(with Malcolm Laws)
FROM THE 'BBC NHU' TO 'BRITAIN AD'
I never formally studied music per se. However, an eclectic musical upbringing did lead to my studying the sitar, piano, guitar, tabla and violin as a child.
Malcolm, my associate in Soundology, read music at the University of London. He plays acoustic, electric and bass guitars specialising in Flamenco, classical and blues styles. He toured the UK as a rock guitarist in various bands before becoming a session guitarist and achieving a Top 5 hit record in the UK working with artistes including Elton John, along the way. He then joined the English Chamber Orchestra and toured the world. Following this he formed a music publishing company whose clients included Boosey & Hawkes.
As for me, I read Mathematics and Computing at University in London. This led to further postgraduate studies at City University culminating in a Post Graduate Diploma in Music Information Technology and studies at the National Film & Television School, Beaconsfield.
Some of my work and research led to a meeting with Peter Gabriel.
Peter is a pioneering artist at the forefront of music technology and world music, and he gave me an invitation to visit his Real World studio complex outside Bath, England where I ended up working on the 'Recording Week' project"
The 'Real World Recording Week' is one of the most innovative and creatively inspiring environments in which to work.
Peter brought together over 150 of the world's top world musicians, engineers and producers with the intent of providing an environment in which unusual and inspiring musical collaborations would be cultivated over an intense seven days. (This bled over into several weeks of works) All the recording studios overflowed with musicians 24 hours a day.
I worked with Peter and Dave Botrill (his then engineer) on collaborations with artistes such as Sinead O'Connor, Nigel Kennedy, Papa Wemba, Lucky Dube, Juan Martin, Billy Cobham, Jesus Jones, Elektra String Quartet & Daniel Lanois. This produced several albums worth of music which were subsequently released on the Real World label.
The week was such a success that Real World Recording Weeks became an annual institution.
Studies at City University also led to a thesis into the impact digital audio workstations were having on the audio post-production industry in the UK.
In the early '90's, a handful of the leading post-production facilities had adopted the revolutionary Synclavier system. I started work for De Lane Lea, the UK's leading audio post-production facility, assisting Andy Kennedy, London's leading 'sound designer' using the Synclavier and the Digidesign Sound Designer editing system.
This led to a spell in Munich, Germany at "Touch Down" Studios, one of the most technologically advanced studios in Europe at the time. I became a Foley artist and Sound Editor working on American imported drama series, short films and documentaries including the stunningly photographed Werner Herzog 70mm feature documentary 'The Burning Oilfields of Kuwait'.
This led to further work in the UK as a freelance digital sound editor/designer at Pinewood, Shepperton and Twickenham Film Studios on feature films such as Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha", the Beatle biopic "Backbeat", and "Death Machine" (dir: Steve Norrington: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen / Blade)
WORKING WITH THE DIRECTOR
Before writing a single note, there is a briefing meeting where the director describes in layman's terms what they are looking to achieve musically for their film. A "spotting session" is held where we go through the film and discuss where the music should be laid in and what mood and style each cue should be.
Once this is established, the first ideas are born.
It's important to establish with the director beforehand, if he or she has any major likes and dislikes. I remember one director saying he loved the sound of the trombone. I brought in a trombone player at considerable expense, submitted the music only to find out that the director actually meant he liked the sound of the saxophone and not the trombone! A huge difference in sound, resulting in the piece having to be re-recorded and written.
THE FIRST BEGINNINGS
I generally begin a project by viewing rough-cut sequences of the film. Then, I start developing ideas and experimenting.
The first viewing of a film is very important. I tend to watch a film or sequence through without pausing. The first impressions are lasting and one's first emotional responses to a scene are the ones that dictate how the music should flow for the whole film.
I make brief notes, letting the film 'wash over me'. On subsequent viewings, I start noticing other details the pace of editing / narrative / tone of the film.
I have a number of synths. A Logic / Apple Mac G5 set up filled with software synths and samplers and 'mock' orchestras.
Being very visually inspired, after seeing the rough visuals, I do two things. One, I get melodic and tone ideas. Secondly, I start to build a template for the movie, the template being the palette of sounds that will be used in the film.
A few days are spent building up this 'library' of sounds, which includes looking through my extensive library for sounds relevant to the project.
The score for "Britain AD" required an orchestral sound as well as an 'imaginary' set of sounds that could have been used to create a 'timeless' feel during the Dark Ages in England (the period of King Arthur), such as nyckelharpas, unusual flutes, duduks and various percussive elements.
On the other hand, the score for the BBC NHU film "Cheeky Monkey" required authentic South African Zulu Pop Music and hence, specialist musicians were brought in to play Kwela style electric guitar as well as Zulu singers.
From these sounds are built musical motifs that will be used to form a 'brand identity' within the film.
Versatility and lateral creativity are very important to develop for film music where clichés and musical convention can be broken.
We fuse many varied styles within one project. Within that, a single cue can incorporate several styles, as can be heard in "A Day in the Jungle" for instance ranging from orchestral, drama and ethnic within a few seconds.
MIXING MIDI AND AUDIO
I use Logic Pro from Emagic / Apple to work out arrangements on my Power Mac G5. I lock to picture and try multiple ideas. I throw in my own samples as well as orchestral stuff. If I get an idea for some live recording, I just add an audio track. I can be playing 40-50 MIDI tracks and Malcolm will suddenly plug in a guitar and start playing live.
Instead of a MIDI track, though, it's an audio track.
This continues until several ideas have been written to picture before submitting them to the director. With the Mac, I have an experimental freedom that's not possible unless you have unlimited amounts of money and time to bring in players to experiment and experiment. Happy accidents and maintaining an open mind can produce unusual results.
When we see what the director is responding to, we can start to hone in on the tone and themes to the score. Once the opening scene is scored, the rest follows suit. The opening can often be the clincher to the whole film.
If you listen to Britain AD, you will hear the opening of the series sets the mood, tone, style and sound palette for the whole film. The goal for us, is to work out as much as possible with the director in advance, so there are few surprises.
The Mac does everything. We have 3 apple Macs, two of which
are used for music production. Then there is also a powerbook,
which serves several other purposes. It is used for storing a
database of hundreds of music tracks from previous projects,
which serve as useful inspiration for directors to audition different
styles of music, as well as being a good source of ideas. Secondly,
the major elements of the studio are portable, enabling musical
ideas to be written 'on the go'. Thirdly, it serves as a presentation
tool enabling directors to view samples of past work.
The writing process generally carries on in its greatest intensity throughout the edit, lasting anything from 2 - 6 weeks for a documentary; 1-3 weeks for a commercial; 4-8 weeks for a feature film.
Rough cuts and sequences of film are sent to us, to which we write rough ideas which are then sent to the director for review.
During this process, the visuals are re-edited and condensed. Changes and re-writes to the music are constantly made - the film and music being honed into shape until the very end of the edit. The whole process can be very frantic being able to write under immense pressure to tight deadlines is a prerequisite of writing music for film.
This is the main difference between music for film and writing as a pop songwriter. Music for film though incredibly freeing and challenging creatively, is also very functional. You are part of a production team striving to tell a 'story' using visuals and sound.
THE POINT OF IT ALL
My eclectic background in 'sound design' in film, and music engineering in pop/rock/world music formed a very useful basis for the demands and skills needed for writing music for film and television.
Every genre of music to picture has different demands and
requires a different set of skills.
Documentary incidental music tends to be functional.
TV Commercials have to have impact and be concise in being able to sell the product within 30 seconds.
The music has to be able to sit back and be non-intrusive and yet still drive the story forward and tell the viewer how to feel emotionally. At other times, Titles themes in particular, have to have impact, condensing the style of a program or series in about 30 seconds. Have a listen to "Road Wars" and note the Rocky, raw, gritty modern urgency of the track used to illustrate the series is about road accidents and car crime.
It's important to structure and map out the music of a film in the same way a script is structured and a story planned to introduce variety in colour, texture, complexity , richness , palette of sounds etc.
All this helps enhance the aural experience of a film, be
it documentary, drama or commercial.
Some of Soundology's recent diverse projects include
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