Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jul 1, 2016 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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08/24/16: Understanding and being aware of a style of composition is just as important as finding the right tone for a scene. While certain things are musically perfectly plausible they might not neccessarily be what is stylistically appropriate. Film music is a highly and permanently changing genre and currently for example ostinatos are very “in style” while things like dominant 7th and diminished chords are pretty much out. Of course, you can define doing something that currently is not quite in style in general as “your style” and therefore create a certain recognition value of your music but you cannot stretch this too far. At a certain point, your customer might just say “This doesn’t sound like current film music, I want to hire somebody else.” Try being very sensitive on style when you write and listen to music to get a very clear feeling for what is stylistically appropriate. Also, studying composer’s personal styles might be very helpful. Try to find out what makes Danny Elfman sound like him or why you always recognize John Williams. A thorough understanding and security in handling styles is highly neccessary for every film composer.

#composition

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08/23/16: Sometimes, the description of what the client wants your track to sound like is very vague, ambiguos or even not understandable at all. In such cases instead of guessing and shooting into the blue, it always helps to send over a few existing reference tracks that might go along with what they want and let them pick which one is closest. This might take a little while at the beginning to actually find cues that might fit but will save you a lot of time with trial and error and doing several rewrites.

#filmscoring

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08/22/16: Nothing beats face-to-face meeting. Even though the internet and Skype have made it possible to work on a project over long distances without constant personal meetings, meeting a client in person and spending an evening together at a restaurant or bar will most of the time make a big difference in your working relationship. If you are a person that is generally fun to hang out with such a personal meeting will most likely do more for your career and future projects than months of writing emails. So as a general advice, whenever you have the chance of meeting a client in person that you want to work with on more projects it might be even worth doing some extra effort to meet them (even if it involves a trip that wouldn’t be 100% necessary).

#general

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08/19/16: String instruments in particular have a very rich harmonic spectrum meaning that besides their “played” pitch, a whole set of harmonics will sound quite prominently as well. This applies particularly for the next few harmonics being an octave, an octave and a fifth and two octaves above the sounding pitch. The higher ones are sounding as well but get gradually softer the higher you go. This rich harmonic spectrum is part of the reason why the string section in itself often sounds so massively homogenous that it is often very hard to distinguish individual lines. For composers and orchestrators this property is relevant when voicing chords. There are two essential things to consider: 1.) octaves keep reinforcing themselves. If you have string lines in octaves the harmonics of the lower octave will reinforce the sound of the higher octave which in general will give you a more substantial sound. This also means having a chord where the highest violin note (possibly in small numbers (e.g. due to divisi or simply small line-up)) is not doubled an octave lower, there might be a tendency of this note becoming thin and shrill. 2.) Which is applied quite often in other contexts as well but works particularly well with strings: leaving out the fifth of the chord in the voicing. If you for instance need to have a 5-part chord sounding in a string quartet and you don’t want to use any double stops, an easy strategy is to leave the fifth of the chord out and plan it in as a “ghost note” from the fundamental. If your cello plays the the fundamental of the chord, you can count in the fact that there will be a quite strong sound of the fifth an octave+fifth above that sounding fundamental. This works better in softer dynamics than it does in louder ones (the louder the more off the balance becomes as the harmonic will not be able to carry that well anymore) but is a very easy way to get a full sounding chord with fewer notes than actually needed.

#orchestration

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08/18/16: Combining sample libraries or recordings that have been recorded in different rooms with different ambiences in one piece is usually not that much of a problem as some people think or make believe. Especially in more tutti situations it is very tricky to hear the different rooms anymore (unless you’re combining pratically dry samples with samples that are very wet from the beginning, in this case you might want to use a reverb on the dry ones). If you’re combining room sounds in a more exposed way (e.g. solistic lines) it becomes a little more tricky but helps to add the same reverb to all signals (and adjust according to how wet the individual signals were) which is also something that helps in the tutti situation to give it a bit more of a uniform sound. Be aware that that argument of “You should not combine different rooms because it might sound problematic” is mainly an argument that sample developers like to use in order to have a selling point to make you purchase a whole line of samples that have been recorded in the same room. In reality, I haven’t experienced many problems from combining different libraries.

#technical

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08/17/16: Working on a composition for hours alters the way you perceive your own piece and is something to be very conscious about. Many composers tend to overwrite because having listened so many times to the same passage or piece will naturally leave you quite bored so the natural reaction would be to throw something in to make it interesting again for you. The problem is that with this strategy you’re simply overwhelming a listener who listens to it for the first time, who doesn’t know the thematic idea yet.  So try to always imagine the focus of a first listener and try to get some distance from your own piece to find out whether it really needs something there to keep it interesting or if that is just you being longing for more because of fatigue.

#composition

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08/16/16: When scoring a movie by writing score sheets for the reason of having  it played by real instruments at one point, avoid fermatas and breath marks. These musical markings are very open to interpretation and it get’s even more complicated to create click tracks for cues that include them. If you want such a musical effect, in a film scoring environment, it is better to write them out in absolute values. Let’s say you want a fermata on count four of a 4/4 bar, in these cases you would rather make this bar for instance into a 5/4 and sustain count 4 over two beats. In this case, it is very clear for everybody how long that note will be and it is easy to anticipate when to continue after that note. This is something that purely applies for film scoring, especially with recordings to click. In concert music environment, there is no problem whatsoever of using such markings.

#filmscoring

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08/15/16: This one seems like a no-brainer but actually listen to music. It is very often surprising how little time professional musicians and composers spend listening to music other than their own. “When I leave the studio in the evening, I don’t want to hear a single song or track anymore.” is one of the sentences I’ve heard quite several times and while this point is understandable when working long hours in a studio on time consuming projects, not listening to any music at all is probably one of the worst things you can do as a composer. Not only does it mean that you will not get any input and possible thought provoking new influences but you will eventually miss the development of music, which is one factor that is crucial when working in the field of media music. Besides that, not listening to music is also a step in the direction of actually losing the fun in music. Make it a habit to listen to music, in your car, while working out, while having dinner etc. but also make it a habit to sit down once in a while and actually listen consciously and with your full attention to music. Don’t just listen to music that you instantly enjoy but also try listening to things that are outside of your comfort zone. In my opinion all that is not just a simple “Yeah, I’ll do it when I got time.” but rather one of the most important things when being a composer.

#general

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08/12/16: When orchestrating music, one of my favorite strategies is to orchestrate from most important to least important which means that you start off with the element that you need to be perceived as the main idea and work your way down to the “filling texture”. This of course doesn’t eliminate to have a general plan on how you want to orchestrate that passage but it makes orchestrating work pretty time effective. This strategy follows the differently weighed layers that your listener will perceive when hearing the music. If the thing that you want the audience to focus most on is in the brass, make sure to orchestrate that first and make it as punchy as needed, things that are less important (side lines, accompanying figures etc.) can be done after that and you will also get a better idea of how to interweave the less important things into the main idea. If you want to have your main idea in the woodwinds but still want to use the usually way louder brass section, with a bit of orchestration experience you automatically will use the brass very carefully and soft in dynamics after you have worked out the main idea in the woodwinds and don’t run into danger of overpowering your main idea just because you started with brass and figured out that your woodwinds will not have a chance against that and need to rework it. This concept applies for written orchestration but also for orchestration in a DAW with a well balanced template.

#orchestration

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08/11/16: Noises on a recording can be very annoying and are easily overheard on a session (as you focus more on the music obviously). Usually the sound engineer is supposed to spot noises but they can slip by quite easily and what you could barely hear on the monitor mix in the booth suddenly will jump right in your face at the mix. You have a few options dealing with them. There are some spectral clearing tools which allow to “cut out” noises from the frequency spectrum and as long as they aren’t masked by an instrument this method works very well. However, if you can’t solve the problem with that, you might want to find the spot mic that is closest to the noise (and it hopefully isn’t a noise so loud that it spilled on every microphone). When you have isolated that mic, you might want to try muting it for a moment there. However take care that it doesn’t feel like you’re cutting a “hole” into the music. Interestingly this works also to a certain extent at short wrong notes. A horn section split might be very obvious on the spot mics but hardly noticeable on the tree mics so helping such moments with a little “cutting” might be very benefitial.

#technical

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08/10/16: One of the things you should keep an eye on when writing music is the form of your melody. Very often, inexperienced composers fall into repeating short-breathed almost identical 2-bar phrases. While it is perfectly fine to do that once in a while and in the appropriate situation, it will prevent a melody to bring across a long melodic arc, even though the repeating “chunks” might form a 8- or even 16 bar melody. Essentially most longer melodies are sub-dividable. For instance very often you might find that 8 bar melodies can be subdivided into two groups of four bars or even four groups of two bars. However successful melodies also manage to variate their elements enough to stay interesting. If you keep repeating the same rhythmic 2 bar model four times and just change a few pitches, you will actually end up with an eight bar melody, however it will feel quite unmusical and uninteresting. So if you’ve come up with a cool head motif for your melody, keep an eye on whether you incorporate enough variation and different elements to keep it interesting. By the way, that doesn’t mean to not repeat at all. In fact, repetition is one of the strongest elements in music. Just make sure to find a good middleground between “Yeah, cool, that motif again!” and “Oh no, that motif AGAIN!”

#composition

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08/9/16: You should be aware, that music (or rather sound) will have a physiological effect on the body if it exceeds a certain volume. The for a film composer great thing about that is, that your audience can not gain concious control over that. Especially loud bass frequencies will set our body into an alert modus automatically which is coming from the times when loud bass frequencies automatically meant a threat to us (thunderstorm, volcano, earthquake etc.). This stimulation is also part of the reason why club music tends to be loud and bass heavy. You can consciously use that effect when writing and producing film music by using bass frequencies to raise the level of tension, e.g. in thriller/horror situations (if you don’t do it, the sound design will probably do it. Just watch more recent thrillers/horror movies where in almost every “scary” scene, you will have a bass rumbling). But you can also use it to create that extra “oomph” moment in other contexts. This works even to a certain extend by bringing in double basses after a longer period of their absence.

#filmscoring

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08/8/16: Unless you get to work on long-term projects alot, being a composer for the media quite often also means organizing and juggling several things and projects at once. While this is not just a challenge from the standpoint of keeping an overview over all the things, it is also challenging to constantly reset your mind to a different project when you need to switch. If possible working constantly on one project for one day and switching to the other one the next day is probably the most effective option, however very often you need to work on several things on the same day. While some people don’t have a problem at all with switching instantly to something else, others really struggle doing that. Still it seems to be something that you can train and get better at. Of course, try making things as easy as possible by for instance placing your meals breaks between two projects so you don’t need to switch instantly but have a few minutes to just get into the “state of mind” for the next project. An upside of this is that sometimes it really helps to stay creative, as you could use these several projects to simply switch to something else when you’re stuck or tired of one project and get back to it later.

#general

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08/5/16: One of the things that makes music interesting and lively is variety in articulation and phrasing. Many composers coming from the sample world hardly ever think about whether a line might work better having it not completely as staccato or not completely as legato. Still, the difference of sound in possible variations is quite  big. Just imagine a musical phrase of 4 eighth notes and sing or imagine possible variations of this. All 4 staccato, all 4 legato, first two legato second two stacc, first two stacc. second two legato. first note staccato, second to fourth legato with an accent on the second. All of these will feel and sound very different and especially the ones with mixed articulations will have a more musical feeling than the static articulations. Even though it might seem a little strange but it is really worth the time and effort to sing through a phrase that you’re just writing with possible different articulations to find the best or most interesting one. Of course, programming mixed articulation lines with samples is a nightmare and takes a lot of time but it is really worth the extra mile.

#orchestration

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08/4/16: There are probably thousands of philosophies of how to add reverb to a recording. Especially with orchestral tracks, many people are concerned about creating a proper field of depth within the orchestra and create a proper impression of distances of the instruments. Mixing strategies go from putting an individual reverb on every track to putting a reverb on the sum and anything in between. So there doesn’t really seem to be one right way. However don’t go for the first reverb you get under your fingers. A bad reverb can ruin a perfectly fine recording. Here are a few strategies with reverbs that I observed with mixing engineers or heard about, not necessarily to use them but giving them a try and see whether you like them: 1.) Low cut the signal before you send it into the reverb to avoid low frequency mud that gets even worse after it went through a reverb. 2.) Use several sends of the same reverb but EQ these reverbs differently so you have a darker and a brighter version of the same reverb and can use them according to mood (and automate them). 3.) Automate the amount of reverb and/or add additional reverb just for special passages on special instruments. E.g. instrumental solos benefit from having a bit more reverb on the spot mic while they play. 4.) Combine different reverbs as sends (often an IR reverb and a processed reverb) to have flexibility on the “air”.

#technical

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08/3/16: There very often seems to be a battle of arguments between different groups of composers whether one should be well versed in music theory or not and both sides use self justifying arguments to prove their point. The important thing that is to know about music theory knowledge is that it is just a tool. Having a profound knowledge about music theory will not make you a better composer as not having it will not make you a worse composer. In fact developing an understanding of music that only lives in the traditional boundaries of music theory can prevent you from ever thinking outside the box while doing everything by feeling and ear can tremendously slow you down on things where people with good theoretic knowledge find a way in an instant. The ideal way to compose is to simply have the music flow out of you and simply write what you’re hearing in your head, subconsciously following the theory. To that point it doesn’t make much of a difference whether you know your theory and understand what you’re doing subconsciously or not. The one point where theory knowledge comes much in handy is when you reach a point where you’re getting stuck and don’t know how to continue your piece. In these cases falling back to the theory and simply knowing “theoretically I could go on like this or this or this or this, let me try what works best” will give you very often a very quick and effective way out while people without that knowledge need to struggle out of this blockage by using trial and error. So the bottom line is that knowing theory is quite important, helps you to get quicker and more effective results and gives you a fundament to communicate about music on a deeper level. However, if you have a strong musical imagination, theory doesn’t have that strong importance on composition as some academically trained know-it-alls like to make believe. Everybody has to find his/her own way to work most effectively and arrogance is never appropriate towards other composers, no matter which if the two sides you’re coming from.

#composition

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08/2/16: One of the most annoying things are misleading briefs by clients. It’s not too uncommon to get a temp track or a comment by a client that completely sets you on the wrong track of what they actually want. One classic is the temp track which you understand as the way you are supposed to go musically but actually the client only likes a certain instrumental combination, or one musical element from it that he/she wants you to incorporate into your work but forgets or is not musically literate enough to communicate that properly. One also very popular possibility to be thrown off completely is musically uneducated clients trying to communicate in musical terms and throwing words around they think mean something specific they want but actually mean something completely different. There is no real recipe against such misunderstandings, the only thing that helps a little is to ask many questions, if possible also “trap” questions that might shed a light from a different angle on what the client said. This is all part of the job and composers who are just starting out can get really frustrated by that also doubting their communicative skills but there always is once in a while that client where this happens, also to the most professional composers. So get used to it and most importantly react professionally on it. For instance it is a very very bad idea to embarrass or lecture your client over his/her shortcomings in musical understanding even if you could. Just deal with it and let it go.

#filmscoring

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08/1/16: In the excitement of getting to start working on a project, it is not uncommon to forget to negotiate about smaller things that in the end might become reason for frustration. One of these things is your credit. Not negotiating the place and way you will be credited beforehand might become really frustrating for up and coming composers as they might be buried in tiny font in the end credits roll etc. So negotiate such things beforehand so nobody gets surprised. On the other hand, prominent on screen credits are a nice push for the ego and a nice way of appreciation of your work, but they are nothing more than that. I personally haven’t gotten any job by somebody calling me up telling me they saw my name on the title credits nor do I know any composer who has. It is way more important to have done that project and have it as a part of your references and when googling about the project finding your name than having it written in 5 feet letters on the screen. So in general, it is of course nice and also important to get a proper on screen credit, but there are more important things in your career than that.

#general

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07/29/16: High entrances out of the blue are a nightmare for every brass player and particularly tricky for horns (due to the way they produce their tones). The chances are quite high they the tone will be missed or there will be a split in the unison sound or the attack of the tone is not spot on. This is practically gambling for the player and is nothing that can be overcome with professionalism. Even the best players on earth will miss some of these entrances. Without going too much into detail why this is happening, the essential thing is that you try to avoid that unless it is absolutely necessary. It makes life for your players way easier if you gradually lead them to these high notes. Have a mid high entrance one or two bars earlier and gradually move them higher up will make the chance of them hitting it right much higher.

#orchestration

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07/28/16: When recording music with live players, make a protocol of takes in some sort of form. I prefer marking the score sheets with differently colored markers where I circle or highlight things that were particularly problematic or good in individual takes. Other composers make notes on a sheet of paper. The benefit of such a protocol is that you later on in the editing phase you can easier find parts of the cue that you can edit together for the perfect rendition of the cue.

#technical

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07/27/16: One strategy of finding a plausible way to a specific chord or to a key change is to work backwards from the target chord. This works particularly well if the music that you’re writing is mainly cadential harmony as you can simply look at your target chord (let’s say C) and find a way to it by adding a dominant chord before that (G(7)), if you now look at that dominant chord, you could either place a IV(F) chord in front of that or a ii(Dm) and so on. There are of course several paths that you could use. The advantage of working backwards is that it is easier to find strong chord relations. As mentioned before, this works very good with classical cadential harmony but also works in a more filmic context by using “filmic cadences” (such as bVI bVII I etc.) while the strategy of working backwards remains the same.

#composition

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07/26/16: 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 or important details. Also, sometimes, the storyline will just be too complicated or maybe even badly written so that it is extremely tricky to follow what is going on. However, of course as the composer you should understand it, you should know the motivation behind all characters etc. so you can translate it properly to music. If you don’t understand something, don’t be too shy to ask! It is not a display of your stupidity or being scared of critzising your employer’s work but actually many filmmakers are very thankful for fresh input regarding the understandability of their storytelling so they might be able to fix certain things before the release. If you are not sure about a certain direction the story takes, just let them explain it to you. Especially on tricky plots with many twists, you might be able to help clarifying things for the audience with the music, so it is particularly important there that you have a clear overview over the story.

#filmscoring

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07/25/16: On some projects the expected workload is extremely hard to predict beforehand which makes it even trickier when you need to schedule it in or to give a quote on your costs. If you can not come up with a flat fee, it might be better to do an estimate based on variable factors, for instance per work hour, per minute of finished music, per written score page etc. By that you give your client a rough orientation about the expected costs and you make sure to not work more for less money. Working in unpredictable projects in your schedule is way trickier and is one of the most common reasons for working late hours. Apart from developing a gut feeling of how much work it will be there’s practically not much you can do.

#general

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07/22/16: Hardly any musician in an orchestra will play a long note with a static dynamic as samples do. Even if you don’t write in any dynamics or hairpins, the musicians will shape sustaining notes dynamically on their own. It’s usually very obvious  on the end of phrases where the final long note always gets a decrescendo. But also depending on the context long sustaining notes within a phrase will get more or less dynamic shaping without indicating it which is big part of why real recordings sound so much more organic and lively than sample productions. So there are several things you should take care of on long notes in general. Firstly, support the natural dynamic shaping. Sustaining long notes becomes boring quickly so actually writing in a dynamic shaping helps making these notes more interesting. Very popular are for example on long brass notes to hit them loud, drop instantly to piano and crescendo back up to forte. So don’t be shy to use hairpins in your music also within phrases (again, as usual there is also a chance of overdoing this, so keep it reasonable). The other thing is to transfer this knowledge to your midi productions, don’t just let sustaining notes sit there but make sure to give them a natural and interesting dynamic shape. So the modwheel or C11 should become a standard tool in your mockup.

#orchestration

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07/21/16: Whenever you record an instrument or a section separate from the rest of the orchestra/line-up, never just record them to click and nothing else. Musicians hate playing something without hearing or knowing the context that they’re in which makes it also extremely difficult for them to phrase things properly but even more intonate properly. Whenever possible give them as many options as you can on their headphones together with he click to listen to before or while they’re playing. Sometimes they might want just a specific section or instrument for orientation so the more different things you have available, the better. From a mixing standpoint, recording an orchestra or a section separate makes a lot of sense, from the musician’s and interpretation standpoint, it is really uncomfortable and you will get a better interpretation with all playing together. I personally try to record as much as possible with a tutti and only split into stems on very specific projects where maximum flexibility is needed or I simply need a different sound.

#technical

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07/20/16: Working on a composition for hours alters the way you perceive your own piece and is something to be very conscious about. Many composers tend to overwrite because having listened so many times to the same passage or piece will naturally leave you quite bored so the natural reaction would be to throw something in to make it interesting again for you. The problem is that with this strategy you’re simply overwhelming a listener who listens to it for the first time, who doesn’t know the thematic idea yet.  So try to always imagine the focus of a first listener and try to get some distance from your own piece to find out whether it really needs something there to keep it interesting or if that is just you being longing for more because of fatigue.

#composition

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07/19/16: Hit points in the music should never feel like you added an element at random on top of a music bed just to hit an action. Great film music manages to give hit points a musical plausability. If you listen to that music alone, you definitely get that there is obviously something happening at a certain moment but it feels musical. Very often, inexperienced film composers simply try to accent hit points without really writing the music accordingly but just placing a snare drum hit, a horn rip or whatever at the point in the music. This might still work in the movie but will feel very random when listening to the music alone.

#filmscoring

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07/18/16: Never trust any spectacular business promises by someone in the business who you don’t know. Unfortunately there are a lot of black sheep in the media world trying to talk especially inexperienced people into working on something under circumstances they didn’t really agree to. Be especially warned by anything project where you should work for free on something beforehand but when “it all gets cleared it will be a huge opportunity and lots of money for you”. No serious business partner would make anybody work for free on something without some security or compensation for his/her work. So generally be skeptical about any business offer that sounds too good to be true, as it usually isn’t. And unless you have a contract that clarifies and includes all the things you have been promised, don’t invest too much work into anything. Probably every composer working in the field has at least one story of people trying or actually succeeding to rip him/her off. So keep a healthy skepticism at any time.

#general

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07/15/16: 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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07/14/16: One of the reasons for “fake” sounding orchestral mockups is the overuse of the ff-layer on brass samples. Very often you get to hear for example horn lines that last for a minute and are all played at ff without any rest or natural phrasings. In reality that would not be possible just for stamina reasons. Especially that “brassy buzz” sound is not possible to be played over a long time. Often, even though the mock-up might be very well produced that artificial writing attitude for the brass takes away a lot of the realism.

#technical

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07/13/16: One of the reasons for widespread commercial success for many art forms and media is the ability to appeal to a very wide group of people. For instance, commercial chart albums are very often conceptualized in a way to include not only a wide variety of styles but also include songs that are musically more challenging for the better educated and musically “sophisticated” people and songs that work well with the general audience due to easy understandable musical ideas and catchyness. The same strategy can be used in composition. The popularity of John Williams’ has also to do with the fact that he writes incredibly multi layered music that includes attractive elements for many groups of people. The striking melodic simplicity of some of his themes speak very well with a general audience, being able to hum or sing the tune in an instant and being musically satisfied with the catchyness of the main idea while musically educated people and music lovers find attractiveness in the detailed orchestration, adventurous harmonic paths and extraordinary craftmanship in the very same pieces. Many young composers (especially the conservatory trained) often try to write complex music on every level which of course speaks often well with their (former) professors and music elitists while the general audience is simply overwhelmed by the complexity. If your approach however is to reach a widespread audience (which probably most people want), simplicity is nothing to avoid but strive for. Basing a composition on a very simple idea but on top of that finding ways to make it sophisticated is actually not an easy task but will result in something that has a higher chance of appealing to many people. Of course the definition of simple and sophisticated in itself is something to discuss about and seen very differently by different people but the strategy behind that has proven several times to work very well.

#composition

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07/12/16: Many inexperienced composers forget the perspective of the “first view” when scoring a film. Due to the fact that as a composer you watch the movie or scenes so many times your way of perception shifts during that time and you tend to forget the things in the movie that surprised or confused you when you saw the movie for the first time. If you don’t pay attention, you might score it in a “i know what’s going to happen” way or even worse, tip the story for the audience already. So always remind yourself that you’re scoring it for a first view and ask yourself what the audience already knows up to this point and more importantly, what they don’t already know.

#filmscoring

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07/11/16: Clients and customers prefer to have a clear image of who is actually working for them. There are quite a few people who hide behind impersonal websites that they call something like “Awesome Music Studio”, speaking of “we” and “us” without ever clarifying who are the people behind that. In my experience, this is quite a big turn off for potential customers. People want to have faces and personalities to talk to and not feel like they are about to enter a professional relationship with an undefined personality. This is particularly important when your job mainly has something to do with customer contact (e.g. doing works for hire for films etc.) So even if you don’t act on your own (where I think it might always be better to act as a person with a name instead of a studio name) but work in a team, make sure that your customer has a clear idea of who are the people behind that even before getting to know you in personal. Make sure the “Team” page is easy to find and creates the important personal and social feeling to make customers feel more comfortable.

#general

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07/08/16: Remember that the intonation with most instruments in the orchestra doesn’t work like a piano where you simply hit a key and the resulting pitch is perfectly in tune. Rather there is with all notes a variability in how high or low the resulting pitch is. Musicians always orientate themselves at the musicians around them to fit into their sound and intonate properly with them. For an orchestrator that means that the trickier it is for a musician to find one’s pitch in a sound, the more problematic the intonation becomes. It is much easier for musicians to intonate with consonant intervals around them (e.g. two trumpets sitting next to each other playing a third apart is way easier for them than intonating a minor second apart). Of course it is not possible to look out for everybody when orchestrating music with complex harmonic structures but it really helps a lot to keep an eye out for such things and make life easier for your musicians by giving them rather consonant intervals between neighbouring players. This technique also works in massively dissonant sound structures. As long as you give musicians who are sitting close to each other (e.g. trumpet section) an easily understandable sound they can still create a nice dissonance with another section etc. The strategy should be to avoid (which is not always possible) musicians needing to find  their place in a sound without any understandable reference for them to hang on to.

#orchestration

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07/07/16: With sound design being a massively important factor on movies for the last 10-20 years, the way to handle this from the music side has also changed quite a bit. While in earlier times, audio tracks of movies were way less occupied and composers didn’t need to worry most of the time how their music is going to cut through, by now it has become on most film genres more or less a constant battle about how much space will be left for the music, especially on action sequences. If possible get in touch with the sound designer of the movie and have constant dialogue with him/her to make sure both elements work together in problematic sequences. The important part here is to not start a dialogue with the attitude of him/her being your enemy and you need to fight for your right to get space but rather try to work in the mutual interest of making the sound track as good as possible, which also means to make compromises.

#technical

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07/06/16: One of the trickiest things to learn when learning to compose is to gain a view and more importantly control over the big picture. It is fairly easy to learn and use all the “rules” and possibilities in small scale, having one chord and a melodic idea and finding a plausible way to a next chord with a plausible melodic idea. And while many learning composers very quickly get the hang of how this works, it takes a considerable amount of experience to also gain control over the larger structure. Many pieces by learning composers have very nice ideas in a small scale but in large scale hover over the same tonal center for minutes, have an unplausible melodic arc and lack climactic moments all together. However you can specifically practice “larger scale writing”. For example try writing a buildup that is for instance exactly 20 bars long (set a target beforehand!) and that gradually builds up for that time without taking away the climax too early or having an anticlimactic development somewhere in between. Or set a target to modulate in a plausible way within 9 bars for instance from Db major to G major. Write a symmetric melodic arc of 12 bars. etc. All these exercises will not necessarily end up with a presentable piece but they really force you to think in bigger structures.

#composition

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07/05/16: Quite a few short movies need music wall to wall, which means to start the music at the beginning of the film and don’t interrupt it till the end of the end credits. In such situations it still makes a lot of sense to write several cues instead of one big cue for the whole thing. One reason lies more in the fact of recording it live with real musicians where a take of 2 minutes is more likely to be recorded sucessfully in one go than a 10 minute cue. Another reason which in my opinion is important and can save you a lot of time is to leave “extension gaps” between the cue in case there are minor edits in the movie or things get moved around slightly. Ending a cue on a sustaining chord while the next cue starts with a rhythmic accent that fits musically and harmonically to the previous cue gives you the option to move the entrance of the second cue around a bit so in case some minor things change, you don’t need to rewrite. This strategy is by the way also quite often used on feature films where long (especially action) cues get subdivided into smaller cues that will later be edited together again.

#filmscoring

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07/04/16: For many composers who are just starting their career getting an agent seems to be one of the most important things to do as they hope that these agents will get them high profile jobs and it is more impressive to have customers communicate with your agent first. In reality neither of both is true. Your agent will only be able to get you jobs more or less on the same level of jobs that you are having already. So if you only do semipro productions with low budget, don’t expect to be getting a big project through an agent. Also, many customers hate to communicate through agents so if you only have a contact to your agency on your website it will also scare off a few people. These days (especially with networking becoming easier through the internet) quite a few composers even quite high up in the game don’t have an agent and handle these things themselves. At a certain point in your career it might be a good idea to have an agent just to keep away excessive paperwork but this is a decision that everybody needs to make for themselves. If you just start out, rather invest your energy into finding jobs and networking instead of finding an agent. Also, at a certain level agents will come to you and not the other way around. However, in the long run, there is one upside of having an agent (besides the obvious ones like keeping paperwork away etc.) which is that you don’t need to play the “bad guy” when it comes to negotiations about payment. If you do this directly there is always a chance that this negotiation leaves a negative trail into the actual project (especially when negotiations get quite tough, which is the case from time to time). In these instances, having an agent who can play the “bad guy” will help to separate the nasty business side from the creative work you do, but as I stated several times before, any professional should know that money negotiations can become quite tough but shouldn’t be annoyed/frustrated/aggressive beyond the point where things are settled. However, it can happen from time to time.

#general

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07/01/16: Even though you might think it makes life easier for your players and is a good idea to incorporate into your scoresheets wherever needed, orchestral players don’t like seeing 8va/8vb lines or marks at all. Even the players where the use of such lines might seem like a good idea (eg. flutes, violins) prefer reading many ledger lines over reading 8va and are actually really proficient in doing so. The only plausible reason to use these lines would be on piano and sometimes on harp staves or when a score sheet page is so tightly packed that you actually need the space on the paper somewhere else. In the latter case make sure to remove these lines again in the parts for the individual instruments.

#orchestration

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

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