A good friend of mine recently loaned me this excellent (and short) book,Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by writer and artist Austin Kleon. In it, Kleon lists the things he wished he’d learned in college, things like “Don’t wait to know who you are to get started,” “Be nice (the world is a small town),” and “Creativity is subtraction.” As you can tell from some of my earlier blog posts, I’m especially fond of that last one. Limiting your options and stripping your work down to its essence are great ways to raise the quality of your output.
Obviously, with a title like Steal Like an Artist, Kleon spends a good part of the book talking about stealing (er, borrowing) effectively, and has great advice about doing so ethically and in a way that serves you and your work. His central thesis is that nothing is original and all great work is inspired by something else. The trick, he says, is to borrow things you can legally and ethically use, like techniques, moods and colors, and then work with them until you make them yours. Don’t try to become John Williams, take some aspect of his work that moves you and filter it through your personality and experience. Learn from him and then move on. Continue reading →
Just found this great blog on recording, mixing and mastering: Ian Shepherd’s Production Advice. Shepherd covers all aspects of achieving great-sounding mixes, from getting the best sounds at source, mixing them effectively, and making the end result loud and punchy so it competes with commercial mixes. I stumbled onto the site a mere 24 hours ago and I already feel like I’ve spent a month in engineering school (in a good way).
Being a professional mastering engineer, Shepherd tends to focus on that end of the chain. But I also feel like that’s more misunderstood than recording and mixing anyway, so it’s a welcome addition to my trove of resources. Witness his discussion of dithering, an esoteric and confusing subject if ever there was one. Shepherd maintains that one should dither whenever you bounce, whether it be to 16 or 24 bit. This goes against conventional wisdom, at least the conventional wisdom I’ve read, but it does make sense when he explains it. Continue reading →
Here’s a great site offering (as the title so obviously implies) daily bits of film scoring wisdom. The posts are written by Dresden-based composer Robin Hoffmann, who heroically crafts a paragraph for his blog nearly every day. Robin covers all sides of film scoring, from composition itself to orchestration, marketing and delivery of final cues. The pieces, although short, are almost always useful. Here’s a recent example:
“When you write a cue, make sure to sustain a ‘musical language’ throughout the piece. It will feel very strange if you use simple triads all the way through and suddenly use one very complex chord. Also, melodic and rhythmic complexity should stay in a certain range throughout a piece. This might seem simpler than it actually is and often one idea might not really fit together with each other or you might stumble across a chord that you like on its own but which doesn’t fit into the rest. So when finding ideas, it is not only a decision whether it is a good idea but also whether it fits to the rest of your music.”
I am happy to announce that I’m now an official writer for SCOREcast. My first post went up today, talking about how to make a cue small. I’ve attached an excerpt below. Enjoy!
When it comes to film scoring, size definitely does matter. The trend in big-budget Hollywood films has been toward a bigger and bigger sound—enormous string and brass sections and 20-person percussion ensembles, all backed by massive beds of synths and samples. But often, especially with indie projects, what’s required is a much smaller, more intimate sound. Even a modestly sized orchestra might be far too large for a quiet drama about a family, a couple or a child.
It’s important for a film composer to know how to match what’s happening onscreen not just musically, but also in terms of size, feel and scope. Scoring The Avengers with just acoustic guitar and flute would clearly be wrong, just as using the orchestra from Pirates of the Carribean to score Juno would have also been a mistake. In this set of posts I’ll explore various ways to get your cues to sound really huge or really tiny. I’ll start this week with making things small.
In the TV series Classic Albums (now available on DVD), Roger Waters talks about the Pink Floyd song “Us and Them.” He says, “I find myself very very often, in my capacity as a producer, having to say to people, ‘No, leave a hole. Just play for half a bar and leave a bar-and-a-half empty.'” I love this quote, and think of it often while I’m writing. It reminds me that I don’t need to fill up every moment with notes. Sometimes music needs space to breathe, silence to give form and beauty to the sound.
As Daniel Levitin wrote in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, Miles Davis “described the most important part of his solos as the empty space between notes, the ‘air’ that he placed between one note and the next. Knowing precisely when to hit the next note, and allowing the listener the time to anticipate it, is a hallmark of Davis’s genius.”
I was having dinner with some composer friends a few weeks ago and the subject of writer’s block came up. Mostly, we talked about the fact that we rarely get it. Perhaps because we’re all media composers and seldom have the time for such creative obstacles, we’ve all developed strategies to deal with the occasional lack of inspiration. It seemed to me a great idea for a post.
To make it even more useful, I decided to enlist the aid of a few compatriots. Tim Huling was one of my composition teachers and was there at the table for the original conversation, so he was a natural. He sent me the basic list, which I elaborated upon and added to (and he added that some of the ideas originally came from Michael Rendish, Assistant Chair of Berklee College of Music’s Film Scoring Department.) SCOREcast founder and creativity blogger Deane Ogden sent me some excellent thoughts, despite being in Asia for a movie premiere and impending marriage(!). And Jeffrey P. Fisher, author of Fish(er) Tales and the Moneymaking Music Tip of the Week, generously donated some wisdom as well. Thanks to all of you!
“Every month or every two months I’ll take another soft synth, and I’ll read the manuals and I’ll watch the YouTube videos on it, and I’ll go really deep into it. I may create a whole track just using that one synth.”
It occurred to me that we all probably need to do this. I know I do. I read magazines like Sound on Sound and lust after all the pretty new software and gear when I don’t really know how to use half of what I already own. I mean really know it. Sure, I can fire up presets on my virtual Moog Modular or OSCar and tweak them a bit, but I can’t quickly program a patch from the ground up on either one.
Just the other day I was trying to find the perfect drum beat for a project and realized to my dismay how poorly I knew all the beats I had on hand (and I have a lot). What I need is a library of MP3s with all my beats in various categories: Shuffle, Swing, Half-Time, Straight, Funky, etc. Not only will that enable me to audition beats quickly but the process of creating the library will make me much more familiar with what I own. Sure, it will take time, but it will save more when I really need it—when I’m on a deadline.
Consider adopting Alex Da Kid’s policy and dive into one of your underused pieces of gear every month or two. Read the manual. Watch some tutorials. Use it in a few pieces—without touching the presets. Having more than one or two go-to synths, delays or beat generators will be a great help when you’ve got three hours to compose a masterpiece. Remember, if you can really impress your client with your speed and talent you’re pretty much guaranteed to get the next gig.
Here’s a great post from SCOREcast Online on the benefits of the Soundcloud online audio platform. I’ve been using Soundcloud for a couple of years and I still learned plenty. Whether you’re interested in using Soundcloud to get more work, track your online listeners or network and collaborate with other composers, the article is full of great tips. Author Oliver Sadie shares his own Soundcloud story and offers ideas from other users on how to maximize your presence, get more comments and likes, and even attract the attention of potential clients.
As Sadie says, “SoundCloud is a versatile and effective platform for composers and sound content creators of all kinds. It is arguably the next big thing in online audio….”
I’m amazed I hadn’t heard of this radio show yet, but I discovered it this past weekend on our local Seattle Classical station. The Score is produced by All Classical Media in Portland, Oregon, and hosted by Edmund Stone. The weekly shows take on various topics, such as treasure hunters, the founding of America and Shakespeare at the movies. It also occasionally focuses on a particular composer or features interviews with current composers like Alexandre Desplat and Ramin Djawadi.
The program is unique in my experience as it centers its attention on the music. It often showcases unavailable, out-of-print or difficult-to-find scores. For example, in the most recent show featuring music from the various Titanic movies and television series, Stone broadcast music from Howard Blake’s 1979 score to S.O.S. Titanic, which until now has never been heard on its own.
The show’s website, thescore.org, has archives of the show going back to March, 2011. Check it out and make use of this wonderful resource.
Until March 29th, plugin makers SoundToys are offering their new Little Radiator plugin for free. The Little Radiator is an emulation of the classic Altec 1566A tube mic preamp. The 1566A and 1567A were a big part of the early Motown sound, and the units are prized today for their colored, warm tone. Indeed, the plugin does add quite a bit of punchy fatness and it sounds especially good on drums. The controls couldn’t be simpler: the Pad attenuates, Heat adds gain and warmth, and Mix adjusts the mix of clean and effected tone.
As a bonus, by downloading a copy, you’ll also be entered into a drawing for a chance to win a Plugged For Life bundle—free downloads of all SoundToys plugins for eternity. Runners-up will win SoundToys plugin bundles and free upgrades to the upcoming Radiator plugin, the Little Radiator’s big brother.