Archive for ‘film’

April 28, 2014

HOW DO I BECOME A COMPOSER?

“How do I become a composer?” is a question that is often sent to me by young people who would like to make a living at creating music.  I am honored that these aspiring composers look to me for advice, but there is no easy answer to this question.  There are no magical shortcuts to achieving success as a composer.

So let’s begin at the very beginning: Study the basics of music in school.  Regardless of the instrument(s) you play, the more you play, the more you will understand and appreciate the complexity of musical composition.

And know that there is a good reason why your teachers select a number of very old,  classical compositions for your school band or orchestra to perform, along with the occasional fun, contemporary themes from a Disney movie or a video game.  The creators of those movie and game themes learned from the “old masters,” too.

For music students, aspiring composers, or for anyone who enjoys film scores, I highly recommend CDs from the Varese Sarabande catalog:

http://www.varesesarabande.com/servlet/StoreFront

Varese Sarabande is a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in film and TV scores and soundtracks.  I had the great fortune of working with record producer Robert Townson, the fearless leader of Varese Sarabande, when his label released my “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance” video game soundtrack in the year 2000.

And I’ve listened to, and learned from, many of Varese Sarabande’s compilation CDs saluting great film composers.  Just yesterday, in fact, I listened to “Themes from ‘The Phantom Menace’ and Other Film Hits,” a Varese Sarabande release from 1999.

The liner notes for this CD, written by Paul Tonks, explained that the summer of 1999 was epic at the box office, thanks to a number of blockbuster films that remain popular to this day.

The CD opens with music written by John Williams for “Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace.”  It also features memorable compositions from “The Mummy” (Jerry Goldsmith), “The Wild, Wild West” (Elmer Bernstein),  “The Matrix” (Don Davis),  “The Sixth Sense” (James Newton Howard) and more.

Tonks concluded in his liner notes, “It’s intriguing to note that at the dawn of the new millennium, even Hollywood realizes that what’s new is not necessarily better and what’s young is not necessarily fresh.”

He went on to say that a “triumvirate of veteran composers” (Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and John Williams) were responsible for a bumper crop of the best-known movie themes over a course of several decades.

An up-and-coming composer might view such comments as discouraging:  “If the same old guys score all the films, where is there room for me in this business?”   But stubbornness and a passion to create new music will help you to push past those obstacles and to make your mark as a musician or composer.

Here’s an interesting article about Robert Townson and his role at Varese Sarabande:

http://www.fimucite.com/fmct5/index.php/en/fimucite-6/guests/61-robert-townson-varese-sarabande-record-producer

And if your budget prevents you from purchasing CDs of film and TV soundtracks, check to see what’s available at your  local public library.  Most have excellent collections of  music CDs that you can borrow and use for inspiration.

Robert Townson 2000Robert Townson at the “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance” mastering session for my original soundtrack CD on the Varese Sarabande record label.

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March 2, 2014

ORIGINAL FILM SCORES

Tonight is Oscar night and people all over the world will be glued to their TV screens to see what the movie stars are wearing and who’ll take home the coveted Academy Awards.  But is anyone dying to know what Thomas Newman will wear?

Newman is one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Original Score, for the film “Saving Mr. Banks.”  Also nominated for Best Original Score are John Williams (“The Book Thief”), Steven Price (“Gravity”) Alexandre Desplat (“Philomena”), and William Butler and Owen Pallett (“Her”).

Film composers aren’t the most glamorous or visible celebrities at the Oscars.   Yet they play a critical role in setting and sustaining the mood of a great film.

In a completely unscientific survey, my wife asked some friends and family members to name movies that were especially memorable because of their original scores.  What famous film music excited or moved them and stuck in their minds after they finished watching these movies?

Not surprisingly, “Home Alone” was mentioned by more than one person.
The legendary John Williams composed the original score for “Home Alone” and I’ll speak more about this music in a moment.

“Ben-Hur” (with an original score by Miklos Rozsa) also received multiple mentions.

A few additional movies and composers named in this informal survey were “Braveheart” (James Horner), “Rob Roy” (Carter Burwell), “Rudy” (Jerry Goldsmith), “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (Ennio Morricone), “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (Danny Elfman), “Somewhere In Time” (John Barry), “Amelie” (Yann Tierson), “Polar Express” (Alan Silvestri), Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (Nino Rota), “The Last of The Mohicans” (Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman), “King of Kings” (the aforementioned Miklos Rosza) and “Vertigo” (Bernard Herrmann).

Each of the people who responded to this question obviously had his or her own reasons for loving certain films and the music from those films.  But their enjoyment of these movies — and the lasting impressions that these movies made upon them — were undoubtedly influenced by the music that propelled the action and/or captured the emotions within the story.

Getting back to the subject of “Home Alone,” my wife’s niece found this quote from Wikipedia to go along with her nomination:

Home Alone is the soundtrack of the 1990 film of the same name. The score was composed by John Williams and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score; the film’s signature tune “Somewhere in my Memory” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media.
“Somewhere in my Memory” was actually written to “run alongside the film” by Williams.[citation needed] It can be heard in numerous sections of the film, either in full length or fragments, forming the backbone for the film’s soundtrack. “Somewhere in my Memory” is performed in many Christmas concerts in schools or professional orchestras and choirs alike across the globe.[citation needed]

It is common for successful film composers to use a main theme as the backbone for a film’s soundtrack, slightly altering the tempo, key or arrangement to coincide with what is happening in a particular scene.  That theme is what often runs through your mind, long after the movie had ended.

One of the strongest impressions that instrumental music can make on a person is when it is heard while watching a story unfold on the screen. Our minds process the visual presentation and events in the story, while our hearts react to the emotions that the music score imparts. When a great story, acting, cinematography and music score combine, it is long remembered in our hearts and minds and worthy of an Oscar.

Now let’s find out who the Academy has chosen for its highest musical honors.

Oscar

September 11, 2013

VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS

DDMLLC Studio 2013

I love working with live musicians in the studio. Their performances really bring music to life. Unfortunately, it is very costly. Only the big projects have budgets large enough to cover those expenses. So a lot of the music that I compose and produce for games, television and film utilizes virtual instruments. Like the name implies, virtual instruments are digital recreations of musical instruments that are played utilizing a computer.

The photo above shows my home studio. It is a state-of-the-art, one-person recording studio using computer technology, that allows me to compose and produce professional quality music. It consists of a well-equipped Mac Pro, five flat screen monitors, a 5.1 speaker system, audio and MIDI interfaces, keyboard controller, drum controller, mix controller, high-end music and sound design specific software and over a terabyte library of virtual musical instruments and sound effects. It was decades in the making and took several generations of technology to evolve into what it is today.

While anyone can walk into a music store and call up a cool patch on a synthesizer, there is a lot more to composing with virtual instruments than pressing a button. No matter what type of controller you use, each instrument has its own character and specific uses. Learning how to utilize the technology to create a musical experience, knowing how to play each instrument and how to create a cohesive ensemble is paramount.

Like most current composers for media, I start out writing the music as an electronically-realized score using virtual instruments. This technique allows for unlimited trial and error experimentation that’s just not possible using pen and paper or making changes on the fly in a commercial recording studio. It saves a lot of time and money because I can create demos for a producer, director, game designer, etc. that are accurate representations of what the final music will sound like. I can also work without worrying about the hourly rate of a commercial facility, which can quickly kill creativity.

If budget allows, these virtual tracks are then transcribed into sheet music for each of the live session players, in addition to the full scores for the conductor and session producers. A commercial recording studio is normally used to record all of the live players because they are best equipped for live tracking sessions. Those tracks are then mixed down to the desired format (stereo, surround, etc.). That mix is then mastered into its final delivery state for the specific media format. I have always mixed and mastered in my own studio because I know the equipment and sound characteristics of the room.

If the budget is small, then all of the processes are completed in a computer workstation using virtual instruments.

As with most things associated with the technologically savvy world we live in, composers are faced with learning and being an expert at a myriad of skills. We now routinely fill all the roles that were once segmented. These include composer, arranger, musician, orchestrator, technologist, studio owner, recording engineer, mix engineer, mastering engineer, as well as handling the business, marketing, finance, and the people skills required to please the client.

And as with any career worthy of your time and passion, it takes a very long time to master these skills— and the practice and learning never stops. There is always something else that will challenge you and inspire you to keep going. From my perspective, it’s all worth it!

July 4, 2013

THE STUDIO UPGRADE

The lifeline of any composer is his or her studio. In a lot of cases, there is more than one place to be creative and work on projects. Composing is a lot about formulating the ideas before you ever start recording. For some, that part can be done almost anywhere – in a bedroom, in the park, on a beach, or even taking a drive. But I rely on keyboard and percussion controllers that interface with my digital audio workstations (DAW). That way I can always push the record button to capture my thoughts, even if they are a simple melody or chord progression.

DAWs are fairly common among composers in the game, television and film industries. And when you have a studio at your workplace and a studio at home, they both need to be compatible so that you can transfer files between the two.

My home studio was in desperate need of upgrading. While it had served me well for seven years, it was at the very end of its life cycle and was not compatible with my studio at IGT. So I started planning this upgrade almost a year ago.

As you can imagine, upgrading a music studio is not an inexpensive proposition. So I had to wait for freelance work to come in so that I could pay for the new gear. Thankfully, I got a contract to work on a small video game that is currently under development. I am under a non-disclosure agreement with the developer, so I can’t say more about the project at this point, except that it is going very well. You might hear some of my work if you attend the PAX game show in Seattle next month.

I based my home studio upgrade on what I like and dislike about my studio at IGT. That studio has current, state-of-the-art software and hardware that allows me to do my job quickly, efficiently and allows me to deliver high quality results. The one thing that is a minor annoyance (and has been for a very long time) is the displays. Despite having two LCD displays, I am constantly arranging all the windows. It is routine for me to have 6-10 windows open at one time, so I end up doing a lot of shuffling. That takes me out of the moment and has occasionally caused some good ideas to be lost.

My current, upgraded home studio solves that problem. I now have five display monitors running from my Mac Pro. My old Mac G5 is now a server and has a display of its own. While I still need to put things on top of each other from time to time, I can choose the windows that won’t interfere with the creative flow.

I love the way I can now access any information I need at a glance. This makes decisions and edits a lot faster now. So my home studio is current today, but with the speed of technology, it’ll need to be fed in another six months or so. But the major objectives have been accomplished. And the studio looks pretty darn cool now, too.

Studio 7-4-13