Disco orchestration

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Disco orchestration is the arranging, orchestration, and musical production and recording techniques that went into the production of mid- to late-1970s disco music.

Role of disco orchestration

The sound of a disco song, as with the sound of a song of any genre of music, depended on the particular tastes of the artists, and - if relevant to the genre - the arrangers, producers, and even the orchestra conductors, and even still the concertmasters dictating the type of stylized playing method of each section of the orchestra, down to the engineers and mixers who assembled all the elements to make a fluid, cohesive sculpture of sound through melodic continuity.

The disco orchestration stylings of different producers can be discerned by most listeners. Van McCoy's The Hustle (1975), for example, uses very different orchestration techniques from those of Silver Convention's Get Up and Boogie (1976). Van McCoy composed, arranged, and produced his song, and also conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The sound of Van McCoy's song was further influenced by the musical influences of concertmaster Gene Orloff.

Silver Convention's song was written, arranged, and produced by Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, who conducted the Munich Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra sound was influenced by concertmaster Fritz Sonnleitner. Here, one can only imagine the New York sound, as produced by Van McCoy, on Silver Convention's Get Up and Boogie, and the funky Munich sound, as produced by Kunze and Levay, on Van McCoy's The Hustle.

Regional variations

As such, many regional sounds of disco developed during the mid-1970s, as a result of collaborative efforts of many individuals with a legacy of formal education and training in music theory and orchestration, whose educational backgrounds laid the foundation for the musical genre that was to burst forth onto the dance-music scene into what would come to be regarded as designer music. Many of the conductors and players of the large city symphony and philharmonic orchestras responsible for the grand productions of disco were seasoned veterans of orchestras throughout the country, some even going back to the big-band era.


The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra was the foundation of the Philly Sound, which represented an ebullient mid-tempo style that retained the funky characteristics of the sound of the streets of inner-city Philadelphia, however, elevated to a polished form with interwoven arrangements of lead and background singers in triple harmonies with lush arrangements of woodwinds, horns, and strings, as heard by groups such as MFSB, The Three Degrees, The Ritchie Family. Principal arrangers, producers, and orchestra conductors originating from Philadelphia included Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, John Davis, Richie Rome, Norman Harris, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, Victor Carstarphen, Jack Faith, Bunny Sigler, Dexter Wansel, John Usry, Bobby Martin.

New York

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra was the foundation of the New York Sound, which branched into four main arms: One characterized by the mid-tempo, richly hued stylings and 'bubbly' beat of The Hustle, as in songs such as Odyssey's Native New Yorker (1977), arranged, produced, and conducted by Charlie Calello, with Gene Orloff, concertmaster. Gerri Granger's Can't Take My Eyes off of You (1976), arranged, produced, and conducted by Bob Crewe, with Gene Orloff, concertmaster. Vicki Sue Robinson's Turn the Beat Around (1976), arranged, produced, and conducted by Warren Schatz and George Andrews, with Gene Orloff, concertmaster

One characterized by the mid-tempo operatic orchestrations of Maynard Ferguson's Pagliacci (1975), arranged, produced, and conducted by Jay Chattaway and Bob James, with David Nadien, concertmaster. One characterized by the mid-tempo, funky baselines and orchestrations of Roberta Flack's Back Together Again (1979), arranged, produced, and conducted by Eric Mercury and Arif Mardin, with Gene Orloff, concertmaster (the style predated rap)

One characterized by the up-tempo, Latin-infused, extravagantly orchestrated stylings of Wing and a Prayer Fife & Drum Corps.'s Baby Face (1975), arranged, produced, and conducted by Stephen Schaeffer and David Horowitz, with David Nadien, concertmaster. Samantha Sang's From Dance to Love (1979), arranged, produced, and conducted by Meco Monardo, Tony Bongiovi, and Harold Wheeler, with Irving Spice, concertmaster.

Principal arrangers, producers, and orchestra conductors from New York included Van McCoy, Brad Baker, Charlie Calello, Harold Wheeler, Warren Schatz, Tony Bongiovi, Meco Monardo, Michael Zager, Dennis King, Randy Muller, Jeff Lane, Michael DeLugg, Tony Camillo.

Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra was the foundation of the Los Angeles Sound, which branched into four main arms: One characterized by the mid-tempo funky orchestrations of Carrie Lucas's Dance with Me (1979), arranged, produced, and conducted by Don Cornelius, Dick Griffey, and Leon Sylvers, with Janice Gower, concertmaster.

The "New York-style" mid-tempo, extravagantly orchestrated rhythms can be heard in Love Unlimited Orchestra's My Sweet Summer Suite (1976), arranged, produced, and conducted by Barry White and Gene Page. Tavares' Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel (1976), arranged, produced, and conducted by Freddie Perren and David Blumberg, with Paul Shure, concertmaster. One characterized by the New York-style mid-tempo 'bubbly' beat and spicy orchestrations of Phyllis Hyman's You Know How to Love Me (1979), arranged, produced, and conducted by James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, with Gerald Vinci, concertmaster

New York-style uptempo beat with multi-dimensional orchestrations can be heard in High Inergy's Shoulda Gone Dancing (1979), arranged, produced, and conducted by Donnell Jones and Gerald Lee, with Assa Drori, concertmaster.

Principal arrangers, producers, and orchestra conductors from Los Angeles included Gene Page, Barry White, Dave Crawford, Bruce Miller, Freddie Perren, Paul Riser, Hal Davis, Skip Scarborough, Jerry Peters, Laurin Rinder, Mike Lewis, Carl Davis, Sonny Sanders, Simon Soussan, Don Cornelius, Dick Griffey.


The Miami Symphony Orchestra was the foundation of the Miami Sound, which was an effervescent mid- to uptempo style that represented the colorful Latin heritage of Miami, as in songs such as Rice & Beans Orchestra's You've Got Magic (1977), arranged, produced, and conducted by Pepe Luis Soto, Tato Rossi` and Hector Garrido, with David Chappell, concertmaster. Miami Sound Machine's You've Broken My Heart (1978), arranged, produced, and conducted by Thomas Fundora and Carlos Oliva, with Bogdan Chruzcsz, concertmaster. Principal arrangers, producers, and orchestra conductor that derived from Miami included Cory Wade, Bert Dovo, Clarence Reid, Willie Clark, Freddy Stonewall.

Other regions

Other large symphony and philharmonic orchestras in cities across the United States, Canada, and Europe were used to provide orchestral backing for many disco recordings.

Decreasing use of orchestras in the early 1980s

The transition from the late-1970s disco styles to the early-1980s dance styles can be illustrated best by analysis of the work of specific artists, arrangers, and producers within each region, respective to the time periods. For example, Patrice Rushen, whose major works - Haven't You Heard from 1979 and Forget-Me-Nots from 1982 - contrast sharply to demonstrate emphatically the changes from the 1970s to the 1980s.

The orchestral elements of Haven't You Heard, from rhythms and woodwinds to horns and strings, were co-arranged by Patrice Rushen, who also arranged the near-minute-long extravagant string arrangements for the introduction of the song, whose 100-piece Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Charles Mimms, Jr. and Reggie Andrews, with Charles Veal, Jr., concertmaster. In stark contrast, however, Forget-Me-Nots uses a synthesizer to produce a single, sustaining string-like sound.

As the disco scene began to fade in mainstream popularity, with large labels rejecting disco albums and much of the public turning once again to the rock sound, there was much less room in disco production budgets for the high-cost of professional orchestras.

Electronic instruments like the Arp Solina string ensemble began to replace the large orchestras of the 1970s.

Thousands of examples illustrate the change from the luxuriant disco sound to the minimalist and electronic dance sound occurring from 1979 to 1980, just a few of which are:

The revival of orchestration in the 1990s and 2000s

Many producers during the 1990s and 2000s attempted to make their disco music as authentic to the 1970s sound as possible. The following examples illustrate the revival of orchestration:

  • Mude o Baile (2002) and Superpoderosa (2002) by BsB Disco Club: violins by Igor Macarini and Luiz Carlos, cello by Guto Guerra, trumpet by Moisés Alves, tenor and alto saxophones by Anderson Pessoa, trombone by Lucas Borges, arranged by Marcos Tani and Ricardo Boy
  • Last Days of Disco (2003) by Alcazar: orchestration by the Stockholm Session Strings, arranged by Jesper Nordenström
  • Cosmic Girl (1996) by Jamiroquai: strings scored and conducted by Simon Hale, arranged by Simon Hale and Jay Kay
  • Spend Some Time (1994) by the Brand New Heavies: string arrangements by Aaron Zigman and Andrew Levy, flute by Mike Smith
  • Should I Let Him Go? (2000) and You Turn My World Around (2000) by The Company: violins by Aaron Meyer and Adam LaMotte, viola by Leslie Hirsch, cello by Lori Presthus, all from the Portland Philharmonic, arranged by Bradley Swanson and (for the latter) Bryan Everett

See also


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