Daily Film Scoring Bits – Archive Jul – Dec 2012

Posted on Jul 1, 2012 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


Welcome to the Daily Film Scoring Bits Archive of July to December 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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12/21/12: While fast chord arpeggios are great and no problem to play on strings and woodwinds, they can become very difficult on brass instruments. It is very tricky for brass players to cover a big range safely in a short time and especially if the range of the arpeggio is quite large it becomes even more tricky for them. Arpeggios are per se not impossible on brass instruments, however they are highly unidiomatic and are unneccessarily tricky while it would be way better to just put them in woodwinds or strings who have no problems whatsoever with arpeggios.

#orchestration

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12/20/12: If you’re recording real instruments, most of the time it is better to let them finish a take even if it contains some errors. These errors can be later patched from another take or you can use parts of this take to patch another take and maybe even if the first half runs badly, the second half might be the best take you get. I would only stop a take if something goes really wrong like out of sync musicians not finding their way back together, or massive errors. In the end most of the time, you get more out of not stopping a slightly bad take than doing a re-take. This applies more to longer cues than short cues.

#technical

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12/19/12: Never let your job of being a composer/musician get in the way of exploring and enjoying music. I quite often hear people say something like “I’m writing so much music and work in the field all day long, I hardly listen to any other music anymore.” which in my opinion is incredibly destructive for your creativity. Apart from it being quite sad that some people obviously don’t remember anymore why they are doing this job, this attitude will keep you from any musical development. Listening conciously to music is one of the greatest tools for learning and developing one’s own musical taste and language and every composer should make a habit of listening to music at least once in a while. The stress lies on CONCIOUSLY here. There’s no benefit for you as a composer if you only listen to music while you’re distracted.  Sitting down, putting up some quality music (quality being absolutely independent from genre by the way), enoying it, analyzing it etc. should be definitely something you should make time for now and then.

#composition

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12/18/12: One of the most annoying things when scoring a film is getting inconclusive and vague feedback from your customer. If you are not sure why your customer doesn’t like a particular cue even after he/she has given feedback on it, keep asking questions. There is no point in doing several rewrites from guessing which is also something you might want to communicate to your customer. If you don’t find a common base to communicate on (maybe due to the director not being able to formulate anything musically), try to work with compareable scenes and cues – things like “Do you want it more like that scene from movie X?” might help to narrow down what is wanted. Never let yourself being left by your customer with just a “No, that’s not it. Try something new!”. First of all that is unprofessional and second of all it disrespects your work.

#film scoring

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12/17/12: Losing a project for whatever reason is in general very disappointing and depending on how much effort you already put into it financially quite damaging. However, it happens to everybody in the business from time to time. Sometimes, a financial backing of a project breaks apart, key positions of the crew get exchanged or there are creative differences that cause you to drop out from the project. There are many reasons but unfortunately none of them are really rare. It just happens and that is how you should see it. Of course, it is also a big ego killer but you should definitely not lose faith in your work and talent when that happens but simply move on. There’s no point in wasting energy grieving about something that you lost instead of putting it into something new. The only advice that might save you a little bit from spending time and effort on something that will not see the light of day is trying to avoid to let you being talked into something like “Hey, you’ll get the contract/payment next week, but could you write something for that already?”. If a project doesn’t look solid, avoid spending too much effort until you have something in your hand.

#general

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12/14/12: Most of the time, when you write for strings, it is not neccessary to split up individual sections into several voices to fill up the harmony in close position. You would rather tend to leave the chord spacing quite open. The string instruments have such a rich harmonic spectrum that the sounds “automatically” fill up the gaps. If you split them up too often, you rather get a very thick sound than a rich harmony.

#orchestration

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12/13/12: In order to get more substance and fatness of sound, it is sometimes very helpful to do a double take or an additional sample layers with the same instruments at lower dynamics than what you had in the first place to later mix. This works even better with all sorts of percussion instruments that sound way fater when actually being played softly and adjust the volume later on. Of course, that only works if you do isolated recordings.

#technical

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12/12/12: Pandiatonicism is a technique often used in film music. Essentially it means to use any note of a diatonic scale to build chords/structures without functional or harmonic relation, using notes from the scale that possibly create a heavy dissonance. This principle usually in spite of harsh dissonances creates still a sense of tonality (due to the still diatonic character) and depending on how you use it can even feel quite harmonic and “nice” sounding. In the first 26 seconds of THIS example, I use this concept exclusively building upwards moving triads without harmonic relation out of the diatonic scale of B lydian-dominant (4th mode of melodic minor) consisting of the notes B, C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A and B. As you can see, in spite of the lacking chord relation, that section does not really feel strongly dissonant (also being caused by using quite simple structures (triads) that move upwards).

#composition

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12/11/12: Themes are not the only thing that can be used to identify characters/locations/situations musically. In fact, using too many themes especially on a genre that usually doesn’t have many themes might just become feeling strangely operatic and even worse, be more confusing due to just too many musical ideas. There are other excellent ways to identify certain things without going the way of thematic overload and which will also feel like a more modern scoring approach for example using a specific harmonic language or chord progression, using a specific sound or a specific orchestration can create just as strong connections as a theme and works even better on things that don’t neccessarily need to have the possibility to look on it from several angles (like presenting a major theme in minor etc.). Using these things will in general give you a clearer concept and structure on your score thatn overloading it with themes in most occasions.

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12/10/12: Unfortunately, there is no second chance for a first impression and while this is part of daily life, it also applies for movies that you are scoring. Some emotional effects a movie leaves wear off already on the second viewing and after 10 and more views, you cannot expect your emotional mind to give you any more useable guidelines about what to feel. So whenever you’re watching a movie for the first time, be very alert and conscious about your emotional reactions and try to memorize anything important, if neccessary make brief notes. These first reactions are usually very valueble and might help to shape the concept of the score or specific cues later during the work process.

#general

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12/07/12: Within homogenous sections like the strings, it is possible to create timbral differences by using contrasting registers. E.g. putting everybody in a mid to low register but putting the celli in a high register will make the celli stand out even if they are somewhere in the middle regarding the “absolute” register. Vice versa, try to avoid contrasting registers when you want a homogenous string sound.

#orchestration

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12/06/12: When working on scoring a scene, even if you know exactly what is happening and who says what, don’t forget to listen ot the scene with the audio track turned on every now and then. Even if the audio track is very rough and not finished, you can spot possible conflicts between the audio track and the music very early on. Pay attention especially on  conflicts regarding the understandability of the dialogue (Do active musical things fall on the dialogue? Can you place them into rests between sentences?) and anything that might have something like a ptich that could conflict with the music either from the frequency range or from the actual pitch (engine noises etc.).

#technical

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12/04/12: Rhytmical subdivisions of the same tempo can be a great tool for dramtically shaping your scene and for creating “fake” tempo changes. Staying in the same tempo while switching back and forth between a pushing eighth note structure, mid-tempo feeling quarter note structures and relaxing feeling half note structures is great for scoring brief changes of action in the scene without using very noticeable “real” tempo changes. Imagine an action scene with bits of dialogue in between. Using this technique is great to keep the pulse pumping and still gives you enough compositon freedom to write exciting and edgy music for the action bits and tone it down to a different subdivision when the characters are talking to each other.

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12/03/12: Before you start working on any project, try to determine the hierarchic structure of the people who work on it. On most film projects, the director should be the highest and last instance for creative decisions but it occurs from time to time that one of the producers or someone else is the one who decides. Sometimes, these structures are not really clear or not even properly negotiated between the parties involved so that several people feel like being in charge. Any situation where you as a composer don’t have one specific person to have the last word on your work has the potential of becoming a nightmare – especially when several parties disagree on the music. Doing rewrites until everybody is happy is extremely annoying and time consuming and will easily torpedo any deadline or workload predictions you made beforehand. On projects where the hierarchical structure was unclear or the final decision is shared between several parties I generally try to argument for one person taking over the musical decisions usually argumenting with “If we do it like this, the deadline can most likely not be met as from experience I know that there will be misunderstandings and several instances of double work.” Questioning the deadline is one of the biggest scare factors for directors/producers so chances are quite high that you will succeed with such an argument.

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11/30/12: Quite a few books on orchestration list the lowest note of the Bass Trombone to be the Bb two octaves and a major second below middle c, however there are constantly passages in film music etc. where the bass trombone is requested to go way lower than that. Theoretically, the range of it goes even one octave lower than the above mentioned Bb however the further down you go, the trickier it gets and the less repsonsive the instrument becomes. Sharp stabs are not possible for most players in the very low range. If you work with purely “classical” orchestras, the bass trombone payer might complain about notes lower than the Bb mentioned in many orchestration books as they are not required in most classical literature. However any trombone player who does a lot of film scoring gigs, should have no problem going lower. If you want to know why that limit is being set by many books, here’s a short nerdy explanation: Cylindrical brass instruments like the trombone (cylindrical meaning that the diameter of the tube stays the same for a long distance) generally have problems creating the fundamental of their harmonic scale, so their playing range starts with the first harmonic (which happens to be an octave higher than the fundamental), which is the classical playing range reaching down to the mentioned Bb from the books. However, with a bit of practice, the fundamental can be produced. It’s just quite tricky – the theoretical possible one octave lower range and all chromatic notes in between can be produced with different positions of the slide plus usually two additional valves that the bass trombone has). Still, the lowest notes are quite tricky to produce and when you work with a player who is only used to playing classical literature, due to the lack of practice in that range, he/she might not be able to pull off these notes properly or will just refuse doing it because of concerns being out of tune or not sounding good enough. So depending on what player you have, you might reconsider what notes you want to write.

#orchestration

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11/29/12: Layering Samples on top of real orchestra recordings is a very common practice nowadays and sometimes the only chance to get the sound you want in a range of budget not involving top LA or London orchestras. The typical Hans Zimmer/Trailer sound can hardly be pulled off decently without using additional samples. Especially the percussion but also the heavy epic brass sounds will most likely not work with a standard sized, regular orchestra. The interesting thing is that even a layer of quite bad sounding samples on top of a real recording will beef up the sound a lot when not mixed in too prominently. Unless you’re going for a strictly symphonic, Williams like sound using additional sample layers usually add’s a level of epicness, not only to a recording with a small line-up but also to a already quite decent orchestra recording.

#technical

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11/28/12: Melodic target notes of a phrase should be avoided for as long as possible before reaching that target. For example, if your melodic phrase has a target note of a c, you should try to not use that c in the bars before that. Otherwise the target will not create that feeling of actually reaching an important point but rather feel like it has been “said” already. The same applies for chords: keep your chord progression free of your target chord or you will diminish its effect.

#composition

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11/27/12: Montage sequences usually have a very low “musical hit point density”. Due to the fact that montages usually have a potentially confusing structure of cutting several scenes/locations very quickly together, the job of the music usually is to glue this all together and make this patchwork seem like one idea. Also, montages often have the esthetics of feeling almost dream-like and unreal even if the setting of the montage is real we don’t really perceive this in a way how we would perceive individual scenes. If you start to musically accent things in the montage you’re creating even more “hard edges” than already exist by the quick cutting speed and additionally drag that sequence quite strongly back into “reality”. If a montage takes a very heavy emotional turn that you can not avoid to react on musically you might rather do that reaction without any hard hit points but rather quite smoothly.

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11/26/12: If you seriously want to pursue a career as fulltime composer, you should try to develop a strategy that sets you apart from the rest of the people in the business. The world doesn’t need yet another “media composer doing every sort of musical style”. Try to develop a special ability where you actually excel in to be able to compete on the market. Your ultimate goal should be a reputation where people say “Oh, we need special skill X, I heard/saw composer Y is really good at that, let’s call him up.” Actually shaping your career path like this is quite tricky at the beginning as you are rather thankful for every paid job that comes in, but the further you go the more often you might be able to actually pick more projects which suit more your profile.

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11/23/12: No book or course on orchestration can actually replace the invaluable lesson you can learn by talking to and/or observing musicians who are playing your music. Whenever you have the chance to work with musicians, try to find time to have a little chat with them in private. Most musicians are very willing to share their concerns about certain difficulties, give you ideas on how to improve by keeping the musical intention intact etc. Also, observing your musicians while they’re playing is very helpful as you can quite easily spot when they’re struggling to pull something off in the way you want it and which passages can be played without much trouble. I’ve learned a lot of things that have never been mentioned in any book on orchestration just by talking to musicians or simply by just observing what happens when you music actually gets played by real people.

#orchestration

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11/22/12: Pay a lot of attention on your choice of reverb. Especially on orchestral music, transparent reverbs are essential to make sure to not drown the mix or make it muddy. Spending a fair amount of time on finding a good sounding reverb and reverb setting is very important. In order to get it right, you should try it on loud and complex cues rather than on string-only pads etc.

#technical

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11/21/12: There are big philosophical discussions between composers about whether to write sketches before you work out a piece, how detailed they are supposed to be, what to do with them etc. While sketches are a great tool if you really want to work out a piece, the reality especially in the film/media composing world is that there is hardly enough time to allow for several composition “stages”. Some people also consider the work in a DAW as sketching while the detail work follows later when bringing it to paper or notation form or actually doing the detail work in teh DAW itself. My personal way at this is to have the sketch integrated in the final thing. I usually sketch out right into the final score sheet layout. By that process, I eliminate the time it takes to transfer what’s written in the sketch into the score sheet. However on some delicate sections I might be working quite detailled right from the beginning while other sections end up with nothing but chord symbols. I personally see the biggest advantage of having an overview over the complete piece in sketch form before doing the details in being able to shape your piece dramaturgically. If you start with detailed work right from the beginning it is easier to get lost. In the end, everybody has to find the way that works best for him/her on his/her own but spending an incredible amount of time by sketching several versions and stages is even with good budgets economically not really the best thing.

#composition

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11/20/12: A good exercise to gain a big vocabulary for film scoring is to practice “small emotions”. It is quite easy to go for the full sad or the super happy scoring but trying to write something that is “a little bit melancholic” or “slightly relieved” is way more challenging. Try imagining a scene in your head where there is only a hint of an emotional colour and try to score that appropriately without going over board. It becomes even trickier if you decide to practice multiple and possibly conflicting emotions. A classic example to imagine would be a character just learning that he/she is surprisingly becoming a parent. Trying to capture the possible happiness, confusion, surprise, anxiety, confusion in one cue is one of the toughest things to do. An excellent example of conflicting emotions is this scene from JURASSIC PARK, scored by John Williams (click here for the score cue alone in slightly better audio quality). We have the magic of birth and fascinations of these creatures coming to life on the one side but at the same time the realization that those animals will become killers and are supposed to be the most dangerous species in Jurassic Park. The score cue fantastically captures both emotions and just from the film scoring aspect, it is fascinating to follow when which emotion takes the upper hand.

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11/19/12: It is never too early to start scoring movies. I often hear excuses like “I want to perfect my writing skills before I do the first film project” or “I need to buy some more sample libraries in order to create music properly.” as a justification for not actively looking for film scoring gigs. This is a pretty unhealthy attitude regarding your career for two big reasons. 1. The craft to score a movie needs to be learned as well. You need a few movies to gain experience before you actually will be able to score a movie on a professional level and get an understanding about how drama works. This is a very “learning by doing” heavy thing so the best way to get better at it is to actually do it. 2. If you want to work in that field, you need to start networking as soon as possible. There is practically no chance to be able to make a living from this job out of nowhere. It takes months and years of networking and working your way up to eventually be able to pay your bills from that job. So starting off with amateur or student movies as soon as possible is just as important as buying better samples or becoming more proficient in writing music. Even if your first few attempts will not be brillant, you need to make them in order to become a good film composer.

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11/16/12: Writing “espressivo”, “dolce”, “cantabile” or any other interpretation “hint” into your score sheets is not just a nice gimmick for your players but actually helps to shape your musical intention. There’s a huge range how a line can be played, for example with increasing or steady vibrato, with or without dynamic shaping, following strictly the beat or take some freedom, which can not be adequatly notated without using such words. Using the common terminology to give your players a hint how yout want it to sound is always a great idea. Some composers also use plain language to describe the attitude they want (even John Williams and his orchestrators do so (e.g. short horn stabs marked with “bark”)). You might even want to go as far as briefly describing the scene of the cue to your musicians, explaining the emotion behind it. I made quite a few observations of actually more suiting playing after doing so even though it is very tricky to put a finger on what and how they played differently but when everybody knows that this cue for example is for a melancholic love scene, their playing attitude will change noticeably and not just be “emotionally neutral” playing.

#orchestration

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11/15/12: On low budget movies, composers often try to sequeeze the last penny out of their budget and try to get amateur or student orchestras involved to record their score. My general experience on such experiments is to rather go for a good sounding sampled score than a bad sounding real orchestra score. The shortcomings of a score that sounds slightly “artificial and like tin can” will not be as obvious as a “real” sound compromised by bad intonation/timing and a lack of overall substance. For every composer, the opportunity to work with an orchestra often seems way more attractive than just having sample productions like everybody else but in the interest of having the best solution for your score, you should rather put your ego aside and do what will sound best. A great way to go might also be producing the score mainly with samples but bringing in a few soloists to give it some “real” touch.

#technical

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11/14/12: Even with the broadest and most detailed knowledge in music theory and all sorts of composition principles, the highest instance should always be your ear and your gut feeling. Following every textbook rule doesn’t make good music and good music also can not follow most of the textbook rules and still be good music. Theoretical knowledge helps alot to solve problems quicker or to find new approaches once you’re stuck and makes it easier to analyze and categorize musical ideas but it does not compensate a lack of imagination, musical insensivitiy or just plain bad taste. If something sounds good despite breaking all rules or sounds bad despite being an academically perfect composition, let your ear be the highest instance.

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11/13/12: Making the complete film score one cohesive musical piece is one of the most important things to achieve when writing music for the movies. There are many things that can create a cohesiveness between the cues of your score even when scoring many different scenes. Apart from the obvious things like thematic material, elements like instrumentation and harmonic language can be very strong bonding factors and also help to set a distinctive tone for a score. If you set one specific instrumentation (maybe including a specifically featured (set of) instrument(s)) and a harmonic language (e.g. Modal Harmony), practically everything you do within these boundaries will sound like coming from the same palette of musical colours and therefore make your score feel like one piece of work. Don’t underestimate the importance of this homogeneity as this is one main factor why filmmakers hire composers. If it wasn’t for this, they could just patch a score together from all sorts of library music.

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11/12/12: In today’s time, when working in the field of media, not having a website ist practically a no-go. Suprisingly, many composers who pursue a career in film scoring still don’t have a web page. Even though, web pages don’t neccessarily help getting new jobs, they DO help people and potential customers who are interested in your work to find more information about you. In any case, a good looking, professional web site always leaves a better impression than having only a Youtube or Soundcloud profile. Put some time and effort into your web presence and don’t expect only quality to speak for yourself. Even if you are the best film composer out there, if nobody has a chance to find decent info and contact data, you’ll not have much of a chance of getting heard.

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11/09/12: Especially in the bass register instruments, you need to make sure that there is no conflict between the voices in the orchestra. Having for example the Basses and Tuba doing different bass lines in the same register will cause quite a nasty mud. However, this can happen quite quickly when you start orchestrating a piece for a big line-up as you might easily run into the problem of losing the vertical overview and start adjusting lines in one instrument but forget to also change it in another instrument etc. Make sure to double check if all voices work with each other.

#orchestration

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11/08/12: Some recording studio monitoring systems (in combination with their studio room) have a very distinctive and for many people unusual sound which will feel quite strange at the beginning. If you ear isn’t used to this sound, it will be quite problematic to actually focus on details to comment on during the recording process. It’s almost compareable to being requested to precisely parallel park a car that you haven’t driven before. I know from quite a few composer’s experiences (including my own) of feeling absolutely lost during a session because the moitoring sound is just so unfamiliar. That has nothing to do with the studio having bad monitoring systems but even the best and most expensive monitors have a distinctive sound that the ear needs to get used to. If you’re having a first time in a studio, try to make it possible to sit in the session before you to just get used to the sound of the system there. With a few minutes/hours of hearing the speakers you will feel way more comfortable later in the session and be able to comment more specifically on things you want the musicians to do differently in the next take.

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11/07/12: One of the most common problems I get to see in compositions is the wrong use of sus4 chords. While a sus4 chord (click for alternate voicing of a C13sus4) can create a wonderful sound especially on a dominant function where you use a 4-3 resolution before going to the tonic again or going straight from the sus4 to the tonic, it can become very messy if you don’t use it properly. The general rule is that if a sus4 is present it forbids the (major)3 and vice versa. Both functions can coexist plausible only in very few cases, most of the times they create a horrible clash. Unfortunately however, when arranging music many people aren’t really aware of having a sus 4 and carelessly throw in a third somewhere. If this clash is not exposed in dominant instruments it will just sound a little strange but has the potential to become very nasty in a later recording. So when you’re going for a sus4 chord, make sure your arrangement is free of the major third of the chord (as passing note it is ok, though).

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11/06/12: The ideal function of film music is to add something to a scene that isn’t already transported by the pictures. Film scores that solely focus on doubling or commenting the information that are already transported by the images feel quite flat after a while. However, in the real world, many movies don’t leave much space for adding another dimension to the scenes which will leave you to do nothing more than just writing music that doubles what we see already. So the ideal that is taught by many film scoring text books is realistically not always achievable, not even by the best composers. The important goal is to actually not miss the scenes where you actually CAN add another dimension, so always question yourself when you’re about to writing a cue “What is that scene really about?”.

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11/05/12: In times where communication over long distances can easily be done via all sorts of practically instantaneous communication and where members of one project are scattered all over the planet, you should take every opportunity that arises to meet important people you work with in person. There’s no replacement for spending an evening at a bar/restaurant/out with your (potential future) customer etc. People react and behave differently when they are “private” and you might be able to leave a way bigger impression in their memory than any professional behaviour over skype etc. would leave. Also, never neglect the huge impact a conversation about private life or just about any non-project related topic can have as this helps tremendously to establish a personal bonding and is hardly ever done in “professional internet conversation”.

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11/02/12: Even though you have a lot of instruments at your fingertips when writing for orchestra, that doesn’t mean they have to be all in use all the time. A lot of inexperienced composers and orchestrators often “over-orchestrate” staying for long in a texture as thick as a wall because they simply feel that every instrument needs to be in use. However, lively orchestration lives from changing textures, building dynamic ranges between a soft instrument solo and a big orchestral tutti.

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11/01/12: The so-called “2 beep” or “2-pop”  is very widely used to synchronize music and audio to picture. A 2 beep is a 1 frame long 1kHz sine wave beep that occurs exactly 2 seconds before the cue starts. On standard 24fps film footage one frame lasts 0.042 seconds. Depending on what you agreed to deliver to the mix, the use of the beep can be different. If you provide one big audio file with all music cues placed exactly on the entire length of the film, you are most likely to be requested to deliver a file with a 2 beep 2 seconds before the first frame of the movie (even if there is no music). If you are asked to deliver single cues, you place a 2 beep in front of every cue and give the mixer a list of the time codes for the 2 beeps. That will make it much easier for the mixer to place cues properly when they have a very soft entrance.

#technical

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10/31/12: Clusters are highly effective for any horror/thriller genre including Halloween movies but can also be used as a very nice colouring tool in other genres. However, be aware that a cluster is not just simply a random row of adjacent notes played together but need to be written with care. Diatonic clusters (consisting of the notes of a scale) can actually even imply a certain tonality while chromatic clusters are rather a musical effect. The density of a cluster and how many notes it can cover is depending on where you place it in the range. In general you can use more notes the higher you go. Especially in the mid register (the register that usually serves the chord impression) a too thick cluster can just take over too much of the musical structure and cover up everything else. In the mid register, sometimes just a 2 note “cluster” (usually minor second) is already enough to create enough tension. Clusters work great in both ways, either sustaining creating a unsettling mood or as”stabs” to highlight something dramatically.

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10/30/12: Getting the tempo of a scene right is one of the most essential parts of film scoring. Even the best music can be a disaster when it drags a scene or pushes it too hard. Often there are only few objective indicators to find a tempo and it has a lot to do with gut feeling. The tempo of cuts or any visual motion that gives a sense of musical tempo (e.g. steps) are a good first thing to look at and to get a rough feeling. In order to find the right tempo, you might want to lay a pulse against the pictures (maybe as simple as a repeating note) to figure out whether it feels right or not. Also try slight changes and see how it influences the perception of the scene. In general, it is better to be a little too fast than being a little too slow. A slightly too fast tempo will give this edgy pushing feeling which is great for action sequences, a slightly too slow tempo will create a feeling of dragging which is extremely annoying and can take away a lot of tension from a scene. So don’t just pick a tempo randomly that “seems about right” but try several ones before you actually decide to go for one.

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10/29/12: Unfortunately, being a freelance (composer) allows you not to plan ahead very far. There’s always a chance of a short call project coming in throwing all your plannings apart. Realistically, planning more than a month ahead is rather like predicting the weather in one month most of the time. Of course, larger projects will be scheduled a little earlier but even they will most likely change dates and timings compared to what has initially been planned. The biggest problem here is to plan ahead events of your and personal social life that can’t be done on short term most of the time like vacation or major family events. There is often an anxiety to not plan these things ahead as there might be a chance of a major and important project coming in at that time. The essential part here is to set priorities. There are actually more important things in life than projects and you should not sacrifice important chances of being with your loved ones or broadening your horizon for a “maybe project”. In my experience, even when a project will hit at a time where you for example actually have planned to go on vacation, there’s most of the time a chance to make these things work, pushing deadlines a little, doing more work before or after or if there’s really no chance to get it out of the way of your vacation, grab a “mobile work station” and work a little bit (!) in the hotel/at the beach etc.

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10/26/12: Good orchestration also involves taking the seating of the orchestra into consideration. Due to the fact that an orchestra is such a large ensemble that covers such a large “surface area” means that you also get pretty extreme lefts and rights on the main mic signal (mostly a Decca Tree that is placed above the conductor). If you orchestrate something that uses “right” or “left” sitting instruments exclusively, for example trumpets+trombones+tuba, even though their sound in itself will be balanced, it will sound strange on the recording having such a loud sound source coming only from the right side. Bringing in the horns on that (which usually sit on the left side) will give you a more “centered” and balanced overall sound. The other issue that considers seating is the problem of hearing each other. You generally want to avoid having complicated musical interactions between two instruments that sit quite far apart from each other in the orchestra as it most likely will result in timing issues.

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10/25/12: By now, most film scoring studios have the technical possibility to compensate for the standard a= 442 or 443 Hz tuning of a normal orchestra by recording at a slightly higher sample frequency and tempo than what the actual “target tempo” is to be able to later play it back slower and therefore at a perfect a=440 Hz tuning. That comes very much in handy for any music that has samples layered on top or additional synth/band elements that are tuned in 440. However, not every studio has the possibility so far so you want to make sure beforehand.

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10/24/12: Many young composers start out writing music by the approach of either writing chords or melody first and in a second stage write the  other one. While this is perfectly fine for the beginning as it isolates the things better that you need to take care of, it shouldn’t become a lifelong habit. Writing these things separate from each other leaves room for losing the control. In good music, all elements line up together to transport what the music has to say. If you write a 8 bar passage and your chords climax in bar 5 (for example by reaching the harmonically most dramatic point) while the melody that you write in the second stage on top of it climaxes only in bar 7, you’re diminishing the impact that your music could have. These things are much better to get under control when you write or at least sketch EVERYTHING at the same time (and I’m not only speaking about chords and melody but also orchestration, rhythm etc.). By doing that you keep control over everything and not let the thing you write first dictate the rest. Of course, that is a tough task to do at the beginning but you should constantly push yourself into doing it this way once you feel comfortable writing music in “stages”. In the end, this extra mile will make your music better and give it more impact.

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10/23/12: Stating a character’s/situation’s/location’s theme/motif too often especially on overly obvious occasions can be very annoying and diminish the impact of the theme. Even if there are plenty situations where the statement of a theme would be possible, you should keep an eye on the big picture and take care to place these entrances startegically over the movie.  If you have too many possible entrances do the statement of the theme only on the most important ones and keep underscoring the other ones. For example not every time Superman is on picture or does something, we hear Superman’s theme but rather it is saved for the moments where the character “unfolds” and we see the heroism that is transported through John Williams’ theme.

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10/22/12: For customers, even more important than how good you are as a composer is how easy you are to work with. Reliability and professionalism are two very important words when working on a project together. And both words are not simply answered with hitting the deadline and knowing what you’re doing but it involves a whole lot more. Your customer wants to have the feeling that he doesn’t need to worry about your end of the work, that you respond in a flexible way to changing circumstances, that you are communicative, open, creative and hit or exceed your customer’s expectation. So whenever you’re dealing with potential customers, don’t just rely on your qualities as a composer but make sure to make your customer feel comfortable. And even if you are confronted with something where you have no idea how to pull this off, act professional, don’t let your customer have doubts about your professionalism and find a way to figure it out later. No customer wants to hear “I have practically no experience in that field and umm… I don’t really know what to do… by chance I might be lucky and figure it out but.. umm.” Even highly experienced composers from time to time stand in front of a seemingly unsolveable problem but their ability is to still appear confident and find a way to make it work.

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10/19/12: Repeating notes in a legato passage can create rather unattractive “gaps” and interrupt the legato flow of the passage, especially when that instrument is exposed much or the repetition happens in several instruments at the same time. So, you should rather try to avoid any repetitons and often there are ways to avoid them, especially when they happen in “inside” voices. It sounds more fluent in these cases for example to go once to the ninth and once to the root note of the chord instead of repeating the root note twice etc.

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10/18/12: Check your high library sounds (for examples flutes etc.). Sometimes there are rumble noises you can simply cut with an EQ.

Guest Bit by Tim Heinrich

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10/17/12: Breaking musical rules can be great to create musical structures that sound fresh and interesting and basically every rule in music can be broken. The essential part is to be confident and consequent when you break them. For example in a two voice setting bringing up a fifth parallel only once might feel like a mistake but if you have several parallel fifths in there it becomes a concept and therefore interesting. Everything that sounds “strange” if it appears only once needs to be repeated in order to make clear that doing that is part of your musical idea. Of course that requires you to actually know what rule you are breaking and the argument often heard by people not willing to actually deal with “traditional” music that “I don’t need rules, I just write music as I like.” is obviously not valid.

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10/16/12: Unaccompanied melodies can have a fantastic effect in a movie when placed cleverly. The “lonely” instrument or section filling up the musical space has a beautiful and haunting quality and can either create an extreme intimacy which is for example great for “tearing up” moments but on the other hand can create a strong sense of loneliness when placed in an appropriate context. It can also be a great entrance to a cue that eventually evolves to incorporating the whole orchestra. In general, slower melodies and gestures work better with this than fast and busy melodies.

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10/15/12: Unfortunately, quite often projects don’t end up having the conditions that have been pitched to you at first. There might be budget or time cuts but also new artistic decisions that make the project less attractive for you and while you might have been enthusiastic about how the project originally sounded like the actual working conditions might be a let down. The essential part is how you handle these situations. Even if at first you said “Sounds awesome, I’ll do it!” you’re not obliged to actually do it as long as you haven’t signed a contract. Ask yourself whether you would have done the project if the “new” conditions would have been pitched to you in the first place. If you are not sure about that, you might want to seriously reconsider doing it. Nobody should hold it against you if you say “I’d love to do the project, but under these changed conditions I can not do it.”  It’s also highly depending on how these new conditions happened. If you find out that you actually have deliberately been lied to, you should get out as soon as possible as you wouldn’t want to work with anybody who does that. However if (as actually in most cases) the  conditions change due to unforseen events that aren’t really anybodies fault or due to external factors, as long as the new conditions get unbearable for you, there is no immediate need to get out. On a complex project like a movie, there are so many things to be coordinated that things might happen quite quickly and a schedule might need to get shifted around etc. This is not neccessarily anything that needs to worry you. If the outlook of what the project will positively do to you and your career outweighs the maybe less attractive conditions, in spite of a maybe tougher schedule, less fun and not being able to do everything you wanted, there is no reason to bail out just because of this.

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10/12/12: For many orchestras that do a lot of work for hire it happens quite often that they need to play from badly written score sheets with lots of errors. This experience sets them into a general attitude of constantly doubting what is written even if the score sheet/part is very thoughtfully and professionally notated. The problem is that questions that are to be answered with “Yes, it is supposed to be like this, that is no error.” take up just as much time as actual errors. So whenever you write for orchestra, try to write foolproof leaving no room for doubt about your intention. A very common problem is the example from below. Usually, the first version is already clear and SHOULD not cause any questions. However, you might get the question whether you REALLY want these notes to be played detaché or whether you just forgot the slur. To avoid this question, I tend to write the second version which leaves no doubt about my intentions. Even though it is over articulated it saves me the time of a question in the session.

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10/11/12: A quite simple and uncomplicated way to get the sound of a small orchestra bigger and more prominent is to double track the strings, which means that you record the whole piece first and then do another recording of the strings only to layer on top of that in the mix. By that you get a more prominent string sound that has more substance. Even on quite large line-ups this technique has an impact on the overall sound. Of course, that only works on tracks that you record to click, otherwise the tutti will not sync with the string layer.

#technical

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10/10/12: Even though, compositional structures are rarely used on film music just out of the fact that the music needs to react to the images, especially when you have the chance or the need to play out thematic ideas for a longer time (e.g. main titles, end credits) many film composers follow quite strict forms there. Typical main themes often tend to be in the form of AABA or general ABA forms (e.g. Star Wars, Indiana Jones) which is a very common form. Also, rhytmically driven ostinato compositions tend to be quite “formal” and pattern-related changing strucuture/chord for example every 4 bars etc. Having control about the formal expectations of your listener gives you a greater palette to surprise or to write more interesting music.

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10/09/12: In general it works better to write themes that have a very recognizable “head motif” for characters/situations etc. A very common problem is that you might to need to reference a theme for a very brief moment in the score in a cue to just give a hint of connection (especially in action driven genres). If your themes are constructed in the way that you need to play them out for several seconds in order to make your audience understand the thematic reference, you might need to skip quite a few moments where it would be good to reference the theme just because you don’t have the time to play it out. If you have a very recognizable head motif, that problem is much smaller and it is much easier to reference to it in brief moments. A very good example for a easy to reference head motif is the ISLAND FANFARE from JURASSIC PARK by John Williams, which can be referenced with 4 notes only (which John Williams does very effectively later in the movie).  However, some movie genres that don’t rely on heavy action sequences don’t need that kind of “quickly referenceable” theme as in these genres you will most likely have enough time to play out the theme so it is always a decision that is depending on the context how to structurize your thematic material.

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10/08/12: Don’t use the bad word “but”. Replace it and say “and”. Because “I like your piece and I got another idea” sounds better than “I like your piece but I got another idea”. “But” is always negative and downgrades what you first said.

Guest Bit by Tim Heinrich

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10/05/12: On longer cues that incorporate the brass only briefly and only on some sections of the cue, it is easier for the players if you help them with a “written out warm up” rather than throwing them into cold water by requesting a big and bold fortissimo entrance, maybe even quite high. In general these entrances will be better and containing less splits if you write a few subtle brass bars before that entrance so the players have a few moments to get warm and prepare for their big entrance. This usually doesn’t apply on very short cues, however, especially when brass players had a long time without playing in a piece, the result will be more convincing with this method.

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10/04/12:  During experimantetion i believe many composers, especially guitar players such as myself tried to combine that heavy distorted guitar sounds with the cinematic symphonic sound. You will notice that there aren’t many compotitions in the film industry that combine these sounds. So if you think that there is an open door for me to orchestrate differently, think again. There are many good reasons that this is not happening. First of all, distorted guitars have a very strong sound that spreads all over the frequency range. So it’s quite difficult to mix them properly with a full symphonic sound. Not to mention that they are usually combined with electric bass and drums that are instruments with great presence as well. In adition, if you want to use them as chords playing the usual fifths, you should pan them all the way to the sides to get this powerful sound. This can be a problem if you want to give a symphonic impression as well cause the strings are usually in the sides (cellos and double basses to the right and first and second violins to the left). Now if you use the distorted guitar as a lead instrument in its high register, try not to sound too lyrical and like these old epic metal or rock bands in order to avoid this old fashioned sound. I have come to the conclusion that the best use of overdriven guitars is alone when playing chords. Giving the rythmic pattern that they play when you are done with them for example to the cellos will add some cohesiveness to the composition. They can play riffs much easier  or melodies in the medium or low register as Hans Zimmer did in the opening of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN THEME. It’s interesting to see that he used the strong brass to double the guitar during the repetition of the theme and the violins are playing forte in high register to add some clarity.

Guest Bit by Dimos Stathoulis

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10/03/12: Even though, octave and fifth parallels are considered to be quite unproblematic in many situations nowadays, there is one parallel that still sounds musically highly unattractive and can happen quite quickly which is an octave parallel between the bass and the melody line. If possible, you should try to avoid any of these movements.

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10/02/12: Sometimes, brief moments of silence in a cue can have a wonderful effect and create lots of dynamic. The concept of inserting silent moments or even silent bars works especially well in comedy and adventure scoring. Great moments to stop the music are for example “thinking pauses” where the character/audience waits for a reaction of another character on something. Also, comedyesque sneaking scenes are perfect for such moments where the music doubles the movement (playing on “visual” movement, stopping on waiting/looking around moments). A cue that is executed and timed well in such a style can create a fantastic, lively and dynamic scoring atmosphere. However, make sure that (unless it is a very surprising moment) the “stop/start moments” are musically plausible (e.g. harmonically stopping on a dominant situation – pause – continue on tonic) and that the pauses are not too long to lose the musical relation and rhythmical pulse. Also, as with everything, make sure not to overuse this effect as it can become annoying as well.

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10/01/12: If you talk with customers (or other people), talk less than the other. Everybody loves to talk about himself. And if the other person talked more than you, it will leave your meeting with the feeling “I had a nice conversation.”

Guest Bit by Tim Heinrich

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09/28/12: Imperfections is what makes an orchestra sound real and organic. Even the best orchestras in the world have a certain level of imperfections, eg timing issues, slightly off intonation, maybe even a wrong note or noises of the instruments. No matter how you produce your music, the ideal should never be a clinic and perfect but an organic and real sound. For example hearing other open strings resonate in a violin section that is playing agressive figures is not a flaw but a realism factor that in a complete mix will make the difference. Doing retakes with an orchestra beyond what makes sense just in order to get rid of every little imperfection of the interpretation is not the wisest idea as well as tweaking all samples to an extend of leaving no “human” factor behind.

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09/27/12: Whenever you are writing strings on pc and you want them to sound realistic there are some tricks that you can do to achieve that. Changing velocities, expressions and modulation will affect that part drastically. The modulation usually affects the toughness of the bow that touches the strings so keep in mind, that this is usefull if you write some fast violin or cello passages. During that the modulation should be high to raise the attack but usually this also brings greater instrument volume that can be fixed with expression or volume reduction. On the other hand some times is usefull to create great dynamic difference between some notes to createa live orchestra ensemble feeling. You can leave of course the expressions of the strings untouched if you dont want that much attention on the strings or you want to use them as a pad.

Guest Bit by Dimos Stathoulis

#technical

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09/26/12: A very commonly used concept in film music to write chord progressions is the concept of shared chord tones. Basically you could treat every chord as a new tonic and find the next chord by moving to a chord that shares at least one chord tone with the old chord. Even though these chords might harmonically be extremely far apart, the shared chord tone will create a sense of cohesiveness. A mixture of this principle with the principle of modal interchange and “traditional” cadential movement will give you a very nice and modern filmic chord progression.

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09/24/12: Giving time estimates about how long you will need to write music is tricky even for the most experienced composers. The problem usually lies in the complexity of the music which is very hard to estimate especially on movies that are not past the script state (usually the time when most composers get hired for the project). It helps alot to know your working speed but just knowing that you can do a mean of let’s say 2 minutes a day will not be enough. Detailed action scoring over longer passages will slow you down considerably and you might not be able to deliver more than 30 seconds a day even if your writing speed is fairly consistent. So when you’re asked to estimate, never simply go for “Yeah, I usually do 2 minutes a day so I can deliver your 50 min feature score in a month” but try to gather as much information about the project as possible in order to be able to estimate whether you will actually be able to hold your mean on this project.

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09/21/12: A Great way “to learn” orchestration is taking a full orchestra score and do a 4 systems reduction of it. One system for woodwinds, one for brass, one for strings and one for percussion. Each system has 2 staves – one with a treble clef and the other with a bass clef. If needed (where the parts are very complicated and have lots of voices) another, a third staff could be added to the system. What this reduction does for you is that you can see the piece in a “compact”, easy-to-read mode by gathering appropriate voices into one or two staves for each group of instruments, it removes the difficulty of reading the transposing instruments and also (which maybe is the most important thing) while you reduce the score you physically write down each note by yourself which is the best analysis possible, in my opinion. I prefer doing the reduction in Sibelius, as it is faster and looks better than my hand writing. After you reduce several scores this way you start to feel that your imagination explodes, your overall musical experience grows and you just write “better” music. Your memory now is filled with “orchestration devices” (effective instrumentation, orchestration colors, orchestration figures etc.) which you will use in your own compositions. All the great composers analyzed works of other great composers and used the experience as part of their musical language.

Guest Bit by Sergei Stern

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09/20/12: Whenever you’re travelling by plane to a recording session and need to bring along score sheets and orchestra material, make sure to transport them in your hand luggage. Nothing is worse than arriving on a scoring session without any scores to play from and learning that the lost suitcase with the score sheets will not arrive before one day after the booked recording.

#technical

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09/19/12: Sometimes two or even one single melodic line(s) are enough to provide a clear harmonic impression. Such situations can create a very welcome change of musical structure and interesting passages. The important part when writing such passages is that the lines need to not only have a melodic quality but also outline the implied chords by attacking essential chord tones (root/third/7th if applicable) on heavy counts. Basically, very similar techniques as used on counterpoint writing apply here.

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09/18/12: How to open a movie musically often feels very tricky. Some movies throw you right into the tone/location/attitude of the whole thing and there it is obviously quite easy to follow that and jump right in from the start, however, it is not uncommon for movies to disguise a little or even a little more what they are about during the whole exposition. In this case, you need to decide whether you jump in on that to lead the audience into a (slightly) false direction to later surprise them or if you want to set the general tone with the music already and take away that surprise moment in favor of a cohesive atmosphere. Often, this is a decision that is also being influenced by how the director sees and intended it. It is basically different for every project, on some movies it is  plain ridiculous to do false implications at the beginning while on others you get a very fascinating result. The important thing is to ponder enough over these decisions and not just start writing something.

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09/17/12: In general, flooding all sorts of companies that are roughly working in the field that you want to work in with emails or letters usually doesn’t work. Especially unpersonalized emails with a general text that doesn’t reference to the specific profile of the company will usually not be read at all or even get stuck in the spam folder before anybody sees it. The more effective method is to target your mail more specifically. Be aware about what the company that you’re contacting is doing exactly, reference to their recent work and shape your text more personally. That will be more work but you also get the chance to really find the companies that you’re actually interested in to work with. There’s no point in sending out a composer’s demo reel for a film production company that specializes in wedding videos. Also, calling by phone might be a more effective way as you can make sure to be heard and actually can try to get your way through to someone who actually has something to say and not being filtered out by a secretary already as it might happen with your email or letter. However, in general applications out of the blue have a very rare chance of success in that field. Networking happens rather on other channels like word-of-mouth, recommendation, chance or simply being at the right time at the right place…

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09/14/12: It is not only neccessary to know the ranges of every instrument to be able to orchestrate properly for them but apart from many other factors that have to do with “idiomatic writing” it is also highly important to know the characteristics of each register. For example just because an instrument can reach certain notes at the end of its range doesn’t neccessarily mean that they sound good as well, e.g. very low Oboes or very high trombones both don’t sound too great. Also, the registers have a strong influence on the volume of the instruments, for example some instruments like the Oboe become softer the higher they go while others like the trumpet become louder etc.  Study these things thoroughly, there are lots of ressources available in printed form as well as online. A great ressource for example is the VIENNA ACADEMY by VSL. However be aware that some of these instruments are Viennese and not the international standard instruments. Nevertheless, this platform is a great source for general knowledge about instruments.

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09/13/12: Keep track of your versions. Some programmes by now offer to save versions of your project to be able to later revert to them. It is extremely helpful to actually write comments on these versions (about what is different etc). If you later on need to go back to a version of a track because something has changed, it is a nightmare to load version 2 to 46 just to find the right one. If you need to save new versions of a project in separate files, it actually helps alot to keep a log of the versions with notes on where the differences are. When big changes happens and you need to go back for whatever reason, that will be a huge time saver.

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09/12/12: Linear bass lines (or rather bass lines with strong melodic quality/voice leading) in general feel very attractive to the ear. Their power is actually strong enough to make even the strangest chord progressions on top of that plausible to our ear. One composition technique that sometimes is being used is writing a melodically interesting (and of course fitting) bass line to an existing melody and later harmonize that bass line as opposed to “traditionally” finding chords to a melody.

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09/11/12: On some projects you might be requested or may want to write music that is outside of your usual comfort zone. In such cases, research is essential to first of all be able to deliver a believable version of the style you want to write in but also to properly use this style. Research in general does not mean to listen to a few tunes but depending how deep you want to dive into it, it requires reading, visiting libraries, watching movies that use the style successfully. Understanding the background and intention of a musical style is just as important as to know how it works musically. It is also essential to never underestimate any style. Even music that seems highly simple and less challenging at first sight might have so many stylistic details and things to take care of that you might easily be overwhelmed or in the worst case deliver music that sounds believable for yourself with less listening experience on that style but is highly laughable for people who know that style. You should also be very self aware about what kind of stylistic stretch is whithin your reach and what not. If you are a classically trained composer with next to none listening experience in any sort of rock music, it will probably not be possible for you to deliver a believable rock score even with weeks of research. In these cases, you might be better off declining the job instead of delivering something utterly laughable.

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09/10/12: No matter how good or successful you are, being modest about your own work is in general the way more likeable attitude. Everybody who is capable of doing something that regular people aren’t capable of doing often develops a quite big ego. Being aware of what you can do and what you’re good at is one of the healthier and more successful attitudes especially in a highly competetive field like the media world. However, constantly boasting about your work is first of all not neccessary as good work will speak for itself and secondly most people feel this to be a very unlikeable attitude which might go as far as you not getting a job because of people being annoyed about your way of handling these things. Bathing in your own success might be a nice ego push but will get you nowhere. From the music side, it always helps to listen to the great masters to get “grounded” again in case you got too much air in your head due to a recent success.

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09/07/12: There is a distinctive difference between a Gong and a Tam-tam. Many composers/orchestrators actually write “Gong” in their score sheets, even though they actually want the sound of a Tam-tam. The important distinction here is that a Gong actually has a pitch sounding something like THIS. The Tam-tam (also sometimes called Tam-tam Gong (hence the confusion)) however is an unpitched instrument and sounds like THIS.

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09/06/12: If you’re recording a small ensemble or group of instruments by yourself at the same time and you’re actually using a microphone signal from the room that you’re recording in as part of your mix, make sure to have a proper seating of the ensemble. Don’t place the instruments from left=high to right=low or the other way around as this will create a unbalanced sound in the room. Rather place the highest instruments in the middle of the room and lower ones right and left from there.  In ensemble of for example 4 players where 1 is the highest and 4 the lowest instrument, rather than seating them 1234, it will create a more balanced sound to seat them 3124. This preocedure works basically also for more instruments (e.g. 531246). This however only applies for small ensembles and specific situations (e.g. 4 trumpets in Big Bands are usually placed like this as well). In normal orchestras the seating usually is high to low within the sections.

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09/05/12: In a homogenous section (e.g. a passage for the strings only) crossing melodic lines especially with the top line is always a bit problematic. Usually you should try to avoid crossing the highest (melody) line with any other voice in situations where the timbre or articulation of the crossing instrument is not dramatically different as this will create confusion for the ear about which line to follow. Crossing lines is only plausible for strong voice leading ideas and even then, the confusion happens quite quickly. So always make sure that the top line always is the top line. Within the inner structure, crossing of voices  is in general less problematic but most of the time not plausible either.

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09/04/12: Try to avoid placing hit points on cuts except for moments where it is meant to be like that (e.g. trailers/spoofs). In general, you should rather try to disguise cuts with your music rather than making them even more obvious. The cut itself is nothing that has a relation in the way we see so therefore the music should rather serve as a glue to make even a sequence with quick cuts seem like a constant stream. The accidental musical accent on cuts can not be avoided sometimes, however don’t deliberately compose like that.

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09/03/12: When you negotiate contracts or deals, always try to have a paragraph in there that allows you to use material from the project that you’re working on for demo purposes. Sometimes this will be specified more detailed stating that you may showcase excerpts from the movie a certain time after the cinematic release etc. However, if you don’t get this paragraph into your contract you might even be in trouble showcasing your music only.

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08/31/12: Have a clear idea of what your main melodic line actually is when you orchestrate. It happens very quickly that the main idea gets buried under side lines and accompanying figures. You should always take care that the main line is orchestrated in the way that it stands out and actually gets perceived as the main idea. Make sure it is written in a prominent instrument or doubled enough. A problematic example is THIS passage from HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. The main melodic line is in the cellos and oboe (marked ff cantabile so obviously meant to be the main melody) however your ear constantly gets confused whether to follow that line, the horn line, the figures in the flutes or the high violins. A more consequent doubling of the line from the cellos or a less active texture of the orchestra would have helped to make this line more outstanding. Of course it could also be possible to deliberately set up a texture that has a unclear melodic texture and more of a boiling effect but if that would have been the case in this example it would have been inconsequent to mark the cello line like this.

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08/30/12: On orchestral mixes, it happens quite quickly that especially in the bass register you get a quite unfocussed and loose sound due to the many instruments involved in that low register. It is quite helpful to get more focus into that range by collapsing all frequencies below more or less 100Hz to mono. That is even more important when the music will not be played on a system with a subwoofer (aka Cinemas).

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08/29/12: Developing a musical idea further and being able to create a whole larger musical section out of it is a thing that is often neglected and not properly practiced by young and inexperienced filmcomposers. Often, the temptation to go to a new idea once the initial idea is fully played once instead of developing it further is very present and a very easy way out. However, great music always has an internal red thread that makes the whole piece cohesive and meaningful. There are several ways of how to develop an idea further and apart from the common concepts of how to treat melodic ideas another very good way to create cohesiveness is to pick out one spark of idea from your inital idea. Maybe you have one very interesting chord progression in your initial theme, which you could take and base your further development on. Maybe you have a motivic little cell that is worth transforming into an ostinato or maybe you even have a specific sound or orchestration that is worth taking another musical look at. Developing something further is not the scary complex procedure but actually only requires creativitiy and a sharp eye on what you have already in your initial idea and what would be worth taking out of it and developing it further.

 #composition

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08/28/12: Be aware of possible radical changes of the general soundscape within scenes of a movie. Occasionally, you might have drastic changes in the sound texture of a movie, especially when switching location. One scene might start on a busy street with lots of noises and eventually move on to the interior of a house where there’s practically no noise. Especially such scene changes will seem even harder after the sound mix so you should decide whether to glue it together with the music by letting it overlap over this change or whether you/the director wants this radical change as a stylisic device. Nevertheless, think about these things as well when you write music, especially as most work prints are basically very rough in its sound mix. On very dense sound textures you of course need to also figure out a way for the music to still be heard.

#film scoring

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08/27/12: Meeting a (potential) client for the first time is always a bit of a tricky situation. You need to instantly figure out whether you should rather behave for example like the slick business type or the laid back buddy type etc. In generally, adapting to your client’s behaviour might be more successful than doing the “I’m as I am and I don’t care if somebody has a problem with that” attitude. You want to sell something so you need to work with marketing strategies. The first meeting requires a large amount of (self)awareness. Be aware about how you appear, how much you talk, your facial expressions. It needs a while and a few occasions to become confident in how you behave and it is a constant learning process. The most important part is to figure out how to make your potential business partner confident in working with you which is not neccessarily “I have a huge portfolio and a dozens awards and people always loved my output” but giving him/her a confidence in your person as well. So be understanding, listen carefully to his/her vision, provide suggestions and ideas, show commitment to the potential project and be positive about the work ahead of you. With these strategies, even with a not too strong portfolio you might be able to convince potential clients.

#general

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08/24/12: Woodwinds usually sound more brillant and characteristic when they’re playing solistic lines instead of doubling the same instruments in unison. For example 3 flutes playing a line in unison in generally sound thicker and slightly louder than a solistc flute but it loses the brillance and airyness of the sound. This applies for practically every woodwind instrument when being doubled by the same instrument. Brass however behaves differently. When you double the same instruments, you will get a broader more substantial and majestic sound.

#orchestration

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08/23/12: Some orchestral instrument’s attack phases are just not too great for playing music that needs rhythmical tightness as well as it often occurs that orchestra players are a little late even when they play to a click or background track. In some cases it might work to slightly pull the orchestra tracks all together (or sometimes it works even one by one) a little earlier. That might in general help to get a tighter feeling in relation to an additional track and even applies to sample productions. If you have a purely orchestral recording that just feels untight it might help to chop it up and crossfade the cuts and move the chunks by hand to the more fitting rhythmical place. Of course that is a lot of work and might leave some nasty artefacts but I made the experience that in general that procedure works better than any time-stretching algorithms that are supposed to help you with that.

#technical

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08/22/12: One very commonly used concept to make chords more interesting that sustain over several bars is to keep altering the chord structure of this one sustaining chord instead of just letting it sit there. For example, instead of letting a C(#11) chord sustain over 2 bars, you could make this chord more interesting by just keeping it move between 3 different chord configurations: Original: |C#11—|—-| versus New: |CC(#11)-|CC(#11)-|. With this procedure, you can first of all create intersting inner structures and secondly you avoid rhythmical inactivities. Basically, what we create here are inner structure side lines which follow the scale and available tension notes for the chord used.

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08/21/12: Not every appearance of your main character in the movie needs a statement of his/her theme. Repeating a theme too often can very quickly become annoying or laughable. In general, thematic statements are best placed when the character and his/her actions drive the story forward. Also, if you state the theme more rarely, it’s entrance gets more impact.

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08/20/12: So-called non disclosure agreements (NDA) are quite common practice in the media world. Some companies/clients handle them very strictly and generally put every project under rigid NDA’s (sometimes going as far as having fake cue names on score sheets so that nobody from the orchestra knows what they are playing for) while other companies have a very lose policy on that. In any case, you should stick to these agreements as it can cause nasty juristical consequences if due to you being a leak sensible information about the project gets to the public. In such cases you should also be sensitive about how you behave. For example sending over files to the company by a public http link (http://www.mydomain.com/musicandvideoofsecretproject.zip) is not the greatest idea. In such cases rather a password protected folder or ftp access should be your choice to deliver. Just develop a sensivity for these issues as some companies are really very picky on this.

#general

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08/17/12: Don’t look at orchestration as a something that is completely separated from composition. Always have colours and instruments in your head when you compose. If you are clear about what instruments you write for, that will also influence your writing. With orchestration experience writing a melody for example for flute will be very different than writing a melody for horn. In general, orchestration that are “blowing up piano sketches” are very hard to get to a state where they feel like the music fits the orchestra like a glove. Even though when you don’t orchestrate yourself, you should still try to get a thorough understanding of orchestration as a separation of these things is not really possible if you want to write good music.

#orchestration

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08/16/12: Always mix your music at the approximate volume it will be in the movie later. The human ear has a different perception of balance depending on the volume of music, especially the bass register is very sensitive in this matter as you tend to need way more bass in lower volumes in order to create a balanced impression.

#technical

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08/15/12: The human ear/brain tends to perceive the highest melodic line in a musical structure as a melody line. This happens especially in very homophonic sound colours (e.g. in the string section). If you write a closed position structure (e.g. in strings with your main melody being quite low in the first violins, you should take special care on certain things. First of all, make sure to not (accidentaly) cross your melody line with for example the 2nd violins as this will obsucre the principle of “following the highest line”. Secondly, in structures where there are lines higher than the main melody line, you should a) double the main line or put it into an instrument that has enough power/different sound colour to be easiliy distinguished and b) keep the higher lines melodically simpler than the main line with less movement. With these principles you can avoid drawing the attention of the listener to the wrong things.

#composition

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08/14/12: End credits are a great playground for bringing the music into the foreground of the perception of the audience. Unfortunately, these days, the end credits music is often cut together from score cues, often not even by the composer him/herself. However, if you get the chance/time/budget to write end credits music, it is the standard to present the themes of the score again in a form of a suite. However, this suite should not just be “randomly” composed but still needs to serve a purpose. The most important point is how to start the end credits which is depending on how the movie ends. Of course, most impressive is to start the suite with a grand, big musical statement to keep the audience glued to their seats, however if the movie ends very silently and calm, you might want to get a soft entrance in the credits music. Often, you also need to work your way around a song that appears in the credits. Another problem might be that at the time when you work on the score/movie the length of the credits may not be fixed yet so you might not be able to write that music right before the last moment. However, if you get the chance to write end credits music, definitely go for it!

#film scoring

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08/13/12: Be on time! That doesn’t only apply for delivering your work before deadline but it applies for everything in a professional relationship. If you have scheduled a meeting, be there on time or even if you agreed to call at a certain time or write an email, be on time. Also, respond to emails in a reasonable time frame. It is very difficult to repair someone’s impression of you being unreliable. Whenever you work on a project, you should not leave a single chance for anybody getting doubt about how committed you are to the project. Even if you are buried under the highest work pressure, you should never allow yourself to let important dates or agreements slip by. For some people it is very tricky to actually develop a sense of discipline regarding timings but it is an essential factor that can not be argued about.

#general

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08/10/12: Good musicians listen to each other and especially in the orchestra that is a highly important factor. Of course, they listen especially to their neighbouring players. Knowing that and taking it into account when you orchestrate can make tremendous differences. If you orchestrate something in the way that two neighbouring players or sections have very contrary musical figures (e.g. two very different rhythms like triplets vs. 16ths or some very problematic to intonate intervals (minor 2nds, minor 9ths) between each other) it is tricky for them to play together properly as instead of guiding each other in such cases they rather confuse each other resulting in a rather problematic playing together. If you take an eye on these things and orchestrate in the way that neighbouring sections/players have comprehendable structures with each other, you will quicker get good results and the final result overall will be better as the players will feel more comfortable and better find their place in the orchestration.

#orchestration

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08/09/12: During the phase where your music is being mixed together with the movie, you should be well prepared for spontaneous requests to re-deliver certain files. Sometimes that has something to do with technical issues (e.g. audio glitches, unreadability of certain files, wrong sample format etc. (which is by the way something you should try to keep to a minimum by double checking what you deliver)) but also sometimes with last minut changes on the movie side, the need foor a slight adjustion of the mix/arrangement of your music etc. So in general, it is never the best idea to deliver something and go on vacation far away from your work station the next day. You should at least be on a stand-by mode during these days.

#technical

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08/08/12: Don’t underestimate the power of modulation. Changing to a new key can have a dramatic effect and lift your composition to a new level. If you sustain too long ine one key, it will become weary for the ear over time, no matter how interesting your composition is. It is basically compareable to getting used to a smell or a taste. Introducing a new key will open up a whole new palette of pitches and harmonic relations between them that sound fresh and exciting. The most prominent examples of how effective modulations can be can be seen in many pop songs that tend to modulate spontaeously upwards after the second chorus without changing the arrangement at all. However, just that new key gives it a new push that keeps it interesting.

#composition

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08/07/12: Sometimes, when you get an edit of a movie to work on it might be highly incomplete, with lots of placeholders, storyboard cut-ins etc. so it might be tricky to actually understand the story. Also, sometimes, the movie will just be too complicated or badly written that it is extremely tricky to follow the story line. However, of course as the composer you should understand it, you should no the motivation behind all characters etc. If you don’t understand something, ask! It is not a display of your stupidity or being scared of critzizising your employer’s work but actually many filmmakers are very thankful for input regarding the clarity of their movieto be able to fix certain things if possible. If you are not sure about a certain direction the story takes, just check back and clarify. Especially on tricky plots, you might be able to help clarifying things for the audience with the music.

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08/06/12: Many independent and low budget production offer percentages as salary for their staff including the composer instead or additionally to a small regular salary. This means that as soon as the movie generates any profit, you will get a percentage share of its income. While such procedures unfortunately nowadays are often the only way to realize a movie, such modalities have a high risk for the composer. Even if you have faith in the production to become successful and eventually generate some profit, it is still something that you need to trust blindly. The problem is that clever bookkeeping can specifically target to not generate any profit by declaring income to be needed to compensate some sort of costs. You practically have no chance to monitor that and I know of a few cases where staff has been ripped off with such a deal. So if you agree on such a deal, you should either do it because you need the reference or because you trust the director/producer to actually play these deals fair. In any other cases you should press on having at least a part of your work to be paid regularly.

#general

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07/13/12: A trill is always a quick unmeasured alteration between a note and its next higher diatonic step. I often see these wrongly notated causing trills to sound strange because they use non-scale tones etc. which will eventually not sound right. If you are in the general key of C major, an e with a tr or tr~~~ will mean that the player will trill between e and f. However, if you are in the general key of G major (with f# as general accidental in the front of your page), an e with a tr will have your player trill between e and f# (which is the next diatonic step in the scale). If you want him/her to actually trill between e and f even though we are in the key of G major you would need to write the tr symbol or line with a natural on top (-> the natural affecting the note that is being trilled to, therefore the f# gets a natural and becomes f). You can also use flats and sharps on top of the tr symbol (e.g. general accidentals of C major (or rather no accidentals), you want a trill between e and f# therefore you would write the e with a tr that has a sharp on top in order to cause the f to be raised a semitone to f#). So when you’re orchestrating and you’re using trills make sure you get these right as trills to notes that are not part of your current scale will sound very strange, especially when you’re using them in a very straight forward harmonic context.

#orchestation

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07/12/12: It is in the nature of orchestral music to not be able to hear every instrument clearly in the mix. Some instruments like woodwinds even regularly “drown” in tuttis and their only purpose is to add to the ensemble sound. This is actually a main factor of creating that ensemble sound. I’m not speaking for undefined muddy orchestral mixes here but a certain degree of intransparency in mixes actually adds to the realism of orchestral music. So when you’re mixing your music (especially sampled music) don’t try to mix it too clinical as this will reduce the ensemble feeling.

#technical

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07/11/12: The perception of tempo in music is not exclusively dictated by the number of beats per minute but also by the subdivision of your tempo. Subdividing the very same tempo into a 16th note feeling by attacking a lot of rhythmical values that lie on 16ths will feel much faster and busier than subdividing it into eighth notes. This comes very much in handy when you need “seemless” tempo changes as you can just easily manipulate the perception of the tempo by changing the note values that you base your writing on.

#composition

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07/10/12: Writing music for films is mainly about writing music that works with the broadest possible audience. There are good reasons why there are so many scoring clicheés, simply because they work. Successful film composers are not neccessarily successful because they are fantastic composers but because they have a musical language that works with many people. Being very avantgarde with your scoring approach might be a great thing to fascinate musically educated people but even the biggest and greatest avantgarde scores (e.g. Jerry Goldsmith’s PLANET OF THE APES) have just found a very narrow audience. Film music needs to work which is the highest priority. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can not write ambitious music but there’s a thin line between being ambitious and just being “out there”.

#film scoring

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07/09/12: You often hear composers say something like “I’m too busy writing music so I don’t listen to any other music anymore.” Having this attitude is very problematic in my opinion. Every musician needs regular creative input to not stall artistically. Denying to listen to other music is highly unhealthy, especially in the highly competitive field of film music. Not only do you lose track of current developments in your respective field but you’re also keeping yourself from developing your craft further by gaining more listening experience. Listening to music, going to concerts and generally broadening your musical understanding by listening to all sorts of music is in my opinion essential to becoming a good composer.

#general

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07/06/12: In a situation where you want to spread out a triad over both violin sections, the better choice is to divide the second violins into two voices and leave the top voice to the first violins alone. Even though this might seem against logic (with the 1st violin section usually being bigger than the seconds) but there are two reasons for doing so. The first one is to highlight the top note by putting the whole first violins on it as usually this line has a melodic quality that should not be underbalanced. The second and more important reason is, that, especially when you’re going high up in the register, you wouldn’t want to split the first violins into two parts and possibly having only 4 violins on the top line when you have a fairly small line-upwith 8 first violins at hand. The higher you get with violins the more instruments you need to sustain a string sound that doesn’t become thin. So the preference is always to get as many violins as possible on the top line to ensure enough susbtance of sound.

#orchestration

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07/05/12: If you can not mock-up an instrument convincingly in a piece (that eventually will end up without recording of real instruments in a score) due to the lack of decent libraries or just out of the fact that this instrument can not be simulated convincingly, you should rather leave it out and replace it by something else. Even if the rest of your mockup is convincing, just one element that sounds like “plastic” will diminish the overal effect of your production. Generally, when you need to write a score that will only be produced with samples, don’t be too adventurous on your writing but rather know what (your) samples are capable of and write as effective as possible for them. Even if your orchestration is stellar and would sound fabulous with real instruments, it will not be capable of compensating a mockup that sounds partially fake because your adventurous orchestration can not be reproduced with samples. Customers often find music bad because it’s not sounding convincing to them and often don’t find things as bad that sound convincing but might not be as detailed in orchestration.

#technical

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07/04/12: It is always easy to cover up a mediocre to bad composition with impressive orchestration and the sheer grandness of a symphonic line-up. Working like this will of course work out as long as you’re not being pushed out of your comfort zone into something that you can not cover up with symphonic sounds. It is extremely helpful to spend some time on writing music for very small line-up to be forced to focus on good composition and not on how to make it fat. Eventually this will help you alot in your orchestral writing and will prepare your for things that might come your way.

#composition

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07/03/12: So-called drones are long sustaining mostly low pitched usually synth sounds that can sometimes be the only thing one film score cue consists of. On an emotional side, they are highly effective as they are great for creating tension, anticipation etc. Also, our perception reacts quite heavily on sonorous low bass rumbles by raising the attention level which is of course also a wanted side effect of using such drones. As effective as they are on the scoring side, musically speaking, they are quite unambitious. Also, due to the fact that they are so effective, you basically have a drone based cue in more or less every score which of course feels slightly weary. If you use drones, you should be aware of their functions and overuse and maybe try to use them creatively.

#film scoring

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07/02/12: Every once in a while you might get an offer to do a project that you don’t feel comfortable working on due to its content or the people involved. If you have moral concerns about a project or feel bad about being associated with it, you might want to reconsider doing it. If you are in the good position of being able to pick your projects and allow yourself to reject projects that might even be paid well, it will most probably be the best idea to go with you gut feelings and don’t do the project as you will probably not only feel bad about it at the beginning but also while you’re working on it and even after that. If you are not in the position of comfortably rejecting it there are just two ways to go. Either you reject it anyway if you feel too big moral concerns which is of course okay or you pull it through and don’t ever mention it again. Being concerned about the path of your career after *this* project (e.g. you fear being put into the “dirty movie” area because you scored a movie that had a few explicit scenes) usually is not to be taken as seriously as it feels in the first place. Nobody cares about the composer, hardly anybody notices the name and I’ve never read any magazine writing something like “Scandal revealed! Hollywood composer xy scored a soft porn in his/her early career.” If you are ashamed of a project you did, just don’t mention it on your portfolios. Maybe you can even agree with the project to use an alias in order to keep all your profiles clean.

#general

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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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