Finale User Spotlight: Michael B. Nelson

Photo of Michael B. Nelson by Martin Thomas at

Michael B. Nelson is the leader, composer, arranger, and trombonist for the Hornheads, the five-piece a cappella jazz horn group. From 1991-2001 the Hornheads recorded and toured worldwide with Prince, performing for more than two million concert-goers in twenty countries. During this time Nelson recorded and arranged horns for twenty CDs with Prince and other Paisley Park-associated artists.

Nelson was also the producer, composer, arranger, and trombonist on three Hornheads solo releases and ten Compass Records CDs for the Target retail chain. In 1996 Nelson received a McKnight Composers Fellowship through the American Composers Forum.

As a top call studio musician, he has appeared on more than 100 CDs, and has performed and/or recorded with Chaka Khan, Doc Severinsen, Lenny Kravitz, The Jonas Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr., Mandy Moore, Jimmy Jam, Johnny Mathis, Honor Society, Larry Graham, Ben Sidran, Jordan Pruitt, Babyface, Maceo Parker, and many others.  He has also worked on many commercial projects for companies such as Target, BMW, Holiday Inn, Macy’s, ABC, Minnesota Twins, Best Buy, General Mills, Hormel, Donatos, Long John Silver, and Redline Entertainment.

In the early 1990s I was very fortunate to be able to hire Michael and some of his Hornheads cohorts to play on a few songs for my group, the Auto Body Experience. One tune in particular had a quick tempo, a way-too-many-sharps guitar key, and frequent 16th note syncopation, so I sent charts ahead of time to ensure the recording date would be short and successful. Shortly after Michael and his bandmates arrived at the session my heart sank as I watched him tear open the manila envelope I’d sent — clearly no one had seen the charts beforehand.

As the engineer set up mics and adjusted levels, Michael directed the section through a quick read-though. He was incredibly efficient, reviewing just the tricky bits. I have a distinct memory of Michael, sight-reading himself (and playing wonderfully), listening to the entire horn section, assessing problems (most likely errors in my charts), and — between phrases — calling out suggestions to other players (while mentally transposing for them), like: “I’m sure he meant a B# there…”

I’ve been fortunate to work with many musicians whose skills surpass my own, but Michael’s ability to simultaneously perform, critique, refine, and direct — at a world-class level — clearly earns him the highest esteem I possess. In addition to his fine musicianship, Michael has a great sense of humor, and is generous in sharing his expertise with others. When I caught up with him in early December 2009, he kindly provided the following glimpse into his work with Finale:

“Not long before I first started using Finale in 1995, I recall telling a friend of mine who was already using it, that I didn’t think it would ever be faster than doing copy work by hand. Man, have times changed. I’m surprised he doesn’t throw that back in my face on a regular basis. With each passing year and each upgrade, Finale becomes a more and more valuable tool for both for my music business and my creative process.

Besides using it for publishing my own Hornheads charts, I am now doing all my composing and arranging on Finale as well. It’s very rare that I even pull out a piece of staff paper anymore. For writing, it can be handy to use the Garritan sounds, although I tend to just use a piano sound which allows me to do a quick proof of my arrangements before rehearsal or recording.

This past year I did a number of horn arrangements with the Hornheads for LA Producer John Fields, including the most recent Jonas Brothers release, “Lines, Vines, and Trying Times,” a Steven Page (former lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies) solo project, an upcoming Jordan Pruitt CD, and Honor Society’s debut release “Fashionably Late.” Finale was an integral part of each project.

Oftentimes I will write an arrangement for John using MIDI in ProTools with the basic track he has sent me. After revisions and his approval, I can easily pull the MIDI files from ProTools and drop them into Finale, do some quick editing, and be ready to record. I think this process was particularly helpful with the Steven Page project we did this fall. John contacted me in the morning and wanted a big band vibe for the tune, and the deadline was the following afternoon.

I was able to create an arrangement in Minneapolis while they simultaneously worked on the tune in LA. We swapped revisions throughout the day and that evening I pulled the completed MIDI version of my arrangement off of ProTools and was ready to record the next morning, ending up with a turnaround time of about 28 hours. This would not have been possible without Finale. Also, since Finale is so widely used, when the Jonas Brothers went on tour with a four-piece horn section, I simply sent the Finale scores of my five-horn arrangements to their musical director and he made the necessary changes to fit their section.

I think the upgrade I appreciated the most is the linked parts feature. As music advisor and arranger for the Starkey Hearing Foundation Gala for the past nine years, I write music for a 20-piece orchestra that does play-ons for all the celebrities as well as backing up artists such as Kenny Loggins, Gavin Degraw, Trisha Yearwood, Jon McLaughlin, Michael Bolton, and many others. Creating parts and making edits is so slick now that it’s no longer a concern when the producer needs to make any changes regarding music cues or an artist wants to change an arrangement.

Along with all the arranging I do for recordings and live performances, I also have all my Hornheads arrangements available through my publishing company, Bone 2B Wild Music. With Finale’s transposition features, it was easy to take the standard instrumentation of the Hornheads arrangements (two trumpets, tenor sax, trombone, baritone sax) and make them available for saxophone and brass quintets. I find that Finale continues to be an indispensable tool for my entire work and creative process.”

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