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 →
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.
Following up on my last post about sad music, here’s a great article from the Wall Street Journal about some of the musical secrets behind Adele’s Grammy-winning smash hit “Someone Like You.” Emotionally intense music, whether happy or sad, releases massive amounts of dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brains, acting like a drug and making us yearn for another dose. Intensely sad music behaves just like happy music in this sense—it causes physiological reactions in our brain that keep us coming back for more.
The article also details a couple of musical tricks that help to intensify the emotion, including the humble appoggiatura. In a study 20 years ago, the psychologist John Sloboda found this seemingly minor accent present in 18 out of 20 (unnamed) tear-jerkers. As the song’s co-writer Dan Wilson told Minnesota Public Radio, neither he nor Adele knew what an appoggiatura was when they were working on “Someone Like You.” They used it instinctively. As Wilson said, “Hey, if I had a scientific method for making a heartbreaking hit, I would do it every day… But it’s not so easy.”
Tired of using the same old chords in your cues? Modal interchange (also called borrowed chords) is a great technique to add variety and interest into your chord progressions. It’s an idea borrowed from jazz, but I guarantee you’ve heard it in hundreds of pop songs and film scores as well. You’ve probably even used it yourself without realizing it.
Modal interchange combines two rather simple principles. The first is the harmonized major scale. Simply put, that’s a fancy name for taking the notes of the major scale and building triads or sevenths on top of each one using notes diatonic to the scale. In C major, you end up with CMaj7, Dmin7, Emin7, FMaj7, G7, Amin7, and Bmin7b5.
I saw The Descendants a couple of weeks ago. It’s an excellent film, and much has been made about the fact that it uses no score. Instead, the soundtrack employs music by Hawaiian artists, much of it featuring existing recordings by some of the greats of Hawaiian slack-key guitar. This is entirely appropriate given the film’s subject and locale, and this strategy has been praised by Hawaiian musicians tired of Hollywood’s overuse of surf music and hula dancing to portray the islands. The music is beautiful and quite effective in the film, but I couldn’t help but notice a few of the disadvantages of creating a soundtrack using only songs.
I’m gonna get all classic rock on y’all again. Expanding on Bobby Owsinski’s analysis of Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway To Heaven” from November, I decided to geek out about the theory behind the tune in a little more detail. I realize it’s a rock song and not a film score, but there are some interesting and educational things to learn from the unusual way it’s crafted. In this post I’m also borrowing from and adapting Spy Tunes excellent piece, “How ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Used Modal Scales to Reach the Top.”
Despite “Stairway’s” eight-minute length, it’s relatively simple under the hood. Most of the melody uses just six notes (and their octave equivalents), and there are only five basic chords in the song. Structurally it has four main sections, two of which are related, and one is nothing more than a brief interlude. The apparent intricacy of the tune comes from its use of slash chords, modal interchange, the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic development throughout the song, and of course the remarkable musicianship of the band.
Bobby Owsinski has a nice little exploration of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” in his Big Picture Production Blog. Sure, we’ve all heard the song a million times, but it’s really interesting structurally. And as Bobby points out, it has a surprisingly huge sound for such a sparse arrangement (only 7 instruments).
Being a total theory geek, I wish he’d evaluated the chords and music, but perhaps that’s something I’ll do in the near future. In the meantime, here’s Owsinski’s analysis.
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.