Making the Most of Reference Tracks

Photo by Tyler Heaton

I’m finishing up a job which was temped with an Explosions in the Sky song. My instructions were simple: create a score with the same vibe—mellow electric guitar escalating gradually to a euphoric climax. Explosions in the Sky are not terribly hard to mimic since their songs often follow a fairly specific formula, but the process got me thinking about the most efficient ways to make use of reference tracks. Basically it comes down to this: the more methodical you are with studying your reference tracks the easier it is to create a final cue that’s original and yet captures exactly what the client wants.

When I first started composing for media, my approach was a bit random. I’d create a playlist of appropriate reference tracks, listen to it for a while, and then try to duplicate what I’d heard without violating any copyright rules. Sometimes this worked well, but other times I felt like I was fumbling around in a dark room looking for the light switch. By taking a more measured approach, you can work more quickly and nail the cue more easily.

Step 1: Assemble Your Materials

The first step is to gather your reference tracks in whatever way is easiest for you to listen to them. I make an iTunes or Spotify playlist on my phone so I can listen in the car, while walking or at the gym. Do whatever works best for you—make a Pandora or Rhapsody playlist, burn a CD, buy songs on iTunes, or assemble a playlist of YouTube videos.

In this particular case the client just used one Explosions in the Sky song, but I knew much of their work is in the same vein so I created a playlist with all of their albums. In a case like this, where the client uses one specific piece, I always like to have more options to listen to. Broadening your choices gives you more options to choose from and you’ll be less likely to inadvertently “borrow” a bit of melody or a riff from the temp track. You’ll also be able to get a more general feel for the artist’s sound and it will be easier to distill it down to its essence as we’ll be doing in a moment.

In some cases you may need to do some research, like if the client says, “I want the soundtrack to be all early-’80s guitar rock, like Journey or Def Leppard.” In that case you could use the Similar Artists feature on Spotify or AllMusic.com to find other material that might also be suitable. Or if they want “classic John Williams” you might listen to Jaws, Star Wars, ET and the Indiana Jones scores.

Step 2: Listen

Once you’ve assembled all your tracks, it’s time to listen. This can take anywhere from an hour to several weeks, depending on your timeline. More time is always better, but obviously in some cases you don’t have that luxury. In the case of this project I literally had a couple of hours to listen before I needed to start writing.

Don’t get too technical yet, but do think about what all the tracks have in common, what their overall sound is, the instrumentation, the mood, and so on. You want to absorb the music and set your brain to that frequency. I find that when I immerse myself in a style of music like this it seeps into my consciousness and makes it much easier to write in that style. Oftentimes similar ideas just occur to me and the cue just sort of writes itself.

Step 3: Break It Down

Now that you’ve spent some time with the music, break it down. You may not need to get as technical as this, but I’ve assembled examples of questions to ask about the music so you can really get a handle on what its attributes are. (Lest the size of this list scare you away, in most cases all you have to do is identify the most notable elements of the artist or genre and focus on those):

  • Style: Starting simply, how would you classify the pieces? Are they Classical? Impressionistic? Minimalist? Folk? Rock? Post-Rock? One of the hundreds of genres and sub-genres of electronica?
  • Tempo and meter: What’s the range of tempos in the pieces (in beats per minute)? Are there typical meters the composer or band often use? Are there meters or tempos they don’t use?
  • Instrumentation: What instruments are used? If it’s a rock band, are they just guitar, bass and drums or are there other sounds—keyboards, synths, horns, etc.? If it’s orchestral is it a large orchestra or small? Are there unusual instruments or an atypical percussion section? What are the dominant instruments?
  • Composition: Is there anything compositionally that distinguishes the bulk of the tracks? What’s their overall shape? Do they begin quietly and build, or do they start with a bang? What’s the formal structure? Through-composed? Strophic? Binary? Rondo? Sonata?
  • Melody: How are the melodies constructed? Are they simple or complex? Long or short? Scalar or full of leaps? How do they interact with the harmony? Do they stick primarily to chord tones or do they frequently (or ever) land on extensions? Are they slow or fast? Are the melodic kernels short and simple or long and complex? Are there typical rhythms to the melodies? Are the melodies played by solo instruments? Are they doubled or harmonized?
  • Harmony and chords: What chords are used? Are they diatonic or does the harmony utilize modal interchange, secondary dominants or other non-diatonic chords? Are the chords simple triads or are they extended? Is there chromaticism, polytonality or even atonality? What are the representative harmonic rhythms?
  • Rhythm: Are there common rhythmic motifs? What’s the predominant pulse—sixteenth notes, quarter notes, whole notes? Is there syncopation? Are the rhythms straight or funky? Where is the rhythmic pulse concentrated? In the rhythm section or percussion? In the guitars? In the strings?
  • Effects: What does the ambience or reverb sound like? Are the recordings dry or do they use natural or artificial reverb? Are there any audio effects in use? If so, what are they? Are the vintage or modern-sounding? Is there compression? If so, what kind and how much? Are there delays, distortion or other audio effects?
  • Performance: Is the ensemble tight or loose? Does the song sound quantized and auto-corrected or is it more natural and “human-sounding?” Are the instrumentalists virtuosi or are they an unschooled punk band?
  • Other elements: Is there anything else that typifies the recordings that isn’t listed above? If you’re analyzing Led Zeppelin, you might cite the incredible power of John Bonham’s drumming. Or in the case of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra you might list the odd but refreshing combination of folk and minimalist Classical elements.

In the case of my Explosions in the Sky example, I discovered that much of their work is in 6/8 or 4/4 with a triplet feel, which made simple work of choosing a time signature for my piece. Their compositions often start quietly and build to a climax, sometimes settling back down to quiet once again. The instrumentation is drums and three guitars, with only occasional bass (this fact isn’t immediately obvious and reveals why a quick Wikipedia search can be a fruitful use of time). The songs employ relatively simple melodies and harmonies, and frequently use short repeated motifs that intertwine to form minimalist, trance-like curtains of sound. Rhythmically, the songs often rely heavily on eighth-note pulses which, combined with the 6/8 meter, heavily emphasize the triplet rhythms. The recordings sound natural, as though the band were captured playing live in the studio without much overdubbing. The drums have a very ambient, roomy sound and the guitars almost always use delay. They’re occasionally distorted, but the distortion is very natural-sounding, like amp gain rather than distortion pedals.

Armed with this information, I was able to quickly compose a cue that fit the brief. I only had a day and a half to assemble the rough, but the client liked it so much that they had no changes. Yes, it took a bit of time to do the research, but making that effort ensures that you nail the cue and please the client.

By way of a lesson, in my early days I actually got fired from a gig because I didn’t research the temp tracks thoroughly enough. I don’t even remember what the references were, but they were bands I’d never heard of and honestly didn’t particularly like. So instead of digging in deeper and figuring out what made them unique I listened to the supplied YouTube links a couple of times and wrote a rough track thought captured the sound closely enough. That was a mistake. After a couple of days I heard back from the client that they were going to “try a different approach” with the music.

With pretty much everything ever recorded available online somewhere, doing your research is easy. Even bands like AC/DC and Def Leppard, who notoriously refuse to be on iTunes and Spotify, are easy to find on YouTube (for better or worse). Take an hour or two and really analyze your reference tracks. Not only will it make you much more likely to please your client, but you’ll expand your repertoire and may learn a new trick or two in the process.

Edit: Here’s the final track. A bit cleaner and less raucous than an actual Explosions in the Sky tune, but then that was the request. The final video is below as well:

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