Tagged: fundamentals

Forget Tech, It’s About the Notes

Photo by John McNicholas

I’m a little slow on the uptake this week, but my latest SCOREcast Online post went up on Monday. This month’s theme over at SCOREcast is technology, but I always like to stir up trouble, so I went in the opposite direction. Here’s an excerpt:

I know this month’s theme is about technology and all the hot new gear out there, but I wanted to step back from all that and share a bit of wisdom I’ve learned the hard way: when you’re composing, compose.

Don’t orchestrate, arrange, record or mix at the same time. Writing, orchestrating, recording and mixing are four independent processes which use different skills and different parts of your brain. Trying to do even two of them at the same time is distracting and counter-productive. It takes you out of the moment and diverts you down numerous paths that beckon seductively but will ultimately waste your time and weaken your finished product.

Read the full article here, and step away from your DAW.

John Cleese on Creativity

Photo by Peter Boothe

Co.Create has a wonderful summary of John Cleese’s recent talk at the Cannes International Festival on Creativity. In it, he shares four ideas on ways to maximize and enhance your creative endeavors. He talks about giving your ideas time to “bake,” the importance of playing, making use of the two kinds of thinking, and the danger of anxiety and interruptions. All told, a very worthy read. Read the full post here.

If you’re interested in more, there’s also a great 36-minute video of another Cleese lecture here, at BrainPickings.org. Many of the ideas are the same, but it’s well worth watching to pump up your creative inspiration.

Creating the Best Score for Your (Documentary) Film

Photo by Steve Rhodes

I stumbled across this blog post on Documentary.org while wandering the Web. It’s an interview with six film composers about the peculiar art of scoring documentary films. They talk about the idiosyncrasies of the music in documentaries, when they typically get brought on board, schedules and budgets, and much more.

By being involved earlier I had a longer time to conceive of the music…. You can’t speed up the process of just ruminating on something creatively.”

As a composer currently working on two docs, I found numerous bits of wisdom to take away. One of my favorite parts was the lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of temp music and how best to deal with temp scores (always a hot topic). They also talk a lot about the power of music in documentaries and what it can bring to the table—great fodder for your next negotiation with a client who’s balking at your bid.

While geared toward documentary composers, there’s plenty in the post for dramatic composers and filmmakers as well. Much of the discussion centers around the composition process and every film’s need for great music. These are universal topics, and the composers in question speak eloquently about the subject. All in all a worthy read.

Composers Confab: Creating the Best Score for Your Film

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.

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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Business Not Busyness

Photo by Paul Shanks

Here’s an interesting post from KonsonantMusic on how to get the most out of the composer/director relationship. Whether you’re a composer or a director, it’s well worth reading. The post details exactly what composers need from their directors: video and time code specs, picture lock, schedule and timing, constructive input and direction, and perhaps most importantly, clear communication.

So much of the composer/director relationship comes down to communication. This of course works both ways. If a composer is silent for weeks and doesn’t keep the director informed about what their up to, it should be obvious that that would be frustrating for the director. Likewise, if the director isn’t clear about exactly what they need the composer may end up having to make needless revisions. This may not seem like a huge deal from the director’s standpoint, but unhappy, overworked composers rarely do their best work.

Take a look, and see if you can find ways to improve your relationship with your composer or director on your next project.

How To Write Three Minutes of Music a Day

Here’s an excellent post from Deane Ogden (of SCOREcast fame) on getting the most out of your creative day and maximizing your composing time. Deane discusses topics like preparing for work, composing tools, scheduling your time and avoiding TV and meetings.

This is essential reading for anyone who’s serious about their composing career. While you’re there, Deane has many other great articles about creativity and the music business to inspire you. But be warned: he tells it like it is and doesn’t sugar coat the truth. If you take his advice you’ll likely end up working a lot more than you are now, but you’ll work smarter and faster, and likely improve your music and your career immeasurably.

Free eBooks on Composition and Orchestration

Image courtesy of Astroturfer, ©2010

I recently discovered this wonderful set of ebooks by Montreal composer and professor Alan Belkin. He’s got books on musical form, counterpoint, harmony and orchestration, as well as several other articles and essays. I’ve spent the most time with the orchestration book (since I’m currently orchestrating a symphonic piece for a March performance), and it’s excellent. I found it to be simple, straightforward, and full of great advice. Some of it is fairly common-sense and basic, but I never mind being reminded of the fundamentals, especially for something as complex as orchestration. The other books seem similarly well-written and instructional.

Incidentally, Belkin also authored the annotations to the online version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration, available at NorthernSounds.com.

All of Belkin’s writings are available at his website.

Compressors Made Easy

To really hear what a compressor is doing, set the Ratio and Threshold at their maximum.

Compressors can be confusing little buggers. When I was a recording novice, I was often baffled by them and was never really sure if they were doing anything. Even now, with more experienced ears, it’s still sometimes hard to tell exactly whether a compressor is adding anything useful to a track.

A compressor’s effect on a track can be subtle—and that Makeup Gain knob doesn’t help, since we usually perceive “louder” as “better.” I’ve often discovered, after thinking I’d improved my audio by adding a compressor, that all I’d done was make it louder. A few years ago I learned this handy trick for setting compressors: go way too far with the compressor’s settings so you can really tell what you’re doing, and then back them off:

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The Role of the Score

Image courtesy of Peter Szustka

Music is an integral part of movies. As proof, the list of successful films without scores is quite short: Annie Hall, Catch 22, Network, The Birds, Dog Day Afternoon, and just a few others. Why? What is it about music that makes it so common in films?

Music provides several elements in a film that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other ways, and it is of tremendous importance in reinforcing other aspects and strengthening their impact. Here’s just a partial list of what music can add:

Emotion
One of the most common uses of film music is to heighten or enhance the emotion of the onscreen action. Ideally, the actors will deliver much of the emotional impact of a scene, but the score can help the viewers connect more directly with the characters and their feelings.

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