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.
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and posts lately about the importance of fixing timing and tuning, most notably in Sound On Sound’s excellent Mix Mistakes article from last September. There, author Mike Senior talks about how many amateur mixes he hears that have sloppy timing and dodgy tuning which ruin the impact of otherwise good songs. He does mention the importance of not going too far in this department, but knowing when too tweak and when to step back is a subtle art and definitely bears more discussion.
Listen to The Band’s awesome “We Can Talk” and imagine it would sound like in the hands of an overzealous Pro Tools user. Nothing in that recording lines up, and it’s an absolutely glorious thing. If you listen closely there are loads of “mistakes”—slight timing errors, missed notes, and general sloppiness—but none of it sounds wrong. Every smudge and inconsistency contributes to the overall impression of a hootenanny happening in the studio and the band having a ball doing it. Continue reading →
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.
Great film music can do a lot of things, but one thing it can’t do is “fix” a broken film. Yet composers are often asked to do just that. I suppose it’s bound to happen—we’re typically one of the last people to touch the film. Sometimes a project’s problems don’t really come to light until the editing phase, and music is often the next stage in the assembly line. Money is tight at that point, and there aren’t many other options available. So the director hands his baby to the composer and says, “Is there anything you can do?”
When asked to repair a director’s terribly flawed film, Bernard Herrmann famously said, “I can dress the corpse, but I can’t bring it back to life.” Music, as wonderful as it is, can only do so much. It’s great at enhancing what’s already there. A great score works with great writing, acting and cinematography to intensify the audience’s experience and pull them into the drama. But if the movie is weak, the score may help distract from the badness at times, but that’s about it. Imagine a poorly-paced car chase that’s obviously happening at 20 miles per hour. Putting super-intense action music behind it isn’t going to make it seem that much faster, and in fact it may make the scene more ridiculous. Audiences are savvy, and if what they hear doesn’t match what they see, they’ll feel manipulated and may even turn against the film.
We’ve all experienced it, struggling to sit through the uneven, incomprehensible film offerings of our compatriots. To quote local film maker Geets Romo, “If that was a fight, they would have stopped it.” But there is so much good stuff coming out of the Seattle indie film scene it’s clear that indie film does not have to be lame.
It seems that the art of melody writing has been forgotten in some circles. I’ve heard a number of film and TV scores in the last few years that feature huge percussion beds under whole-note string and brass chords, but not a shred of melody. Don’t get me wrong, these cues usually sound great—full and rich and super high-fidelity—but nobody’s walking around humming them. They’re all surface and no substance.
I’ll admit, I’m a bit old-school when it comes to film scores. I love Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. And there are plenty of more recent composers on my iPod as well: Michael Giacchino, Howard Shore, Thomas Newman and Patrick Doyle, to name just a few. Sure, these composers all write modern-sounding scores, but they also write great melodies, and melodies are what really gets people’s blood going.
I recently helped judge a best original score competition for a small local film festival. The entries were the definition of “a mixed bag.” Some were clearly the work of gifted film composers, while others appeared to have been recorded by someone’s boyfriend’s band. The differences between the two approaches was striking.
The film composers knew when and where to place music, and what to write to support the scene. The music followed the arc of the scene in what was sometimes a magical way, and several created an entire world for the movie, giving it a strong sense of place, time, or mood. The music enhanced the films in question, and elevated them above what they could have been otherwise. These scores sometimes even took a mediocre film and made it significantly better, causing it to feel more professional, more exciting, and better executed than it actually was.