could be addressed (mostly in the vocals...I'd knock this up about half a point or more if they were more audible), but in general this was really enjoyable. This is one of the more original submissions this round. Cheers!

icantpronouncethis responds:

Thank you so much for the review. I did have many obstacles working with vocals due to it being the first attempt rally working on it. Compression has always been an issue in my music production. Maybe I should crank it up to a eleven than slowly drop it down to an acceptable level. One thing I learned for sure is to prepare before recording anything. Apparently high school choir class is not enough to get a good take.

Patience! This is something you don't hear very often in competition tracks. I love the courage you have to just let the chords ring. Nice work.
1:12 - the cellos seem a equed a bit on the bright side here. I think they could be more present in the mix, and let them sit in the mid-range a bit more.
1:20 - I'm having a hard time telling if this is low brass or bowed low strings. For the volume level, the timbre is too brassy. If you're using samples that change in timbre with velocity or expression, I'd knock those down quite a bit. If not, try rolling off some of the highs there. The sound feels like it's an epic BRAAAM from a hans zimmer score, but this section is still pretty light.
The brass also seems to bury the piano. I think having the Alberti bass line continue through this section is nice, but perhaps trade the duties to bowed bass/cello or something like that to help stand up against the brass. Piano is not strong enough on its own.
1:45 - I would have liked to see more melodic development here. By this point, we've gotten a few iterations of the main melody and it's going on in our head. Manipulating it would make this really pop. You can try something as simple as inverting the melody (I rarely ever do this 100% faithfully, but it's a good place to start and then push the notes around until they sound good). You could also do a 2nd species countrapuntal melody here which would be simple, but nice. Just something that references the original melody, but changes it slightly so it keeps the piece opening up in different directions.
2:35 - this recapitulation is a really nice moment orchestrationally. The violin performance could use a little work. The notes tend to taper too much at the end, but in a real performance the phrase would build from the beginning straight through to the end. Individual notes do taper here and there, but contextually the entire performance will have a general shape. If you imagine the violinist actually playing this, their bow would move smoothly throughout the section and most of the notes would be slurred.
3:10 - why did you drop the violin down an octave here? You were already moving up, I think it would be a goosebump-inducing moment if you let the melody keep climbing naturally like it was into the upper octaves as you stripped away some of the other instruments.

This is pedantic (and doesn't affect your score) but the melody has more baroque elements than medieval which is a few hundred years off. Either way, it's modernized, but you would see this type of melodic writing more common to 1600's through early 1700's which the use of piano, harpsichord, alberti bass line, and Chaconne reinforce. Think Bach vs Gregorian chant. That said, I don't think most people including those in Hollywood would care much about this distinction, so carry on. More of an interesting factoid than anything.

I think the writing is a bit repetitive, but nice. A little more variation would take this into the next level. Sometimes understated poignant writing works, but the performance really needs to carry the emotional intensity in that case which can be excruciatingly difficult with MIDI instruments. At the end of the day, this is just another challenge for contemporary composers. Either figure out how to manipulate your instruments into creating the performance you need, or adjust the writing to work around that limitation. Expensive virtual instruments can sometimes help as they have more capabilities, but a good composer can figure out alternative solutions.

I'd concentrate on mixing. The instruments tend to get mushed up together and it really flattens the emotional impact. They sit in the same space in the room, and occupy much of the same frequency space. First, I'd start by rolling off any frequencies you don't need in the instruments. You'd be surprised at how much of the lows or highs you can pull off of any given instrument and how little it takes away from the overall performance. Another quick/easy way to start separating instruments is to use the dry/wet mixers on the reverb to push instruments around the space. If you pull the dry back a bit, it pushes instruments further back in the room which helps to separate them. You can reference a seating chart for an orchestra to get a sense of where each person would be sitting. It's pretty easy to start mud mixing when you do this, so a tiny bit goes a long way. Try A/Bing your mix against something that sounds like what you're going for. It's hard to make specific suggestions for your instruments without knowing what you're using, but I've learned a lot of tricks by listening to my tracks alongside something else and trying to replicate that sound.

In general, I like the mood you set up. I'd love to see this in the context of the scene you described with Aidru.

Super moody and cinematic.
The bass has a super slow release. I'm not sure if this is the synth/sample or if it's an effect, but it works in some places better than others. When the bass moves faster (such as the rising section in 2:22), the decay fights the onset of the new note and causes a moment of dissonance between the notes creating a bit of muddiness.

In general I could use some more layers of some upper percussive layers. You have good driving motifs in the lower and mid layers, but picking out a few places to bring in some textural layers of clacks, shakers, tiki tikis, could really help accentuate some of the sections and create more dramatic shifts when you pull them out. For example, if you added some subtle layers starting at 0:30 (and suddenly shift to a different layer at 0:47) it would make the muted synth/harp section at 1:02 REALLY stand out.

The same goes for 1:41. You could build layers of activity leading up to this, and then if they suddenly dropped out for those drones/flute to take over, it would feel gosh darn epic. it's a great way to subconsciously build tension.

2:57 - after the cymbal cresecendo, I'd consider adding a bass drone an octave below the current bass in a sine wave or something to really help that section pay off. Right now the crescendo leads into something, but the texture remains largely the same as it was leading up to that point. You could go all Disney Magical Moment with it too and layer in some super subtle tinkling of a mark tree, though it's up to you if you wanted to go that route or not.

All in all, it's really great. I think you accomplished what you set out to do. The midi instruments didn't stand out, and you did a good job of balancing it with live recordings. Well done!

FYI, I'd look into the possibility of using Vienna Ensemble Pro to help offload some of the duties of your workstation if you're having trouble keeping up with running all the virtual instruments. Not everyone loves the extra layer of tech it adds, but I've found it indispensable when it comes to large ensemble work.

etherealwinds responds:

Okay okay, I finally got some time on my laptop to respond to reviews again.
Hey SFW! There is some really good advice here. I really appreciate you adding specific pointers for me to try out! I'll try them all out and see what fits and what doesn't :)

Thanks for the library recommendation also! I'll look into it.
One of my motivations to join the competition this year was actually the pleasure I got from listening to your music last year. I was real impressed.

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