Daily Film Scoring Bits – Archive Jan-Jun 2012

Posted on Jan 1, 2012 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


Welcome to the Daily Film Scoring Bits Archive of January to June 2012.

If you want to read the most recent Tips, Tricks and Hints, head over to the other DAILY FILM SCORING BITS ARCHIVES!

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06/29/12: In scoring session situations where time is precious, cautionary accidentals can save a lot of time. Notation programmes come with functions for cautionary accidentals but sometimes they are not completely reliable. Especially in bars where there are a lot of notes that might be repeated, it is always better to restate an accidental once again when needed even though it might be written already at the beginning of the bar. With this procedure you can minimize error quotes on scoring sessions quite drastically, especially on cues in accidental-heavy keys or lots of key changes. Generally, when you’re writing music, always presume a slight degree of lacking concentration of your musicians and write your music accordingly double-proof.

#orchestration

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06/28/12: When you record a solo instrument in your own studio it is always better to set up several microphones (e.g. one close, another one in the room). That is especially helpful for fitting in the sound later into your music mix. With several microphone signals you get more flexibility adjusting the sound by mixing the several signals in different ratios. Especially in orchestral tracks, solo instruments that have been recorded with a close mic only feel very strange and “on your nose” in the mix, no matter how much reverb you put on them.

#technical

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06/27/12: Neither composing chords first and then find a melody on top of them nor the other way around are optimal composition principles. In both ways you’re lacking ultimate control over what you’re writing. For example you have a chord progression that you like which is 8 bars long and obviously has its harmonic climax in bar 5. Unless you are absolutely aware of this and have a tremendous flexibility to shape a melody on top of these chords that mirrors the same dramaturgy and climaxes in bar 5 as well, chances are quite high that your two dramaturgy arcs will not be in sync completely which will be a lack of musical quality. Generally, you should try to get to the point where you can compose both levels simultaneously thinking at the same time about harmonic progression and melodic dramaturgy. Your compositions will become way more stringent if you take control over both elements at the same time and mold them together.

#composition

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06/26/12: Some of the most annoying jobs as a film composer are the ones where you are requested to “simply recreate the temp-track” and unfortunately, there’s no shortage of such jobs. Sometimes directors/producers get so used and comfortable with the temp tracks of their project that they basically cannot imagine having any other music for their project but can’t get the one they’re using for budget/license reasons. However, sometimes time and budget constraints also are a big reason why a temptrack needs to be recreated. If you find yourself stuck in a situation where you basically can’t or don’t want to convince your client to go a slightly more independent approach with the music than the temp track, your task basically is to find the essence of the temp track and try to capture that without drifting into plagiarism. In such cases it is also essential to figure out what it is exactly on the temp track that your client likes (e.g. orchestration). If you figured that out, you can change the other elements of the music slightly to create something new. However, once in a while there is the client from hell who simply wants the same cue once again and doesn’t want to make any compromises. In such cases, you either find a way to replicate the cue without replicating it or you have the guts to cancel the project (or at least threaten to do so, which can go wrong as well).

#film scoring

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06/25/12: Even though the job of a freelance composer is very unpredictable, developing a daily work routine will help you to work more efficiently. Irregular working hours combined with few sleep, irregular breaks etc. will in the long run be less efficient as your body constantly needs to adapt to new situations. Develop a scheme that allows you to combine the usage of your most creative times of the day, meals, breaks, your housework etc. and your private life and try to stick to it as good as you can. After a few days, your body will be used to the procedure and therefore be prepared for all tasks of the day more effectively. Working  in the pattern of “I just work as long as I can, doesn’t matter if it’s 4am” is not healthy but also sooner or later you will run into troubles as you will feel tired and uninspired at very odd times which is especially bad close to deadlines. A regular schedule not only allows you to be more efficient but your body and work output gets way more prodictable which is a serious factor on a job where you need to have a constant output.

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06/22/12: A great way to learn orchestration is to try and replicate a piece that you like by ear. You will focus way more on each voice and instruments and how they are used with this procedure than just by listening or even reading a score sheet. Even if you don’t succeed to replicate everything exactly, it is a great learning tool not only for your orchestration skills but also as a great ear training exercise. Of course, you should pick a piece according to your skills. Trying to replicate a big active action score as the first try will probably end in frustration.

#orchestration

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06/21/12: Not only your musical concept and style is part of making a score homogenous but also the mix. If you record a live ensemble for your score, you will most likely have a quite homogenous mix throughout the score as the room/mics etc. don’t change but if you produce a sampled score, make sure to not divert too heavily from the mix esthetics between the tracks. One cue sounding like a symphonic recording from John Williams and the next one sounding like a heavily produced track from Hans Zimmer will feel quite strange in the context of a project that should not only have a homogenous music structure but a homogenous sound.

#technical

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06/20/12: Coming back to your tonic chord in most cases creates the feeling of a section ending. This can be great to structurize your music and to clarify certain sections. However, inexperienced composers tend to overuse the tonic often within a section, coming back to it again once or even several times before the section ends which will create a strong feeling of breathlessnes and divides sections subjectively into small chunks and creates false expectations of structure. So when you compose, be aware of what your tonic chord is and how you use it and if you want to create structures that feel like a long melodic or structural arc, avoid coming back to it too soon.

#composition

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06/19/12: Avoid anything that draws too much attention on itself when you’re scoring dialogue. This applies especially for instrumental solos but also for uncommon playing techniques or strange registers. Dialogue score usually needs to be as un-obtrusive as possible or it will quickly feel like overscoring. Also be aware of not writing too rhythmically dense. Every rhythmical attack in a cue draws attention on itself so having a chord change every second is also not the most ideal choice. Dialogue scenes are usually not the scenes to show off your skills so keep them simple yet effective by giving them the right tone with simple yet effictive compositions.

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06/18/12: Becoming sick in the middle of a project is probably the most annoying thing and it usually happens without warning. Especially all kinds of flu with or without fever especially during the winter months will make all kinds of projects a struggle to work on. If you feel that you’re becoming sick during a project, try to give your body some rest and hope that it doesn’t turn out too badly. If you feel that a major flu is coming, it works for me to spend as much time as possible on creative decisions, writing themes etc. as usually the creativity is most impaired during a flu so having most themes etc in place before it hits you really bad is better as you can spend the time while you’re really sick on just working things out. However, there is definitely no convenient way to deal with such situations. It will always be very annoying. However, if you have the time to get well, it is definitely better to just hit the bed for a few days and then continue working instead of struggling through the project. If things get really worse (e.g. health issues worse than a common flu), your personal health should always be more important than any project. And there’s always the possibilitly to hand over the project to a colleague who might have ressources to finish it.

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06/15/12: If you have a melody for example in the trumpets (it works in any melodic writing but it is most prominent on brass themes), it creates a very nice colour to harmonize the melody on key motifs or phrases. Coming from all trumpets playing the theme together in unison to splitting them up into a chord for a few notes creates a fantastic new sound colour. Once again, the Star Wars Main Theme is a great example for that. While all trumpets enter ith the theme in unison after the intro bars they split up for the last 4 notes of the theme at around 0:16, which is a perfect example of the above described concept.

#orchestration

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06/14/12: HD crashes or computer failures can happen anytime and will most likely happen when you don’t need them at all. If you’re in the crunch time of a project, this can endanger your delivery and therefore cause a lot of stres. If your ressources allow for it, don’t only backup precious data regularly (when you’re working on a stressful project every day!) but have a backup work station that allows you to continue your work if your main system fails. On large DAW’s with lots of sample libraries, such a backup system is not realistical but it might be a good idea to have a laptop with your most used libraries always ready to go for the case that your main system has a failure. Also, it is always a good idea to use your main work station for work only and not install any strange program on it that you might find on the internet because often system failures are caused by dodgy software etc. Also of cours an up to date virus protection is obligatory.

#technical

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06/13/12: As a composer, you’re very often confronted with conversations about “finding your own voice” and “your piece sounds like composer xyz” and some young composers feel very under pressure to find their own voice. While of course a composer should have his very own personal style, unfortunately in the media world, you’re very often requested to write soundalikes. So being able to reproduce another composer’s style is not the worst ability as a young film composer. In my experience, setting yourself under pressure to “find your own” voice doesn’t help at all. You’ll automatically develop a personal style over time and it comes especially with experience. You could basically compare it to speaking a language. When you know only a few vocabularies, first of all you struggle to be understood at all and it would be strange to  deliberately use weird words then just to have a own “talking style” but when you know all the vocabularies, all rules etc. you will eventually end up using your own talkiing style, your own preferred phrases and grammatical structures. The same applies to composing so trying to rush this process will not have much of an effect apart from being frustrating.

#composition

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06/12/12: Strong emotions that are portrayed visually in the movie (e.g. someone crying desperately) feel rather akward when they get doubled by the music. You are usually better off scoring such moments rather sparsely or possibly even leave them in silence. Scoring them musically in the same intensity will very quickly feel unwantedly amusing and stylistically very old fashioned and operatic.

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06/11/12: It is always better to meet a potential new client in person than just writing emails or being on the phone. In general, it is much easier to convince people about your qualities in person and it is easier to read their facial expressions and gestures to respond appropriately. So whenever you can make it possible, propose a personal meeting with a potential client. Also, going to a restaurant or bar creates a more relaxed, friendly atmosphere than meeting in your studio or office and deals can be accelerated with your client having a more personal impression of you.

#general

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06/08/12: Having the sound of a full symphony orchestra at your fingertips to play with is always exciting and opens up endless possibilities for interesting soundscapes. However, orchestration should never be a tool to compensate for bad composition. Of course it is quite easy to cover up uninspired music with exciting orchestration and working actively as an orchestrator often means to try and save music with from being banal with orchestration. But your music should never hide behind the orchestration. Always try to imagine if the music that you’re currently writing would also be interesting if it was just a piano reduction. Writing music that works mostly based on impressive symphonic soundscapes might do the trick but it will not be truly good music.

#orchestration

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06/07/12: When you’re recording your music live, so-called breakdown charts are very helpful. Basically, this chart lists every cue that needs to be recorded with title, length and specific instrumentation of the cue. Also, it notes specials like when there’s a solo violin passage and things like that. In order to keep a quick overview over the instruments needed, it lists all available instruments in a row like Fl, Ob ,Cl, Bsn etc. and every row for specific cues the numbers needed for this cue (e.g. 2, -, 2, 1 meaning that 2 flutes, no oboe, 2 clarinets and 1 bassoon are needed in that specific cue). Often, your copyist service might prepare such a list but if that is not the case, it is still a very good idea to prepare one by yourself. The first advantage is, that you can plan the recording order with this breakdown much better, sending some musicians home early that are not needed for remaining cues. It is also extremely helpful just to make sure you got every cue recorded which might be an issue on larger projects with many cues and it is also very helpful for your recording engineer as he/she will know from this list exactly which microphones are needed and in case of instrumental solos can adjust the mics without needing to ask which will save a lot of time. Preparing these charts is quite a lot of work but it will save you alot of time during the session and make the session much smoother.

#technical

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06/06/12: Reharmonization of melodies is an excellent way to keep the interest up on repeating themes and to shed new light on an already known musical structure (e.g. like your main theme). There are countless concepts of reharmonizing a melody. The most basic ones deal with functional substitutions of chords that are applied quite mechanical. In the English language, the names of chords already include a hint for harmonic substitution (tonic alias, dominant alias etc.), so basically the “alias” chord can often stand for the original chord. Another basic principle is the fact that theoretically any dominant chord could be replaced by a dominant chord that is a tritone apart. A more creative and diversified approach is to functionally think about key melodic notes. If for example, your melody reaches a c as a target note, you have practically endless options: that c could be a the root note of a c major or minor chord, it could be the fifth of an f chord, a major 3 of Ab, a minor 3 of Am, a major9 of Bb, a maj7 of Db, a #11 of F# etc. You get the principle. You have basically endless options to reharmonize notes of your melody. The only factors limiting you is that the surrounding notes that are not melodically essential (like passing tones) still fit to the chord of your “key note” and that the resulting chord progression if you treat every melodic key note individually still makes a harmonic or at least esthetic sense. A resulting bass line with a strong melodic sense is often a good indicator for plausible chord progressions. A shortcut to that is to write a nice sounding bass line to your existing melody and harmonize that bass line afterwards. You see, the possibilites are endless and I can only briefly mention them here but the main thing is, to stay open to possible harmonic alterations as there is no one  fixed and only working chord progression to any melody.

#composition

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06/05/12: Rewrites of cues due to re-cuts of the movie are very annoying but unfortunately quite common. If the edits are not as drastic (like trimming a few frames here and there), there a good chances that you can make your old cue fit again by altering the original tempos slightly which is quite an easy rework. If scenes get changed very heavily like whole lines being cut out or whole scenes being added, the rewrite process becomes quite complicated. It works to a certain extend to “cut” the music by adding/removing single or several odd bars, extending a few melodic lines etc. However there is a danger of the music getting a “patched” feeling which is of course something you would want to avoid. If you can predict that the rewrite will cause a heavy patchwork, you might actually be better of rewriting the sequence or a passage entirely, not only from the esthetic standpoint but also considering the time needed. Finding plausible transitions for patches or cuts might be more time consuming than just rewriting the whole thing.

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06/04/12: Be sure BEFORE you sign for a project whether you can deliver or not. It is probably the worst nightmare and questioning your professionalism if you cancel the work on a project in the middle because you realize that you cannot deliver what is requested from you even though you could see this coming. So if you get asked to do a gig that is outside of your comfort zone, make sure whether this is still something that you can pull of or not. If you agree to do a deal and in the middle figure out that you cannot deliver, unless there is a plausible other reason to cancel the project, you need to pull it through at all costs even if that means that you need to hire external forces and your income for the projects melts to practically zero. But abandoning a customer who has a deadline to meet as well and didn’t do anything wrong in the middle of a project is close to a personal professional suicide and has a very high chance of derailing your career.

#general

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06/01/12: While bow tremolos on the strings create a great shimmering or a very climactic effect, make sure to not write too long passages in tremolo. Especially on loud dynamics, this technique becomes quite exhausting and eventually the muscles of your players will become sour which will result in worse playing. So make sure to not overuse that technique and if possible give your players a little rest after an extensive tremolo passage.

#technical

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05/31/12: When you’re sending demos out as mp3 to possible customers or make your music available for (free) download online, make sure to use proper ID3 tags. These tags are encrypted in the file and contain usually track name, album title and – most importantly for a film composer – the composer’s name alongside other information. Most mp3 players and playback devices read these tags and use them for their sorting algorithm (rather than the file name). If you ever have a potential customer listening to your music and thinking “Wow, that music is great, who is that guy?” and the only thing he can find out is that the file name is “Demo1.mp3”, that will be the worst case scenario. ID3 tags remain intact even if you change the file name. You can create ID3 tags without even a special program just by opening and altering the file properties (on Windows) and probably on Mac as well or most audio editing programs offer a function to create ID3 tags as well.

#technical

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05/30/12: 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.

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05/29/12: On tight budgets and/or deadlines, it might not be the most elegant solution but it might help to re-use music material on several spots. If there are for example several romance scenes that all have a more or less similar feeling, it might be worth thinking about writing a few “romance” elements and later cut them together according to the scene length and dramaturgy. Of course, you should make sure that the key and tempo of all the elements match. Such a working procedure should of course be an exception and is only a compromise when you have to cut corners. Lazyness is not a reason for that.

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05/28/12: There is practically no working possibility to prevent illegal useage of your music except for not publishing any music. As soon as you make your music public, there is a chance that it will get used illegaly. For you as a composer it is practically impossible to track everything etc. and even performance rights organizations which you might be member of will not be able to do anything about that. However, consider that the financial loss that you’re having by that is considerably low as people who use your music illegaly will most likely not have any money to pay for the use anyway and projects that do have the money will most likely not use music illegaly. Preventing illegal use by not publishing anything (online) might not be the greatest idea either as this will also prevent your name being in the rotation. So the bottom line is, illegal useage of your music is annoying but it is worthless spending energy on this matter.

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05/25/12: Double basses have a quite unfocussed sound, especially in their very low register. In some occasions, it might be even tricky to actually identify clearly which note they are playing. This occurs on passages where the basses have a quite solistic role. In order to clarify the pitch, they usually get doubled an octave higher by the celli in such situations which add a precise pitch  impression to the sound. If there is a (string) chord above the bass note, doubling is not neccessarily needed as the chord tones will also clarify for our brain which pitch the contrabasses are playing. There are also instruments at this very low register which create a very clear pitch impression due to their harmonic spectrum. Especially the contrabassoon and the contrabass clarinet can produce a very focused sound that low. While the tuba can reach these notes as well, it also has a less focused sound. So depending on what impression you’re after, you should keep these (doubling) alternatives in mind for your orchestration work.

#orchestration

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05/24/12: Delivering your finished tracks on CD or DVD is not the greatest idea, especially on tight deadlines. Any optical medium has a certain amount of errors which can be compensated for to a certain degree but sometimes due to bad handling, cheap CD-R’s or DVD-R’s they might have errors that produce audible artifacts or in the worst case make the disc unreadable. The best way to deliver tracks nowadays is over the internet. There are several possibilities like setting up an ftp, using WeTransfer, Dropbox etc. to deliver files securely. Also, these possibilities eliminate the time of transfering a physical medium and allow for quick corrections in case there might be an error. Even if a customer asks for a optical medium, I would always propose digital delivery or at least prepare one for the case that the optical media have errors.

#technical

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05/23/12: To have a thorough knowledge of classical counterpoint writing is definitley benefitial to sharpen your musical understanding but the strict classic rules hardly have any application in modern (film) writing. The term “contrapuntal” now rather refers to a more side-line orientated, horizontal writing style and while many of the classical rules are a good general guideline (e.g. parallel movements etc.) they are by far no strict rules anymore that make musical quality. Also, strict forms of contrapuntal writing like the fugue etc. have rarely any practical use in film writing anymore. One of these very rare cases where a fugal episode appears in film scoring is the SETTING THE TRAP sequence from HOME ALONE by John Williams, probably as an emotional reference to baroque christmas music. The pure forms of actual several horizontal lines standing “punctum contra punctum” is also rarely seen in film scoring. One example is the CYBERTRONICS sequence from AI -ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, again by John Williams. Note the free tonal approach where both lines keep forming small “islands of tonality” for a few moments just to move away from them again. Nevertheless, I can not recommend enough to study classical contrapuntal writing and try some exercises following the rules strictly to sharpen your own musical understanding and level of control.

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05/22/12: There is a very thin line between scoring something funny and scoring something silly. Inexperienced composers tend to overwrite funny scenes by composing silly music. Not every character who has a clumsy side needs to have a score that points its finger at that. Usually, the humor is more effective when the scoring remains quite subtle in such situations. This doesn’t only refer to mickey-mousing, where you musically highlight every “slapstick” moment, but also how you use obvious scoring clichees (trombone glissandos, vibraslap, lots of pizzicato etc.).

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05/21/12: Unfortunately, in the media world, payment moral is sometimes not the best. Often, this isn’t even down to someone trying to rip you off but the general budget shortcomings of some projects. Of course, this is a highly annoying situation when you’re waiting for a long time to get paid and your possibilities to create pressure are very limited. You should be very thoughtful about your reaction in such situations. First of all, you might want to work again with this client so bringing in a lawyer will not create the best working conditions for future projects, secondly, your lawyer costs might exceed quite easily the amount of money that you’re fighting for and thirdly, there might just be no money that you could get hold off even with a lawyer. So, in most cases, the only thing that you can do is waiting. Only in the cases where you actually feel that you’re being ripped off it might be a good idea to actually bring in a lawyer (as you most likely don’t want to work with clients that rip you off again) to try to get your money. Of course, that is only practical when you have an actual contract or deal stating how much money you are supposed to get. So the bottom line is: try to budget your expenses without money that you’re supposed to get at a certain date because there is a permanent possibility that the payment gets delayed and secondly: negotiate a payment agreement for every project!

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05/18/12: Dynamics are relative and not absolute. There are no absolute values for “how loud is forte” but it is depending on various parameters like the orchestra which is playing, the location of the orchestra, the grade of professionalism of the orchestra, the instruments, the size of the room etc. Also, the same dynamic can mean different things: while for example a trombone player who is supposed to play a theme at forte will play it the way that it stands out on top of the orchestra, a trombone player who is part of a trombone chord played at forte will play with less volume in order to fit in and support the rest of the orchestra. So as in many cases with orchestration: experience is everything. Read along score sheets of recordings and take a closer look at the dynamics and how they translate to the actual performance.

#orchestration

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05/17/12: When you deliver cues to the final mix, be very careful with the mastering of your tracks. Basically, the more dynamic your tracks have, the better. Don’t use heavy compression and limiting. In the final mix of the movie, the compression/limiting is done anyway so when you deliver something that is already heavily compressed and limited, it will rather cause the engineer to level down your music against the dialogue/sfx as it will probably have too much presence.

#technical

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05/16/12: In film music writing, plain dominant seventh chords or diminished chords sound quite old fashioned and are stylistically not standard nowadays. Using such chords alot creates a feeling of golden age and classical wich some customers find very disturbing. If you get a feedback by a customer saying “It sounds too old fashioned”, your harmonic language might be a good starting point to check. Generally, V-I cadences, especially when done very plain, sound very old fashioned. Usually you might want to replace a dominant 7th chord by a sus4 chord or use more “modern” chord progressions (moving chords in thirds, modal interchanges) in order to create a more modern filmic sound.

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05/15/12: Good scores have a cohesiveness beyond their single cues that ties them together and makes them feel as a unified whole, even though the single cues might divert into many different scoring directions. Apart from obviously tieng cues together by using themes and motifs, there are several other possibilites to create a cohesiveness. Featuring a special instrument or group of instruments throughout the score is a very strong unifying factor. Also, relying on special composition techniques and languages like for example minimalism, using jazz/rock elements etc. can help tremendously to make a score feel tied together. The most important thing is that you keep an eye at how the cues you write don’t just work in the specific scenes but also in relation to each other.

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05/14/12: Have a clear understanding about how your portfolio appears to possible customers. In the entertainment business, 85% of what counts is WHAT you have worked for. Do you have a big movie in your portfolio? An advert gig for a major company? A national or even international TV show? Awards? These are the things that possible customers look at, they want to know whether you are able to deliver and whether you have delivered successfully in the past. Don’t have the wrong assumption that any orchestra credit (“I recorded with prestigious orchestra XY”) only has a marginal influence. It will not make your portfolio much more valueable because you have worked with orchestras etc. It is also a wrong assumption that once you have worked with a real orchestra, this will kick-start your carreer etc. So when you’re writing a portfolio, don’t focus too much on these things. You want to impress media guys (who often have no big understanding of the music world) and not fellow musicians with your portfolio and these guys hardly care about how you got to the result that you delivered for projects but only what the result is.

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05/11/12: One of the biggest reasons why an orchestration becomes boring and flat over time is that the functions of the instruments in the orchestration doesn’t chang or changes too rarely. When the strings keep playing an accompanying staccato pattern while the horns play a theme and the trombones play sustained chords over several minutes the whole texture becomes boring and onedimensional. When you’re orchestrating, check your groups and sections for their functions during the piece and make conscious decisions about their use. On the other hand, changing too often and too quickly might become confusing for the listener, so as always: trust your ear and your gut feeling.

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05/10/12: Be realistic about what is achievable in a professional mix and what not. Especially on orchestra recordings where the whole orchestra has been recorded in the same room at the same time, there is no real possibility to heavily alter the mix. Usually every instrument is present more or less on every microphone so raising the level of one microphone might also raise the level of the instruments that are sitting nearby. No mixing engineer can turn a bad sounding orchestra in a bad sounding recording venue with bad orchestration into a first class hollywoodish sound. Apart from the levels that can only be adjusted in a very small range, also the room itself can not really be heavily altered. You can add reverb but on a small recording stage, the result will just sound like a small room with reverb and not like a big recording stage. A good mix will add a certain transparency and balance to the sound, will influence slightly the sound characteristics of the ensemble but will never have a huge difference compared to what you heard in the monitor mix. If you want more mixing freedom you need to record the ensemble in separate groups but, as mentioned in a tip earlier, you lose the quality of a “big ensemble playing together” with that.

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05/09/12: Melody writing has a lot to do with melodic tension and proper resolution. Usually, the degree of tension is determined by the underlaying chord. An f in the melody over a C major chord has a strong tension and wants to resolve stepwise upwards to the g or downwards to the e, of which both are chord tones. Jumping away from this f to another tension note will feel melodically weak, also if that happens over a chord change and you jump from there into a new tension note over a new chord.. Jumping away from a tension note to a chord tone that is not a step away is melodically possible but sometimes not melodically strong as well. When you’re writing melodies, you should always have an eye at the degree of tension certain notes have with the underlaying chord.

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05/08/12: In some situations, it might be the better choice to musically ignore hit points that you normally would score in favor of a higher dramatic purpose. For example imagine a battle scene with lots of action going on, many visual “hits” that could be highlighted by the music. However, as this might cause a certain fatigue over the long run, you might want to decide to score it not from the action perspective but from the emotional perspective with music that portrays the seemingly desperate situation of the main character(s) or something compareable. Another greath example ist the TEST DRIVE sequence from HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.  Composer John Powell avoids highlighting quite a few quite obvious visual cues in order to portray the triumphant emotion paired with the scenic images.

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05/07/12: Writer’s block is something that is extremely annoying especially when you are under heavy deadline pressure. At certain moments, if you let yourself being dragged down by this, it can even cause pure despair. Whenever you suffer from writer’s block, you need to develop psychological strategies to not completely lock up. It is often a good way to just get out and think about something else for a while instead of pondering for hours over a problem. Just doing a walk, or anything else that distracts you for a moment might give you enough distance to think about the problem from a new perspective. If you have the possibility to work on another cue/section where you actually have ideas for, do that. A few hours or days of distance from a seemingly unsolveable problem might just be enough to get new inspiration. However, avoid under any circumstances to imply to yourself things like “I don’t have any idea, I’m not gonna make it, I’ll lose this gig etc.”. This is the worst thing you can do!

#general

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05/04/12: The size of the room that you’re recording in does not only influence the natural ambience but also the balancing in the orchestra. While small rooms will focus very much on the brass (especialy trumpets) and it is practically impossible to balance them evenly with the rest of the orchestra no matter how many string players you get, this balancing will even out on larger spaces and go as far as trumpets losing their presence in very large rooms. When you’re orchestrating, you should count have these things in the back of your mind and set at least dynamic markings accordingly or in extreme cases orchestrate differently.

#orchestration

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05/03/12: Sometimes, it is better to deliver music cues in so-called stems. Stems are separate audio file of the same track with different parts of the ensemble, like one stem for Woodwinds, one for Brass etc. Most sequencers can export stems easily. The important thing is to make sure that all have the exact same length and starting point so they can be placed on top of each other without much hassle. The good thing about stems is, that the mixing engineer still has the balance in his/her hands and when one instrument colashes with the voice or has an annoying sound, he/she doesn’t need to reduce the overall volume of that track but just of the stem with the instrument. Usually, you shouldn’t deliver more than 5 stems to the mix (unless requested otherwise) or it might become a bit chaotic for the engineer.

#technical

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05/02/12: Writing good melodies is one of the trickiest things in composing. One of the common mistakes of rather inexperienced composers is to write melodies that overstress a certain pitch or a certain range. This happens quite quickly especially on diatonic chord progressions as the availability of melody notes that work nicely is quite limited. Keep an eye at possible overstressed notes as they get quite annoying, sometimes even painful and imply a certain stationary feeling of your melody not going anywhere. Repeating a note a few times is not a problem but when at several bars one notes appears several time on heavy counts, you should try to rewrite your melody.

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05/01/12: Ethnic references in the music can be a very sensitive issue. When they are state inappropriately, it might quickly feel like a racist remark even though your intentions were purely to “localize” a character. In general, avoid scoring any sort of character just due to their ethnicity unless there is a really plausible reason for that. Ethnic references for the portrayal of a certain location in the movie is less sensitive but even there you should in general be cautious. Using ethnic instruments or musical language is only appropriate if it is essential to the storytelling or to understand a character but should never be done just for the sake of doing it.

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04/30/12: Don’t make your own career depending solely on someone else’s career. Don’t feel like you have your foot firmly on the ladder just because you have a great working relationship with one director/company who’ll definitely hire you for every project he/she does. It is a very comfortable situation not needing to aquire jobs because they keep coming in but media business careers are way too fragile and short-lived. What currently looks like a big and safe working relationship can quickly vanish into nothing when suddenly one of the movie/project of the director/company has no success or other unforseen things happen. Build up a career and a network that is based on several important working contacts that allow you to compensate if one suddenly disappears.

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04/27/12: Large register changes in string instrument usually mean that the bow needs to be lifted across at least one string. When your violins for example are part of an accompaniment ostinato in the low/mid register and in the next bar move to their highest register to play the theme, this might be such a situation. Problems will happen when the register (and therefore string) change needs to happen within a very short time (e.g. when on that ostinato the last 16th note of the first bar still needs to be played and in the next bar the theme falls already on the downbeat). In such situations, it is practically impossible to play this rhythmically tight and most players will probably leave out the last note of the ostinato in order to get the theme entrance right. Intonation might suffer, as well. Also, chances are quite high that in such a short time noise will be produced by the bow slightly touching the string that needs to be crossed. The best solution will be to deliberately write in a short rest for the strings so they can change the string properly and safely and write your orchestration accordingly.

#orchestration

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04/26/12: More or less every session musician is used to playing/recording while wearing headphones. However, on some productions you might often have to record with an ensemble or an orchestra that might not have experiences in recording with click. Especially mainly concert orchestras might have problems with that. In general, other than in situation where the musicians get a monitor mix as well as a click through their headphones, on orchestra sessions usually only the click and possible additional elements are fed through the headphones. Therefore, it is necessary for the musicians to also hear each other and not only what is coming out of the headphones. In ear headphones are very unpractical for this as they cover too much of the external hearing. Headphones that cover the ear are slightly better. There are special headphones that come only with one side and leave the remaining ear free. Even on two sided headphones the musician might want to take off one side in order to hear each other, however on two sided headphones, depending on how they put the side of the headphones they aren’t using at their head, it might cause for clicktrack bleed to the mics. So if you have any influence on the choice of headphones for your orchestra or ensemble session or if you’re doing it at your own studio, make sure to get the best possible headphones for that situation and avoid in-ears.

#technical

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04/25/12: Doubling a melody over a long time a third/sixth below or above is in general something that musically works and creates a pleasing result. However the stylistic and taste level of that is highly doubtable as it creates a very cheesy overall feeling. In general it only works in very specific context. In any other context it is rather considered to be something you wouldn’t want to do.

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04/24/12: Avoid having too many music cues to start and end with scenes. One of the strong powers of film music is to glue together scene changes by overlapping. If you end a cue with a scene and start a new cue in the next scene several times, the scene changes get highlighted by that and therefore might feel even more radical. The easiest way to avoid that is to let the end of cues overlap into the next scene, even just a sustaining fading out string chord will do. A slightly more attractive solution if placed properly is to start cues before a scene change. A potential dialogue for example which has an important information at the end and then a scene change can for example be a very attractive to start the cue on the important dialogue information and then move on into the score for the next scene.

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04/23/12: Being a composer, or rather being self emplyed requires a tremendous amount of self discipline. If you have the possibility to fall into lazyness, the temptation to actually fall into it is quite high. Every self employee knows that sometimes the desire to just close this really annoying project and go out and do something else is something to struggle with more or less often and procrastination might really get a serious issue. One thing, that will NEVER work when you are on projects with deadlines is to wait for the last moment to start. “I can work best under pressure” is a terrible excuse and way too much of a gamble. Most projects come up with problems during the working process that you couldn’t anticipate when you started out. There might be last minute changes or “another extra cue” and if you have spent 2 weeks doing nothing and try to write the score in the last 3 days instead of spreading the workload evenly, exactly such unforseen events will break your neck. Everybody knows that even in your dream job, you can’t always work on fun projects that will motivate you to work as much as possible just because you enjoy working on them so much. But even on the less enjoyable projects, you need to keep self discipline. Try to find anything to motivate you. Things like “This project will pay 3 of my rents” etc. might be good things to start with.

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04/20/12: When you notate music for a live ensemble, especially on film sessions, the highest goal should be to make the music as easily readable as possible. When not done properly, this is usually the biggest unneccessary time consumer in scoring sessions. Especially accidentals are a regular source for wrong notes so extra care should go into this, even though it might seem really picky but it helps your musicians a lot to be thorough on that. Not only can missing accidentals cause chaos, but you should also avoid mixed accidentals in the same chord, if possible stick to one type of accidentals for a longer passage (like not notating a G# major chord in a chord progression that obviously is in F minor). Also, cautionary accidentals can save your scoring session, it is always better to write an accidental once too often instead of once too less. Special care needs to be taken on chromatic lines/passages. Chromatic upwards always is done with sharps and downwards always with flats, as this avoids unneccesarily confusing naturals along the way. A general key signature nowadays is only used if a piece stays for a longer time in one key. If you write music that keeps switching the tonal center very often, you’re better of not notating any general accidentals but write them in whenever they are needed.

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04/19/12: On scoring session situations, audio clicks are way more tricky and problematic than using internal clicks from e.g. Protools. Audio clicks are basically audio files like an mp3 that contain a click track to which the orchestra will be recorded. It needs the proper amount of count-in bars etc. If you have an actual “session” set up in Protools for every cue that has the correct bars/tempi etc. using the internal click is way more flexible. Advantages are that you can change the number of count ins, you can change the click sound, you can easily do pickups by just telling the engineer to record again from bar 64 etc. Also, in case there might be something wrong with the clicktrack, wrong tempo etc., you can easily change it . If you have an audio click only, this might cause a nightmare. If you can’t get around having audio click tracks, you need to at least triple check every clicktrack thoroughly and read it several times against the score sheet to make sure that everything is absolutely correct. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also check the Sessions in Protools thoroughly beforehand, of course.

#technical

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04/18/12: Arpeggios or respective broken chords can be a great tool  for accompaniement patterns or sources for melodic gestures. On accompanying figures they help to establish a sense of harmony but also keep a steady rhythm going, on melodies they help to “bridge” large melodic gaps in a plausible way. However simple triad arpeggios very quickly sound overly simple and stylistically more in the field of Mozart than modern film music. One very simple trick that might help is to not have a triad arpeggio going on (c e g e c e g e c) but instead use the ninth of a chord for the pattern (c d g d c d g d / d e g e d e g e). With this little alteration, your arpeggios will suddenly sound way more filmic.

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04/17/12: When underscoring a dialogue, usually everything in the music that draws too much attention on itself can quickly become obtrusive and feel like overscoring. Take specific care with the dynamic range of your cue and also avoid extreme registers. Obviously, you should also be very careful of writing anything in the range of the speaking voice. Also consider that every rhythmic attack in the music draws attention to itself, so usually, the best dialogue score is a very transparent orchestration with only few melodic/rhythmic movements, no specifically featured solo instrument and  a more or less consistent volume.

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04/16/12: In any creative job there is a certain amount of “double work”. Sometimes you decide by yourself that a cue doesn’t fit and rework it, sometimes a customer wants a rewrite etc. However, NEVER throw away any ideas that are not completely bad. There will be possibilities more often than you might think to re-use material “from the drawer”. The most important thing however is, to organize these old ideas so you find them again when you need them later. A good naming and sorting structure is highly neccessary. It might also help to have a bounce of the project as it was alongside the project files so you can quickly open it and listen whether it might fit without needing to actually reload it into the DAW or scoring programme.

#general

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04/13/12: To achieve the typical hollywoodesque soaring string sound, like for example on the E.T. Main Theme, it is important to concentrate as many string instruments as possible on the melodic line. Basically, you need a quite large orchestra to get it sounding sweeping at all and even then putting the melody only in the first violins doesn’t cut it. What usually happens is (depending on the register of the highest line) to double that line in octaves in at least the second violins and violas, if not even additionally in the cellos. When the line is quite low, you would rather double the violins at unison and then have the octaves below in the violas and cellos. However, be aware to not get too low with the cellos (approx. the c below middle c should be the lowest note) or you will create quite muddy sounds in the low register.

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04/12/12: Some sound esthetics that are practically not possible to be reproduced by acoustic instruments are nowadays “style defining” for film music. So often, on film music, a large amount of manipulation is been done on the music. Apart from the very obvious ones like filtering or applying obvious effects a few more subtle ones have become quite common. One of these is for example to mix in a low sub synth with only few harmonics (close to a sine wave) on sustaining orchestra chords to “help” the basses. This has this nice and highly effective subwoofer rumbling effect in the cinema. Another one is to use different reverbs on different instruments, e.g. to give a solo piano that typical reverby Thomas Newman sound while the rest of  the orchestra is mixed much dryer. When you’re doing these things on your own, a firm understanding and feeling of stylistic ideals is important, which can only be learned by listening to a lot of film music.

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04/11/12: Inner line movement can improve a compsition tremendously and often helps to  make music more interesting and less static. A basic concept for this is for example when one instrument moves to another pitch as part of a new chord, instead of letting it move there by a leap to “embellish” this leap by stepwise motion. If you use this principle on for example a complete string setting, just this simple working procedure can make a static “chords sitting there” string accompaniement into a musically interesting structure with polyphonic character. You can influence how strong this effect should be by either using it only one one voice up to using it on all voices or anything in between.

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04/10/12: Silence does not only work sometimes fantastically to give whole scenes a special impact but can also be a very effective “climax”, which works most effectively in the thriller/horror and comedy genre. In the thriller/horror genre it is always a tenseful moment when suddenly there is no acoustic “signal”. This can add tremendously to the discomofort of certain scenes. On comedies, buid-ups to a point are very common and often on the climax things happen that were not predicted and therefore create that joke moment. These moments often work very nice with sudden silence. Also, situations like THIS, often occur in comedies and work brillantly with sudden silence.

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04/09/12: Some customers might want you to take part in a so called pitch, which means that you write music for the project or present ideas while one or more other composer(s) do the same and eventually the composer gets picked who fulfills the client’s idea of what the music should be in the best way. While this is highly comofrtable for the client to check their composer under the “actual working conditions” before they hire him/her, it is a very annoying procedure for the composers but unfortunately highly common (especially in the advertising business). Decent customers/companies usually pay a pitching budget for every composer even when he/she doesn’t get picked for the job. However, unfortunately, many companies/customers still think that pitches should be for free which from any creative’s standpoint is highly unethical. If you find yourself in a situation where you are asked to pitch for free, if you are serious about your business, taking part in this pitch should be a no-go. However, of course, there are still enough composers who might be too desperate or want this project so badly to actually still take part in this sort of pitch and the bad thing is that, as long as composers are willing to participate in pitches for free, these companies will not rethink their policies…

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04/07/12: Stopped horns can create a beautiful and sinister, glassy sound. This sound is produced by putting one hand almost completely into the bell of the instrument only allowing the metal of the instrument to vibrate when it is being played. The resulting sound is compareable to a harmon mute sound of a trumpet. It is much softer than the open sound but can be quite piercing and present. This playing technique is indicated with a little plus (+) on top of the note and is not to be mistaken with a muted sound which has a slightly different sound quality. Also note, that intonation on stopped notes gets a bit more tricky.

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04/05/12: Recording with click track as opposed to streamers and punches is the standard choice nowadays and while it has advantages like musicians playing tighter together, it definitely also has disadvantages which are usually the degree of musical “breathing” of passages which get more mechanical with a click track. On some occasions it might be a good choice to not record with click, eg when you don’t need to hit specific hit points. If you can find a conductor who feels comfortable with streamers and punches and a recording facility that is equipped for this technique, I would prefer it in most cases as it gives music that is not relying on a steady beat or rhythmic pattern a more musical interpretation. Also, you will not have problems with click track bleeds with this method. However, also be aware that pick ups (recording only a few bars to patch a wrong note in one of the earlier takes to later cut it in) is easier when recording to click tracks.

#technical

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04/04/12: Rhythmic variety is a great tool to keep “steady” structures alive and interesting. If you write a piece in a straight 4/4 meter and establish a steady eighth pulse and change the chord on every downbeat, a certain feeling of monotony will establish. It helps tremendously if you alter the rhythm a little. Throwing in a triplet-eighth group or changing the accents of eights notes from 2+2+2+2 into e.g. 3+3+2 once in a while will make your piece much livelier without needing to fundamentally change into a new section/theme to keep it interesting.

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04/03/12: Some actions in a movie are supposed to have a surprise moment for the audience, for example in the horror/thriller genre. If you hit them musically, they should also be surprising in a musical context. If you establish a steady 4/4 meter with your music and the “surprising” hit point falls on a downbeat of your music, the complete effect of a surprise will be diminished by the music as it is quite forseeable. It is much more effective to place such hit points also on rhythmically surprising moments in your music.

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04/02/12: Never agree on a deal too quickly. If someone calls you up and offers you a gig on something that sounds great and gets you excited, don’t let your emotions of the moment make you agree on something that you’ll regret later. Even if it is just on the phone, it is very unprofessional to later call up your customer and say something like “Well, I know I agreed on that dea on the phone but I thought about it again and I’d love to do it, but can we make it $1000 more?” Never let anybody push you into agreeing on something right away. It is always better to even find an excuse like that you need to check your schedule and move around things in order to have enough time to do the job or something like that. Any decent customer will not push you into agreeing on something right away. The only exception you can do on these things is with working contacts that you already have worked with and know that they are not going to rip you off and on projects that have a workload that you can quickly and immediately estimate like “Hey, we need a 10 sec logo fanfare until tomorrow, can you do that?”.

#general

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03/30/12: Low brass stabs have become highly popular recently and are widely used in film scores. Usually this is a combination of trombones/bass trombone and tuba, occasionally doubled with low percussion. In order to get them to sound effective, you need to take care of a few things. Even though the bass trombone and tuba are technically able to reach notes that are lower than two octaves below middle c, these notes are a bit problematic. Due to the fact that the air in the instruments needs some time to start vibrating, it is quite tricky for them to play precisely and forcefully on time that low. Therefore, avoid anything below the low Bb in order to have a precise stab. Also, take care that your tenor trombones don’t get to high, or the effect of that low stab gets diminished. Anything above the c one octave below middle c is already questionable. Also, at times you might want to consider not having the tuba participate at all in these stabs as it doesn’t have that brassy, aggressive sound as the trombones but rather a boomy and soft sound. So when orchestrating such stabs, depending on the pitch, you need to decide whether the best “stabby” effect is achieved by having all at the same pitch or splitting them up in octaves, which in general creates a stronger sound.

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03/29/12: Due to the fact that most orchestras tune to a = 442 or 443 Hz, it is sometimes tricky to mix together elements that have been preproduced with the recording. While most plugins/synths etc. nowadays allow to change the master tuning, some don’t and tuning the orchestra down to 440Hz is not a great option as the intonation and tuning will greatly suffer. However there are plugins/functions which allow for recording the music slightly faster with the orchestra and then slowing it down again a little to match the 440Hz. If you run into trouble with such a situation, contacting your recording engineer might be helpful to find out whether such a solution is possible and available.

#technical

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03/28/12: Understanding and being aware of a style of composition is just as important as finding the right tone for a scene. While certain things are musically perfectly plausible they might not neccessarily be what is stylistically appropriate. Film music is a highly and permanently changing genre and currently for example ostinatos are very “in style” while things like dominant 7th and diminished chords are pretty much out. Of course, you can define doing something that currently is not quite in style in general as “your style” and therefore create a certain recognition value of your music but you cannot stretch this too far. At a certain point, your customer might just say “This doesn’t sound like current film music, I want to hire somebody else.” Try being very sensitive on style when you write and listen to music to get a very clear feeling for what is stylistically appropriate. Also, studying composer’s personal styles might be very helpful. Try to find out what makes Danny Elfman sound like him or why you always recognize John Williams. A thorough understanding and security in handling styles is highly neccessary for every film composer.

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03/27/12: While dynamic music is great and keeps the listener interested and excited, in film scoring, too much dynamic can sometimes cause problems. If you’re scoring a fairly constant scene like a dialogue that has no major shifts in its intensity, music that has dynamic hills and valleys for no obvious reasons rather than keeping a musical interest can quickly draw too much attention on itself and therefore distract from the scene. Another problem might happen on busy action scenes which have already a very present audio track. Unless you’re staying quite “on the edge” with your music throughout the scene, it will be tricky for your music to compete against the sound fx. This will either cause your music to drown later in the final mix or being unnaturally pulled up and down in the mix during the softer passages to equalize the volume level. This doesn’t mean that you should not write music with a dynamic dramaturgy but be very conscious about if your dynamic shape might be problematic there.

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03/26/12: When you’re working on tight deadline projects, time management is one of the most important things to get the job done. Routine helps a great deal there. In my experience, it is not advisable to “work in the evening until I can’t work work anymore and then get up some time in the morning” but to stick to more or less constant hours every day as this gets your body more used to the workload. Also, have meals at constant times of the day etc. There is no use in doing an 20 hour shift one day but the next day being completely tired and getting the same amount of work done in one day that you would be able of doing in 3 hours if you were properly rested. There is also no use of “condensing” meals to once a day because half of the day you will be hungry and under-sugared whch will affect your concentration and after eating a huge meal you’ll get tired for a while etc. Apart from the obvious problems such inconstant working discipline has on your work output, it is also tremendously unhealthy to sustain such a life over a longer period. In general, work effectivity has not only to do with how long you spend per day to sit in front of your working station.

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03/23/12: Even when you’re writing music that will never be performed by a real orchestra, you should always take care that it COULD be played by one. Spending time thinking about whether passages are playable, well balanced, musically pleasing and improving them accordingly will not only make the music in general more authentic to mockup but also improve your composition. Mindlessly banging notes into a DAW just looking for the quickest way to a wanted result is nothing that will make your music stand out from the rest. Actually caring about whether the 2nd clarinet player might still have fun playing his parts without breaking his fingers ultimately improves your music and will make you prepared once an opportunity to write for real orchestra arises.

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03/22/12: Even when recording in very large recording stages, usually a little bit of artificial reverb is added to an orchestra recording to sweeten the sound. Also, film music esthetics nowadays prefers a quite wet sound which of course also adds to the perception of “size” and grandness. However, adding the wrong reverb can really spoil your recording. Usually, rather go for a quite bright reverb (the typical Lexicon reverb sound) instead of a woody/dark one. Brighter reverbs will create more of a hi-fi feeling. And even though for example the Lexicon reverbs don’t sound very real, they create a feeling of ambience that our ear is very used to in connection with film music.

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03/21/12: One of the main principles in music is the duality between tension and resolution. This applies in small and in large scale. Dominant chords create tension that resolve in the tonic but also sections and big buildups create a tension that resolve in the big climax. This is something that every good composition should have. Often, inexperienced composers write music that sustains a level of tension for a very long passage and almost becomes static in that without having a natural flow and development of the music or developing somehwere. The music becomes somehow “stairs”-like, with flat levels of tension that suddenly change. If you succeed in taking your listener by the hand and leading him through the peaks and valleys of your musical dramaturgy, the piece will generally be considered more “entertaining.

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03/20/12: Many movies nowadays don’t only contain score music but also songs that are usually not written by the composer but licensed. Also, the places where they are used in the movie are usually already fixed before the composer begins to write the score. Nevertheless, it is important for you as a composer to make your music work with the songs. Especially where score and songs are positioned very close together in the movie, it is important to not have strange transitions. This means, that the transitions should fit harmonically but also emotionally. “Falling” from an action score without any preparation into a melancholic ballad will feel very strange. So even when you don’t work on the songs, make your music work with them.

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03/19/12: So-called typecasting happens quite quickly and is a very annoying situation for most composers or practically any creative person. Once you have a notable success in a genre or in a job, most probably follow-up jobs will be more or less of the same kind. “I heard your fantastic horror movie score in XY, i’m shooting a horror movie, do you want to score it?” or offers like that happen quicker than you might imagine. Some people feel very comfortable putting all their effort into one specific genre or style of writing, while many others get annoyed by this. Looking at the portfolio of some major Hollywood composers reveals that even the big names aren’t safe from being type-cast. If you want to avoid that, you have to become active and sometimes prefer smaller jobs of a “new kind” over bigger jobs of potentially typecasting dangerous projects. Of course, financial reasons are often a major argument but the most important thing here is, that if you want to avoid being typecast, you can’t stay passive with an attitude of “Oh well, I’m sure other projects will come.” At a certain point, when you have a diverse portfolio, the hassle of working against the type-casting problem will solve itself as the follow-up projects will most likely remain just as diverse.

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03/16/12: Whenever you need to decide whether to let a line play by a solo instrument or a section of the same instruments, don’t neccessarily go for volume reasons. Three flutes will not be 3 times as loud as one flute but only slightly louder. This applies to any instrument.  Also, there is a huge difference between the quality of a section sound vs. solo sound between instrument sections. While doubling brass instruments creates a strong substance in the sound and generally sounds very vibrant, putting woodwinds into sections makes the sound rather thick and less brillant. Personally, I prefer having melody lines in woodwinds as a solo unless they are filling lines or doubled with other instruments anyway. However, I prefer the noble quality of brass in sections (but never forget the haunting quality of a great brass instrument solo (e.g. Leia’s Theme by John Williams)).

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03/15/12: Getting a decent mix for your music is always a struggle and things that sound great in the evening might sound horrible with fresh ears the next morning. If you have the luxury of spending a decent amount of time on doing mixes of your music, make sure to listen to them in different occasions, if possible on several audio systems and on several times of the day. Good mixes are sometimes highly subjective and at one point you might hear something that is not there but may not hear a quite obivous problem. As the ear gets so quickly adapted to certain sounds, it is always important to give yourself enough rest and then listen to it again. There’s no point in mixing 12 hours in a row without a break as your mixes will most likely turn out badly.

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03/14/12: One very old but also very useful rule for melodic writing is that a melodic leap in one direction should be followed by a melodic step in the other direction. Of course, there are thousands of melodies that violate that rule and still are highly effective but it is always a nice rule of thumb to follow it. Consecutive leaps in the same direction sound very dramatic and have the potential to create a feeling of “the melody falling apart”. Looking at melodies as an actual physical motion is also very helpful, a certain motion in one direction is better to be comepsated by a counter-motion in the other direction. The rule mentioned at the beginning has been a strict rule in the baroque era and has become more liberal since then but still, it is a very useful rule of thumb.

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03/13/12: Inexperienced film composers often tend to overscoring, which is basically to exaggerate scenes by adding too strong music and in the worst case make the scene unintenionally laughable. In most cases, understatement is the way to go. If someone is crying out of desperation in the scene, the music doesn’t need to double that but should rather be quite subtle. The most important thing to learn for young composers is to get highly sensitive for the level of emotion and build up a musical vocabulary to portray different levels of emotion. Again, learning by doing is the most effective way here but also watching movies with good music very conciously and find out how intense the music in such cases is playing the emotion.

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03/12/12: Some contracts include an exclusivity clause which means that during the time of the project, you’re not allowed to work on any other projects. Of course, the quality of the results will generally be better when the composer is not distracted by any other projects and can devote his/her whole time to a specific project. However, this clause can become quite problematic on projects that extend over the timespan that was originally set for it and if there is no clause in the contract that covers this case. Generally, hiring a composer exclusively costs more than hiring him/her non exclusively, which can easily be justified by the “missed” small jobs that you might have gotten during that time. So in general, when you negotiate a deal, make sure you don’t miss specifications on this matter.

#general

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03/09/12: Rhythmical tightness is one of the trickiest things to achieve in an orchestra and usually will not get anywhere near to the tightness you could achieve by using samples etc. The reason for that is mostly the actual size of an orchestra which will result in tremendous “latency” times between e.g. the player at the front left of and the player in the far right of the orchestra. Musicians will try to compensate for that but it’s never gonna be really tight. Another solution of course is a click track but even in this case, you don’t have a band with 5 players but one with 80+ players and chances are very high that a few of them are not tight just due to the “human” factor. One tremendous factor is also, that many classical musicians aren’t really used to playing rhythmically tight. Classical literature leaves a lot of room for rubato and flowing tempi, which is of course the worst thing if you need something to be tight. However, even when you have a not so tight orchestra, a good solution to create a subjective feeling of tightness is to have a few tight elements in there, for example a percussion bed that you add later, a drum kit etc. These elements will trick the ear into perceiving it way tighter than it actually is.

#orchestration

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03/08/12: Always compose with the original sound and dialogue playing parallel to your music from time to time. There are quite a few people, who never listen to the sound and dialogue of the video the whole time while they are composing and only check at the end whether it fits. You should always check from time to time WITH sound to see where frequencies might collide and also where you want to react with the music to the dialogue.

#technical

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03/07/12: Deliberately move out of your comfort zone from time to time. Even if you feel highly uncomfortable writing music in a different style or for a different line up than what you’re used to, it is a great exercise and will sharpen your skills. If you’re mainly writing for orchestra, why not try writing something for jazz or vocal ensemble? If you feel most comfortable in writing big epic trailer music, why not try writing a romantic love theme? These pieces should probably not be for a certain project as you might not be statsfied with the first result but ultimately, they will give you a broader “compositional vocabulary” that will be also highly useful in your “daily work”. Challenging oneself as often as possible is a great way to improve as a composer.

#composition

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03/06/12: There are usually several perspectives from which you could score a certain scene. Usually, you have the character’s perspective, the audience’s perspective and the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Often, there are even more perspectives and sometimes perspectives overlap but in general, you have a choice, which point of view to take. Picking the perspective is up to the situation and the development of the story and should be a concious decision by the composer. Obviously, when scoring movies that have a story twist, it is not the wisest choice to take the perspective of the omniscient narrator too often with the music.

#film scoring

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03/05/12: Established directors usually have an already established working relationship with a composer and it is very tricky for newcomers to get a chance to “replace” a working relationship that may have been established over years. When you’re starting off, you should not focus too much on getting in contact with big names but rather try to find contact to up-and-coming young directors who maybe just graduated from film school etc. If you can establish working relationships with a few of such directors, hopefully at least one of them will make it to bigger projects and pull you with him/her. So spend your time for aquiring projects wisely and never have the assumption that Steven Spielberg just needs to hear your music to dump John Williams.

#general

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03/02/12: For practically every woodwind and brass instrument, there is the general rule that the closer to the limits of the range you get, the less controlled the sound will be. This means that either the intonation gets problematic (low horns often have that problem) or the dynamic possibilities get more limited (high trumpets can’t really go anything lower than mf in their highest register), or both. So in general, you should always have a good reason when you push any instrument towards its range limit and while of course trumpets at their top end give a fantastic and edgy sound, trying to use that register in a softer setting will most likely not end up well. Be aware of these things. Samples might trick you into believing that on all instruments, all notes are equally easy to play as on a keyboard and the range limit is only set by the fact that you’re running out of keys but this is not the fact. Creating notes close to the edges of the range of most orchestral elements is a struggle for every player and in general these notes have certain shortcomings that you can compensate for in a sequencer but that are really tricky to control in a real orchestra situation.

#orchestration

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03/01/12: When you’re working on a project that ultimately is supposed to be recorded with real orchestra, whenever you demo tracks with mockups, make sure to not make them too good. Leave some room for the director longing for more and longing for the real thing. If the mockups are too convincing, there might be questions asked why to record it at all. However, also make sure that they are good enough to not require too much abstract imagination from the director. And if you do them yourself, manage your time wisely. Spending time on polishing mockups that only exist for the pure sake of demonstrating things to the director might not be the wisest idea if you could use the very same time working out your compositions.

#technical

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02/29/12: Sooner or later, to lift your compositions to a higher level, you need to make a switch to notating rather than sequencing music. There are a lot of controversal arguments about that all over the internet, but you will without any doubt have more overview over your music when writing it on a score sheet than you will have in a sequencer. What you’re especially lacking in a sequencer is the vertical overview. It is very tricky to find out whether for example the third of a certain chord might be doubled too much in the orchestra so the chord gets unbalanced etc. or to check whether certain voicings could be optimized etc. The linear approach of a sequencer will give you an unbalanced focus on the horizontal structures while the organization of the vertical structures often get lost. Especially with templates of 100 or more tracks, losing overview happens quite quickly. In this case, most people trust their ears. While it is of course great, to have a good set of ears and judge the musical quality of your piece on that level, it is absolutely impossible to hear every detail in an orchestral texture and some parts where you might hear “that something is not quite the way I want it but I can’t tell exactly why” might be very obvious and easy to spot on a score sheet. Making the switch to notation might slow you down tremendously and feel very strange to you at first, but your music will benefit from that and once you get fluent in programmes like Sibelius or Finale, you will be just as quick as on a sequencer.

#composition

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02/28/12: Tight deadlines sometimes force you to cut corners. When you’re involved in a gig that has a time pressure which makes it impossible to write all music in the given time, you need to come up with a system that allows still being able to deliver without compromising the musical quality too much. In such cases, the most important step is to group together scenes that require the same kind of music, e.g. all suspense scenes, all love scenes etc. and generally re-use material between scenes. If it is a score with only a few band musicians, a great way to get “more material” is to let certain musicians solo over a chord pattern that repeats. Generally set a few moods and let the musicians have a go on that until you have enough material for every mood to be able to edit a decent music take for every occasion. If it’s orchestral, a good way to create re-useable stuff is to write elements that you can edit together later. For example, if you write a suspense section, write a few high pitched violin lines solo, a few buildups, a few climaxes, a few drones, a few beds, a few suspensey melodies, a few stabs etc. and make sure to remain very close together on the harmony with every element. Out of these building blocks you can later create a few cues that have enough variety to make it possible to edit them to picture and still make it sound as if they were natural. This is generally not the most elegant and musically pleasing way but sometimes there is just no alternative.

#film scoring

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02/27/12: Choosing the right demo tracksof your work when pitching for a project is crucial. While it is hard to predict what the customer likes when you’re pitching for the first time, you should pick demos from your past works that could be suitable stylistically for the project. There is no use in sending comedy demos when you’re applying for scoring a horror movie. There are different opinions about what is the best way to present demos. The most important thing is, to not send over 15 minute pieces but to either compile one 5-7 minute track consisting of several short (<1min) demos or a few short tracks demonstrating certain stylistics. These tracks should be fairly clear in their style and not have extensive intros etc but “get to the point” quite quickly. Also, make sure to lable and ID3-Tag them properly. The format of choice should be mp3, don’t send wav or aiff unless you’re sending a demo CD but for sending demos along online, mp3s are better.

#general

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02/24/12: When you’re writing a “hybrid” cue for let’s say band and orchestra or electronics and orchestra you’ll most likely have a bass going on somewhere in the band or the electronic elements. In such cases, you should not bring in the double basses of the orchestra. This especially applies when the non-orchestral bass track is very active, possibly playing a riff or ostinato. You don’t want that register to become muddy, so it is best to avoid using the double basses. Also, in such cases, the string voicings can leave out the root function of the chord as it is very present in the additional bass already. This will create more clarity in such situations.

#orchestration

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02/23/12: The beginning of the very first orchestral recording session of each project usually will take some time where the sound engineer adjusts a few things, fixes a few positions of microphones and checks all the recording levels. That will usually take a few minutes. You can help to speed this up by starting the session with a not too difficult, but loud (and not too important) cue that involves as many musicians as possible, as the engineer can only check whether everything is the way it should be by having the musicians playing and when everybody plays he/she can clearly hear and see where there might be adjustment needed. If you start with a “small” piece, later on in the session when you record a cue with more instruments, he/she might need to fix things again. So obviously, you lose less time when everything gets set at the beginning instead of bit by bit during the session.

#technical

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02/22/12: Know your scales! You should at least have a very profound knowledge of all modes of major, modes of melodic minor, octatonic and minor scales and know how chords built out of these scales sound. It is important to not only develop a theoretical understanding of these scales but to know what musical impression they make in order to have them in your “compositional vocabulary”. A good way to practice them is to sit at the piano, play a sustaining bass note on the left hand and start playing a specific scale up and down, then start improvising melodies and try to remember the impression. The next step would be to build chords out of the scale and see how they sound. Generally building chords is to stack the scale into thirds as in this example using c lydian. Leaving out certain tones of that chord or shortening the whole structure or revoicing it will give you alternatives of the chord sound. Experiment with these and develop an inner ear for their sound.

#composition

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02/21/12: When you’re scoring a movie, always have in mind that you are writing music for a generally musically uneducated audience and not for musicians. Certain musical structures that you as a musician can clearly comprehend will probably be puzzling for the general audience. This does NOT mean, that you shouldn’t write sophisticated music, but you should have in mind to write accessible music. There are many popular film composers who write highly accessible music (everybody could hum the Star Wars Main Theme) and still write highly sophisticated music (analyzing the score sheet of the Star Wars Main Theme is like a gold mine for every composer). These things are not mutually exclusive, however, film scores that are musically awesome but aren’t accessible by a general audience are definitely not good film scores as there always is the main rule: you’re serving the movie with your music, not the other way round.

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02/20/12: As writing music for movies is such a collaborative process, it is important to also have social skills in order to make a career out of it. You might be the greatest film composer of all times, if it is tricky to work with you, you will never get anywhere. Generally try to be a likeable person, be open and communicative. Gesture and posture as well as the way you speak have a huge influence on how potential customers see you. Nobody wants to hire a guy who has an insecure posture, staring at the floor most of the time, hardly speaking, hardly moving anything. It might seem laughable but if you struggle with these kind of things, rehearse them in your mind and maybe in front of a mirror. When you’re about to have an important meeting, think about how you want to come across and plan a little in your head what you want to say. Also, it is always nice to throw in a little personal detail from time to time when it fits to the context when talking to customers. In general it is considered to be likeable to ask intelligent(!) questions about the project etc. as it suggests interest and a wake mind. However, always make sure to not go overboard with any of these, take an eye on the balance of speech in a dialogue as it is also not likeable to be perceived as someone who talks all the time. The main essence is to be self aware about how you deal with people, do self-reflection and try to improve on things that you don’t like. It’s not an argument to say “I can’t change that, that’s the way I am, that’s my character, I simply don’t talk much. Period.” That is an excuse of lazyness. You can “train” yourself to communicate better and you can train your social skills. And this has nothing to do with “I’m pretending to be someone that I’m not”, as eventually this behaviour will influence your character, and no, there is nothing wrong with being a more likeable person.

#general

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02/17/12: Cinematic or filmic orchestration compared to “classic” orchestration is not a difference of technique but a difference of style. Therefore, all rules that apply for good orchestration in general also apply for filmic orchestration. The actual stylistic difference is something that can hardly be learned by reading books but needs a lot of listening experience and studying film music score sheets. For foundation knowledge on orchestration, there are many books avialable. I can recommend THE STUDY OF ORCHESTRATION by Samuel Adler, including the accompanying CDs which come with a lot of very good audio examples demonstrating many playing techniques etc. To gain more stylistic security on the “film score” field, try to find score sheets of film music. Some (especially by John Williams) are available for purchase as so called “Signature Editions”. Also, there are some “inofficial” score sheet scans in the rotation on the internet. If you can’t get hold of scores, try listening to as many film music recordings possible and try to “reorchestrate” some by ear.

#orchestration

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02/16/12: On cues with a lot of tempo changes and ritardandos/accelerandos, even though it might need time, it is good to give the musicians a “dry”run through the clicktrack, without actually playing but just listening to the clicktrack and giving them a chance to make notes on the changes that happen. By this, it is more likely to get a good take quicker as your musicians can’t really focus on following the clicktrack when they’re playing sight reading at the same time, so spending one “take” to get the tempo right and then getting the cue done in 2 takes might be the better solution than trying for 4 takes to get the cue done of which 2 takes are unuseable due to tempo problems and energy and “lips on the brass” is spent in vain.

#technical

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02/15/12: Of course, everybody approaches the composition process differently, but most of the time, a more or less detailed planning of a cue needs to be done in order to not get lost somewhere in the middle. Having a roadmap for your music in mind will highly speed up the process of writing music. Some people write very detailed sketches with thematic/melodic and sometimes even orchestrational ideas before they get to working on details. Personally, I prefer doing “conceptual” sketches, like “start off with intro, very bright and strong, high string tremolos, brass theme, then move to a slow section with very polyphonic string writing that builds up to a big ff-climax using the main theme” etc. Basically there is no actual musical information in that description but it helps me to remember where to go and to keep the focus on the overal structure as well. The worst thing you can do is to jump right into writing music in every detail without knowing where to go after this. This will most likely go horribly wrong and lead you into a dead end sooner or later. You can compare this to the work of a sculptor. It is probably better to sculpt the general shape out of the stone and then do the detail work than to start at one end of the stone and sculpt high details there without knowing what to do with the rest of the stone.

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02/14/12: Referencing certain tracks from the film music literature is always a quite tricky thing to do. However it happens quite often in comedies due to spoofs of other movies etc. The problem lies in the fact that you need to be quite obvious in the referencing in order to trigger that reference with as many people as possible in the audience, but of course you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism. Be aware that there is no such rule as “Stealing 4 bars is ok.” or “10 seconds are fine” etc. As soon as the original tune is clearly recognizable, you are in the “danger zone” so be sure to reference the essence of the track but not the actual musical ideas.

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02/13/12: When building a career in composing, don’t ever have the assumption that it will be enough to write good music only and eventually projects will come to you. No matter how good you are, nobody has just been waiting for you to eventually turn up in the business to be hired. Spend a fair share of your time doing networking, keeping contact with your business partners etc. Don’t have the false pride to not ask for jobs, to not send out demo reels etc.  If you want to step up, you need to work for it, no matter at what position you currently are. Of course, the more references you have the easier it gets but unless you are really high up at the game, the networking never stops.

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02/10/12: One of the most common problems of inexperienced orchestrators is the “organ-effect”, which happens when you double too many instruments in a middle register with relatively long notes. At a certain point, the transparency gets lost and the whole sound sounds more like a organ than an orchestra. To avoid that, don’t overdo the doubling in general, some colours sound better unmixed. Also, use the higher and lower registers evenly, try to balance out chords over the whole range of the orchestra and make sure to not concentrate all forces in the middle register. Avoid writing extensive legato passages in all voices. Especially on a big tutti, everybody playing legato will quite quickly create the organ effect. Also, leaving certain instruments out for the sake of bringing them in on peaks is generally a better idea. For example, the organ effect gets highly increased by constant use of trumpets in legato lines. Transparency is key here and when you are not sure why you’re doubling certain things, rather avoid doing that instead of having the fear of “the score sheet looking so empty”.

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02/09/12: Delivering files to a customer usually is done over the internet nowadays. Things like Dropbox or an FTP-Server are very helpful to conveniently deliver files. Attaching files to emails might not be the greatest idea unless they are small. However many email provider don’t allow for larger attachments. Never attach wav-files to an email. It is very annoying for the person receiving this to see that their composer might not even be able to work with a standard audio file compression like mp3. When you send over files, don’t use any fancy file types unless they are requested. For communication, mp3s (192kbps) are just fine, for delivery, usually wav or aiff files are the best way to go. When you deliver files, name them clearly so there is not a slightest chance of misinterpreting which file is meant. Don’t just call your files “1.mp3” but rather “1M1_Opening_Titles_TC01000213_V2.mp3” and stick to this system once you established it.

#technical

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02/08/12: Dissonances need to be written very carefully. While many inexperienced composers write in the way that they just add “random” notes to a sound in order to make it dissonant, it will most likely result indeed in a very dissonant sound, however possibly with very few transparency and “musical” quality. Well written dissonances are mostly very transparent and feel very “fitting into the texture”. Here, also the rule of less is more applies. You can create fantastic, dissonant and very transparent sounds with as few as three notes which will always have more musical quality than just writing a block of notes that in general create a very thick, unfocussed, unidentifieable wall of sound. In general, larger intervals between notes make things more transparent than smaller intervals, which will create more of a cluster-effect. Certain intervals like the minor ninth have a very heavy degree of dissonance and therefore are able to add a tremendous amount of dissonance by just adding one note. On a multiple note dissonance structure you can handle the degree of dissonance by increasing the number of dissonant intervals within the structure. For example THIS three-note structure has a much “tamer” dissonance degree due to the major sixth between c and a and the major third between a and c# than THIS structure, which has apart from the same minor ninth frame interval an inherent major seventh and major second. The difference is just one note on that already dissonant structure but still it makes a very strong difference.

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02/07/12: The densitiy of hit points is very genre-dependant. While there might be a hit point every 10 seconds or even less in many scenes of an action movie, it might only be one every minute in a drama or even less. Using hit points not genre specific will feel very strange or at worst even laughable. The most common problem is to have too many hit points and wanting to accent everything that seems “important”. However, always keep an eye at your hit-point frequency because it will get very mickey-mousing-ish if you scatter the score in little second-chunks.

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02/06/12: One point that is often forgotten when negotiating contracts for a project is to put in a clause that allows you to use excerpts of the score and/or movie/project for dempoing purposes after the project is finished. When working on independent projects, it is usually tolerated without extra clause but as soon as a big studio or publisher is involved it might get quite troublesome when they discover parts of their movie on your page/social profiles. So it is better to put in a clause, which should also be quite specific regarding how much of the project to use for demos. Obviously, you can’t put up the whole movie on your website, so there should be a clear negotiations about that. The same goes for your music only. In order to avoid any hassle, there also should be a negotiation and clause to use them for demo purposes.

#general

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02/03/12: When you orchestrate music, it is most effective to work your way from the loudest element to the softest element. Of course, that also means that you have a basic concept in your head already for what the orchestration is supposed to be (e.g. things like: Tutti, melody on the trumpets, horns doing a side line, strings doing active accompanying figures together with the woodwinds). Orchestrate what is supposed to stand in the foreground first, for example the brass, or a big string melody and work your way to the least loud instruments that you’re planning to use. With this procedure, you don’t have the problem of “running out of instruments for important things”. If you for example need a woodwind line to stand out as the melody, when you orchestrate it first you will probably end up doubling it a lot in the woodwinds (as you know that you need to put a lot of forces into the woodwinds in order to compete with the rest of the orchestra) and fill up the rest of the colours after that. The other way around you might have written parts that you already like into the woodwinds and suddenly notice that you need more woodwinds to double the melody. In this case you might have written a few parts that you need to throw out again which of course is a waste of work time.

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02/02/12: When a series of hit points in your music don’t match the way you want them to match with the visuals but are slightly off, apart from changing the tempo of the passage in order to make them fit, you should also always consider whether there might be a possibility to slightly offset the starting point of the cue. By this, you can possibly save a lot of hassle that would be needed when you actually start changing the tempo of a passage etc.

#technical

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02/01/12: Especially when writing film music, don’t try to re-invent the wheel every time you write new music. Certain scoring clichees have established very strongly because they work with the audience. It is great to be ambitious and try to bring an own unique look and approach to your music but don’t be over-innovative. At a certain point of writing “strange” music, you will lose the audience. In general, for example, a tonality based film music is usually expected. There are only a few exceptions of scores that are completely atonal and in general atona passages are usually only working in connection with horror, shock and suspense in the movie. On the other hand, for example certain chord progessions have become so widly used in filmmusic that they are basically “standard” by now and you kind of expect them in certain situations.

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01/31/12: Main title sequences have become quite rare these days but when you have the chance to score one, use it effectively. On a main title, you can set the overall mood of the score and the movie, you can introduce your thematic material and therefore prepare the audience for what is going to happen. Don’t just write “anything” over the main titles but make them also your musical overture. It will be much easier in the score later to work with themes  and motifs once they have already been established. One very good example from recent years of brillant main title scoring ist the opening of SIGNS with the score from James Newton Howard. Not only does he establish his main motif, but he also sets a tone for the movie and creates with the music a certain feeling that pushes you to the edge of your seat. Also, note how the music syncs up with the credits and therefore also has a visual impact on that opening titles.

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01/30/12: When writing film music, you should always be aware that you are writing music for a general audience and not for musicians. It should always be first priority to make music work and have the effect you want with a general audience. There is no benefit in writing an extensively complex, musically highly sophisticated score that would make every university composition professor proud but practically nobody in the audience gets that. Effective film music needs to be accessible by all kinds of people. If you manage to bring this heroic moment across to everybody with your music – great, if you manage to bring in musical sophistication on top of that – even better! But don set priorities the other way around. A great example for that – again – is John Williams. His music is highly accessable with a lot of really simple ideas (e.g. Indiana Jones Main Theme) that everybody can grasp, understand and remember, and still, in every cue, there are elements that leave a musician excited as well.

#general

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01/27/12: An orchestra is not only an ensemble of different instruments but also a group of human beings. Psychological factors can influence the performance quite heavily, not only whether it is a rainy day or things like that but also by the way you write your music. It is particularly frustrating for musicians to have badly notated music in front of them, maybe missing accidentals, phrasing, including wrong notes, unnceccessarily tricky passages, constant playing in a weak or possibly bad sounding register etc. All these things might be manageable from a technical standpoint, you could fix wrong accidentals on the stage, the player might have the ability to pull off even the unneccessarily tricky passages but the effect that this has on the mood is tremendous. First of all, after a few of such “problems” they start losing the respect for you as a composer, also by the fact that they are doing their best and it still sounds bad because technically it is not possible to make it sound better is even more frustrating. It is highly important to show professionalism as composer in order to get the best out of your players. Professionalism includes a good knowledge of the instrument and a feeling for what is difficult and what is easy to play and decently notated score sheets. I cannot stress the latter one enough. Bad notation including errors will not only slow you down in the recording due to the need of fixing things but it will push the mood quite a bit and you might not even be able to get a real enthusiastic performance by your musicians once all problems are fixed. Keep that in mind and better do a proof reading of your music once more.

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01/26/12: Most composer work prints of movies come with a special soundtrack. Usually you have the sound effects and dialogue on the left (or both) and the music temp track on the right audio track (or the other way around). This avoids the need to transfer two prints of the movie including the temp track on one and only soundfx and dialogue on the other. By simply putting the sound track of your work print to mono and chosing the appropriate channel as audio source, you can have a work print that only includes sfx and dialogue to work with and put into your DAW and on the other hand, you have a reference temp music track to check back.

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01/25/12: When writing a melody, you might get lost in the actual composition progress so that you lose the overview of the general gesture of your melody. A good way to check a melodic development is to reduce the melody to its key notes, the notes that outline the melodic gesture (leaving out all passing tones etc.). Checking the conture of that “outline” can help you a lot to find weaknesses. For example check this outline for a shape. Good melodies have a plausible shape like an arc or a rising gesture. If your melody seems to jump around all over the place or has several major “dents” you might want to recheck that. Also, how does it develop? Most plausible and “catching” are developments over seconds. For example if you have a “key note” which is a c and the next high “outline note” is a d, this is a quite plausible concept for the human ear. If it moves in thirds or larger intervals, the gesture gets melodically weaker and therefore the melody isn’t perceived as being as strong.

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01/24/12: In recent times, scores that are purely orchestral are often seen as a little old fashioned and very much genre-dependant. Currently, animation movies are more or less the last ressort which is almost untouched by the trend of incorporating electronic elements. Develop a stylistic sense for what is modern sounding and what isn’t. Even the way you use “modern” elements follows stylistic tendencies. You would for example rather put orchestral instruments on melody lines and electronic elements into the accompaniement and not the other way around. Especially rhythmic percussion beds enriched with synth and/or processed elements are very sought after currently and are being used all over the place. Whenever you think about a concept of a score, take these recent tendencies into account. Movies that are maybe less than 10 years old wouldn’t be scored the way today anymore as they were back then.

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01/23/12: Never find excuses for your music. Arguments like “I know this track could have been much better if I had spent more time on it/if I had better samples/if my dog hadn’t eaten the manuscript” are unprofessional and don’t make you being perceived as a serious composer. You have to stand behind what you present to anybody. Don’t make yourself the target of questions like: “If it were better if you had spent more time on it, why haven’t you?” It is important to know and be aware of one’s weaknesses, but this is not something you admit to a (potential) customer. What counts is what you present.

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01/20/12: Whenever you write for real orchestra and have a limited session time at hand you need to make sure that you use the limited forces a human player has most effectively. Booking one session and expecting to record 20 minutes of brass heavy fortissimo music in that time is probably not going to work out. So when you’re actually pushed in such a situation, make sure to give player breaks when possible. When y0ur horns are playing chords together with the trombones and just double the harmony, you might rather go for giving the horns a break on that so they might be able to pull of that big horn theme later. This sensible use of force is especially important on brass, so whenever you can avoid doubling, avoid it. In general you might lose some fatness but this is more desirable than having bad interpretations of important parts and  you always have the option to later double the recording with some samples in order to make it fat again, however, saving a badly played horn theme with samples is much trickier.

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01/19/12: When preproducing tracks for music that you want to put on top of a real recording and therefore take with you into the mix, prepare them in a good way so there is no hassle putting them to the music. First of all, rhythm beds incorporating several tracks of drum loops etc. which are supposed to add to the groove should be bounced to only a few tracks, having 10 tracks with basically just percussion loops is not going to help during the mix. However, leave big hits on a separate track, you might want to have control over the volume of these in the mix. Also, of course, all tracks should have the same starting point, best would be the first click. There should be not a single track that you need to “put at bar 38, on 3-and”. Just leave silence before the entrance of these tracks. Also, don’t overproduce these addition elements. You might want to leave some room for additional reverb as you probably want some of the orchestra reverb that gets added in the mix on your preproduced tracks as well in order to put them in the same acoustic space as the rest of the ensemble. Make sure that these elements have enough flexibility in order to tweak them during the mix to make them fit.

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01/18/12: Something that is often forgotten by young composers is the impact of dynamics. There is not just a “forte” and a “piano”, just like there is not always one of both a piece can be in. In music history, the first time that a crescendo in the orchestra was used, it made the people stand up from their seats in the concert and still a well placed crescendo, which is written and orchestrated well and dramatically is at the right spot can have a fantastic impact. Also, note the impact that strong dynamic contrasts have and how they add liveliness to music. A wild outburst of brass in forte after a delicate soft string pizzicato passage will make the music feel very strong, powerful and inpredictable (in a good way). Also, for example a string section which has carefully written in hairpins will sound much more lively than a “flat” dynamic level. This also applies for sample production where added dynamic and expression will make the music just way less artificial. Keep dynamics in mind when composing and your music will highly benefit from that.

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01/17/12: Syncing up hit points while still writing musically pleasing composition sometimes creates a lot of headache to a composer. However, most hit points don’t need to be more precise than a third of a second. Only it points that are cued by a very strong visual action (punch, explosion, gunshot) need to be dead on (+/- 2 frames). There are a few ways to make things a little easier. When a few hit points constantly are slightly off-sync, try offsetting the starting point of the cue. Also, slight tempo alterations that are practically not noticeable might help to get a hit point right. While there is hardly any difference to hear, after a few bars, you might be able to move hit points quite a bit back and forth without obviously getting slower or faster. Good film composers are also very effective in placing hit points on “not obvious” spots. Why not have a hit point at a 3-and instead of a downbeat? When you sell this musically, it will feel very naturally and on top of that create interesting rhythmical structures.

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01/16/12: When you negotiate a licensing of your music, be VERY precise about what exactly you license it for and what not. Don’t just give a general license to a production company to use your music or you might end up hearing your music in completely unrelated projects of theirs, possibly on movies, spots etc. you even don’t want to be connected to at all. It is much better to actually limit the license to use with a certain project, e.g. something like “This license gives company X the right to use music Y by composer Z in any context of project V, including promotional material, trailers, [list here, whatever applies]”. Make sure any contract you writes is very specific on that to save you from possible headache.

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01/13/12: If time permits, it is nice for musicians to write in “orientation notes” into the score sheet. For example, if you have a line being played together by a horn and a clarinet, it is good for the players to have a note at the beginnig of their line saying “with clarinet” respective “with horn”. In this situation, both players know that they have to listen to each other and will not have troubles actually finding out whom they’re playing with while they’re already playing. This will make them more comofortable and ultimately the performance of the line will improve. Same goes for solos. When you have a solo for an instrument, write in “solo” at the beginnig of that passage so the player will not be in doubt whether he or she may have gotten an entrance wrong as nobody joins them on their line and can play their solo with more confidence as well knowing that he/she can stand out a bit from the rest and perform a bit more freelly. These things are very helpful especially in scoring situations where there are no rehearsals. When there are rehearsals, many players will write such notes in themselves once they figure it out after the first few run-throughs but writing such notes in right from the start might save you time on the scoring session and result quicker in better performances.

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01/12/12: Being present on the music mix is obviously the best situation but sometimes due to budget or location issues, it is not possible to be there. Unless you’re mixing the music yourself, you need to have quite a bit of trust in your mixing engineer. In such cases, you should write very precise notes about how you want the music mix to sound. Best would be to include recordings that for example illustrate the amount of ambience and general estehtics of how you want the music to sound. Additionally, you should provide detailed notes regarding specific mix wishes, ideally with timings and/or bar numbers. Things like “3M4, bar 34 – please make sure this flute solo is present and sounds very airy” are a good indicator for your mixing engineer. Doing this very detailed will prevent you from severl back-and-forth mixing correction emails/telephone calls and ultimately save you a lot of time.

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01/11/12: Maintaining a sense of motion with an orchestra (or rather a non-band-ensemble) once it is established is not always the easiest thing. Due to the lack of a drum kit or something like this, you don’t have a rhythmic pulse naturally (unless, of course, you establish percussion loops/beds etc.). This means that you need to sustain the motion in your ensemble by incorporating it into accompanying figures etc. For example, once you start a section that relies on eighths movement, you need to make sure that this movement doesn’t get interrupted for too long or the energy will deflate. However, on the other hand, you don’t want to have only one instrumental line keep the pulse all the time (e.g. eighth figures in the violas). In such cases, it is nice to distribute the pulse within the ensemble or work with complimentary rhythms (basically have the addition of all rhythms that are going on to be a steady eighth pulse even though for example violins one only play quarters and violins 2 only play quarters starting one eighth note after violins 1). Also, it is very important to maintain the pace when for example your melody comes to a rest, at the end of a phrase for example. While the melody sustains one e.g. a whole note, in order to maintain the activity, it is a good idea to bring in another element which fills up this rhythmical “void” with the pulse. Good examples for study on this are again John Williams scores which practically always bring in new elements whenever the melody sustains on a longer note.

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01/10/12: A good musical concept and good thematic material make about 50% of the score. Considering tight schedules you might easily fall into the trap of rushing this first phase of film scoring, not fully developing a decent concept and going along with thematic ideas that you’re not totally satisfied with. Later on, a weak concept or weak thematic material might cause in major troubles when actually scoring scenes and noticing that your concept doesn’t work there and you need to partially deviate from it and start making the score inhomogenous etc. It is important to take your time in the beginning of writing a score to find the voice for the music that you (and the director) are happy with and that you are convinced of to carry you through the whole score. Even though this might take you a nerve-wrecking long period of time on a very tight schedule, once you have a strong concept and ideas, composing will be very quickly and you will be able to work through big parts of the score without the permanent doubt of “Is this working?”. Of course, there are projects with such a tight deadline that you can’t take the comfort of conceptualizing and have to dive in right away just hoping to get it done at all but hopefully these projects aren’t your everyday business.

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01/09/12: Negotiating a composition fee on projects when you’re pretty new in your composing career is always a quite tricky situation. On the one hand you want to sell yourself as a professional composer whose services are worth a decent amount of money, on the other hand, you are happy to have an offer for a project at all and need a decent reference and think about what other projects this project might generate. It is most important to gather as many informations about the project as you can before you make a financial request. Ask about the general budget, who else is involved, the production process, the way the project will be released… practically anything that might give you a clue about how much professional attitude is behind that project. Do a research for yourself, google for traces of the project on the internet etc. When you have a fairly decent picture of the project, you can weigh how much you want that project against how much money you want for that project. When negotiating for money, always start a bit but not far higher than what you want. Don’t start too high to not scare anybody off, but leave some room for negotiations to eventually settle on the fee that you want. The most important thing in this phase of your career is to never be too stubborn to try to push through a certain fee that you set as “your level” or setting a fee without researching what project this is.

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01/06/12: Don’t change your orchestral colours too quickly unless you want a really “restless” effect. The human brain takes about 10 seconds to “settle in” on a sound structure and anything quicker than that will kind of “overwhelm” the hearing perception. Especially when writing score sheets, you might be quickly mislead and feel the need to fill up blank spaces or change the structure all together. At a quick tempo, bars fly by quite quickly and several pages of score sheet might only be a few seconds so always keep the relation of tempo vs. time in mind. Inexperienced orchestrators tend to overwrite such passages and just throw in too many elements. In general, always trust your ear and if something sounds fine but looks quite empty in the Sequencer or on the score sheet regarding things that are going on, you should rather follow your instincts and leave it as it is. Of course, when you want to write a really hasty, busy cue, you can and should play with exactly this as exactly this “overwriting” carries a lot of the pace of busy action sequences.

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01/05/12: Don’t mix music on headphones only. While (good) headphones help to hear and fix many small details that you don’t hear on speakers they create a different impression about the music compared to how it will sound in cinema or on a stereo later. You will especially hear a stronger transparency on headphones than on speakers and might be surprised how muddy your music sounds when you hear it on speakers eventually. Some people swear on methods like “When I finished mixing it I always take it to my car stereo and listen how it sounds there, and when I like what I hear on this stereo, it’s a good mix.” While this of course is a highly subjective matter, you should definitely hear mixes on several systems before you finally send them off and do the main mixing work on decent speakers.

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01/04/12: Repetition is an essential factor to create structure in music. The human brain values things that get repeated higher than things that don’t so by noticeably repeating a central motif, theme etc. it automatically gets a higher priority in the brain. However, repetition quickly can be boring as well, of course. A general rule of thumb when writing music is that one identical repetition is fine but the next repetition should have “new information” already, for example when repeating a motif, it could land on a different target note on the second repetition, could be presented by a different instrument etc. Again, this only is a rule of thumb and for example musical minimalism defies this rule, however, even in this style, repetition works very closely linked to establishing new information as the repetitions keep slightly changing throughout many minimalist compositions.

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01/03/12: High sustained string notes are one of the “favourite” devices of film scoring. They can be useful in practically every situation: leading into a cue, creating a slight suspense etc. They create a certain “middleground” of not yet being a “real” music cue that gets perceived as one but being able to start off into musical motion at any point. They are also great for music to “sneak in” rather than starting with an accent (and sneak out as well). However be aware that the overuse of this can get very annoying and feel clicheed so keep a good ratio with cues that don’t use this device.

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01/02/12: An university or college degree in composition will neither make you a professional composer nor guarantee for being able to make a living out of media composing. It takes years or at least months of networking, doing unpaid jobs, assisting others etc. until the first gigs start coming in that are actually paid properly. The first and most important rule is that it is never too early to start networking. If you’re a young composer who’s just studying music on college, go ahead and find film students, score their movies and hope that eventually after they finish their college as well, one of them might be succsessful and pull you into better gigs. Don’t do the mistake of thinking: “Well, let me just get proficient enough in this craft and try finding jobs when I feel up to it.” Scoring movies is a lot learning by doing and there are so many young film makers out there (many of them organized in filmmaking forums, just do a google search) who might need a composer that there is no excuse for an aspiring composer to hold back doing scoring gigs. This of course also applies if you’re not studying music but still want to pursue a career in composition.

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If you want to read the most recent Tips, Tricks and Hints, head over to the other DAILY FILM SCORING BITS ARCHIVES!

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