Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jul 1, 2015 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


Welcome to the Daily Film Scoring Bits section of my website!

On this page I publish on a more-or-less daily basis small hints, tricks and advices concerning the creation of music especially for film. These hints cover the fields of composition, orchestration and film scoring but also things concerning the workflow in this field, like the working relationship between composer and director etc.

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

 
 

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07/31/15: One of the most common problems of inexperienced orchestrators is the “organ-effect”, which happens when you double too many instruments in a middle register with relatively long notes. At a certain point, the transparency gets lost and the whole sound sounds more like a organ than an orchestra. To avoid that, don’t overdo the doubling in general, some colours sound better unmixed. Also, use the higher and lower registers evenly, try to balance out chords over the whole range of the orchestra and make sure to not concentrate all forces in the middle register. Avoid writing extensive legato passages in all voices. Especially on a big tutti, everybody playing legato will quite quickly create the organ effect. Also, leaving certain instruments out for the sake of bringing them in on peaks is generally a better idea. For example, the organ effect gets highly increased by constant use of trumpets in legato lines. Transparency is key here and when you are not sure why you’re doubling certain things, rather avoid doing that instead of having the fear of “the score sheet looking so empty”.

#orchestration

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07/30/15: At latest when you’re recording a small sized orchestra, you will probably need to move out of your studio at home or at your office and record somewhere else. While you are probably perfectly used to the way things sound at your general working space, it might be quite a surprise at how different things might sound in the studio. There are monitor speakers that have a very own sound characteristic and the monitor mix you’re hearing from all mics might sound really strange and intransparent at the worst case. Many composers doing that for the first time are massively overwhelmed, expecting a transparent and more ideal sound in the booth. However, this is in general no need to panic, but the unideal acoustic situation might alter your judgement of things and drive you to decisions that you would make differently when you were at your normal setup. A good idea (which however is not always possible) is to get used a bit to the sound system. Maybe you can sit in on the session before you or maybe bring a recording you know really well to just listen to before your session so you get an impression of how the system sounds. If that is not possible, you should have someone from the studio to ask in situations when you’re unsure (things like: “Was there a horn split? Should I take back the trumpets or are they just so loud in the mix here?”) etc. This is by far not the ideal situation and really terrible when doing this for the first time but after getting used to the sound it is also a good reason to come back to certain studios for following projects.

#technical

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07/29/15: Spontaneous and unprepared modulations upwards (mostly half step, whole step or minor third up) as often heard in pop music or musicals are often considered “cheap” and unmusical by many musical academics and supposedly a sign of the inability of the composer to write a proper transition. While this may be true in some cases, the dramatic effect of such a spontaneous modulation should not be underestimated and might even be diminished by transitions whose only purpose it is to “smoothen” the modulation. The power of such modulations can be transfered to film music writing as well. Especially ostinato driven music often uses even several of such modulations. Major hit points or changes of mood profit greatly from establishing a new and “fresh” key and will also help raising the dramatic intensity.

#composition

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07/28/15: Try to avoid having too many musical accents exactly on cuts. A cut is something that doesn’t match with the way how we perceive things in reality so a cut automatically interrupts a visual or even a dramatic flow. This interruption is nothing that you normally would want to make even stronger by accenting it with the music. If it accidentally happens to have an accent on a cut, it’s not a problem but with several of these highlights in close proximity, the sequence will start to feel very chunky. However as a stylistic device, you can use it for a specific contrasting effect as recently seen so brilliantly in GRAVITY, where huge musical buildups end several times clean cut (visually and acoustically) into the absolute silence of space which is a fantastic effect there.

#filmscoring

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07/27/15: If you pursue a career as film composer, be aware that it is not enough to be able to write music that sounds like film music. Being a film composer is a way more multi-layered career than being “only” a composer. The most important thing is of course to be able to write music that fits dramaturgically and that needs to be practiced just as much as your writing chops. So try to get involved into scoring to picture as soon as possible. You could even just rescore scenes from existing movies to practice that. Another important thing is to work on your social skills. If you are a naturally shy person, work on this! Being able to do “small talk” and being a communicative person is something that you can practice. Especially communication skills are important when you work on such a collaborative project as film. Also things like business, coordinating a self employment etc. are important. As a film composer, you’re always someone who provides service to a customer, which comes with all the additional things that are needed for this. So remember to work on all levels on your skills and don’t just focus on one.

#general

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07/17/15: Everybody needs to find the way that works best for him/her when orchestrating. My personal approach is most of the time to orchestrate passage-wise the loudest and most prominent things first and sketch the most important things on a “first pass” and when the big structure of the piece is done, I will do another pass with detail work. Other people orchestrate everything on a bar by bar basis etc. However be warned of orchestrating the whole piece layer-wise. Meaning to just orchestrate the strings of the whole piece and then add brass/ww/percussion on another pass. There are several problems with this strategy and unless you are really proficient at orchestrating and can imagine missing parts, you will most likely orchestrate the first element more or less completely leaving hardly any space for the other sections and then struggle to give them anything meaningful to do. The other problem with this strategy is that you make it very tricky for yourself to do colour changes on the orchestration. When you for instance orchestrate the strings first and want it to sound good with them alone, you will most likely not imagine one section where brass takes over and the strings just provide high sustaining violin notes because if you orchestrate the strings on their own like that you will feel like something is missing and start adding that right away, falling back to the “standard configuration”.

#orchestration

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07/16/15: Click track bleed is some of the most annoying things that can happen in a scoring session when it only gets discovered in the mix. It results from the click on the headphones of the musicians spilling over to the microphones. Usually, an experienced recording engineer will have a master volume for all the clicks which he/she can adjust according to the loudness of the cue that is just being recorded and additionally every musician has his/her own headphone with an individual volume knob. So if you have a good engineer he/she will keep on listening whether the click is audible on the mics. In very soft cues where not all instruments of the orchestra are involved, it should be communicated to the musicians not involved to un-plug or turn off their headphones beforehand. There are also some engineers who set up a clever click-track that automatically adjusts its volume according to the overall volume in the room. A slight click track bleed in the mix usually is nothing to worry about too much as the base-level of “noise” of a movie is usually high enough to cover-up these clicks. However, on the session especially on very soft part have a thorough listen to whether there are any clicks audible on the recording.

#technical

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07/15/15: One of the strongest factors in music is the duality between tension and resolution, which can be found in the smallest musical units (e.g. V-I cadence) to the largest extents (big structure of symphonies etc.). However the ear of the 21st century listener is way more tolerant to dissonance than just a few decades ago which also reflects in the literature on composition. This can be a source for confusion for learning composers. Traditional literature on composition has a very different understanding of dissonance than what we actually have nowadays (and what is used in film music). For our ear, it is no problem to accept a chord with a major seventh (e.g. Cmaj7) as a stable chord that doesn’t neccessarily want to resolve while for traditional understanding, the maj7 is a massively dissonant interval that can hardly be left alone without a proper resolution. In this regard following the rules learned from books versus what can actually be observed in current music can be quite contrary. The only interval that we still find massively dissonant is the minor ninth (which create a stronger dissonance than the minor second which consists of the same notes). All other intervals can be part of chords that don’t neccessarily need a resolution. A quite extreme example for our tolerance for dissonance is a lydian chord (e.g. Cmaj7/9/#11) where we find major7, major 9 and a tritone as part of the chord structure and yet, it doesn’t have the massive urgency to resolve for most of today’s listeners ears. Keep that in mind when you study composition and when you once again are confused by classical music theory versus current reality.

#composition

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07/14/15: Nowadays there is hardly any film project that will not be temp-tracked before you start working on it. Depending on the level of experience and taste of the person who temp-tracks it (which could be the director or the editor or someone else), the result can be anything between helpful and confusing. Quite often, you as the composer might have the chance to do the temp tracking, either by being actually asked to do it or you specifically ask for it. Even though this might seem like some extra work, whenever you get the chance to do it, you should definitely go for it. By that you can avoid having temp tracks in the movie that don’t fit at all but the director/producer getting so used to it that they don’t want anything else for the scene. If you temp-track the movie, do it really carefully as you can use that temp track also to bring across your vision of what you think the music should do. In a later process of discussion, be open for doing changes on the temptrack to also incorporate the vision of the director etc. Doing the temp track yourself will save you from a lot of headache and frustration so even when you’re not asked to do it, try if you can actually request to do it. All that of course requires you to have an extensive library of film scores that you know to use for temp tracking. The only problem on this procedure might be you becoming too used to the temp track so you will have a hard time coming up with something else for a specific scene. If you tend to become artistically limited when listening to temp tracks several times and have a really hard time detaching your music from it, it might be a better idea to stay as far away as possible from the temp track and only listen to it for reference and to understand the vision of the filmmaker but avoid listening to/viewing anything temp tracked several times.

#filmscoring

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07/13/15: 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 ridiculous 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 such cases, there is no shame in asking someone who can handle this style for help. Even if you lose money by that, it will be way better for your career if your client is happy because you delivered something that works well on all levels. If you can’t afford to ask for help and a project is way out of your comfort zone, it might be better to not do the project than to deliver something that is bad and might damage your career because you couldn’t pull it off properly.

#general

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07/10/15: Balancing out orchestral “forces” is a lifelong learning process as there are dozens of factors involved that have influence on how sections in the orchestra balance. Not only does the instrument by itself but also its number, the dynamic, the register, the style, the tempo, the players, the location, the room size and other factors play a big role in that. The only way to learn this is to gain experience by ideally having ones composition played by real musicians to check how it balances or get a thorough knowledge of balances by listening to music and reading along scoresheets. There are general rule of thumbs such as 4 woodwinds balance one heavy brass (trumpets, trombones) while 2 woodwinds balance one horn etc. which are generally a good rule of thumb but don’t really cover up all possibilites. Even 20 flutes in their lowest register couldn’t compete with a trumpet while one piccolo in its highest register could easily balance out a trumpet. These things need to be looked at with much differentiation and need to be studied thoroughly.

#orchestration

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07/09/15: Ritardandos and accelerandos are very tricky to do with a click track that live players need to record with later. Especially the standard tempo changes that DAW’s offer with a constant slowdown or speedup usually feel very unnatural. Invest some time to program these speed changes by hand to give them a logical and musical feel. Most of the time you can even program them in a way that from the absolute length they don’t differ from the constant ones (and still hit any hit point afterwards) but still feel logical. On the recording, give the musicians a few run throughs of the click track so they get to know what’s happening where. A good idea would also to talk through these things with your conductor beforehand.

#technical

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07/08/15: To have a thorough knowledge of classical counterpoint writing is definitley benefitial to sharpen your musical understanding but the strict classic rules hardly have any application in modern (film) writing. The term “contrapuntal” now rather refers to a more side-line orientated, horizontal writing style and while many of the classical rules are a good general guideline (e.g. parallel movements etc.) they are by far no strict rules anymore that make musical quality. Also, strict forms of contrapuntal writing like the fugue etc. have rarely any practical use in film writing anymore. One of these very rare cases where a fugal episode appears in film scoring is the SETTING THE TRAP sequence from HOME ALONE by John Williams, probably as an emotional reference to baroque christmas music. The pure forms of actual several horizontal lines standing “punctum contra punctum” is also rarely seen in film scoring. One example is the CYBERTRONICS sequence from AI -ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, again by John Williams. Note the free tonal approach where both lines keep forming small “islands of tonality” for a few moments just to move away from them again. Nevertheless, I can not recommend enough to study classical contrapuntal writing and try some exercises following the rules strictly to sharpen your own musical understanding and level of control.

#filmscoring

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07/07/15: Strong emotions that are portrayed visually in the movie (e.g. someone crying desperately) feel rather awkward when they get doubled by the music. You are usually better off scoring such moments rather sparsely or possibly even leave them in silence. Scoring them musically in the same intensity will very quickly feel pretty awkward and stylistically very old fashioned and operatic. So in most such situations, it is best to musically hold back.

#filmscoring

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07/06/15: 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 brilliant, you need to make them in order to become a good film composer.

#general

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07/03/15: The unique construction of the trombones with their slides gives them a possibility to do certain things that other brass instruments can’t do (e.g. slides) but also limits them down in certain situations. Especially in the lower register where there are not several different possibilities available to play a specific note the agility of the trombone is considerably lower than on instruments with valves. The reason lies in the pure physicalities of pushing a valve down with a small finger movement vs. moving the slide with an elbow movement and in some cases needing to move the slide from completely in to completely out, which can also happen on notes very close together. The most problematic one being between Bb a  major 10th below middle C and B a semitone higher. While on a real tenor trombone (usually played by the first trombone player which doesn’t come with a fourth and/or fifth valve as other trombones), the Bb can only be produced with the slide completely in while the B only with the slide completely out. So a nightmare passage for a player would be a quick staccato passages between these two notes. The higher you get the more options to playe the same note are available on the trombones so the slide movement can be reduced but down there, there’s no option. So when  you’re writing for brass, keep an eye on the speed factor for your (low) trombones.

#orchestration

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07/02/15: When recording or overseeing the recording of a small ensemble of musicians, pay attention to a few seating issues. If you’re not depending on a specific seating of the musicians for other reasons, you might want to go for the following option: place the highest instrument in the center of the stereo recording and place the lower instrument to the outsides from there. This is a strategy for instance also used with trumpets in Bigbands, where the seating rather is something like 3124 instead of 1234. This also works with larger groups: 531246 etc. This will give you a more homogenous sound and give a more balanced stereo field on the main mics. This strategy is also used more or less on most orchestral seatings where the  first players of each group usually sit closest to the middle axis of the orchestra with the higher chair numbers spreading out to the outsides.

#technical

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07/01/15: As a composer working within economical boundaries and especially working in the media world, you need to be able to work at a considerable speed. Unless you are financially secured, you simply cannot afford to spend 2 weeks on a 30 second cue or something like this. If you are a learning composer and eventually want to make a living with music, don’t just work on your craft but also on your output rate. Luckily, speed most of the time comes with experience but some people tend to re-think and re-work tiny details several times getting lost  forever on small passages. Probably every composer knows and feels that a piece never is finished but you just let it go at the point where every change you could add to it would not justify the time anymore that you would invest. Learning to know when this point is reached is one of the important goals for every learning composer. And while ideally there shouldn’t be a feeling of rushing through the writing process, you should also train yourself to not get massively lost in details. Monitor your output rate and monitor your behaviour. Is that detail you’re just working on really needed for this piece to become good or are you just wasting time with it? Monitoring your work speed will also eventually give you a quite good idea of your daily delivery amount and being able to predict one’s work speed is essential on any payment consideration as well as deadline predictions. For (orchestral) film composers an average rate of 2-3 mins of WRITING a day is standard, while additionally producing/doing mockups at the same time will get you down to approx 1 minute/day or on complex cues even just 30 seconds. While this doesn’t sound like much, having a constant daily output rate like this is most of the time hard work.

#composition

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