Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jun 1, 2014 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 the most recent Tips, Tricks and Hints, head over to the other DAILY FILM SCORING BITS ARCHIVES!
 
 

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You can also ask me questions that you might have over at my Ask.FM site

 

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10/23/14: When trying to find a secondary melodic line to a main melodic line (e.g. you have your main melody in the strings but want an independent horn line as well to support it) try shaping that secondary melody in a way that it moves on different rhythmic moments than your main melody. For instance let’s say your main melody moves mainly in the rhythm quarter-quarter-half note, you wouldn’t want your secondary line to move close to that rhythm as well (as it will also make it trickier to distinguish the melodic movement). In this case, it might be a good idea to have your secondary line move rhythmically during count three and four (where your main melody sits on a half note). It might also be a good idea to have your secondary melody tie notes over bar lines to counteract the downbeat-heavy main melodic idea and help working against the statics of the main rhythm.

#composition

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10/22/14: A slim, focused and clean working setup is always better than having too many tools to work with. There’s no point in investing into endless amounts of libraries, synthesizers and plugins because you will never have the time to master them all. The by far more successful strategy is to pick a basic system that you really know how to handle and get the best out of. Streamlining your process in that regard is more effective and will create more output than constantly needing to search for sounds or trying out how things work with that one plugin you never used before.

#technical

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10/21/14: 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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10/20/14: 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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10/17/14: One very easy way to create a small sense of pulse in an orchestral piece is to not go for sustaining whole note accompanying chords but actually let these chords pulsate in a certain rhythm, like quarters or more complex rhythms. So not changing any of the tones of the chord but simply replace the whole note chord by for instance four identical quarter note chords. Unfortunately that principle is very problematic to achieve with samples as you would basically need sustain samples with soft attack coming with round robins as you don’t want to hear 4 times the exact same attack on these 4 chords which to my knowledge practically no library supports. You also wouldn’t want to layer soft staccato samples on top as in reality these pulsating chords would be executed with a quite soft attack. So unfortunately that technique is very problematic to pull off convincingly with samples but create a lovely effect with real instruments in passages where you don’t want to establish a strong pulsating rhythm just yet but want to give it a little hint of pulse.

#orchestration

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10/16/14: Every now and then, you have to learn how to use a new piece of software, for instance you switch to a new sequencer or simply get to know a new sample library etc. With quite complex software for music professionals, the learning curve can sometimes be very unpleasant. There are several different approaches to getting to know a new software. Some people work bit by bit through the manual, taking a very organized approach to learn every feature while others just go ahead and do the trial and error method. I’ve made the experience that the learning is faster and more fun if you just try to figure out by yourself how things work. Once you figure something out you have that little reward moment which makes your brain memorize things better than just reading about it. I only consult the manual or google when I can’t find a way out of a problem. Another effective approach is to have someone show you the main functions or guide you while you’re working on it. It might also be helpful to read a little bit through the manual once you know the programme quite well as then you might know the structure of how things work and certain shortcuts or hidden functions mentioned in the manual will further help you increase your workflow. I’ve mentioned it already in another tip a while ago but spend some considerable time learning and using all possible shortcuts.

#technical

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10/15/14: Many composers are concerned about their output rate and feel intimidated by hearing that composer x wrote the score for feature film y in just a few weeks or something like that. However this whole issue shouldn’t be bothering you too much. The more experience you have the quicker you will be in composing as many things will switch from “let me try if that works” to “I know this will work”. So if you’re just starting out and still learning, don’t worry too much about speed, you will get quicker at that automatically. It is also safe to say that without making quality compromises, writing a mean of two to three minutes of music a day is still pretty much a good rate to orientate yourself on. Considering speed rates of composers on blockbusters with supposedly incredible short amounts of time to write the music, you should be aware that ghostwriting or “additional music” is in such cases quite common with the main composer taking more of a supervising role and writing thematic ideas while there are more people to flesh out things, sometimes credited, often uncredited. So the bottom line is to not be too concerned about your general output rates as long as you can hit your deadlines.

#composition

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10/14/14: While a strong musical concept to scoring a movie is essential and can help to create a really strong symbiosis between movie and music, it also shouldn’t be too complex and demanding. Choosing a particular musical style to score a movie based on a concept that is very complex will most likely not resonate with your audience as they will not be able to make too complex connections. It gets even more problematic if your concept is massively based on knowledge about the story that isn’t revealed until the end. For instance in a movie that is generally set as a psycho thriller and until the end and final plot twist we don’t know that one main character in the movie is an imagination of the protagonist (e.g. Fight Club), you decide to score many parts of the movie with a music that has a strong feeling of being unreal, like a dream or very unfocused, even though the scenes might require more precise scoring or are simple tension moments might become just too much to process for your audience. There will be a feeling of disconnection for your audience while they are watching the scene as they will not understand why a suspense scene is scored with weird unreal music at that moment. Even if the concept behind that is clear and it all makes sense at the end, it will be distracting while watching. However it might very well work to score the suspense scene with real suspense music but add hints of it being unreal to it. And of course this is just an example and highly depending on how the movie works and how it is set. The bottom line is, to not expect too many complex connections to be made by your audience while watching the movie and keeping an eye of what the audience knows at that point in the movie.

#filmscoring

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10/13/14: Many especially young composers are looking for film material to practice scoring. And due to many of them wanting to write so-called epic music, it becomes even trickier to find footage as it’s not particularly easy to find amateur or student films that offer scoring such scenes. While it might be debatable why as a young composer one need to extensively practice scoring multi million dollar shots, many composers end up taking footage from blockbusters and scoring or re-scoring them. While for a purely practice context, this is completely fine, the problem starts when you use these as demos on your website or social profiles. First of all, the danger of running into rights problems with big studios is not to be underestimated as they run very often aggressive policies against piracy. Additionally, when using these things as demos hoping to get jobs, you can only lose. First of all, potential customers will know the original movie and will know how it sounded like. As a learning composer with limited access to HQ samples etc. you simply will not stand a chance to live up to or exceed the expectations. Even if your music on its own is quite good, it will most likely not have a chance against the music of established composers who work with huge budgets to record and produce. The other problem is that having a demo that consists of rescored scenes will simply say: “Hey, I have so much time because nobody hires me that I can spend days to rescore scenes from other movies.” which is not really something a potential client is looking for. For them, people who are constantly busy doing jobs are way more attractive. The problem is that particularly such demos are without a doubt identifiable as “I got no job and I am bored.” Even if you just used that music without picture to demo your work, it could be a track from an actual project and the client wouldn’t know. So the bottom line is: It is great practice to try and rescore scenes from blockbusters but there are several reasons why you shouldn’t use them in connection with the video as demo to get jobs.  However you still might use them as pure audio demos.

#general

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10/10/14: 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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10/09/14: 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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10/08/14: In final V-I cadences of a melody but also of a piece, especially when the melody also lands on the root note, sometimes it just feels too boring to go straight for the tonic again. A very common way to make this more interesting is to delay the tonic for a while. There are quite a few very common ways that keep appearing and work quite effectively. So for instance instead of doing a G7-C (with C in the melody on the C chord), you could also go G7-Dbmaj7(with c on top) and then to C, or G7-Ab-Bbadd9-C, or G7-F-C/E-Dm7-C. You could also come up with your own way including more complex chords that include the melody c.

#composition

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10/07/14: 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 starting out composers 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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10/06/14: Once you’ve finished a project that is rather big for you considering your portfolio, don’t fall in the state of “Now, I’ve done this, time to relax a bit.”  Use the momentum of the project and try to aquire new jobs. It is much easier to push open doors with things like “Yes, I’ve just done *major project X*, maybe you have heard about it on TV/Cinema/Website etc.?” Even if you haven’t done a single job worth mentioning befor that project, being in the position of saying something like this makes you appear like “Wow, this guy seems to be busy getting the big gigs, we should consider hiring him.” Even if you do this just a few months or even weeks after your project, the momentum gets lost quite considerably. Things like “Half a year ago, I did this one project, maybe you remember?” always have two downsides. 1.) Your possible new customer might not remember even if he/she noticed your project when it was hot. and 2.) That provokes the question or thought “So, you haven’t done anything (worth mentioning) in the last half year? Seems like you’re not really big in the business.” So never rest once you’ve completed a cool project but use it to move yourself forward.

#general

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10/03/14: 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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10/02/14: When you’re working with true legato sample patches (where the transitions between notes have been sampled as well) be aware that depending on the instruments, the lines will always feel more or less late. Real players will always play in the way that they have reached the target note on its rhythmical value having the transition slightly before that while the MIDI event that might be sitting right on the downbeat will trigger the transition at that point reaching the target note slightly late. So it is always wise to pull the midi events on such patches a little early to compensate for that.

#technical

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10/01/14: 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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09/30/14: The exact placement of musical hit points is very often a matter of psychology and should be done quite carefully. On quite a few hit points it’s not the most effective thing to place the musical accent exactly on the visual action but rather prefereable to leave bit of time to let it “sink in” with the audience.  This is particularly important on musical reactions on things that are a little more complex to understand. e.g. in a dialogue scene where a character says a “game changing” sentence but you simply need one or two seconds to understand and realize what it means that he/she just said. In this case, you don’t want to be too early with the reaction in the music but give it a moment and then follow the reaction time of the audience or the other character in this dialogue. Of course there are also hits that need to be dead on like explosions etc., something that is clear from the visual impact and doesn’t need a lot of “processing”. But when you’re laying out hit points to a sequence put some thought where it would be best to place them.

#filmscoring

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09/29/14: 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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09/26/14: 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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09/25/14: 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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09/24/14: Melody writing has a lot to do with melodic tension and proper resolution. Usually, the degree of tension is determined by the underlaying chord. An f in the melody over a C major chord has a strong tension and wants to resolve stepwise upwards to the g or downwards to the e, of which both are chord tones. Jumping away from this f to another tension note will feel melodically weaker and not much plausible to the ear. Also if that happens over a chord change and jumping from one tension into a new tension note over a new chord will usually feel pretty awkward. Jumping away from a tension note to a chord tone that is not a step away is melodically possible but can also feel melodically weak. When you’re writing melodies, you should always have an eye at the degree of tension certain notes have with the underlaying chord. Of course this is again depending on style. For instance Jazz tunes generally prefer to stay in quite strong tensions while other music tries to avoid tensions as much as possible, so your musical language is defining of how much might still be possible and plausible and when it feels musically and melodically disconnected. There are also a few other limitations to that guideline but it’s a good rule of thumb.

#composition

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09/23/14: One of the most challenging scoring approaches is comedy scoring as there is always a very thin line between actually being funny and getting silly. As there are so many different layers of humor between extremely subtle pun humour and overblown slapstick humor hitting the right tone is not always easy. Many inexperienced composers tend to overscore the humor factor which has the completely opposing effect to what is desired and feels like explaining the point of a joke. A usually quite often working approach to score comedy is to take it dead serious which will make the joke of these moments very often even funnier. But that too is not a general recipe to score such scenes. The most important thing is to rather be understating in comedy situations than overscoring it.

#filmscoring

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09/22/14: So-called typecasting happens quite quickly and is a very annoying situation for most composers or practically any creative person. Once you have a notable success in a genre or in a job, most probably follow-up jobs will be more or less of the same kind. “I heard your fantastic horror movie score in XY, i’m shooting a horror movie, do you want to score it?” or offers like that will be very often heard. Some people feel very comfortable putting all their effort into one specific genre or style of writing, while many others get annoyed by this. Looking at the portfolio of some major Hollywood composers reveals that even the big names aren’t safe from being typecasted. If you want to avoid that, you have to become active and sometimes prefer smaller jobs of a “new kind” over bigger jobs of potentially typecasting dangerous projects. Of course, financial reasons are often a major argument but the most important thing here is, that if you want to avoid being typecasted, you can’t stay passive with an attitude of “Oh well, I’m sure other projects will come.” At a certain point, when you have a diverse portfolio, the hassle of working against the typecasting problem will solve itself as the follow-up projects will most likely remain just as diverse.

#general

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09/19/14: 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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09/18/14: 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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09/17/14: 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.

#composition

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09/16/14: 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 but will save you a lot of time with trial and error.

#filmscoring

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09/15/14: 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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09/12/14: There are a few commonly seen misconceptions about woodwind and string runs and their use and notation so keep the following things in mind: 1.) The purpose of a run is to create a blurry swirling effect without being able to actually hear the individual notes in the run clearly which needs a more or less specific number of notes in a certain time, trying to get a run at 100bpm with sixteenth notes will not give you the impression of a run but the impression of a melodic idea. Trying to do 32-notes at tempo 180 will especially on the strings give you a glissando sound and not the actual feeling of a run. So keep the speed of your run at reasonable rates. 2.) Runs need to have a purpose. There hardly ever is a good reason to have a woodwind run that does nothing and most of the time feels superimposed to have that. That said, there are some moments where this sounds good, but most of the time it doesn’t. Make sure your runs lead somewhere, may it be an accent or a new downbeat but don’t simply use them in the middle of a bar with no apparent reason. 3.) Runs are not glissandos and should not be notated like that. It is bad notation to simply write two notes and connect them with a wavy or straight line to indicate a run. It is always important to be in the right scale, so when you are in C minor and your player connects the two notes by going over the C major scale, it will sound very noisy and somehow strange. So runs need to be notated. 4.) It is perfectly fine to use strangely looking tuplets on runs, especially the 7-tuplet is great as it covers exactly one octave when being followed by a target note. Don’t worry about it feeling rhythmically akward as it will be a gesture anyway without being able to hear individual notes distinctively.

#orchestration

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09/11/14: There are quite a few people who spend a considerable amount of time in cleaning tracks from real recordings and trying to remove all noises. While to a certain extent this is a good idea, remember that “natural” noises are part of what makes a recording organic and real. Things like key clicks, breath noises, briefly hitting a neighboring string on string instruments, bow noises etc. are part of the sound of acoustic instruments and for the sake of sounding natural should remain in your recordings and only really problematic and loud noises should be removed.

#technical

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09/10/14: 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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09/09/14: Many inexperienced composers tend to score kiss scenes overly climactic and kitschy which almost always feels like a bad caricature of the whole scene. There are only few kiss scenes in movies nowadays that need the big orchestral sweep or that specifically play with this cliché but most of them are rather toned down with the music being present but not taking over the lead. When you’re scoring a kiss scene, think about what the scene really needs and don’t just simply presume because it is a kiss it needs to be a big romance moment. Even if the hero has struggled through the whole movie to finally kiss his girl at the end of it, that still doesn’t automatically mean it needs to be a big climax. Rather try keeping the intimacy of that moment that is often also visual in your score and it will most likely be way more touching. In general, be aware that audience reacts quite negatively once the emotional manipulation on the musical side gets too obvious.

#filmscoring

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09/08/14: 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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09/05/14: 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 become 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 point 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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09/04/14: Whenever you’re working for any projects that are at one point going to be shown in cinemas, make sure that the monitoring situation where you mix them is equipped to get a clear image of the very low end of the frequency spectrum. Many “traditional” and especially orchestral mixing studios are not equipped accordingly as normal orchestral instruments hardly every produce any frequencies below 35Hz. This is a very common weakness in not high end mixes that this range is lacking complete control because it is not properly played back in the monitoring situation. In cinemas that problem will be magnified as most cinemas are equipped with a decent amount of subwoofers, where either the lack of “low end punch” or the complete overpowering of this register will be obvious. This is also the reason why very often composers are quite surprised about how different their music sounds in the cinema than what they thought it would sound. So investing in a good subwoofer is practically mandatory when working on cinematic stuff unless you have monitors that can cover that range without loss of volume (which small speakers can’t do for purely physical reasons).

#technical

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09/03/14: There is quite a bit of (old) literature on the psychological feeling of different key signatures which some people keep following these days still. With the advent of tempered tuning, there is theoretically no difference between the different keys, so as long as you keep it on a neutral instrument (e.g. piano), all keys are practically equal. However when modulating to keys, there is mostly a psychological effect of feeling more brightness when modulating towards sharp key signatures and more darkness when modulating towards flat signatures. It all gets very different when “non neutral” instruments are involved. With an orchestra, different keys can sound incredibly different as they are depending on the resonance of the individual instruments, so the key signature characteristics really are still important there and should be part of every composer’s decision when writing.

#composition

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09/02/14: 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 projec and get back to it later.

#general

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08/29/14: 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 in staccato or not completely 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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08/28/14: 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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08/27/14: 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 ssimply 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. (By the way, this concept can be found in many areas, another one being “The Simpsons” which for instance appeal to kids with slapstick humor but also to grown ups with political and social humor).

#composition

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08/26/14: 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.

#filmscoring

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08/25/14: A quite common problem with clients is the question when a project is too small to negotiate a contract for it. While it is clear that there should always be a contract on larger projects, on smaller projects it often feels inappropriate to ask for a contract or you might think that asking for it will scare off the client because it is “too complicated” to work with you. The truth is, that it is also in the interest of the client to have a contract and the general rule is to better have a contract on as much as possible. In my opinion the only projects where it doesn’t necessarily need a contract are the ones you do for clients that you know already and have a history of successful projects with and that are simple “paid and done” jobs. On any job that will have royalty revenues or license fees of any sort, there is practically no way around a contract. Also, on every new client, I would ask for a contract, just to make sure you get what both parties agreed on after the job is done. Still, trust your gut feeling. If something feels strange about a project, secure it with a contract beforehand. If you work with a friend whom you totally trust  he/she will do what has been agreed on verbally, you might also decide to not work with a contract on a larger project. Still, with contracts it is better to be safe than sorry.

#general

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08/22/14: One of the biggest misconceptions about orchestration is that people who just start to learn it think there is a definite set of rules to follow by in a way of “If situation x then always do y.” There are no such things as “Top orchestration advices” or “Do’s and Don’ts about orchestration.” There are of course a few specific limits and things to follow by but knowing them doesn’t make you into a great orchestrator in an instant. The most important thing to know is that orchestration is massively depending on context. The very same decision that works great in one context may be disastrous in another one. So it is wrong to begin with to ask questions like “How does one orchestrate the brass?”. A more appropriate question would be “How do I orchestrate the Brass if I want to create something that feels like the first 8 bars from the Star Wars Main Theme?” Applying the concepts of Brass orchestration from this passage to general Brass orchestration will simply not work as orchestrating the Brass like this in a sweepy love theme or a delicate drama cue will simply not be appropriate. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Following that road there will also be a difference of how to orchestrate that beginning Bb major chord of the Star Wars Main Theme if it was G major instead. Orchestration is a series of microscopic decisions that are picked according to context and not by following a list that has all the general rules on it. The essence about this rant is to understand that there simply is no shorter way to learning orchestration than gaining years of experience to simply know or have a feeling for what to do in which context.

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08/21/14: The romantic image of the film composer sitting in his composing room at the piano writing score sheets with pencil on paper and presenting everything just on piano is not true today anymore, no matter how you feel about it. In the current days you need to have a technical understanding and the ability to work with the technology. These days it is generally expected to deliver a decent mockup before any scoring session plus the current music style with many hybrid and especially synth elements make it even more necessary to master the technology. While it is totally understandable that many composers aim to one day be able to write their music with pencil and paper, it is nothing that is practical in the industry anymore today. However the attitude of many composers who just start out to simply want to write music without dealing with any technology is guaranteed to not work out in the industry of current times. Only higher up in the game, you might have the comfort again to outsource the technical things again but still it is mandatory to know how they work.

#technical

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08/20/14: Doubling melodies in thirds or sixths (e.g. first violins playing the main melody while 2nd violins double in a third below) is in general something that is musically quite effective, however it is quite problematic on the taste level as it very often sounds cheesy and very old fashioned. This is especially problematic on melodies that move rhythmically quite quickly while it is practically no problem on melodies that are rather slow moving. It gets even more problematic if these two voices are texturally exposed (as described in the example above). If you double in complete chords with more instruments, it is stylistically not that problematic however might become quite thick on the orchestration side of things.

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08/19/14: On rhythmically active music, tempo changes are quite obvious and can drag so much attention on themselves that they might not be appropriate in certain scoring situations. But of course they might be necessary as the scene changes pace etc. A good way to get more smooth tempo transitions is to disguise them. A very common way is to hold a chord/note for one/two bars without any pulse and then continue in the new tempo. That little gap will smoothen out the transition a bit as it avoids a radical contrast. Disguise is always possible by stopping or making a rhythmical pulse more ambiguous before going to the new tempo. Another thing that might make it more smooth is to change into a tempo that is related to the old tempo with doubling or halve being the smoothest one. But also plausible fractions like “old dotted quarter length becoming the length of new quarter” will feel quite natural. It might also be noted that in some cases contrasting tempos are actually a quite clever and well working idea.

#filmscoring

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08/18/14: Estimating your working speed on a particular project beforehand is also difficult for quite experienced composers. However it is probably one of the most frequently needed things to do when working in the industry. Even if you know your working speed quite well and work very constantly, the style of music  might change your output dramatically. Doing busy action scoring might have a very different output rate than sustaining string pads. So before you tell your client an estimate, try to get as much information about the project as you can. There’s probably nothing more frustrating when finding out that one needs to work under massive pressure and it is one’s own fault because of bad time estimation.

#general

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08/15/14: Recent years have shown a tendency to write more often for brass in their very low register. Especially horns are often requested to play in their lowest octave. While excellent players in great numbers (speaking of more than 6 Horns) can make this register sound quite epic, regular horn sections struggle quite a bit with it. This register is not very carrying and hard to control on the horn. Especially in combination with the trombones at the same pitch, the horn section is usually much weaker. Trying to replicate the epic/sampled low horn sound with a real orchestra is something that you shouldn’t expect to be too successful under normal circumstances. So plan in to give support to these tones with other instruments (most likely Trombones).

#orchestration

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08/14/14: Applying radically different reverbs to different instruments in the same cue or recording instruments in different spaces has become very common these days.  This has very often something to do with practical things (e.g. you don’t want to drown the drum kit in the same orchestral reverb than the orchestral instrument) to keep a certain transparency in the mix but also sometimes is a purely artistic decision to create a specific sound. One of my favorite examples for radically different reverbs/rooms on different instruments is James Newton Howard’s Main Title to SIGNS where the solo violins are very “on the nose” and upfront in the mix while the orchestra is quite far back in the room (especially noticeable on the horn staccatos). The old argument that the mix will fall apart sonically when you work like this is still partially plausible, though. In this cue it feels quite like an inhomogenous mixture, however this is obviously intended. With hybrid productions and band instruments entering orchestral mix, it is mandatory to keep them in a different space in order to give them punch and presence. What happens if you have them recorded in the same acoustical space (either actually physically or by adding the same orchestral reverb later) can be heard in many recordings like for example this one. Of course this creates a specific nostalgic sound but neither the bass nor the drums have any punch at all.

#technical

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08/13/14: There is hardly a more effective and important concept in music than voice leading, which means at its basic form to move the individual voices by the shortest distance possible to the next chord, ideally in chromatic or diatonic steps. Our ear responds so strongly to that concept that everything that follows it feels more or less musically plausible. By knowing that you can make the weirdest chord progressions plausible to the ear as long as you move as many voices as possible in chromatic steps. Also, chromatically or diatonically descending or ascending bass lines make practically every chord progression plausible to the ear. But also in a normal context, chords that are connected by proper voice leading create a way more musical feeling than chords that simply jump around. So even if you decide to not use that concept as composition tool, always try to make sure that your voices move in plausible ways to the next chord.

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08/12/14: One quite often ignored danger in film scoring is the overuse of one particular theme. Especially inexperienced composers try to squeeze in their protagonist’s theme practically everywhere into the score which is most likely too much even for the most attractive theme. You don’t want to have your audience feeling “Oh no, not that melody again.” So remember to use themes for dramatic purposes and not just because that particular character is in frame.

#filmscoring

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08/11/14: 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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08/08/14: Remember that just because something is theoretically possible on an instrument doesn’t necessarily mean it is a particularly clever idea to use it. For instance for most instruments the extreme registers (high AND low) are increasingly difficult to handle but also develop an increasingly unpleasant sound. You need a really plausible reason for using these registers. Also, imagine being the musician who is constantly being forced to play notes that are very tricky to produce or sound bad on your instrument. This would be a good chance for getting frustrated. It get’s even worse and more frustrating if you write super tricky things for your musicians to create an effect or sound that could be achieved almost exactly like this by changing a few things around and making things more idiomatic and easier to play for your players. So unless you have a really specific reason to ask your players to play something tricky or not great sounding, stay in idiomatic writing and use your instruments in ranges that are more controllable and better sounding. The overall sound of your piece will benefit from that as well.

#orchestration

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08/07/14: One often heard problem with mockups but also with real orchestra recordings are small timing issues. Some sample libraries are edited not very precisely, so especially on short notes you might have audible delays. If these patches come with round robins that are not constantly “off” it gets even more complicated. If all samples are a little late, of course offsetting the track by a few ms might help to place the impulse of highest energy of the note to the desired rhythmic point, if it keeps altering the only way would be to bounce it to audio and manually edit these passages. This might seem like a small issue but especially with everybody these days trying to mimick the “Hans Zimmer Staccato Strings” precise machine-like timing is essential on these things. If your samples are inconsistent and off, the whole effect will get lost. So once in a while it might be worth the extra struggle of editing things. With real orchestra recordings being off it gets a little trickier. A while ago I already described the small trick to edit and adjust the timing on the spot mics of the “off” instruments and leave the tree signal untouched which helps more than you might think but only with timing issues within a quite small time range, if you overdo it you get audible “delay” effects.

#technical

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08/06/14: Accompaniment patterns should never be just static ideas that keep repeating unless you are going for a particularly minimalistic effect. It always feels way more musical when such accompaniment patterns carry a melodic idea within itself, even if it is just a small melodic gesture that keeps breaking it up from being a mechanically repeating figure. So if you’re for example using chord arpeggios to accompany a section, try to give these arpeggios a little bit more of a melodic idea, give them maybe a development in waves over a few bars etc.

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08/05/14: Always be conscious about what medium you’re writing music for. The audience has a different focus on the story, the visuals and the music when sitting in a dark cinema staring at a huge screen as opposed to watching a blurry Youtube video on a tiny Ipad screen with tinny sound. This influences not only the pure volume of the music that is needed but also the intensity of the scoring. In cinema, scores can be way more subtle and create the same effect as “on the nose” scoring for TV or internet, while transfering this “on the nose” scoring to cinema would feel very quickly over the top. Be aware of these differences and adjust your scoing style accordingly.

#filmscoring

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08/04/14: Getting an agent seems for many starting out composers 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.

#general

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08/01/14: One of the most overused things in midi mockups are true legato and even worse: portamento patches. With everybody using these patches overly extensive the result is very often a piece that sounds like chewing gum. Realize that these things are considered bad taste amongst musicians. String players for instance would hardly every play a portamento and only do that in very specific individual transitions. Brass players on the other hand very rarely play a real legato, especially in ensemble lines there is most often a quite deliberate separation of the notes. Be aware that legato is not the default playing technique for every player. The only section that quite often plays real legato is the strings and even then it is tried to keep the actual transitions rather short and tasteful.

#orchestration

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07/31/14: There are probably thousands of philosophy 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. 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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07/30/14: 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.

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07/29/14: The nightmare for all composers is a new edit of the movie or scene after you’re done scoring but unfortunately, with digital editing this happens quite often these days. There are several ways to adjust a cue after things have been edited again and while none of them are really optimal, depending on the complexity of the edits, you can sometimes even get through with almost the exact version of your old cue. Here are some things to try to make it fit. 1: Try the old cue exactly and see if it maybe even still fits and you just need to make it a bit longer or shorter. 2. Try adjusting the tempos slightly (within the range of +/- 5bpm) and see if that works. 3. Don’t cut out single bars from 8 bar patterns etc as this often will feel very strange, try to keep internal forms and maybe shorten it to 4 bars and recompose 3 bars as a “new idea” 4. Shift the beginning of the cue to a slightly new point to make up for small offsets. 5. Insert single irregular bars in positions where it is not rhythmically noticeable. There are of course way more possibilities but they are depending on the specific cue. The above mentioned methods usually work an any cue if you use them elegantly.

#filmscoring

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07/28/14: The life and job of a composer working in the media world needs to be quite focussed on delivering something in time and therefore self discipline is a very essential thing. Being self employed might lead quite a few people into having unstructured working days with shifting sleep patterns, irregular food intake etc. While that is sustainable for a while, eventually it will have an effect either on your health, your productivity or your psychic well being. Developing a self discipline and certain daily routines is essential in this job. Practically every successful composer in this field has quite structured and routined working patterns. That doesn’t mean you need to lead a 9 to 5 life (even though it might be better compatible with the lives of people around you) but the essence here is to maintain a consequent pattern how you structurize your day. Of course there might be the once in a while super stressful project where you need to throw your structure over board but there is a massive difference in having such a life for a few days or having it constantly.

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07/25/14: One of the really easy ways to create colour in an orchestral arrangement is to switch between having a brief switch between a single line melody and a chordal melody. Many learning orchestrators leave the configuration of their orchestration quite intact for most of a passage, meaning that for instance strings remain in their function as an accompaniment while the trumpets play the melody in unison on top. However switching the trumpets into a chordal melody on specific spots gives a really nice colour. One of the most prominent examples for that is the STAR WARS Main Theme. The melody on the first theme statement does exactly what I described before. The trumpets play the main theme in unison, however the final 4 notes of the A-theme (in the video above at exactly 0:25) are not the trumpets in unison but split into chords. Just this brief moment creates a very nice colour counterpoint just by switching the way how the instruments are arranged with still using the same instrumental colours and not having a too radical shift there.

#orchestration

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07/24/14: This is probably one of the oldest computer advices but there still seem to be people who ignore or forgot it: never update any software or your system etc. during a project. Every update you do has a risk that something will not work afterwards which is not what you can afford during a project. There are still composers who get excited because they realize that their software now has a function they were always looking for and update in the middle of a project and suddenly need to spend several hours or even days to get it back to work. So make sure that you update only when you actually have time to fix things of something goes wrong.

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07/23/14: 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.

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07/22/14: Using well-known musical pieces or melodies in a film score (even if they are public domain) can become quite problematic as everybody will have a personal association with that well known piece. What’s even worse will be the effect with the audience of “Wait, I know that tune, where is that from?” completely pulling them out of the story of the movie. So unless you don’t have a really plausible reason or concept to use well known pieces, you should try to avoid it as it is a high risk factor of pulling the audience out of the story.

#filmscoring

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07/21/14: Many composers need a while to get “into the zone” in order to compose something and be creative and often need that time again after they have been interrupted by a phone call or something like that. The problem is that with time sensitive projects one simply cannot allow oneself to take that much of time. Things get even worse with having a studio at home where the strict separation between work and home is more problematic. However, there are a few methods how you can get your brain to get into the creative state more quickly, by doing rituals that you can actively execute. For instance, some colleagues drink a special sort of tea when they work which works a little like the Pavlov Effect which in reverse can set the brain into the composing mood when drinking that tea. This works with quite a few rituals however it is important that you exclusively connect them to “being creative”. On the other hand some people simply need a piano under their fingers in order to get into the creative mood while others even could work in a crowded subway.   So it’s highly depending on the personality but if you struggle to quickly make the switch to work, try out to connect an active ritual with it which has helped quite a few people already.

#general

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07/18/14: 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.

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07/17/14: Workplace ergonomics are highly essential and so many composers/producers invest a fortune into the latest gear and software but sit on a chair they bought just for a couple of bucks. However it is not just about the chair but also about reaching and seeing everything conveniently. If your master keyboard is at an awkward height or you need to hold your arms up in order to reach your mouse or anything, this is a guarantee for pain and problems. If your screens are at a strange angle and you need to look up or down to it, it will also cause a lot of problems. Invest some time and money to create the most convenient working environment. Regarding your chair you should make sure it has armrest so you can rest your elbow on it while you work with the mouse or play on the keyboard. Still, the best and most ergonomic work environment will not save you from getting up once in a while and doing at least a little bit of sports in order to stay pain free, especially when you work long hours every day.

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07/16/14: The melodic quality of voices within a composition is not just important for the actual melody or side melody of a piece but can have a huge influence on the general quality of a piece. For instance the melodic quality of a bass line can make the difference between a chord progression that feels random and a chord progression that feels logical. You can justify almost any strange chord progression to the ear as long as the bass line has a good voice leading. Same applies for inner voices that you don’t necessarily hear as melodic ideas in a dense piece but where you will hear their absence. So whenever you write a piece, don’t just focus on giving the main melody the best possible melodic motion but pay attention to the inner voices and bass line as well. The ideal situation would be where every single instrument in the orchestra has a melodically interesting part to play.

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07/15/14: 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 option to be used in several musical contexts (what you could do by presenting a theme in different ways). Using such things will in general give you a clearer concept and structure on your score than overloading it with themes in most occasions.

#filmscoring

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07/14/14: Keep and build good relationships with musicians. Not only when you’re working with an orchestra but also with solo musicians in your local area. There will always be this one project coming round the corner where you might need their help, maybe even to work on spec for something. Haaving a big pool of musicians  in your network will make life much easier once there comes a project around where you need that one special instrument or a good solist who can play style x to play on it even though the turnaround time is super fast. With the internet it has become much easier to hunt down special musicians or musicians in general but it still is a much more comfortable situation in times when you need every single minute to compose, when you can just call somebody you know instead of starting to hunt down somebody.

#general

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07/11/14: With every brass and woodwind instrument, there is the general rule that the closer you get to the extreme ranges (low and high), the harder it becomes for the musician to control the tone. Especially dynamics get more and more limited the closer to the extreme ranges you get mostly with the low end being hard to play loud and vice versa on the top end (again with a few exceptions). So when you orchestrate be aware that you get the best control and variety of tone in the comfortable middle register of every instrument, however the extreme registers (preferably the high registers) are often used to create an edgy sound (particularly with brass). Still be aware of the difficulties in these registers and also of the fact that playing in extreme registers is particularly straining for players.

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07/10/14: Software emulations of hardware effects (especially reverbs like Lexicon, Bricasti etc.) usually don’t sound as good as their hardware counterpart even though it is claimed to be the same effect algorithm. The reason for that lies in the fact that to actually mimick the multiple DSPs  that are built into these hardware effects, it would need a big part of an i7 CPU power (around 50-75%) to run a single reverb instance which would be practically uselss for most customers. So many of these effects are slimmed down for use as a VST compromising the sound quality. So even with software solutions advancing tremendously these days, for some things, an outboard solution is still the better and more qualitative choice.

#technical

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07/09/14: Music theory and particularly rules that are set by it are generally a good idea to follow but the most essential things to understand is that nothing of that is written into stone and breaking the rules can sometimes lead to fantastic effects. One classic example is the 11 chord in major. While under “normal” chord structuring circumstances you wouldn’t want to have a chord that has the major third and the regular 11 at the same time (for example THIS chord) as the fourth and major third would clash heavily, there are always examples of where it works absolutely fine and creates an incredibly beautiful sound. One of my favourite examples for this kind of chord is HMYN TO THE FALLEN by John Williams. After the big climax there is a passage of 2 Bassoons and 3 Clarinets playing. The chord happening as the dominant to G exactly at the 5:11 mark in THIS video is exactly THIS voicing with the rub of the 3 and 11 even on top and exposed. Before that chord there is a Cmajor with the g on top already which just keeps ringing into the D-chord and therefore isn’t reached as a surprise but has been prepared which helps alot to smoothen out the dissonance. Still, this wouldn’t work in any context. So the bottom line is to always keep an open mind about unorthodox things that still might work.

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07/08/14: 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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07/07/14: Many customers are still impressed by big studios with impressive blinking outboard gear, large mixing consoles etc. even though practically everything can be done in a computer these days. Especially in the commercial world clients often follow the assumption that impressive studio = great music. So even though you might not need it, there might be some psychological reason to invest into something that makes your studio look more like a studio especially when you often have customers coming over. Of course not all customers get impressed by that and others are actually focused on what you do rather than how your studio looks like but from own experiences and also experiences from colleagues, once in a while the composer with the bigger studio (and worse quality) might get the gig over the one with the modest studio.

#general

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07/04/14: Invest time to deliver correct and good looking parts and scores to your musicians. This has not just a practical reason but just as much a psychological reason. Many errors and cluttery layout are simply not pleasant to read and have a negative effect on the mood of your players. Additionally to that, it is a really annoying psychological situation for any musician if he/she has wrong notes (accidentals missing) and plays an audibly wrong note. Even by playing everything correctly that has been written it might set the psychological pressure on him/her to have the feeling to have messed up. So even if you have a lot of time pressure on writing or have the attitude of wanting to fix things on the stage, it still is a massive mood killer if the players need to play from bad material and even if things get fixed, it will not restore the mood. On the other hand musicians really enjoy playing from well written scores and the result with them playing all the things with confidence will eventually give you better results and better performances.

#orchestration

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07/03/14: Every acoustic instrument makes noises and sometimes these noises even define the authenticity of an instrument (e.g. small (!) fret noises on guitars). This also applies for orchestral instruments. There will always be a small amount of noises on instruments, such as string players briefly hitting a string next to the one they’re just playing, breath noises on brass and wind instruments, key clicks on woodwinds. For instance in a medium tutti, you will often be hearing  the key clicks of the Contra Bassoon more than the actual tone. All these things should influence the way how you produce such music. Depending on where you’re coming from musically, some genres are “clinically” cleaned up not wanting any unplanned noises. However big parts of what makes an acoustic recording authentic are imperfections (not just noises but also intonation differences etc.). Quite a few sample libraries come even with additional noise samples (e.g. breath noises on Woodwind libraries). When you edit or clean up a real recording, consciously leave in some or all of these noises even though it might be technically possible to clean them. You will eventually get a more authentic result with these recordings.

#technical

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07/02/14: One of the things that learning composers unfortunately very often don’t pay a lot of attention to is voicing. The difference between a chord and a voicing is that a chord defines just which notes should sound together while voicing specifically defines where which notes are. Especially with orchestral music, voicings can be crucial. The very same chord can sound disastrous with a bad voicing and spectacular with a good one. So if your strategy of writing chords has so far been of just playing them in a standard triadic form, start experimenting with them. Displace individual tones of the chord by an octave down or up and see how the sound can change dramatically. Try what happens when you consciously double individual tones in different octaves. And then of course experiment with how it sounds to orchestrate voicings differently. The essential thing is to invest some time to find the best sounding voicings and not simply go for the standard root position of the chord.

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07/01/14: 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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06/30/14: In spite of what many people claim to be the right way to make a living in this field one of the biggest advices I can give and that has proven to work out quite well for me is to specialize. Become the guy who is known to be really good at x and who needs to be called for that. Many composers try to base their career on being able to write in any style for anything. However in the end they do everything a little but nothing right. I always imagine if I was  a customer who needs for instance a rock track for his video/game etc., I wouldn’t call a guy who does everything and also rock but I would call the guy who is the real expert at writing rock tracks. Of course at the beginning of your career you need to take every gig in order to make a living but as soon as you have more freedom, in my opinion it works better to shape your career into one specific way and on top gives you more joy as you focus more on the stuff that you really love.

#general

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06/27/14: There is no lazy shortcut on learning orchestration. I quite often get questions like “How does one use the brass in film music?” or “What are the general rules for getting a filmic sound?”. The answer to all these questions is that it is always context depending. There are no “Top 10 orchestration tricks” or anything like that. These questions are all like “What are the top 10 words of a foreign language that I can use in order to have a conversation?” If you want to become serious about orchestration, there is no short way around studying it properly. The decision of how to handle which instrument always comes from deciding what sound or feeling you want to create. In a specific case one way of handling the instruments could be a brillant idea while in a different case handling them like that would be disastrous. Orchestration is a life long process and even seasoned orchestrators in their 60s that I’ve spoken to have said to me “You know, still every orchestral session is learning something new.”

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06/26/14: A pretty common and easy way to “clean up” a mix that is still often forgotten is to low-cut recordings/samples of high and sometimes even quite low instruments. Many recordings will have rumble noises in the very low register which will be quite messy in a mix. By low-cutting them you get a cleaner mix result. It also might help to low-cut the really low frequencies on the low instruments that not really are audible but still disturb the precision of the mix.

#technical

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06/25/14: In a homogenous sound mixture (e.g. string section) the ear tends to hear the highest line as a melody line. While this concept is not so specific in heterogenous mixtures (e.g. Trumpets playing the melody while Violins are on top of them) there is another issue connected to this which is when you cross your main melody with another melody with similar presence. One of the classic 4 part rules forbids to cross voices in most instances which is not as problematic today anymore (e.g. crossing inner voices) but still it will confuse the ear when your melody gets crossed by another melody that after the crossing is higher (even if just for a short moment). Your ear will try to follow the highest line and will mix up the melody but at the same time become confused. So the general rule is to leave the main melody some space and when you plan on adding a counterpuntal melody to it to not have it cross. Remember that this just applies to melodies that are perceiveable as actual melodies. Crossing accompaniment figures will most often not create any problem.

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06/24/14: As a film composer, it is necessary to train yourself to watch movies analytically. Of course, the first impulse to score a scene should always come from your spontaneous emotions and feelings but especially when working out details or when being stuck at one point, it might help to pay attention to the things that normal viewers only perceive subconsciously. One thing that helps me a lot to define the tone of a scene is to pay attention to the colour scheme of a scene as well as the light/shadows etc. If a scene is more yellow orange and warm you might also want to give it another musical “hue” than it being green/blue. Also special perspective like close ups or bird’s eye shots etc. are always a great thing to orientate your music on. A standard work to read for every film composer should be James Monaco: How to Read a Film which is a great book to gather a basic knowledge about the technical things behind filmmaking as well as esthetical decisions.

#filmscoring

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06/23/14: Many composers are reluctant to outsource parts of their work to somebody else and rather prefer doing all the work themselves. However there are quite a few jobs that usually take a lot of time and that are easily outsourced to someone else. These could be things like part extraction, mockup work, proofreading, preparing sessions etc. The argument of many composers is that outsourcing that work will of course diminish their income which is of course true, especially when you actually have enough time to do it all by yourself. However, I generally outsource a few things on bigger projects to someone else, things like doing mockups for the customers, transcriptions of score sheets or part extraction, but also printing and sorting parts etc as these are parts of the job that I don’t enjoy as much as writing music. My personal reason to do this is that first of all it gives me more time to focus on the work that I really like which will make me mor productive as you’re generally way more productive on jobs that you enjoy. Of course everybody has to find his own way with these things but my personal experience is that outsourcing work in the end makes me more productive and happier in my job which is in my opinion essential in a creative job.

#general

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06/20/14: A quote from an older orchestration book I once read said “The strings are the only instruments the ear doesn’t get tired of after a while.” While I don’t think that is entirely accurate and depending  on context it actually contains another important orchestration advice. The change of instrumental colours is a vital aspect of keeping a piece interesting. Besides of it being a physical strain for most players to play without break, any colour will eventually become boring and uninteresting. Especially with the “standard layout” of these day’s “epic” tracks and trailer stuff with horns playing a theme for minutes it is essential to find something that keeps the track interesting on top of that. With traditional orchestration you would switch sooner or later to another instrument or group. Still there might be a need to change something on your track if you realize that basically the functions of the instruments involved haven’t changed for several minutes.

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06/19/14: Transparency in the mix is a big issue for many pop and radioplay productions and while a general sense of transparency is also important in orchestral music, it is by far not as crucial as in the “pop world”. The orchestra works partially in a way that sounds melt together and create a new texture as well of some instruments just playing to massage the sound but not really being heard distinctively. Especially the woodwinds very often play a role of “augmenting” the sound but not being heard as an individual instrument. People coming to orchestral music from a pop background often try to mix an orchestra in a way that you get to hear practically every detail and every instrument which is not the way an orchestra works and therefore these mixes feel quite unnatural and overly clean. So while it is of course important to not drown everything in mud when mixing orchestral, try keeping an amount of “unspecific substance” in the mix.

#technical

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06/18/14: The whole tone scale (a scale consisting only of whole tones) has a quite open and unfocussed sound that as a film scoring cliché has been used quite a lot to portray weird dreams, drug fantasies and other unreal situations and actually works quite effectively for that. However, the whole tone scale can be used in  mainly two different ways. First of all, you can use it as an actual source of melodic and harmonic ideas writing a piece or a passage in a “whole tone sound” as it is done in THIS PIECE by Claude Debussy. However as the whole tone scale also has a dominant7 chord with a #5 included, it can theoretically be used in any dominant situation, inserting that “whole toney” sound just briefly in an otherwise “normal” composition. A very prominent example is the intro of Stevie Wonder’s YOU ARE THE SUNSHINE OF MY LIFE, where there is the whole tone scale used twice on the dominant chord.

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06/17/14: When you’re communicating with a client about the music for his/her project, be aware that most often there’s no point in using musical terms and even if musical terms are used they might be meant in a different way and therefore misleading. Of course it is important to find a common ground for communication with a client. In my experience, one of the best ways to communicate and still to get a very clear and precise idea for both sides is to ask the question “How do you want this scene/sequence to feel like?”  Asking questions in this way will give you a very precise idea of what your clients expects from the scene and leaves you all the freedom for how to interpret that. Some directors/clients feel the need to try to communicate on a musical basis with you even though they don’t really have a deep knowledge about music. In this case, the communication can become very problematic and misleading while a simple talk about how a scene should feel like, what should be transported emotionally through the music leaves a way clearer impression for both parties.

#filmscoring

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06/16/14: There is a probably no answer to the question how a perfect demo reel should be constructed and I see a lot of discussion about that going on. The two most common options are several small tracks labled individually according to genre/mood etc. or one longer track edited together from such passages. While probably both options work equally well one of the more important things is to get to the point quickly. So it’s probably not the best idea to put a 6 min dialogue underscore into a demo reel. However it is usually a good idea to tailor a demo reel specifically for a project. If you’re trying to get a job on an apocalyptic movie, you can definitely get rid of the dramedy tracks from your demo reel. Another important thing is to not overload your demo reel, even if you feel like you have done so many tracks worth showing, make sure to put only the very best into your demo reel. Another question constantly arising is whether to showcase the music with visual context (eg the original scene it came from or just a video that supports the emotion of it). From my personal experience, it doesn’t make much of a difference but there might be other people claiming the opposite thing.

#general

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06/13/14: For everybody coming from a piano background, a trill usually feels quite noisy and dragging a lot of attention on itself due to the many audible attacks of the notes that you get when you do a trill on a piano. This makes many composers coming from this instrument shy away from using trills in their orchestral music. However there are some instruments where a trill can be an extremely subtle and just a little shimmering effect which will give a very effective sound when trying to create shimmering and “boiling” effect. On all string instruments, a soft trill will be very smooth and silky not having any of the noise that you might be used to from the piano. But also woodwinds like the flute and particularly the clarinets (all of them) are capable of creating an incredibly subtle trill which can be used in many ways without being intrusive or attention dragging at all.

#orchestration

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06/12/14: If you’re coming from a classical notation background into the field of scoring for media, you need to adjust your actual way of notating things a little bit to this world. The most important thing is to notate as readable as possible as most of the players will need to do sight reading on your sessions. In spite of some music universities teaching to always write scores “grammatically correct” (e.g. if there’s a chord of D major there shouldn’t be  a Gb anywhere in the score) in the “real world”, if for whatever reason the Gb will be easier to read (e.g. chromatically descending line), go for that Gb. Another more technical issue is to write for the click. Unless you do the quite rare streamers and punches method, you need to go away from musically unprecise notations. Most problematic are fermatas and other “musical breaths” as they can be interpreted differently. In the scoring world, you would avoid such things as much as possible and rather write them out into actual length (e.g. a 4/4 with a fermata on count 4 should rather be notated for instance as a 6/4 with count 4 holding exactly for 3 beats) depending how long you actually want it to hold). So anything that cannot be timed and calculated exactly should not be used in the notation for film scoring. Exceptions are of course aleatoric passages with just vague timing that of course will need way more time to record and get it right.

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06/11/14: A very often seen problem in learning composer’s music is the staticness of rhythmical ideas. Very often they fall into one rhythmical pattern and keep repeating that over and over again without any or just very few variation. But also melodic ideas are very often put into a repeating rhythmical shape. Another problem that usually comes on top of that is especially with melodies a strong tendency to rhythmically hit every downbeat making the overall musical feeling very static and heavy. So when you write music, don’t just pay attention whether your melodic shape and harmonic progression is interesting but also whether your rhythmical idea keeps being interesting and with melodies try leaving free downbeats of bars once in a while.

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06/10/14: A film music cue should never start out of the blue. There should always be a “cue” from the movie to start it. This could be of course something visual (scene change, movement, something coming into frame etc.)  but also an important sentence in a dialogue, an emotional shift or just the change of a facial expression. The entrance of the music should usually happen right on that filmic cue or a little after that depending on whether it needs a bit of time to settle in. However it should be clearly in connection with the cue. If music starts without any indication it will not really have any justification and feel quite random.

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06/09/14: Once in a while there comes a project along that is emotionally so straining that it becomes very difficult to work on it. This could be for example due to a topic of a movie that is hard to digest (especially when you work in the field of documentaries) or it could just be a scene that reminds you just a little too much of an emotionally painful situation in your own life. While these strong emotions of course can be used to draw inspiration and ideas from, in the end it still might leave emotional impacts beyond the work. From talks with colleagues, everybody has an own way to deal with these situations. While some can simply shake it off and see it entirely professional others fall in a really bad mood over the time of the working process on it. The essence is to have a clear idea of whether you will be able to handle it or not right at the beginning. You shouldn’t agree on a project to later admit that you can’t do a scene or the whole project because the emotional response you have from it just makes you unable to write music.

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06/06/14: Don’t underestimate the nobility of the brass section in low dynamics. With film music very often these days pushing the brass to double forte and really going for the brassy sound, it is quite rare to hear this section as a section used in soft dynamics even though it can create a really fantastic effect. One great example from recent times is the cue Mother from SKYFALL by Thomas Newman (starting at 0:42). The homophonic writing of the brass in their lower registers and low dynamic has a really intense emotional impact here which gets enhanced by the joining of the strings later on. So when writing soft passages, don’t forget the brass section.

#orchestration

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06/05/14: It is technically not possible to push a signal that has been recorded with very close micing believably further back into the room. When you record any acoustic musical instrument with close mics, you will get sounds that will not be heard anymore just a few meters away from it. On orchestral string instruments you will get the noise of the bow dragging across the strings, on brass and woodwind instruments you will get more air noise etc. Even when you try to put these signals further back in the room by adding reverb or using complex IR’s, you will not get rid of these close-mic effects so it will always sound like a close-mic signal with reverb. Acoustic and especially orchestral instruments need room around them to sound good, for instance the carrying power of a Tuba will only develop in a room, with a close mic signal it will hardly carry. So whenever you record instruments (even in your home studio), make sure you have room around them that you actually record with it. There are also some sample libraries that follow the strategy of recording  instruments very dry and very close miced which of course gives you more freedom on the way how to use them but you will never get a “big” sound out of them.

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06/04/14: When listening to a melody, our ear doesn’t just follow the path of the actual melody but also tries to make sense out of the larger structure of it, mainly following the top notes of melodic phrases. A melody always sounds more interesting when these top notes in itself create a melodically pleasing line as well, very often they ascend by steps (e.g. a wavy melody line where the peaks of the wave keep going higher). A good example for that would be the flying theme from E.T. which keeps moving higher and higher. So when you write a melody, always keep track of these peak notes and particularly avoid having stationary peak notes (constantly hitting the same high note every phrase) or making the peak notes form an unmelodic gesture.

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06/03/14: Dialogue scoring is not necessarily the most inspiring thing to do when scoring a film and many inexperienced composers see it as something that you can quickly rush through as there’s not much musical activity going on anyway. However doing dialogue scoring properly is quite a challenge. You should see and treat the voice(s) as an instrumental solo meaning that you neither would want to put anything else into it’s frequency range but also avoid having too much stuff going on while it is “soloing” and rather carefully weave musical movement into pauses of the dialogue. However this is quite a challenge when you still want the music to make some musical sense with that. Also, try to capture the emotional hues that happen in a dialogue with the music and never just stay emotionally static unless of course it is dramaturgically needed.

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06/02/14: One of the things that is intimidating for many young and starting out composers are the constant talks of seasoned composers saying that you need to get used to 14+h of work a day or doing all nighters when you want to be a film composer or work in the media. It somehow has become a habit of composers trying t impress each other by saying such things to appear hard working. The truth is, there are only a very few guys in the industry who work like that and this is neither a particularly healthy nor usually successful way of working. Most great film composers have or had a healthy workload of around 8 hours a day and from personal talks with friends and colleagues it seems like nobody is really working such long hours. Apart from that, you will probably not even get more work done in 14 hours than you can do in 8 or even less as your effectivity just will drop tremendously. From my personal experience I can say that I have only twice done an all nighter and never worked for more than three days in a row 14+hours/day. My regular work day has a max of 8 hours just like any regular job with actual creative work hardly ever more than 5 hours/day. Only when there is a really tough deadline just around the corner I would extend that and usually it extends at the cost of quality. If you still feel like you need to work 20 hours a day to be a really good composer, HERE’s a brillant chart showing working hours of some of the most creative people who have ever lived.

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