Take two classically trained musicians, a studio full of hi-tech gear and a will to survive in the commercial world of music and you've got WBTM Music. Claire O'Brien learns how to be a musician and eat.
Take two classically-trained musicians, a businessman, a PR man and a will to make music in a brutally commercial world. WBTM is four mens' guide to survival in the 1990s' music biz.
SERVING THE MUSICAL NEEDS OF THE image-mongers of the '90s has become a full-time occupation for the dozens of hi-tech cottage industries which have sprung up in the wake of Steinberg and Sampler. With a fall orchestra no longer a necessity for even the most ambitious orchestrations, the work of the small production suite has expanded to service everyone from in-house training film makers, record companies and ad men to directors of full scale feature films.
WBTM Music is one such cottage industry, now fast gaining a name for versatility, speed and quality, in this competitive sector of the business. Situated in a smart basement suite in a quiet backwater near London's Olympia, WBTM is an equal partnership between two musicians in their mid-20s, Magnus Fiennes and Steve Milne-Sharples, and their mentor and business angel John Fitzsimmons. A PR man and secretary complete a self-contained working unit where purpose-built studio and office happily co-exist.
The easy atmosphere is evident as soon as you walk in the door; while Fitzsimmons makes deals on the phone and PR Jonathon organises coffee and doughnuts, the composing team slouch across armchairs, cracking wry jokes at each other's expense.
Once the questions start, keyboard player Fiennes, dark and quiet, thoughtfully cradles his coffee mug in both hands, content for the most part to remain in the background while fashionably long-haired blond guitarist Milne-Sharples explains at length how WBTM came about.
"The two of us come from almost identical backgrounds, it's almost uncanny. We're both classically trained, but we chose to go with private tutors - we both made a conscious decision not to go to music college, to stay independent... I studied orchestration for a while, then played with various bands, as did Magnus. I was in a band called The Academy who were with RCA.
"We didn't really have much success. We did tours, TV, radio, the whole bit. The Academy was very much a fashion band. It was six years ago now, but the way I look at it, it was the best education I could have had in the business."
But the guitarist's career was to improve dramatically after meeting Fiennes:
"We found we both wanted to do the same things", he continues, "we wanted to be involved in the songwriting and production side as opposed to the whole band image thing. So we started working towards setting up a situation like this - a production company that would also be involved with film and TV work. We work well together, bounce ideas off each other, fill up each other's gaps. Magnus is more on the keyboards side, more of a player, while I'm good with scores and orchestration. Sometimes we work separately - it makes sense sometimes to split the studio time, with one of us on one project and the other doing something else - but we're a team for about 80% of the time."
So you've worked hard, you've found people you like working with, you're ambitious, you're young...
"It's just a vicious rumour!"
...you've got good contacts, you're talented, classically-trained... just like hundreds of others all over the country still playing with Portastudios in their bedrooms. Why are you the ones with your own successful production company? What makes you different?
"Our trousers?", comes the reply. "I don't know. An understanding of how the industry works? We feel we can predict what people's requirements are going to be - we've been through both sides of the business and gained a lot of experience. We also started very young, both of us were 16, so we've already been through a lot of hard times."
Fiennes breaks his thoughtful silence. "Also I think it's our versatility. I don't want to get into comparisons with other people working in the same area, but we can do an acid house track in the morning and then on the same day, turn out an orchestral piece."
Milne-Sharples agrees. "It just gives us the edge. We've had situations where someone's rung up at 12 and wanted something by the end of the day. We once did a 60-second commercial for a fast food restaurant in just 45 minutes - an hour including the mixing."
"The hard thing to do is to produce music that lots of people can listen to for a long time - that's more of an achievement than doing something experimental. "
For a company less than a year old, the WBTM CV is already beginning to look impressive. Complete projects include full scores for American films The Dress and Recoil, music for a corporate video for the Central Electricity Generating Board, a single for 'wild child' Emma Ridley and numerous TV commercials and jingles including a witty Chicago house track to help sell high-street pizzas. Songs can be written to order for all kinds of clients, and the publishing arm of the business, Drumdeal Ltd, administers the rights to all Fiennes' and Milne-Sharples' compositions.
No music production company would survive without clients - how do the WBTM team attract their custom?
Milne-Sharples: "Most of it's by word of mouth - people come back after we've done something for them, or we're recommended by someone. We got a major new job yesterday that came about from a little coffee advert we did."
Then there's lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time.
"Yes, for John as well as for Magnus and I. We handle the music side, but when it comes to business, John speaks for us. Together we've made ourselves into a commodity - we can produce stuff very quickly, cleanly and efficiently, but without skimping. That's our motto, really."
The main drawback with making music to order rather than the music you'd choose to make is the lack of opportunity for self expression. Is the WBTM partnership a creatively limiting arrangement?
Milne-Sharples again: "One of the reasons Magnus and I work so well together is that we're not self-indulgently creative, we don't walk around banging ourselves on the head going 'Be quiet, I'm dying'. It's pointless. While you're working, you have to keep a clear head. When you're writing, you have to be two people - one composing, one listening. When you're doing something like mixing, it's like painting a 3D portrait. You have the depth coming from the effects, and you have left and right, and you have the height - you know where it sits in the mix - and you have to give everything a separate box, which takes objectivity."
Fiennes thinks for a moment. "It's actually much easier working to a brief, because you've got guidelines. They usually come in the form of some kind of outline, maybe a storyboard, or sometimes a script. Then the director will discuss his requirements. We're usually involved in the writing of the music, not just the production, so it's an ongoing thing. The hard work starts when you get down to the edit..."
It sounds as if the whole arrangement is both financially and artistically rewarding, but it's very much a case of getting out what you put in, as Fiennes confirms.
"A lot of our work is 'to order'. It has to be, because this isn't a hobby. Everything we do we treat as though it's the biggest thing we've done, and we do it for its own sake. The main thing we get out of it is the fact that someone is paying us for what we produce and liking what we do. It does give you that burst of adrenalin, you feel three feet off the ground sometimes."
Milne-Sharples nods violently. "Regardless of whether you like it or not, actually, that's secondary. The hard thing to do is to produce music that lots of people can listen to for a long time - and that's more of an achievement than doing something experimental. A lot of the motivation for writing that kind of stuff is purely selfish. There's a lot of self-indulgence about."
Fiennes continues: "I mean, you have to be happy with your own mental processes while you're writing the music, be in touch with your own psychological processes, but you can take it all too far and end up ostracising the listener. The best music is the music almost anyone can enjoy - that's why Vivaldi's Four Seasons sells so well, because it's clean and simple...
"There's a compositional block with using a computer because it thinks in sequences so you end up with a lot of repetition and cyclic stuff."
"...and has more suspended fourths than anything I've ever heard!...", Milne-Sharples laughs. "Everyone has restraints, anyway, even Mozart and Beethoven had restraints, they didn't just 'express themselves'. They were working to order a lot of the time, to a formula. Like Stock, Aitken and Waterman."
Fiennes sips his coffee. "I think you know when something's intrinsically right, when you've caught whatever it is you have to catch in the music. Beyond that, it's self-indulgence. We're supplying a product, basically, so why should we be any different from the guy who manufactures toothpaste tubes?"
Arc you often asked tor something in the style of someone - say, Satie?
"All the time", replies Fiennes. "We did the score for a Foreign Office film selling Britain to foreign investors, and the brief was for something reminiscent of Elgar. It can be quite fun, because you don't go so far as actually ripping off a particular piece of music. There's no point in doing that. There is a certain style, but then it's all derivative. Every style is made up of parts of other people's styles."
WHILE HIGH TECHNOLOGY CAN PROVIDE the answers to a lot of today's music production requirements, there's still no subsitute for real musicians - session musicians...
"We have used session players", comments Fiennes, "obviously, if the budget could stretch to an orchestra, we'd use one. Often we do a full score before we record something anyway. There's a certain block with using a computer because it naturally thinks in sequences, so you can end up with a lot of repetition - cyclic stuff - and scoring prevents that happening. It really just comes down to practicality - working to time and budget. If a situation really necessitates getting in session musicians, we'll do it; we have arrangements with larger studios, so that if we have to we can do the pre-production here and the rest somewhere else. But the stuff we have here is adequate for most of the things we do. We're working towards a tapeless studio - we tend to only record things like played guitars and vocals. We've got the Fostex 8-track sitting there, but there have been so few times we've used tape for anything instrumental."
What kinds of sounds are you using for most of your work?
"We're verv fussy about sounds. Part of the secret is not trying to do things that will sound obviously 'sampled'. I mean you can use muted orchestral strings or French horns and 99% of people listening won't be able to tell it from the real thing, but you have to be more careful with some of the more limited sounds, like bow strokes. It's all a matter of being pragmatic - you don't try and overstretch things. Even in the best string samples you tend to get that horrendous loop - though you can usually smooth it out by not using the direct signal, just the effects return. You can get a really good muted string sound that way. Flutes are reasonably good, especially on the Yamaha TX16W sampler, but clarinet and oboe usually present problems with the intonation, you can tell it hasn't been played."
On the subject of samples, do Fiennes and Milne-Sharples do their own sampling or rely on other peoples'?
"We do a fair amount of our own" comes the guitarist's reply, "good breaks, things like that. And we do a lot of orchestral samples and mess around with them. You can do some really interesting things - you have to use your imagination and combine things. The Firebird, for instance..."
Isn't that what everybody uses?
"Ah, but they don't use it the way we do. We combine it with stabs from the Rite of Spring. Sometimes there might be four layers of samples - and we'll slightly delay the follow-on, you can do that inside the Akai S1000, which is bloody handy - it's quite a nice toy, that. There's the Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor - an incredible open C cello which really builds - it's so horny, you know? Combine that with something really sweet and toppv, and chuck in something middly - maybe a D50 sound - and it's a punctuation, rather than sounding like a tropical hackneyed orchestra stab."
"I've got a raal thing about Roland gear, I've always used it. Even when it sounds crappy it does it in a useful kind of way, you know?"
Fiennes agrees. "At the end of my recording of the Rite of Spring, there's this massive bass drum, which I've never heard anyone use yet. It's got more of the actual bass drum percussion - it sounds brilliant, it's got such a massive full sound."
"A lot of the time when we're doing orchestral stuff we don't use stabs at all. We build it up as it would be, that gives you a lot more freedom. If you're doing something in the style of Elgar, you can't use a Stravinsky stab - you have to build up something that sounds more like what Elgar would really have done. It sounds far more effective, more live, a hell of a lot less contrived, because it's part of the flow."
It's playing up to people's expectations, really, then? "Yes, you have to work within the idioms, whether romantic, classical, whatever, keep within the various schools of orchestration. But that's the whole thing about music, it's tension and release... expectation and going against the expectation."
TIME TO GET DOWN TO THE DIRTY SIDE of making music. Exactly what keyboards and sound sources do the partnership use in the course of their activities? Fiennes runs through some of the gear on the A-frame and rack:
"The Roland U110 - really handy. The D50. And I still use the Juno - I've got a real thing about Roland gear, I've always used it. Even when it sounds crappy it does it in a useful kind of way, you know? And the Oberheim Matrix 1000 is brilliant - we tend to use that almost exclusively for bass sounds on dance records. Oh, and the Yamaha TX81Z. Most of the drums come off the samplers, though we have a Yamaha RX21L for percussion and an old Roland TR707."
The house computer is an Atari 1040, industry standard now for those who couldn't afford a Macintosh in the early days of music software. Running the impressive C-Lab Notator, it's complemented by the intriguing Trackball by Medl, a static device rather like a games machine accessory that lets you manipulate the cursor far more efficiently than by skidding the mouse off the table.
"The Trackball's fantastic, especially if you hate mice", explains Fiennes. "We chose the Atari because at the time it seemed to have more software available, though in certain aspects it doesn't come up to the Mac. We're very happy with the C-Lab, especially with its scorewriting facilities, and we've got another Atari out the front which we use purely for the office word processing, and as back-up in case this one goes down."
The desk is a Studiomaster Pro-Line 24-channel model, with MIDI muting. "That's really handy", says Milne-Sharples, "even though it's possible to mute channels direct from the C-Lab. But I could have done with a strip along the bottom to scribble with a chinagraph!"
The outboard rack includes studio stalwarts like the Drawmer Dual Expander/Compressor and Dual Gate, the Alesis Midiverb and Yamaha SPX900. Mastering is direct to Casio DA1 DAT or alternatively an old Teac quarter-inch which Milne-Sharples finds "useful", though he finds DAT far superior to both analogue and PCM mastering.
"There are far fewer problems with dropouts - even with the PCM system that used to happen. And the DAT takes up less space."
Monitoring is via a pair of JBL TLX speakers, with Yamaha NS10Ms for nearfield work. There's a stereo video (the JVC HAV750 with computer sync) for linking music to visuals.
"We need that because some of the time we don't get code put down, so we have to put code on one side of the audio channel and stay on the right hand side for vocals."
Is synchronisation to visuals ever a problem? Some people seem to work by matching the music to the action practically frame by frame.
"Not really. We don't usually have a lot of problems with hit points, things like that. You can get into the realm of 'Mickey Mousing' with cue pointing, where every little move onscreen will have its bang or squelch, like a cartoon. Totally over-punctuated. I mean the big guys doing feature films - the Maurice Jarres, John Williamses, Carl Davises, have to do much more dramatic things. Our stuff tends to be more thematic, so we have a bit more freedom. But it varies from film to film what's needed."
Though justifiably proud of their work so far, WBTM are ambitious to move further into the realm of full scores for films and TV. A studio upgrade next year will give them more facilities, and better working conditions. The music itself is professional, functional and well-crafted material, with the upcoming single for Ten Records, 'Really Love You' with vocals by Frankie Madrid (released Jan '90) standing out in terms of commercial potential.
The slogan on WBTM's headed paper is "never knowingly undercomposed". With the kind of competitive edge and shrewd business sense that any cottage industry needs to make it in amongst the big boys, Fiennes, Milne-Sharples and their stable seem assured of a bright career.