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.
"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."
"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.
Interview by Claire O'Brien
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