Cleopatra (EP, rock opera)

Hi all!

After a very long period of silence (only partly broken by a couple of silly Christmas songs), I’m so happy to finally be able to introduce what is probably my most ambitious project so far: a 27 minutes long song on Cleopatra that I first conceived 20 years ago (many of the themes are from back then), and that’s basically a symphonic rock opera! This is an appetizer from my upcoming “Musae” album, of which Cleopatra will be one of the tracks (the longest one, of course). While on “Musae” it will be a single long song, I decided to also release it as a separate EP where the song is actually split in the 9 parts that make it and tell Cleopatra’s story.

You can listen to it in different places:

As anticipated, in this EP the song is split in 9 parts, but it’s actually meant to be listened to in a single sitting: unfortunately no streaming service supports gapless streaming, meaning there will be a short interruption between each “track”, but there was no way around it. This will not be an issue once I release the song in its entirety as part of “Musae”.

As usual, this was all done using open source software and a couple of free VSTs. I did all the mixing and mastering in Ardour 8.2.

Please do let me know what you think of it, if it works as it is, and if there are parts you prefer (or strongly dislike :rofl: ). Hope you’ll enjoy this!


Just listened briefly to some of the sections. What a wonderful piece of music! I very much like the blending of all the classical and modern textures. How did you do the orchestration?
You need to tell more how you did all of this.
Mille grazie for sharing and greetings to Napoli.

Thanks @peter.zenk, I’m glad you liked it!

For all my tracks, the orchestration works pretty much always the same way, as I’ve come to the point where I’ve “standardized” my approach a bit. In a nutshell:

  1. I score all the parts (orchestra and in part rock instruments) with MuseScore, since I prefer working with notation software when writing music. I use MuseScore’s orchestra sound only as a preview of how it may sound like.
  2. Once I’m mostly happy with the parts, I export each of them to a separate MIDI file.
  3. I create a new Ardour project starting from a template that I prepared that is a modified version of this template by Michael Willis: this template uses Virtual Playing Orchestra for orchestra instruments (SFZ files opened with the sfizz lv2 plugin), pans instruments as they would in an orchestra, and uses different DragonFly reverb instances to give them the proper “distance” too. My version uses a single instrument per group (e.g., 1 track for “Flutes”, instead of two “Flute” tracks), adds some EQ for each instrument (mostly to cut frequencies, since there will be a lot of tracks) and uses a modified version of VPO’s SFZ files that I need to automatically change articulations via custom CC messages (so that on the same track I can, e.g., go from staccato to tremolo for strings). My template also automatically adds DrumGizmo (Muldjord kit) and tracks for bass, electric guitars, piano, voice, etc. for all other instruments I may need, all already panned, EQed and configured with the same reverbs as the orchestra so that I can use them right away.
  4. Once the Ardour project has been created, I import each MIDI track to the right orchestra instrument: at this point, I do all the tweaking needed to perform the right articulation changes, by using Ardour’s automation to trigger changes via custom CC messages. I also spent a LOT of time working on the orchestra balance, which is often off. Since in MuseScore I also sketch parts I’ll actually play (e.g., guitars), I add temporary MIDI tracks that I’ll use as reference and then destroy layer on.
  5. I write drum parts using Hydrogen and import the resulting MIDI file in Ardour so that DrumGizmo can play them.
  6. I record all my “manual” parts, so bass and all guitars.
  7. More tweaking and balancing, ad libitum :rofl:

This is it in a nutshell. It sounds like a lot of work and it mainly is, but with the template I created and have been using for a while, now, this luckily means I can focus on music itself, rather than on some more repetitive tasks.

Hope this helps!

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Thanks, it sounds like a lot, really a lot of work. I’m deeply impressed. Especially adding the articulations.

Using MuseScore for scoring absolutely makes sense to me.
I did some minor things on MuseScore, too, but I I always was scared to move the stuff to Ardour. :face_with_diagonal_mouth:
But I guess one day I have to try.
Do you think Michael’s template is a good starting point, or did you make major modifications to it to make it really usable?
The pointers you gave are very useful.
Interesting that you are using Hydrogen for drum programming. I also did this in earlier days, but now I’m entering everything inside Ardour, especially because now it supports Lollipops for velocity editing.

It’s an excellent starting point in my opinion, as it gives you a very balanced orchestra setup, that’s already configured with the right pannings and reverbs: there’s a schema in the repo README that provides more details on what the aim was. My changes were mostly in which specific SFZ files to use from VPO (Michael uses the performance scripts, IIRC, and as mentioned I needed articulation changes I could drive myself) and in the number of tracks (using groups of instruments instead of separate ones). In both cases this can mean tweaking some of the sfizz lv2 volumes for balance, but nothing that will hold you for long I think.

I personally like Hydrogen’s way of creating patterns a lot, and since I have a Hydrogen drumkit that works with DrumGizmo’s Muldjord kit, it’s very fast and easy for me to quickly write many patterns and test them right away. This means that I can even play the project in Ardour, and Ardour will control how Hydrogen advances its patterns while I preview if they work with the rest of the song. I didn’t do this for this song because I used a single Ardour project for the whole 27 minutes, so I created many separate Hydrogen projects for the different parts where I needed drums, but for shorter songs it’s really helpful.

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Thanks for the insight. Not yet finished listening, but I like what I heard so far.

Thanks @GenGen, looking forward to hearing what you’ll think of the whole thing!

Listened to the entire song(s). I am impressed with your orchestration! It’s awesome and convincing.
The project could be a soundtrack for a film (is that what you intended, telling a story?).
I like mostly I Overture, III Antony and Cleopatra and IX Immortal in Time.
I guess that is because they have more than the other songs outstanding/interesting melodies. Maybe I’m a bit old fashioned but I think your music would even be better if there would be more melodies on top. You create powerful and beautiful chord progressions which, in my mind, demand a solo (guitar, violin, or voice or whatever). There were several occasions where I thought: and here it comes: the sologuitar. But it didn’t :wink: Yes I’m old fashioned :slight_smile:
I’ve read your part on the Virtual Playing Orchestra. It’s great what you’re doing, I’m thinking of diving into this a little bit more myself. Thanks for showing what can be achieved!

Thanks, I’m really glad you liked it! And yes, more or less it was intended to be some sort of short soundtrack for cliff notes of Cleopatra’s story.

Almost all my tracks indeed have solos in it, and more prominent guitars, but in this case I made the conscious choice of putting guitars a bit more in the background, as if they were indeed part of an orchestra, rather than soloist “loaned” to the orchestra. As such, I chose a melodic approach that would be more thematic, rather than anything a soloist could take for themselves (with the exception maybe of III. Antony and Cleopatra, but even there it’s short, since other instruments soon join to create different textures and play together).

If you have some time, you may want to listen to Delusion’s Master, the title track from my first album. That one is an 18 minutes progressive rock song (until Cleopatra the longest I had ever written), and one I’m very fond of, since there too I mixed rock and orchestra elements a lot. In that case, though, that’s more of a song, so there’s a few vocals and many solo parts across the track. I’d love to hear what you think of it, especially from a melodic perspective!

Thanks again for your nice words! If there’s any other tips I can provide besides the short notes I wrote here, feel free to ask.

Wow, what have we here.
I definitely LOVE what you pulled off here. Congratulations, dude! :grinning:

My favorite section: The Battle of Actium, what else. :sweat_smile:

However, I also have to mention a thing which I don’t like - the orchestra (respective the overall balance of the tracks): let me try to explain based on the beginning of the last section (Immortal in Time). The background string section really sounds great. But the lead melody played by the horns (I think) almost pushes my attention away. I mean, I definitely like the melody, it’s just the actual sound of the horn or maybe simpler: just the fact that it jumps out too much in the mix compared to the rest of the orchestra.
And things like that unfortunately seem to happen in most sections. Not always, but sometimes it feels to me that there’s one instrument, that doesn’t fit in properly…

Hope that helps.

Best regards.

Thanks for your kind words, that’s amazing to hear!

Yeah, unfortunately I’m aware of this issue. Virtual Playing Orchestra is amazing for being completely free and open, but it’s also admittedly a bit of a Frankenstein of different sources, since you have samples coming from heterogeneous sources like VSCO2, Sonatina, No Budget Orchestra and I can’t remember what else. As such, there are instruments that sound great, and others not so much.

Horns are a perfect example, here. At higher velocities (horns blasting), I think they do a decent job, but the samples at lower velocities (which is what you hear at the beginning of Immortal in Time) they indeed sound much much poorer. This was a problem also in my Lost Horizon symphonic poem, which had quieter horns at the beginning.

Clarinets are another good example. The sound of the clarinet itself when sustaining is nice, but the attack is terrible: it’s never fast enough, even if you tweak the related CC to the limit. This forced me to use a completely different source for clarinets (I think it was the Sonatina soundfont) which I don’t think sounds as good but at least had a better attack. This also meant less consistency than the one the VPO author tried to provide between the different sounds I guess.

So yeah, I’m aware that there are many times the orchestra doesn’t sound as good as it should (other instruments may have their own problems at different velocities, which is what you referred to, probably), but I think I reached my limits to balancing the different elements to at least try to make them sound as good as they could in those specific instances.

The only alternative would be looking for a different orchestra library, but that’s not easy at all, especially in the free/open source world. The BBC Symphony Orchestra Discovery by Spitfire Audio could be an option, since it’s proprietary but completely free, but it’s also a Windows VST: I could get it to work, e.g., via LinVST, but it’s incredibly heavy, especially when you need to have a dozen of instances (at the very least) active for each element in the orchestra. An option might be to only keep one up, and then individually render each instrument block via the VST to an audio track, but that takes a lot of time. I may look into this for my Symphony, though which I’ll hopefully be able to finish sooner or later.

Thanks for the discussion points!

If you ever want a live recording from a clarinetist, I’m certainly willing to try!

I may hold you to this promise sooner or later :joy:

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Pulling in guest musicians: it’s usually additional effort at first, but totally worth it at last. :smile:

Back when I did our song “God’s Army”, I had the chance to get a professional violin player for some parts of the song. Based on the base melody I gave him, he extended it to 4 voices and even added a little 16th notes solo. In the end the result feels so dynamic and alive, nothing you could ever achieve using synths IMHO.

Recently I had another chance to get a great guest musician.
He’s even a member of this forum … the one and only … master of shreds … Mr. Luis Finotti (@finotti). :grin:
I’m going to release the song within the next days, so stay tuned…

I have fond memories of doing a project with Luis!

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I really enjoyed this. Great to see somebody else doing long-form conceptual rock music - and with open source tooling too!

You might enjoy my EPic EPisode science fiction rock opera, Envoy. The first three EPs are available on Bandcamp and most commercial streaming services through Distrokid. or search “Spaceman Paul Envoy” on your streaming platform of choice.

I also start all my arrangements in MuseScore before moving to Ardour, so you even have a similar workflow to me.

Love the compositions. But as was already pointed out by you, the quality of the orchestra samples reduce the positive experience.

It’s a good example that Ardour can easily pull of such a project but the third party FLOSS universe is not at a point to hold up with industry in certain areas … yet!

On another note … PULL UP THAT SNARE!!! :metal:

Or more generally spoken the drums could have get some more treatment. Kick kicks, but the rest get’s easily buried by the other instruments.

Thanks for the link! I’m currently abroad for a conference but I’ll make sure to give this a listen when I’m back :slight_smile:

Thanks, glad you liked it! I’m sorry the orchestra is not that believable but I tried my best with the tools available. It could very well be that there’s ways to do a better job, so I wouldn’t dare faulting the tools: I didn’t use the DTX stuff much for instance, which apparently can help make brass better.

But for a hobby (which is what it is for me) it’s more than enough.