Just the ticket? How to do it yourself explained by Richard Walmsley
Bullseye, budget TV adverts, regional news programmes — they all use music. But who writes it and where does it come from? Library music may often go unnoticed, but it shouldn't be ignored...
Have you ever wondered just who it is that writes the theme tunes for Play For Today, or those throwaway jingles for department stores, (the ones whose words don't fit because they were obviously added afterwards,) or any of the other odd bits and bobs of music that form part of any TV programme, radio show or commercial break? Yeah? Me too. Actually I'd always imagined the people who write these things to be somewhat ghostly, existing in isolation from the outside world, each one a sort of Howard Hawks of the music biz.
Library music, as it is called, is definitely not the hippest area of music and cannot offer much succour to musicians with hungry egos. But it does offer a useful avenue to musicians frustrated by the creative restrictions involved in-trying to break into chart music, or alternatively, a way for electronic musicians to establish themselves before progressing into some other area. And that, these days, is not something to be sniffed at.
Most of the small bits of instrumental music used in audio visual entertainments are drawn from what is known as library music, a field that is relatively unknown to anyone outside the world of film and television. The field is a little exclusive in that composers tend to get into library music as a result of doing something like production, or some work in the pop area of things. But there is nothing to stop virtually anyone with talent from getting into library music. And for some it would be highly worth while doing so, since library music offers a good deal in the way of creativity and financial reward.
Library works in a different way to conventional recording. Writers submit their masters to their publishers (Chappell, Bruton, KPM and De Wolfe are leaders in the field,) who press them as long playing records, which are then sent round to film companies, audio visual companies — anyone who needs music to use as themes, links, jingles, etc. A composer might either do a complete record of library pieces, or his work might form part of a compilation. In any case he does not get paid according to the record's distribution, but receives royalties if and when his music is used in a production. The royalties thus earned are paid to him either through MCPS or PRS.
So what does the actual writing of library music involve? Nigel Bates is one of this country's leading library composers, whose predominantly electronic based work is put together at his Ambiance Studios in Sussex. An example of the more mandarin type of composer, his studio is equipped with PPG, Fairlight, Linn 9000, Yamaha QX1 sequencer, DX1, DX7 and numerous other keyboards as well as a 24 track desk with digital mastering. Nigel has done two library LPs for Chappells, and his third LP, which he is about to begin, is to be a space album.
The space album will be composed according to a brief supplied by Chappells, which includes a selection of headings that are 99 percent likely to arise in a sci-fi or space film; Two) Spaceship interiors; a) High-tech, busy, organised, running smoothly. Five) Incidents: d) Meteorite collision, super-nova, sunstorm, editable lead up music.
Also supplied by Chappells were a selection of space videos so that composers can actually write around a visual brief.
Not all albums are written according to a brief. Nigel's last album was entitled hi-tech and the pieces were all freely composed, lasting around two to three minutes each.
But even if there is no brief to work to, there are still techniques that need to be observed since film companies want music that is flexible enough to be adapted to fit their purposes.
"You should be able to edit them cleanly. They tend to fall into sections of around fifteen seconds in length, so that you can take half a chorus and a couple of phrases from a verse to make up a thirty second jingle," he says.
It's not always necessary to stick rigidly to these types of formulas since film companies, as well as editing the pieces, also do things like varispeeding to make the music fit. In fact to make it good, it's best to go for something a little 'off the wall' and get a good 'angle' on whatever subject you are covering. Nigel's first album for instance, was the first library music to use strings in conjunction with synths and drum machines.
"A lot of people tend to do pieces that sound similar; if they do an atmospheric piece, it opens with a deep bass note. But you don't necessarily have to have a deep bass note to create atmosphere. So if people want to get into library they should try to be original."
New gaps in the supply continually occur as developments in the Pop world affect public tastes. For instance, as a result of Paul Hardcastle's 19, film companies are going to want music with sampled voices, and at present there is no library music filling this gap.
As a foil to becoming stale, Nigel insists on doing a different subject in library music each year. After the space LP he will do one of war music, and then an album of heavy electronic music (in the vein of Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream), to maintain variety. Library music is, in a sense, on a par with musak, but it needn't necessarily be uncreative. In fact, a more committed and creative approach ensures a better result.
"If you treat it as library, it will sound like library. You've obviously got to fit in with what people want, but if you treat each track as a piece of music then they sound like they've got a heart."
As I remarked above, Nigel Bates is heavily into the electronic side of things. So much so, in fact, that he is one of a new generation of musicians who are tending to dispense with conventional multi-tracking altogether. He programmes most of his music using the Linn 9000 and the QX1, using the Linn to control the DX1, DX7, Juno 106 and JX8P, and the QX1 to sequence the sound effects and noises — things that are more suitable for step sequencing. Once the programme is finished the process of recording is a relatively simple one, basically covering effects and eq-ing on the desk, and recording direct through the desk onto Betamax format videotape via the Sony F1. Although this approach makes composition a little slower than actually multitracking keyboards, with tracks taking up to three days to be programmed, it does save on recording time and the cost of hiring an expensive engineer.
"I don't treat the Linn or the QX1 as sequencers; they are actually recorders."
However, when the final result has to sound a little less electronic, Nigel still uses conventional multitracking. For example on a Cafe Jazz type of track the sound of a Jazz kit was needed. The drum pattern was programmed on a Yamaha RX11 drum machine, and then the sound of lightly hit, or brushed, drums were locked into the AMS delay one by one, then triggered and recorded onto the multi-track.
When mixing, Nigel advises that it's best to monitor through Auratones positioned on the other side of the room. This is because most library music is used for television, and as a rule, people watching television don't sit with their heads in between a pair of speakers. After getting a mix in stereo, Nigel then checks it in mono.
The financial rewards of being a successful library composer are quite substantial and, being less dependent on the fickle trends associated with the Pop world, they are likely to provide a steady and stable income. Ambiance Studios, with its extensive range of hi-tech gear, was largely set up from the proceeds of Nigel's library work. Another bonus that can come about through doing library work is the opportunity to write soundtrack music.
"If you can prove, by doing library music, that you can do varied styles it can sometimes lead to soundtrack writing. You have to be able to show that you can do atmospheres, and that you can do (synth) string arrangements, etc."
A successful composer is obviously very likely to keep uprating his instruments and equipment, but not all library music is created in hi-tech environments. In fact, Nigel's first library album was recorded on 16 track using a Linn 1, MC4, Roland monosynth, a Jupiter 4 and a real violin. A lot of library music is recorded on eight track and Nigel has worked with composers who will record and mix up to six tracks in an evening.
"Sometimes I get the sounds on the board ready to mix and they say, 'Yeah, great.' And I say, 'Hold on, I haven't started yet,' and they say 'Oh, it doesn't matter,' and they just go right ahead with mastering."
One area that is making a great deal of impact on library music (under the influence of chart acts like Frankie and Art of Noise) is sampling, and Nigel uses a library of some 150 PPG Wave disks and a large library of Fairlight samples. For the more humble, however, some of the cheap sampling systems now coming onto the market are an adequate facility. In fact IM&RW contributor Curtis Schwartz has recently had considerable success with a library track that actually used such equipment.
Curtis was asked by Beadles Music Ltd to provide three tracks for an album of sports themes which was due to be cut three days later. Curtis completed the three tracks in an evening, and one of them was subsequently used as the theme tune for the 1985 World Games screened in this country by Channel 4, and planned to be used in some 60 countries around the world.
The world games theme was recorded on a Fostex B16, and consisted of RX15 drum machine, Aria Strat playing the tune, DX7 triggered by the RX15, an acoustic guitar, and some orchestral samples done on the very inexpensive Korg SDD 1000 system. The only effects used were an AKG spring reverb and some echo provided by the SDD 1000. The rewards for such wide usage of library material are in the Rolls Royce bracket, showing just what potential the field has for talented individuals.
Furthermore, library music is a particularly good field for electronic musicians to get into since electronics are playing an increasingly large part in the music. Whilst there is still a demand for orchestral themes, jingles etc, electronics are generally quicker, more economical and more innovative. Chappells, whose library music is of exceptionally high quality, have a policy of looking out for younger talent in order to keep their catalogue interesting and contemporary, and their success as a result of this seems to behaving an effect on other companies who are also trying to become less dependent on 'old farts.'
One other good reason for electronic musicians to be aware of library composition, Nigel Bates points out, is that there is a certain blindness on the part of audio-visual producers to so called serious electronic music written in this country. The opportunity therefore exists for British musicians to break into this field, since if they can convince the producers of their worth, they could do the job far more economically than their European counterparts.
So, the question you are asking is, 'How does one get into library music?' Well the simple answer is-to send demos. Nigel Bates' initial involvement came about when a cutting engineer heard a backing track he had done for a single and suggested that it would make great library music. Although he had never heard of library music before, Nigel called by Bruton Music and left a cassette of the track. By the time he had returned home the phone was ringing asking him to do an album of music. Encouraged by this success he went round some of the other companies who gave him a similar reception, and he finally opted to work with Chappells because of their emphasis on quality and young talent.
The format of the demo is not the most important thing, although good recording quality is important if you want your music to get a sympathetic hearing. Eight track is quite adequate, although even smaller set-ups can be used. Nigel Bates is presently setting up a library production company, and Jeff Hammer (a member of Kim Wilde's backing band) has done very satisfactory work for them using only four track, with Dr Rhythm drums etc.
"Jeff's stuff was strong on the melodies, and that is the most important thing. Memorability is what a lot of people need in order to advertise their products or their shows, and so writing a good melody is half the battle. I work with expensive equipment because I choose to, but good work can be done on four track."
"If anyone wants heavy electronic music they have to go to Jean-Michel Jarre or Tangerine Dream, so I'm hoping to be able to plug that gap."
Curtis, also a firm believer in the value of a good melody, advises that one way of going about making a demo is simply to go into a modest, good value demo studio and just work out a few ideas for three or four hours. Not only is this approach inexpensive, but it also helps preserve the excitement in the music, preventing one from getting too involved with irrelevant technical details.
Feature by Richard Walmsley