Here’s a quick tip on setting a compressor properly so you’re not overcompressing the signal. I got it from reading through the excellent posts like this one on Production Advice (mentioned in an earlier post). I’ve been using compressors for years and I can’t believe I never knew this bit of wisdom! Here it is:
In normal use (i.e. not for a special effect), set your compressor’s threshold so the gain reduction goes back to zero a few times each measure.
That’s it! That way you know you’re only compressing the loudest parts of the signal and not crushing the whole thing. It also ensures that the release time isn’t too long and the compressor has a chance to “let go” of the signal before the next loud bit. 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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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:
As film composers, we’re often called upon to create novel sounds. Genres like sci-fi and fantasy often require unique and unfamiliar music to effectively conjure up alien atmospheres or magical lands. There are a number of ways to achieve these effects—exotic instruments, bizarre synthesized sounds and unusual combinations of effects often work. But sometimes it’s best to conjure the unexpected musically rather than with orchestration or production. Here’s a neat trick to create interesting scales using tetrachords.
A tetrachord is a series of four notes, usually arranged within the space of a fourth (true tetrachords as developed by the ancient Greeks spanned a perfect fourth, but for our purposes augmented or diminished fourths work just as well, if not better). An easy way to think if them is as half of a standard seven-note scale. The pitches C-D-E-F form what’s called a major tetrachord, which also happens to be the bottom half of a C major scale. The pitches G-A-Bb-C form a minor tetrachord—the bottom half of a G minor scale. Put the two together and you get a C Mixolydian scale.
The best way to make sure you get the most from your talent is to use it. So, write a piece of music every day. This doesn’t need to be extravagant or even complete, rather just put your first thoughts down on paper, HDD, disc, etc. Make composing part of your daily routine. Not everything you do will be “good”, but the exercise will yield some bits and pieces that you can later turn into something special.
Too many people believe they must be in a creative mood to compose. It’s infinitely easier to procrastinate than to just start working. I fall prey to this distraction occasionally myself. But I’ve learned to work through it. You can’t be seduced by this unfortunate behavior either. You must banish those “ifs” and “buts” and start writing. That’s the key. Just begin and see where it takes you.
Here’s a quick tip that will help you clean up your mixes and make them less muddy. Add a high-pass filter to every track. Yes, even bass and kick drum tracks.
The reason for this is that unwanted low-frequency information will quickly muddy up your mix. Even tracks like triangle and glockenspiel will likely have low-frequency noise that may be inaudible to you. If you’ve got 20 or 30 tracks in your mix, all this mud will build up and overwhelm your low end.
Because of the way our ears work, the low end data in your mixes has to be significantly louder that the highs and mids to remain balanced. Thus, most of the energy in a track will be concentrated in the low end. This means that compressors and limiters will react to this low-end data first, and if a large part of it is non-musical rumble and mud, this will adversely affect the way the compressor works. Cleaning up the low end will mean your compression will be more musical and thus will sound better.