Since joining my publishers in May 2018, I’ve been composing for a number of briefs for film and TV including: ‘Brooklyn Nine Nine’, ‘American Horror Story’ and ‘Chicago PD’. In this post, I’ll give you a snap shot of audio and a breakdown of my process.
The Art of Following a Brief-
Reference tracks can be both a help and a hindrance. In one sense they can give you a lot of insight into what the client’s are looking for in terms of genre, mood, sound and instrumentation. However, I think most composers would agree that, the tracks can be a bit of a creative downer. They narrow the way we can approach writing it.
I personally really enjoy writing to briefs as it gives me a sense of direction to my composition. It’s good practice to stick to one task and not lose sight of the desired end result (which is sometimes easier said then done). It’s exciting to try and capture the essence of a visual concept with sound.
Writing to be compared to other composers is a good way to practice dealing with constructive criticism and rejection. The film composing industry is highly competitive and even though it’s important to put your heart into every piece, you have to find a way to not take it personally. Starting out as a film composer, it’s good to be broad in your musical approach. In all honesty, you are expected to be good in a variety of different genres and styles and to be able to produce a lot of music quickly. Although when starting out this is true, you’ll know your strengths and it’s no bad thing to play to them as there may come a time when this is the niche you end up being ‘pigeonholed’ into.
American Horror Story
‘In Charge’ was written for the latest series of ‘American Horror Story’. They wanted music with a dark edge / creepy contemporary, hard hitting music. I approached it with caution, not wanting to slip into a more idiomatic cheesy classic horror soundtrack. Instead, a cool modern sound is what I created to catch their attention. Being an avid fan of the series myself, I had a good sense of the mood and feel of the show. I always like to research and listen to a number of the shows previous tracks before I get started, regardless of whether I am familiar with it or not. It’s important to reproduce a similar sound to the rest of the show to make it coherent and suitable. This doesn’t mean replicating or copying previous tracks, but if you can lock in a certain mood and music style, you’ll further increase your chance of getting your music featured. They also specifically stated to reference the shows previous sound tracks themselves. I did this by including the same sung melody line in the iconic ‘La La song’ in the final section of the track.
The intro to the track is simply a sax line I played and then reversed. I find one of the best ways to get an obscure and other worldly sound is using the reverse function. Instrumentally, I went for an acoustic and electronic hybrid, using a mixture of real instruments such as sax, bass and drum to electronic elements like synths and electronic percussion. For that contemporary sound, I used a lot of heavy production on the vocals and drums adding distortion and saturation among other processes. The ticking clock sound gives the track a sense of pace feeling as though its leading to something.
I usually don’t collaborate on projects of this nature however, I knew right away my friend Mick would be the man for the job as far as vocals are concerned. It needed to be hard hitting and powerful. One of the themes for the show was ruling and being in control, so the idea behind the lyrics featured that theme. The final section concludes with Mick almost shouting “I’m in Charge Now!”.
Even if you’re not composing to a specific scene, it’s good to write imagining a scene, to help keep you on track and avoid straying away from the brief.
‘Momentum We Lost’ was composed for the forth coming series of ‘Chicago PD’. I had never seen the show prior to receiving the brief, so I did some research. I watched the show keeping an ear out for any music cues to take note of. The brief was simple: ‘Very emotionally driven music, very background orientated to build ambience and trigger a reaction from the viewer. Take note, The show has relatively the same underlying feel throughout’. Although sometimes reference tracks can be a composer’s worst nightmare, they were key in this case - the feel and sound of all the tracks were definitely clear to see. I kept it simple with piano, strings, guitar and drums. There was definitely a reoccurring theme with the music of Chicago PD: ‘pulsing rhythms’. I used a pulsing synth bass, taiko drum sounds with rhythmic accents to add some movement to produce the desired effect. I found this definitely was a useful tool to create tension and a sense of urgency but, it also kept it from being too attention grabbing through the monotonous pulsing, to adhere to the brief. After all, they did ask for background oriented music. The strings and SFX created the foundation to the track, controlling the mood and ambience. The piano takes on a melodic role, playing simple slow moving melodies as to not draw too much attention. The final section repeats a lot, gradually evolving and introducing a counter melody again, not being too over powering. Just enough to complement the visuals and to trigger an emotional response from the viewer.
Space Samurai: Oasis
‘Hypernova’ was for ‘Space Samurai,’ a new film that was in the early stages of pre-production. I love sci-fi and have some experience composing sci-fi style soundtrack music, so I was in my comfort zone for this one.
The brief itself didn’t state any particular musical direction however, gave me an over view of the plot. This helped me paint a picture of what sort of movie this was going to be. It’s set in 2050 on the international space station, clearly indicating it’s a futuristic sci-fi bonanza.
My immediate approach was to think about instrumentation - what best depicts this genre for me. I explored different musical instruments and electronics and settled on a hybrid of an orchestral and electronic soundtrack. I begin by setting the tone and atmosphere of the piece with eerie electronic drones drifting in and out of each other, combined with an unrecognisable solo cello, doused in FX like verb and delay playing a slow moving line. I used some glitch SFX that almost sounds like futuristic spaceship engines, to further enhance the futuristic feeling. The mood sets the piece up as if the listener were entering some sort of dark dystopian world. I love using low sub base impacts, they add drama and a sense of anticipation towards something quite menacing.
40 seconds in, the music opens out to a more ethereal string section again, slow moving but this time the drones are backed up with some rich harmonic movements that gradually build. They help transition from electronic to orchestral, setting up for the introduction of the full orchestral at 1:42. French horns and low brass are a go to for me when creating the feel of epic sci-fi. They are very effective in combining both a heroic, powerful feel but with a sort of menacing undertone, which in this case is what I was after as the key element of the plot is about an unlikely hero who (in short) has to save mankind from a most certain and horrible holocaust.
I gave the piece an unexpected false finish by bringing it to a big climax at 2:15 but quickly reveal that there’s more. Almost like the calm before the storm. The end of the piece strays towards the intense, aggressive nature of some trailer music. Layering both electronic and acoustic drums such as the taiko drum, really packs a big punch and intensifies climactic sections. This brings the piece to an exciting high octane finish, with the last hit being a contrasting long sub hit.
‘High Places’ was written to accompany a Panasonic Camera Review video, very different to other tracks on this post. It explores the electronic dance genre, specifically influenced by ‘Chillwave’ and ‘Future Bass’ styles from the likes of ‘ODESZA’. When writing dance tracks, I like to explore some more organic raw material as well as the synthesised sounds. I used samples from different percussion libraries such as shakers, rattles, claps, tambourines and even a talking drum. I begin the piece with rain sounds that underpin most of the track. Heavy use of sidechain really gives the track its bounce and helps keep it moving as the track is a relatively low tempo. I’ve just got ‘Native Instruments KOMPLETE 11’, so this was the perfect time to explore all the various synths and features. The main melody was actually a vocal sample that I put into the vocal synth ‘FORM’ (if you haven’t heard of it go check it out, it’s awesome). I spent a lot of time manipulating the sound and figuring out all the elements of the synth which, there are many! Finally settling on these outcomes:
Unlike a lot of dance music, I wanted to write something quite dynamic with contrasting sections, that would hopefully seamlessly flow from one to another. I focused a lot of my attention to the middle breakdown section 1:43-3:10. I intentionally wanted to draw this section out to really build the ambience and intensity. Dropping out the drums completely here, makes it hard to gauge where the pulse is, especially as time goes on and the syncopated vocal synth 2 (as heard above) creeps in. The loose feel and contrapuntal melodic lines, makes for a rather dream like ambience with the vocal synth floating above. All of these elements are a catalyst for an impacting drop.
Sea of Colour and White noise were both written for the upcoming film Chaos Walking starring Tom Holland. It’s set in a dystopian world where there are no women and all living creatures can hear each others' thoughts in a stream of images, words, and sounds called Noise.
Sea of Colour is a combination of iconic 80s synth sounds with more contemporary big beat production. Although the choruses are really full and punchy the slow tempo and half time feel keeps everything open and spacious leaving room for the vocals to shine through and really add to the groove, in a similar way to bands like Jungle approach melody. It needed a commercial dance pop sound with a Sci-Fi twist to match the movies aesthetic. I used futuristic synths and sound design along with powerful gritty drums and bass to achieve this.
White Noise takes it down a notch with more atmospheric elements. I wanted to depict the essence of a dystopian landscape through the elements of the sound world and vocal melody. The lyrics also backup the story line with regards to the ‘Noise’ which plagues all living creatures.