Quick Tip: Leave a Hole

Photo by Esther Simpson

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.”

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The Myth of Writer’s Block

Photo by Michael Connell

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!

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Quick Tip: Get to Know Your Gear

Photo by Matt Brock ☼

I was reading a back issue of Sound on Sound last night and I came across this nugget in an article profiling songwriter and producer Alex Da Kid:

“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.

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.

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Soundcloud 101

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….”

As a bonus, if you own Ableton Live 8 you’re entitled to a free Soundcloud Pro account for five months!

Dovetailing

Photo by Miles Bintz

Film music tends to be sectional. A cue will be happy for a bit, then turn sad, then anxious. It’s the nature of the beast. Sometimes we want the changes to be abrupt, but sometimes the movie calls for a more invisible transition. I like to call this dovetailing. Just like in woodworking, dovetailing requires a carefully constructed overlap of two sections. Following is a quick tip for smoothly moving from one segment of a piece to the next.

Rather than allowing one section to end before beginning the next, start introducing elements of the later part into the first or vice versa. If your first bit has an eighth-note feel and your second is mostly whole notes, begin softly bringing in whole notes under the end of the first section. You can also fade the eighth notes at the end of the first part or carry them softly into the second to create more of a bridge and smooth the transition.

In my experience, dovetailing mostly involves the accompaniment. If one section uses arpeggiated figures in the background, carry those over into the other segment. If both parts use arpeggiation but of different types, change the arpeggiation before or after the section change. It’s really just a matter of gradually altering the accompaniment rather than changing it suddenly. It’s also easiest at first to focus on the rhythm. A triplet feel can slowly give way to a quarter-note pulse by gradually replacing triplets with quarter notes until you arrive at your destination.

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The Score, with Edmund Stone

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.

Music and Memory

You may have seen this video already, as it’s been making the rounds on Facebook and YouTube in the last few days. It’s not specifically about film scoring, but it is an amazing look at the power of music. It’s part of the Music & Memory project, dedicated to improving the lives of the elderly and infirm through the use of personalized music and digital technology. Visit their site here.

FREE SoundToys Little Radiator

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.

One caveat: users must have an iLok USB key and iLok.com account. If you do, get your copy here: https://www.soundtoys.com/sxsw2012/&rc=401-2047-977. And the more you pass around your link, the more chances you’ll have to win!