I’ve been kind of quiet on “the nerd” (remember when people used to say that about computers?) for a while, and that’s because I’ve begun a new job as a sound designer with GraphicAudio. Needless to say, it has been a pretty significant change from my previous job, going from one which is basically devoid of creativity to one which is almost completely dependent on it. Add the fact that I was thrown pretty much in the deep end, and you might understand how crazy things have been for me lately.
For those unfamiliar with GraphicAudio, we provide “a unique audio entertainment experience that features a full cast of actors, sound effects and cinematic music.” I don’t want to do the company an injustice, so go check out how many titles are available in a variety of genres, and listen to some samples. These aren’t your ordinary audio
My experience so far has been great…I’ve already been involved in quite a few projects in various capacities. You can hear theme songs I’ve composed, and web clips of the books I’ve designed at the GraphicAudio page I’ve added to this site. It can be found here. There is never a dull moment, so expect the page to be updated frequently.
When I heard that Justin Timberlake was slotted to be the composer and head music supervisor of the forthcoming film “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Film scoring has been moving away from the classically trained John Williams types for years now. Hans Zimmer, who has apparently set the current template for film scoring with his Wagneresque brass heavy “Inception” score, was a former pop musician, as was Danny Elfman to only name two of many. Of course, there is Trent Reznor’s critically acclaimed scores for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, not to mention composing the theme to the upcoming game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Then there’s my favorite, Jonny Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead, who scored 2007’s “Best Picture” There Will Be Blood, one of my favorite modern scores, and more recently, the Japanese film Norwegian Wood.
However, it’s hard to imagine Timberlake invoking Pendrecki and Coates like Greenwood did, or producing some brooding ambient soundscapes ala Reznor. As talented an individual as he is, I was pleasantly surprised to see he had writing credits on all of the tracks on his debut LP. It’s hard to imagine what direction he’ll go musically, and I suppose we’ll just have to wait to hear the final product (and hopefully not on pop radio).
Popular artists getting into film scoring used to make me nervous in a certain way. Let’s face it, the film composer market is overly saturated, especially when you take into account how few composers get a shot at scoring movies people will actually see. Ultimately, however, popular artists are not creating more competition for film scoring. All they are doing is slightly increasing the small number of composers who are asked to score popular films. Now, instead of one of maybe eight composers picked to score every big budget film, the group widens to 10 or 12.
This leads to bigger questions about the the integrity of the film score and so forth, but I’m sure someone more qualified has an opinion on that. As an aspiring composer though, it should make you reassess your approach to getting “discovered”.
Back in 2008, I stumbled on an LP called Fallen Arches by an artist named Sunken Foal while searching through Planet Mu’s excellent catalog. I was immediately fascinated by the album’s organic instrumentation combined with glitchy percussion and decidedly progressive song structures that made for an outstanding and important LP. After a little investigation, I learned the man behind the project was Dunk Murphy, an accomplished Irish producer and musician, who also has released music as part of the groups Ambulance and Natural History Museum, among others. There were only two EPs (Fermented Condiments on Mu Records and Mother of God on Acroplane Recordings) from Sunken Foal since the debut, so it’s little wonder that I was highly anticipating his newest release, Friday Syndrome Volume 1, which is available as a free download at his website, www.counstersunk.org. Dunk was kind enough to answer a few questions from me via e-mail about his music, label, and artistic approach:
First of all, as a composer and producer myself, I love the way you went about producing the material on Friday Syndrome Volume 1. What was the catalyst behind the method, and did it result in any new or exciting revelations for you?
DM: Every tune is always different – I spent a little less effort at the time of inception with this collection of tunes – my stuff in the past has been far more “composed” working with lots of chord progressions and harmonies on guitars and pianos etc. – this time out I gave myself a few hours each Friday evening to compose some short rhythmic tracks and send them on to some friends as soon as they were done – the idea was to take advantage of that thirst for studio work I get every Friday evening when I know everyone else is getting ready to go out and socialise (knowing that I should to be getting ready too but at the same time getting all annoyed that I hadn’t worked hard enough that week)
On your website, it seems that the recording itself is free for download, and what you’re actually selling is merchandise to promote the record. What made you take this approach?
DM: I tried my best in the past to make a living purely from music whether it be composing for film, performing or releasing music – it all seems to be in this huge state of flux as a business now and I’m starting to think that this state of flux will continue and no one ubiquitous medium for music distribution will be settled upon – so in the meantime I wasn’t really bothered investing in one of the new distribution methods as I wanted to get the music out ASAP – it seemed to me that there was a lot of negativity from one side from people complaining about the kids pirating music, and then a lot of negativity from another side where people are attacking established record companies for selling music through the same old methods – I was thinking it could be nice for the artist to come up with a slightly different way of collecting revenue for their works and accept that it is not “business as usual”
There also doesn’t appear to be a label involved. Is there any specific reason why you’re self releasing this recording, are there any added benefits, and do you foresee releasing music on labels ever again?
DM: Yeah, I’d love to release music on other labels again – my last album came out on planet-mu – I think that they prefer a different side to what I do so I thought releasing this myself might be a little challenge – I’m viewing countersunk as a label and there is music to come out from other artists through the site at a later date – I’m still not sure if we’ll venture into vinyl yet – it’s all still a bit new – by self releasing, perhaps the benefits are that you get to engage with the audience in a more immediate fashion
How important do you find a physical object à la a CD or LP these days, and do you see yourself releasing Friday Syndrome Volume 1 this way in the future?
DM: The physical object to me is really important: hence the generative prints that we have on sale to support the release – it occurred to me that with vinyl, 250 individual sleeves could not be printed with unique artwork without a huge amount of work so the idea of the 50cm x 70cm prints came and I decided to go with it – there are a couple more volumes to the “Friday Syndrome” project to come so there might be a ‘best of’ vinyl release if there is call for it
I think your work is extremely textured and diverse, therefore potentially lending itself to film music. Have you ever considered doing music for film, and if an advertiser approached you about using one of your songs in a large campaign, would do it?
DM: I’ve done loads of that shit!! – ads have paid the bills indeed in the past but they take a lot of work and you really have to be dedicated – not just in terms of composition but you have to think in a business minded way – films are even more work and you really have to be involved with the team at hand – the “Friday Syndrome” stuff started out of a period where I was finishing off a couple of art film sound pieces – One of them was called “Rialto Twirlers” by director Anne Marie Barry – I was all ‘droney-textured’ out and I needed to write some beats … sort of as a method of self therapy : )
The “business minded” approach you speak of seems to be a difficult trait to take on for artists such as myself, especially in today’s fluctuating and seemingly oversaturated market. Do you have any advice for composers struggling to adapt this mindset who are looking to get their music in productions such as advertising or films?
DM: Shed any kind of pride or dignity that you might still be holding on to – be prepared to “believe” in things that you otherwise wouldn’t : ) whore yourself with all your might
I read a fairly interesting New York Times article on the “vocal producer to the stars” Kuk Harrell, who is behind some of today’s most successful pop stars. The article went on to describe his varied history in the industry, his demeanor, and exactly how he became what he is today. The most interesting part of the article, however, was about highly specialized producers, and how sounds are generated, encouraged, copied, cut, and then pasted in today’s modern recording studio.
Depending on your background, this article might be a revelation to you in many respects. I really wasn’t aware that people thought that today’s vocalists just went in to the studio and belted out a full rendition of a song, but this is apparently so. Technology gives recordists and producers the power to cut and paste the tiniest of segments from a plethora of takes into what you hear on the master. This can have a sterilizing effect on the recording, depending on the music (and you’re opinion), but it also provides a world of possibilities at the click of a mouse. It also makes recordings like this one seem even more incredible, given they all had one shot to get the whole thing right. Pretty unbelievable.
It’s very interesting to me to think of highly specialized producers in the studio getting just the right sound out of the performers, their music, or their instruments. As an artist, my recording studio experiences relied on the musicians having their material ready to go, and the engineer using his or her expertise and knowledge of their gear and studio to get the best sounds out of the instruments. In this way, I can see these types of producers being a good and bad thing. The concept takes away a lot of the artistry from the engineer, and makes the job almost purely technical, but it also provides a lot of new and exciting opportunities for individuals with very specific talents and/or training that may have been marginalized previously. So road dogs, and creative visionaries, take note. There may be a (lucrative) place for you in the studio.
When I first started seriously composing stock audio on AudioJungle last summer, many of the highest selling songs on the site featured the ukulele. Fast forward a year, and this really hasn’t changed. What once seemed like a trend has become something different…and I’m not sure what. Even this current national advertisement features a song from AudioJungle that’s over 2 years old, and has been sold over 1600 times (!). To say that the ukulele is played out and overused is an understatement, particularly in advertising. The fact it persists as the musical focal point of so many of today’s commercials either speaks to the public’s insatiable love for the runty instrument, or of a severe lack of creativity in advertising.
I found a great New York Times article on the ukulele’s popularity from over a year ago, and even then the article spoke of the instrument’s over-saturation in advertising. It also pointed out the possible origin for this craze: Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s cringe-inducing version of “Over the Rainbow”, a song I heard at virtually every wedding I did sound for while living in California (so we’re talking 50+, maybe?). The article goes on to tout the ukulele as the instrument for the non-musician, and while I’m not sure I’d go there, I will say that at this point it’s kitsch. Period.
While people may love the uke because of the warm feelings it helps generate, there is more than one way to skin a cat. A different approach will likely yield the same results, and will alleviate the risk of people tuning out at the first strum. So, please, if you have to use a ukulele, please do so in moderation.
Compromise plays a role in everyone’s life. Whether it’s with fairly small scale day to day things, or large life altering decisions, compromise has a way of shaping and changing things in a substantial way. With artists, it’s an even bigger deal. And as it becomes increasingly possible as a musician to gain widespread exposure on a grassroots level via today’s burgeoning technology, the option of “selling out” has become less tempting. The reliance the musician once had on the all-powerful record label is falling by the wayside, and with that goes their willingness to compromise their music, and with that comes leverage. The musical artist, increasingly empowered, holds the cards. You need them more than they need you.
This seems like a strange game marketing agencies seem to like to play. In a previous blog post it was discussed that licensing music has become far more prevalent in advertising than hiring a composer, at least according to one industry source. However, with things moving in the direction they currently are in the “music industry”, I can only imagine it’s going to become increasingly difficult to wrangle a song away from an artist for an ad campaign. As a composer and producer of music, I see this as an opportunity to showcase what original music can do for a production. Music that’s created to support original visuals and highlight their emotional content, not songs created for their own sake, to sell records, or to pack clubs. There is a fundamental difference here which just reinforces my feeling that the true power of music is rarely utilized in association with visual media. That’s why in the rare instances you see it, you know.
Public understanding of the term “MIDI” hasn’t progressed as far as the technology has in the last few years, and that’s a blessing and a curse. I, for one, got heavily into composing when I realized how realistic-sounding some of these new programs were, and the illusion of having used real instruments is a very important element of my work. At the same time, though, I think a little further information on what exactly you’re hearing only makes the total package that much more spectacular.
What most excited me about advances in MIDI technology was the ability to finally be able to get realistic sounds out of orchestral samples. Most modern libraries contain samples that are performed by some of today’s top musicians at some of the finest studios, stages, and halls in the world. The amount of recorded detail is remarkable, and the fact you can alter things like mic placement is truly astounding. Throw in some high quality reverb, and you have a set of sounds that, when used correctly, will make even the most seasoned aficionado think they’re listening to a real orchestra. While these sample libraries do come at a hefty price, the things they enable a composer to do are well worth the cost.
It doesn’t stop with orchestral samples, of course. You’d be hard pressed not to find a high quality sample library either built around or including a specific set of instruments that’s professionally recorded, and exhaustively performed to include every realism-adding detail. With this in mind, it continually pays as a composer to look outside the box, and find the smaller companies that are on the cutting edge.
So, the next time you hear “MIDI” hopefully your mind won’t go directly to Nintendo theme songs or ringtones. You’d be surprised how much music you hear, specifically on television, is MIDI derived, and the technology is only getting better. However, it is important to remember that these sounds are just tools. The art is found in knowing how to use them.
Earlier this month, I composed a score to the short student film Playing It Straight, which was directed by Michael Kenney. The film itself deals with sexual identity and societal norms in a comedic and dramatic way, with a nod to the iconic ’80s films of John Hughes. In that respect, the music I had to compose for the film was extremely stylized, and ran the gamut of overtly sentimental, to excessively dramatic, to cartoonish, making for a lot of diversity in my compositions.
Below is the final cut of the film “Playing It Straight” (Run time is 21:53, but the film doesn’t actually start until 1:28). If you’d like to get in touch with Michael, let me know and I’ll forward you his information. Enjoy!
Here’s an orchestral piece I scored for the film that I particularly enjoy that didn’t end up making it in the final cut for one reason or another.
Lars, a short film I scored in 2010, was a unique situation for me in many ways. First of all, I got the gig through good ol’ fashioned networking, as the film’s writer and director Manuela Rossi was a colleague of the guy who directed a prior short film I scored (Boxing Will). It is also the only film I’ve ever scored where the music I provided was accepted exactly as is, with no rewrites or reworking needed. Even as someone new to the film scoring game, I knew this was a rare scenario. Lastly, it was the only film I’ve scored so far where I’ve confined the arrangements to one specific set of instruments, in this case that of a string quartet (with the exception of the solo piano theme and outro reprise).
I think I decided on the string quartet instrumentation because the film, to me, is extremely claustrophobic. The subject matter and locales seem very stifling and rigid. The versatility of the string quartet was great in that the instruments can provide such a wide range of timbres and dynamics, be it a quiet sense of helplessness, to a violently rhythmic ostinato, while adding a classic feel. A large musical inspiration for me was Schubert’s Winterreise, which I felt was congruent with the feel of the film, and was also somewhat culturally relevant.
Another great thing about Lars was that Manuela really stuck with the film, and got it in a lot of festivals, including the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in France. I’m sure everyone involved with the film appreciates her hard work, and wishes her luck in the future! She is currently back in Europe, working in the film industry, and has an excellent blog, too!
My friend Ken over at ThoughtLeadr introduced me to Reddit over the holidays, and I’ve been hooked ever since. What I once thought was just a haven for extremely techy individuals has turned out to be a great resource for information and social interaction on a variety of topics. I’m still learning the ropes, but chances are you’ll find a community as passionate about your interests as you are, whatever they may be.
While I haven’t had too much success finding fellow composers in a similar situation as myself, there are no shortage of musicians of varying ages and backgrounds who share their music, knowledge, and questions in the WeAreTheMusicMakers community. Whether you want to stay on top of great new music and artists, lend your expertise or services to musicians in need, or get some honest feedback on your latest project, WATMM is an excellent place to do so. You’ll likely be surprised at the authenticity of the responses you’ll get!
So check out Reddit. It’s not all about link sharing. You can find me there (predictably) under the handle “ProgressNotes”.
Fellow Redditors, what are some other great communities you’d recommend?
I’m not going to pretend that there are not a gazillion other music composers and producers out there, and a lot of them might be more formally educated than myself. Many of them might have more state of the art gear, and even more might have a greater amount of accolades than I have. However, I’m also not going to pretend like that necessarily holds much weight in the grand scheme of things. It’s all about what your ears tell you. As much as I’d like to, I can’t define certain signature artistic elements that show up in my work, so instead I prefer to accept them as flourishes of “character”.
Character is a completely subjective concept that means vastly different things to different people. As far as music goes, I look at it as what an artist brings to something that not everyone else can, does, or wants to. Now, musically this could be something as extreme as John Cage’s “4:33″, to a fantastic reinvention of a song we’re all familiar with. It all depends on the artist, and their character is a main way in which we distinguish one from the other.
Character is something we inherently have, but sometimes needs to be provoked or awakened by experiences and events. However, it is the intangible things that shape us artistically, that seem to come from within, that give us all a truly unique voice. If you’re lucky enough to have found yours, let the world hear it. If not, keep searching.
According to Google, over 120,000 people search for “free royalty free music” A MONTH. I know, I know, everyone wants something for free, and when forced to decide between what’s free and what isn’t, they’ll normally choose the free one in many cases. While that’s perfectly understandable at times, I, however, do not understand the allure of free royalty free music for use in productions. As discussed in a prior blog entry, the value that music brings to your production, large or small, should not be overlooked or squandered. Music is unfortunately often pushed off until the end of a production when the budget is all but exhausted, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be selective in what you choose. Take a step back and reexamine the situation.
To get the most out of music, your first consideration should be quality. You’re going to want the best music and the best production you can get within your means. Compare the free royalty free music you download to material found on AudioJungle, RevoStock, or other sites. Don’t be afraid to use your ears to determine what sounds better. Which songs are louder, fuller, more produced? Which pieces have more character or authenticity? Another consideration should be whether or not you’re OK with hundreds of thousands of other productions potentially using the exact same song you are, likely the case with most free royalty free music. Lastly, you need to determine if you can even use free royalty free music, as what I’ve found can only be used for personal or educational non-commercial productions.
So, that’s why I ask, “how serious are you about your project?” Music plays varying roles in different productions, and not everyone has the budget to hire a composer, so it’s important to consider your options to find what is best for you without cutting corners or accepting mediocrity. The response you get from your audience thanks to a great score or piece of royalty free music might be worth the relatively small amount you spent on it.
I noticed that on my website I don’t have any information about my physical location. I remember I tried to squeeze that in on an “about” page on my last website, but location plays such a small part in what I do that it wasn’t that important to me to proudly proclaim where I call home (even though, at the time, I was somewhat close to L.A.).
Be that as it may, my studio is in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is just outside of Washington, DC. Silver Spring is home to the Discovery Channel, many great Ethiopian restaurants, and an AFI Theatre for starters, and has been a pretty cool place since I’ve been here the past year.
However, thanks to modern technology, location hasn’t played a sizable role in my audio work thus far. I never met physically with the producers of many films I scored prior to actually scoring them, and phone calls and e-mails sufficed as far as communication went. Over great distances I have been able to successfully collaborate with many people on many great projects. This isn’t to say that physical interaction isn’t important. In fact, it’s preferable when possible. However, it’s not necessarily imperative in many situations I tend to find myself in.
The major component here is trust. When working with someone over a long distance, you have to be confident they are holding up their end of the bargain. This is one reason why composers who want to score big Hollywood films are expected to be there. The studio wants to keep tabs on you, and understandably so. On smaller scale or independent productions, this usually isn’t an issue. With so many people out there eager to succeed, its important to take every opportunity available to you in earnest, wherever they may be, and make the producer glad they took the chance on you.
My point is, don’t always look at distance as a negative. The person perfect for your production might not always be the closest. I embrace the opportunity to work with people all over the world, but if you happen to be in the DC area, that’ll work, too!
As an artist, I never want to think that what I do can simply be relegated to the background, but with music, that is often its place. Music provides atmosphere, and often serves to enhance visual mediums like film or presentations. Music keeps you company on your commute to work, and even while you’re at your desk, but often its role is secondary to driving, walking, or working. This concept is commonplace. I’m sure Vivaldi wasn’t composing “The Four Seasons” for doctor’s offices, or Sade for hotel lobbies, but that’s where you’ll find their music playing more often than not.
The fact that this “background music” stands on its own is generally moot. Instead of asking where John Williams would be without Star Wars, ask where Star Wars would be without John Williams. To varying degrees, the music and visual aspect are mutually beneficial. Sometimes one wouldn’t be what it is without the other. The right visual can bring out emotional content in the music that even the composer may not have felt, much as the right music can turn the accompanying visual into something incredibly memorable and poignant. So, please consider some of my music for the background of your production. I have full confidence you’ll be happy you did.
When I was putting together this new site, organizing all of my royalty-free music in my portfolio was a little overwhelming. The fact that the majority of these tracks were composed and produced within the last few months alone makes it even more surprising. While my catalog is by no means as large as some of the most successful authors at AudioJungle, there is still a lot there, and all of it I’m proud of. I’ve discussed the pros and cons of this in a prior blog entry, but now that I’m a few months in, I have had a little time to reflect on the influence it has had on my composition and production…As we all know, sometimes it’s tough to stay focused on where you want to be and how you’ll get there when the circumstances of where you are take so much of your time and energy.
Currently, the most important thing for me is to stay motivated. As we all know, sometimes it’s tough to stay focused on where you want to be and how you’ll get there when the circumstances of where you are take so much of your time and energy. Composing and producing royalty free audio has given me an outlet I can take advantage of today, and a way to share and diversify my portfolio with people all over the world. The fact that a growing number of people are using works I created as part of their own productions is amazing to me. It also allows me to showcase my ability to do different types of music, from electronic, to orchestral, to acoustic. Sure, I may do some things better than others, but it’s all a learning process, and there is no better way to learn than by doing. It is my hope that someday soon my commissioned works will outnumber my royalty-free work, but until that happens, keep an eye on my AudioJungle portfolio!
Call it “spring cleaning in July” if you must, but I’ve blown the digital dust off of some of my past compositions and featured them on AudioJungle for your licensing pleasure. I feel these pieces deserve better than being hidden on my hard drive for a rainy day, and may work perfectly now for the person in search of something unique to add to their video, film, podcast, etc. The list of exclusively available pieces is ever growing as I root through the archives, and they are available for a very, very reasonable price.
Now this whole thing is a bit of a double edged sword. While I feel like the amount of compensation I’m getting for the licensing of my works doesn’t nearly equate to what they’re worth with regard to how much time I spent on them, it is promoting both the use of original music in independently produced media (ie not illegally used popular music), and myself as a composer, producer, and artist. Missing from all of this is composing specifically to a visual, which is something I very much enjoy and prefer, but I’m hopeful that these pieces on AudioJungle will get people interested in having me do just that for their future projects.
The pieces I am putting up for sale now are mostly orchestral in nature, and I plan to stick to that format as I feel like there is always a lack of quality produced, authentic sounding orchestral music on these types of sites. Heck, I hear obviously MIDI derived scores on television all of the time, when a little more money spent on quality samples combined with a little more time spent addressing the sounds might have fooled even the most ardent of listeners. I’ve done my best to provide pieces I feel fit this criteria that also feature some character often missing in much of the sterile, synthesized material on comparable sites. While this might not garner me any “hits”, I’m hoping it will enrich people’s projects in a way that sets them apart from the rest.
Until next time…