The first track on my SoundCloud Playlist is “She Was There” by Donna Cori Gibson.
I met Donna at the University of Miami School of Music my first semester there. Ever since then, we have created a lot of music together. I must have worked on more songs for Donna than for anyone else! She is one of the most talented singers and songwriters I’ve ever met. You can read her story here: About Donna.
Over the years, I’ve produced a lot of religious (Jewish, Christian, etc.) and spiritual music. It doesn’t matter whether or not I am a follower of the particular artist’s belief system or not, but it does matter that I understand what they are trying to say so I can help them to say it with the most meaning and impact. This is always my goal.
Donna’s most recent CD, The Way of the Cross, is a very EMOTIONAL collection of Catholic songs. There is a song for each Station of the Cross. The song “She Was There” is about the fourth station, when Jesus meets his mother – extremely heart-rending, poignant stuff!
The instruments in the final arrangement include:
- Drums & Percussion
- Synthesizer Pad
- Fretless Bass
- String Orchestra (12 First Violins, 10 Second Violins, 8 Violas, 6 Cellos, 4 Basses)
- Solo Viola
- French Horns
Donna arranged and sang all of the background vocals.
When I initially started work on this song, I was under the assumption that the music was supposed to sound like a more modern version of what we did a few years earlier on the Prayers of the Great Saints CD. I created a rough track for Donna to sing to, as she was flying to NY to sing the first few songs at my studio. I programmed a basic music track using Digital Performer software with a temporary electric piano sound, a fretless bass sound, a synthesizer pad and some slick drums and percussion loops from Spectrasonics’ Stylus RMX program. Donna asked me to turn off the drums and then she sang her lead and background vocals. She wanted me to create a more organic and acoustic sounding track around her vocals. This CD was going to be different than Prayers of the Great Saints!
The first thing I did to create a more organic sound, was record loops of myself playing most of the percussion instruments I had here: Bell, Cymbal, Dumbek, Egg, Frame Drum, Mini Bongos, Triangle, Udu & Wind Chimes. For awhile, this “percussion ensemble” functioned as the “drums” as I created other parts. These percussion instruments are still in the final version, and if you listen carefully you may be able to hear some of them. If I turned off the percussion, you would miss it’s contribution to the feel and sound of the final drums. Much later on in the process, I ended up programming an actual “drum set” track using Toontrack’s EZdrummer program. For 3 songs on the CD, we replaced my drum programming with Dave Anthony playing live drums, but on this song and a few others, Donna decided that my drum programming was what she wanted. This was the first CD that I used EZdrummer on. I like this program a lot. It comes with useful sounds, beats and fills performed by great drummers, and everything can easily be assembled and customized for each song. The sounds of the drums and the amount of room sound can be adjusted as well.
I was able to keep some of my original synthesizer pad part that I recorded using a sound from Spectrasonic’s Atmosphere. It is very subtle but you might be able to hear it when it comes in after the first chorus. I usually record a synth pad early on in the arrangement process so that there is something playing chords all the way through the song. This is useful if I need to play instruments that might potentially sound out of tune, like bass or guitar, without me playing to a pitch reference. In the end, sometimes I keep the pad in, and sometimes I don’t. Here’s a good definition of a synth pad from Wikipedia:
A synth pad is a sustained chord or tone generated by a synthesizer, often employed for background harmony and atmosphere in much the same fashion that a string section is often used in acoustic music. Typically, a synth pad plays many whole or half notes, sometimes holding the same note while a lead voice sings or plays an entire musical phrase.
The piano on this song is a featured instrument. I played the part using the Steinway D piano from East West Quantum Leap Pianos. Since selling my 5’8″ Yamaha G2 grand piano, I’ve been doing piano parts in my studio with this software and it’s been working out for me. I chose these sounds after doing extensive “research.” I like having the sound of a 9′ Steinway D concert piano. I can hear the length of the long bass strings and I never had that with my 5’8″ piano, although I did love that piano! Also, since I’m now programming my piano parts, I am able to change the part easily at different stages of the arranging process. I don’t need to set up mics anymore or have the piano tuner come over every time I need to make a change to a part. However, sometimes a real piano is required and there are some great pianos that I’ve recorded at various commercial studios throughout the tri-state area.
Staying with my original concept, I chose to play fretless bass on this song. When I want the bass to be more nondescript, rock or funk sounding, I’ll use my fretted electric bass. But sometimes I want the bass to have more of a lyrical voice with personality and this is when I reach for the fretless, like on this song. You can hear me sliding around the neck and playing somewhat noticeable fills throughout.
On some of Donna’s past CDs, I’ve created orchestral arrangements and programmed the parts with sounds from Peter Siedlaczek’s Advanced Orchestra. There was a lot of this on A Traditional Christmas. Since then, I’ve also been using orchestral sounds from Vienna Symphonic Library and East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra. Some people may not be able to tell the difference between these sounds, if programmed well, and a real orchestra. Regardless, for the highly emotional and dramatic requirements of the music on this CD, I knew that at the very least, the strings needed to be performed by live musicians, and lots of them! I’m so pleased that this was able to happen on this project as it really made a big difference. Some of the songs featured a string quartet and others like this one featured a 40 piece string orchestra. We decided to hire FAMES from Macedonia to perform and record the strings. After writing the arrangements, using pencil and paper, I programmed my orchestra sounds as best as I could so that Donna could hear what it was going to sound like. Once she signed off on all of my arrangements, I meticulously entered every note from my hand written scores into the computer using Finale music notation software. After proofreading everything several times, I created pdf files of all the scores and parts and uploaded them to FAMES’ server along with Pro Tools files containing stereo music and vocal tracks and a click track, for the orchestra to play along to. On the day of the orchestra session, which was a week after the string quartet session, they recorded the string arrangement for “She Was There.” I was able to hear and see the orchestra and talk with Oleg, the conductor, and Laurent, the manager, all through my computer. Amazing! FAMES did a beautiful job playing this music. The next day I downloaded the Pro Tools files from FAMES and then I edited and mixed the live string tracks, replacing the programmed string sounds. The human element completely created a whole other level of emotion and feeling that was not there before! The impact of Donna’s message started coming to life in a big way.
Originally, my arrangement was scored for solo violin with the orchestra. At the string quartet session a week before the orchestra session, Oleg recorded the solo violin part to this song. It was beautiful, but after some time passed we decided to try a viola instead to see if it might fit the song even better. When Abe Appleman came over to record some violin and viola parts for the CD, he recorded the same violin solo for “She Was There” but with his viola. The darker sound of the viola was richer and more sorrowful and so we went with that instead.
Donna always loves french horns! The horns on this recording are sounds from East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra. With the live strings in the mix, these horns are very convincing sounding to me.
All of Donna’s vocals were recorded in my studio. We chose to use record all of the vocals with an Audio-Technica AT4047/SV microphone. As always, Donna beautifully arranged and sang all of the background vocal parts.
For more info about Donna and her music, please visit her website: Donna Cori Gibson