I’m not talking about synthesized music here, well not exclusively anyway. Many composers, at least those with some training or long experience, start with small musical nuggets with which they construct and realise their final vision. These can be motifs, melodies, chord sequences or even rhythms. In my own musical thinking I view these granular components as a form of musical modularisation because it helps to inform the way in which musical elements are used and how they relate to each other; they’re like bricks in a building. Of course putting all these constituents together to create a musical ‘story’ and take the listener on a journey takes skills and experience. Media composers have an additional challenge which is to strike the right mood and to resonate with what the director is striving for in the scene. The media composer’s master is certainly the director but perhaps as importantly the film, game, tv show or video itself.
Good composition tends to constantly refer back to itself as it progresses. This can be verse, chorus, verse, etc., as in a pop song. In classical music themes and variations thread themselves through a piece, often transformed in some way but recognisable nonetheless. This is all necessary to keep the listener tuned in and interested; they know they’re on a journey. If the sections that make up a piece are too disparate or different or make no reference to what has come before then the composer runs the risks or losing engagement with the listener.
My first memory of music being used to help tell a story was in Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf. Each character has their own theme which not only musically defines who they but invokes the ‘right’ feeling in the listener, e.g. the ‘bad’ wolf, the ‘comedic duck’, the ‘bold’ hunters, etc. So Prokofiev’s score was modularised in a sense and glued together with the artistry of his composition and the orchestral sound palette he used. Media composers use the same technique. Sometimes leading the mood of the scene, sometimes trailing it, sometimes just underpinning, sometimes taking centre stage. Always of course supporting what’s on screen. More often than not making unapologetic reference to what has gone before. Perhaps a snippet of a melody, altered in some way, major to minor, to adjust the mood. Sometimes the back referral looks to an earlier film, think of the Star Wars or Jurassic Park franchises.
The layering of the sonic pallet is also an example of modularisation in action. A full score with everything running at full tilt will sound big and assured, whatever the emotion that the composer is trying to invoke. Take away some of the bombast, change the instrumentation to something more intimate, slow the tempo a bit and you’ve got something with an altogether different feel. Same music but different treatment and different end result. Subconsciously the listener remains engaged with the musical and sonic world that has been created. They’ve heard it before, in a different context perhaps, but it’s lodged in their memory and it helps them remain immersed in the story. This is not about playing it safe, film music needs often to radically change mood and feel within a single beat. What it is about is supporting the world that the film maker has created. Step too far away from that world and it will probably jar horribly with the audience. By modularising the musical elements we start with we can at least give ourselves something of a foundation for creating a musical world that is easier to compose to, feels cohesive and has integrity.
To be honest I’m relatively new to the world of scoring music to picture. However, through my studies, real world engagements and discussions with film makers and composers there are a few key tenets which I try to make sure that I stay true to. I list them below and they’re sort of in order of most important first.
The music must always ‘ALWAYS’ support what’s going on ‘on screen’
Directors of films, TV series, corporate videos, whatever the genre, usually have a clear vision of what they’re trying to achieve. They at least have a message to impart and more often than not a story to tell. They’ll take their audience on a journey, scene by scene, moulding the dramatic and emotional landscape as they go. And of course, ultimately they are the boss! As the composer our job, just like the lighting guy or camera operator, is to help make that story as true to the director’s vision as possible. Sometimes this will require soaring themes, sometimes the merest hint of a musical undertone and sometimes no music at all of course. Where music is used is must enhance the mood and emotion of the scene and generally speaking should not pre-empt the action still to come, but hold that thought.
Pace and space
Music cues must not only support what’s happening on screen at that precise moment. It must be in sync with the emotional and dramatic arc of the scene. This can take a bit of planning and thinking about tone colours, rhythmic structure and matching the changing energy levels. In general, as stated above, it should not pre-empt what’s to come as that quite often does not support what the director is trying to achieve. However, sometimes the music is there to set the mood for the next scene, or maybe the audience already knows something that the protagonists do not. The music in this case can be in cahoots with the audience. Horror and Sci Fi make extensive use of this technique and one of my favourite music cues is in Alien where, at the beginning of the film, Jerry Goldsmith creates that wonderfully unsettling ‘Oh we know something terrible is going to happen!’ feeling with the simplest of motifs using staccato flute. Inspired and quite different from the music, almost bombastic at times, that he creates for the rest of the film.
Mozart supposedly said ‘music is not in the notes but in the silence between’. Never more true than in media music. The music must breathe in and of itself and it must give space and support to the scene, particularly where there is dialogue which the director wants underscored, in which case less is usually more.
There’s only room for one ego and that’s the director’s
Like any creative type composers can be very protective of their work. They may have sweated blood scoring a scene and have an almost parental pride over their creation. Sadly the director thinks it’s all a bit ‘meh’! Nothing for it but to go round again trying to understand what the director felt didn’t work and, as importantly, what did work. Sometimes the subtlest of changes can rescue a music cue. Many aspiring media composers, and I include myself in that group, often produce music that is too busy, too concerned with itself as a piece of art, intruding rather than supporting the moving image. For example underscoring dialogue can be quite tricky and I’ve seen countless examples of, not just rookie, composers stamping all over the dialogue with over loud, over busy music. In short the composer cannot afford to be overly protective about what they’ve written. If it ain’t working for the director then it’s time to think again. But the composer should never, ever throw away what they’ve written. Sometimes the ‘Can we hear again that piece you had last week?’ conversation will happen.
Do something new and original!
Media composers are torn between regurgitating something scarily similar to what the director already has in mind, the infamous ‘temp track’ and creating something new and original. New and original is often hard to come by but it’s sort of essential not to fall into the morass of ‘fake’ orchestral scores that are great but which everyone aspiring composer seems to produce. For myself I tend to fall back on my classical training in guitar and to some extent piano and think back to how the composers who inspired me created mood, pace and space.
My view is that compositionally and sonically it’s important to try and stand out as much as you can. With modern sample libraries it’s relatively easy to sound like an orchestra if you spend some time studying how the different parts and instruments work together. I’m not saying orchestral composition or arranging is easy but technology has made it easier than it was. I like to use real instruments and occasionally analog synths alongside all those wonderful sample libraries. Where I can I use professional musicians to add that extra sonic dimension and authenticity. For myself I feel that I am on the way to having my own palette of sounds and compositional underpinnings which give me a voice. Whether that voice is sufficiently unique is for others to say.
Virtually all composers using a computer based DAW use at least one keyboard to create their music. Many also have a guitar. For some time it’s been possible for composers to use the huge number of excellent sample libraries to create a wide range of instrumental sounds which, with careful arrangement, can and do sound pretty authentic. So while many composers spend all their time wrangling their sample libraries the poor old guitar gets left in a dusty corner. I, I should hasten to add, am not one of those people. I use my guitars a lot in my compositions. Sometimes the guitar sounds like a guitar but many times it’s very un-guitar like and used for pads, soundscapes, sound effects or to support some other component of the music. It all helps to add a more organic and three dimensional feel to the end result.
So where do I start with my guitar mangling. The first thing to say is that I have developed, and keep developing, a portfolio of sounds that I’m comfortable working with and know how to use. The second thing to say is that I’m often after something that will complement the other components of the music, so more Sigur Ros than Steve Vai. I’m a Logic Pro user but my techniques are applicable to all DAWs. I use Logic’s superb in-built plugins, world class plugins like Native Instruments Guitar rig, some really good free plugins, such as the Atom filter, and my collection of hardware effects and pedals. When it comes to the actual guitar more often than not it’s the electric guitar I reach for but acoustic can give interesting results also.
For something like a pad sound I tend to lose the fast attack of the guitar, I use a volume pedal or sometimes play the guitar volume knob as I play, or some envelope effect. Delays and reverb play their part as do modulation effects. I often use the shimmer setting (dense reverb/delay with pitch shifting) available on a number of plugins and hardware pedals. If something with a bit more aggression is required distortion is added, but I try not to overdo that as distorted guitar takes up a lot of frequencies. I use simple tremolo a lot as well, often at extreme settings, with a bit of distortion and pitch shifting you can achieve a nice, organic, synth-y sounding pulse. Sync-ing with the DAWs tempo plays its part here too. A filter with a very slow rate, maybe 1 or more bars, can also be very effective. For more ‘out there’ sounds and effects things like reverse reverb, granular processing and pitch shifting can take your guitar mangling to new levels. Disrespecting the guitar strings also can yield good results. Scraping, hitting and if you can rustle one up a cheap violin bow will all add to the available sonic textures. Sometimes it’s only necessary to have these new sounds really quite low in the mix to add that extra interesting dimension, particularly when you’re supporting other components.
Using the above techniques to create a new sampled instrument in something like Kontakt or Alchemy can also be very rewarding. I would encourage everyone to create their own sampled instruments, whatever their source instrument. It’s a great way of adding something that adds to the uniqueness of your sound and it’s a great way to learn the ins and outs of these powerful instruments.
The added bonus to all this is of course you can use your own synth plugins as the sound source and have them mangled in the same way. There is something, however, about the guitars basic tone that allows it to carry a lot or effects processing more successfully than synth tones which are often very harmonically rich and can overwhelm the effects chain. You don’t need an expensive guitar either. Brilliant guitars are available from Squier, Ibanez, Yamaha and many others for £200 new or less. Gumtree and Ebay are also a good source of instruments at the cheaper end of the market. Think for a moment how much we all spend on plugins and sample libraries! So all power to the guitar as a new way to generate interesting and musical sounds. Remember there are absolutely no rules and (wild) experimentation is to be encouraged. There are some fabulous new sounds waiting to be discovered!
I use Logic Pro and have done for a while. I think it’s great and I’m constantly learning new ways of doing things quicker and better. Cubase, Ableton, Digital Performer etc. users will no doubt feel the same and these are all excellent platforms. However social media and various forums suggest to me that many folk are only using a small fraction of their DAWs capability. Worse than that they’re unaware that their musical lives would run far more smoothly if they knew a bit more about what these complex tools can do. It’s hard enough writing and realising music, particularly when there’s a client breathing down your neck. In this regard your DAW must absolutely be a help not a hindrance.
I’ve always been someone who wasn’t afraid to ‘RTFM’ and David Nahmani’s excellent Logic training guide really kick started my ability to use Logic creatively and confidently when I started out using it. There are some excellent web resources too, MusicTechHelpGuy comes to mind. Logic is particularly guilty to having many functions only available through shortcuts and the several hours I spent learning and documenting those shortcuts has saved me so much time and heartache. The lists I created are still taped to the sides of my main monitor should I need a memory jog. This post, however, looks at a few ideas to help with mixes and track treatments that might not at first seem that obvious. I use Logic for my examples because that’s what I know but all good DAWs will have something similar.
Like many who rely on their DAWs I have invested in a variety of plugins but I still use Logic’s own built-in plugins, in fact I use them a hell of a lot, because they are good and they tend not to hit the CPU too badly. Logic’s Overdrive plugin is a case in point. It lives with the other in-built distortion plugins and an unholy row you can easily get out of it. However, turned right down, even to .5% or .25% it will impart a rather pleasant, almost analog, lift to the sound. I use in on synth lines and pads, but I’ll even use it on sampled strings or percussion if they need a bit of a lift in the mix. Similarly Logic’s tape delay can be used to good effect. This is an unfussy, not particularly sophisticated, delay with tape emulation. Remove, or radically reduce, the delay part and you’ve got just the tape emulation, and it sounds ok.
I find Logic’s equalisers good, solid tools; versatile, easy to use and they don’t colour things up too much if used sensibly. They work really well in a mid/sides arrangement, usually with the Linear Phase EQ. In my output channel or when mastering I’ll have one instance set to mid, so that will only address the centre part of the stereo image. I’ll usually roll off the subs, so anything below 25-30 Hz and then shave a bit of the high above 7 or 8 kHz. Next in the chain I’ll have another instance set to sides, again rolling off the bass, perhaps adjusting the mids (usually that’s a mild cut) and perhaps a gentle lift in the high end. This generally works well to control the focus in the centre whilst providing a good, clear stereo spread. Note: I am not a massive fan of Logic’s in-built stereo imager.
The other thing I’m becoming more a fan of is effects on effects. For example pitch shifting on a very dense reverb gives a good shimmer approximation. A slow rate sync-ed low pass filter on the output of a ping pong delay can really add an extra something. A reverse delay applied to a forward delay can really mess things around. Tremolo applied to a long reverb won’t work in all applications but sometimes it fits the bill. Depending on what effect I’m after I’ll have these in line or on a separate send. You are limited only by your imagination and CPU power of course.
Logic’s own Sample Delay allows you to take a mono source and turn it into pseudo stereo one by splitting and then fractionally (or not so fractionally depending on taste) delaying one or both resultant channels. It doesn’t work on everything but it can be effective on mono sources that need a little air and a bit more presence.
I’m a hardened user of hardware synths, some of which are a bit old and a bit cranky. When incorporating into my DAW projects they usually come through my main sound interface or through my Elektron Analog Keys which effectively has its own sound interface. Note: I love my Analog Keys, I use it whenever I can get away with it. However I don’t use the standard external midi track because I can’t then use any of Logic’s own midi processors, the arpeggiator and the like. I head off the Utility folder in software instruments and choose a mono instance of external instrument and hey presto all the Logic midi processors are available. So for example my elderly Roland Alpha Juno 2, which has no in-built arpeggiator, can be arpeggiating away like a crazed thing courtesy of the one built into Logic.
The above are a few random examples of how the realise the power of the DAW. Getting the basics learnt first of course is the way to go.