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Electronic Music For Films

Richard Mitchell explains his use of electronic music for film.

Richard Mitchell

Getting into the film music business is hard and is usually a happy accident when it happens. When I was 18 or 19, I never thought I was going to write music for films. My musical background came from doing quite a lot of music at school, including having piano, classical guitar and theory lessons.

Figure 1. Dubbing Cue Sheet for 'Alba watches' (played on Demo Cassette 5).
(Click image for higher resolution version)

I have always had some kind of small studio set-up at home for multitracking experiments. Turning away a career in architecture, I changed direction at the last minute and ended up at St Martins Art School in London doing a 'film based' sound degree course. During 1976 to 1979, I started writing film music for people at the Royal College of Art and the National Film School, from a small studio I'd put together in Charing Cross. In fact, most of my time from then on has been spent with film makers rather than musicians, so my work has been almost entirely directed to the world of sound dubbing and writing music for film from the outset, putting me out on a limb from most composers.

The film sound course was an invaluable foot in the door and after I had obtained my degree I had to go out and meet film makers and producers to get the first few contacts. One good piece of work for the same studio usually brought more work until I had sufficient contacts to maintain the flow. Some producers also did TV commercials, so that led to another area and although I've only been writing music professionally for two years (I'm 25 now), most of the successful producers are also freelancing from one job to the next and keep me busy. Now that I'm writing full time, what in fact happens is that several jobs all come at the same time and then there'll be a break where I'll write letters, send demos and make contact with the film people again. Out of this hopefully comes some more work, but only one contact in a hundred may give you something. Writing music for a living doesn't happen overnight — it has built up during my student years when I took on composing and arranging for agencies as well.

Early on, I joined the Performing Rights Society as an individual, although many composers do their work through their publishers. All my music legalities are handled by the PRS and they take their 14% of all royalties, but I'm completely independent and don't use an agency. I completed my first film, which was a Thames TV documentary for the Ministry of Defence on free-fall parachuting, whilst I was still at college.

Recording the filme music

Learning the Business

If you want to write film music, you must learn about sound editing, track laying and how the whole sound dubbing process works. For example, you might be producing a full symphonic style electronic score and if it's for a scene in a car, for a start you won't hear any of the bass because the engine noises will dominate. So each film sequence needs careful choice of the frequencies used (i.e. the instruments for electronic effects) in order to let the music through, as well as the sound effects and general dialogue. This can often be highlighted at the final dubbing stage, when the music is mixed with the soundtracks for the film spot effects, sound effects and dialogue. One way round this problem is for me to do all the sound effects as well as the music.

Many musicians like to doodle around with ideas when composing until something good comes out of it. I have to work to deadlines! Recently I had to do a Sensodyne toothpaste ad and the production company gave me a 'line test' on video. This was a 3-dimensional line image of the product moving about on the screen, which eventually ended up as an animated series of shots that fitted into the images. The company spent the weekend doing that part whilst I was getting the music done, but by Monday morning the music written was not at all satisfactory and I was told to have it finished by the next day. So in 24 hours I had to conceive, write and record the whole thing. The shortest time I've ever been given is around eight hours to do a job, but it's surprising what can be done when you're under pressure!

Writing Film Music

I often think that doing pure maths and statistics at school has given me that kind of logical approach one needs for getting timing and sequences exactly right. Each film poses different problems and I am expected to solve these myself. Sometimes I am given a 'rough cut' film which contains all the sequences, but not necessarily with the correct time lengths. The film editor and I work out where we are going to use music and whether we are going to cut or fade from one sequence to the next.

The other alternative I get is the 'fine cut' — a completed film ready for final dubbing of the recorded dialogue and sound effects, and I have to match every frame to the music. On the video film that's given to me, there is a time code which is a numerical readout superimposed at the bottom of the picture indicating hours, minutes, seconds and frames. Since each frame lasts a precise time, I can time the frame count to each part of the section and write the music to that length. The cinema film works on 24 frames per second, but TV is 25 to synchronise within the 50 cycles span.

Initially, I meet the producer who is responsible for all aspects of the film's make-up. He would outline what is required, whether music alone or with sound effects as well. Time schedules are decided and often depend on the amount of work involved — the longest film I've done lasted 1½ hours and contained 70 music extracts. The commercials I do are normally the shortest, lasting around 30 seconds. Within this time, there can be up to 12 'Sync' points. The sound starts at 1½ seconds in (after 34 frames silence) and stops ½ second before the end — that's an IBA requirement and avoids consecutive commercials running into each other. The video machine I use is the standard rental type of equipment with 'still' frame control.

I next view the film around 10 times and during this, certain 'Sync' points begin to show. These are the major dramatic events defined by a single frame. A 'Sync' point can be a cut, an image jumping out at you, a product close-up and so on. I then decide what musically would be interesting to hit — whether it's to be a 'sting' or whether the bar indicates the 'Sync' point. A 'sting' is a phrase of music or sound that embraces a short event in the film — it might be, for example, to cover the action of a man jumping off a burning ship into the sea. 'Spotting' music is the name given to the task of selecting sync points (or, as Hitchcock often said: 'where not to put the music'!). One of the first big lessons to learn is when not to use music and effects — silences can be all important.

An example of a dubbing cue sheet that shows the music synchronisation in terms of frames is given in Figure 1. I use a calculator to work out the seconds for each event and record on to four tracks using the A-3340S Teac machine. Occasionally I've used a mono Nagra portable for live recording of effects. Since 99% of film music only requires mono, I don't often prepare a final stereo master tape. Another important point is the monitoring of the mix through a small 'average' speaker to get the feel of its sound on the television, although I do use full range speakers as well.

The first step in preparing the tracks for recording is to use a click track or constant beat as the sync guide. I find the Boss Dr Rhythm very useful — you can leave it set at a tempo and it will still be virtually the same when you come back to it later. The sync points are then calculated to be a multiple of the rhythm/click track (the tempo of which is chosen to be suitably fast to embrace all syncs, unless it's actually going to be a drum rhythm in the music).

Beginning the process of composition doesn't entail putting together one sequence after another in order — it usually starts with the highlights giving you some musical themes or melodic/rhythmic ideas to work with which become the underlying character of the film. So the horror film has an ominous, perhaps menacing atmosphere, but the TV commercial aims to be bright and punchy, or warm and homely. Videocues can also be given by five second wipes — literally a diagonal chinagraph pencil line that is drawn over the film frames, leading you to a cue when it's moved across the screen.

Composing instruments

It may be surprising to readers (especially after hearing samples of my film music on Demo Cassette No 5), that I use very limited resources to make my electronic music. Because of this, I often have to resort to using acoustic sounds that can be electronically treated, as in musique concréte techniques. A lot of composers would not be happy unless they used multi-keyboards with micro control and so on. I have had to exploit every possible aspect of sound making from the few instruments I possess. In my early days I used the Dewtron synthesiser modules, but now I always use the Powertran Transcendent 2000 monophonic and polysynth instruments which I find ideal for composing. These are synchronised by the Boss Dr. Rhythm and are complimented by a host of acoustic instruments such as piano, guitars (plus electric), bouzouki, autoharp, harmonium, violin, banjo, numerous flute/whistle instruments, a drum kit and various percussion instruments from bongoes to Indian finger cymbals.

These are recorded directly or with AKG and Shure mics on the Teac A-3340S (with remote) and mixed down to Revox B77 (with varispeed) using an RSD 12 into 2 mixer. I also use an EMI stereo tape machine (with independent tracks) for building up tracks and echo delay. They are monitored through a Leak Delta series amp with Wharfdale speakers.

I get a nice fat sound from the harmonium which I'll put through a slow modulated filter. In fact, nearly all the instruments find their way through the synthesiser for some kind of treatment. But I've now reached a stage where I'll have to consider eight track and a more concentrated use of 'pure' synthesiser rather than the acoustic/electronic medium. Generally, I never go beyond using six tracks, which are made by mixing one set of four tracks to stereo on the Revox, then re-recording these on the Teac, leaving two more tracks to make the six. I do like to build up my string sounds with several tracks which are thickened up using a chorus delay. Ron Geeson and Robert Fripp's multi-tracking ideas come in useful too — I've used one oscillator to build up whole textures from multi-layered sounds and use tape loops quite a lot that have recorded rhythmic sequences from the acoustic drum kit. Echo often comes from the Revox and EMI tape machines. The parametric EQ on the mixer is useful for removing any unwanted hum or noises and two Accessit reverb boxes give extra depth as well.

A frame of film showing the time code.

When composing, I like to use a theme on a single, easily identifiable instrument sound that haunts you. Francis Lai is particularly good at this. Ridley Scott (writer of the Martini ad) also did this well, using a flute in the film 'The Duellist'. I avoid the early Max Steiner 'continuous film soundtrack' style. John Williams in 'Close Encounters' also has an expert way of finding the right frequencies to put the music around the mass of spaceship sounds in the film. I write most of the music on the piano or guitar using the cassette machine as a note pad. As yet, drums have not played a prominent part in the scoring.

After the music has been composed on tape, I then take it to the production company in a 15 IPS mono/stereo 1/2-track format. The sound editor will check out the music and effects and put them down in the right sequence. There is very little time for putting right any mistakes — it has to be okay when you take it in. At the transfer bay, the sound is put on to sprocketed magnetic film so that it can be run alongside the frame pictures. When we've laid all the tracks and cut them in, it's then taken for the 'dub' a few hours later (a day later for commercials/documentaries).

In the dubbing theatre, all the recorded tracks, about 10 for a documentary and up to 20 for a feature film are prepared for mixdown in the usual way, except that they come from individual magnetic film machines. The editor, mixing engineer and myself then decide whether to add more reverb or delay effects to give extra depth to the sound. It's a good idea for me to keep my master tapes fairly 'dry'. Often, by the time dialogue and effects (e g. street noises or products in action) are laid down, the music becomes almost 'atmos' (background atmosphere). At this point my efforts at getting the sound frequencies right will show. A drawback is that top and bass can be reduced on the final film, although noise reduction is added to clean up the signal.

To complete the music for a film might require me to compose many more extracts than I'll eventually use, but I don't offer these as alternatives. Even though the company concerned may know exactly what they want, it is dangerous to give the options at the deadline stage. I have to convince the producers that I have the ideal music for their film!

My work involves films for many countries and several music examples are given on E&MM Cassette No 5. Payment for film music varies quite a lot — commercials will give a lump sum, although I have to bargain for a good fee and make sure that I estimate the amount of time required carefully. A large amount of television music is now electronic and the economic situation has probably fostered this because of the huge costs of hiring an orchestra to do the job and so on. Certainly, because music is often the last part of film production (when every pound counts), electronic music is now a very viable alternative.

Writing electronic music for films is both challenging and rewarding, with the future offering the prospects of microprocessor control and computer music in small studios. My inspiration comes totally from the visual image of the film and each day brings the challenge to make a fusion of so many different things become an amazing great vista!

From an interview with Mike Beecher.


  • A feature film — "Beastly Treatment" (presently undergoing distrib.).
  • A documentary about free-fall parachuting, "The Falcons", screened on Thames TV.
  • A TV comedy series being produced by Moving Picture Company entitled "Mister Harris".
  • A documentary entitled "Windsurfing", screened on LWT's "World of Sport"
  • A children's animated cartoon TV series entitled "Uncle Hoja" for the Middle East (and possibly European countries).
  • A program for "TV Eye" by Thames TV.
  • Currently working with Illusra Films on a cinema short — "Rescue 9 Zero".
  • Documentary "Managing Energy" for Dept of Energy.

  • Music for the following TV commercials:

  • SHOP ELECTRIC - a campaign for South & South West England, and North & South Wales involving six TV and radio commercials.
  • SENSODYNE TOOTHPASTE - a national campaign starting in the Autumn.
  • WINDSOR SAFARI PARK & SEAWORLD TV and radio commercials.
  • FIAT STRADA - a National TV campaign.
  • MARTIN DAWES - a "Hi-fi & Video" series of commercials for Northern England.
  • ALBA WATCHES - a TV and enema campaign for Hong Kong.
  • B & N CIGARETTES - a TV and cinema campaign for Spain.
  • KUWAIT COMMERCIAL BANK - two campaigns for TV in the Middle East.
  • JORDAN TELEVISION - TV commercials for a dozen various Arabian products (fruit juice, cheese, washing powder, ice-cream, etc).
  • SENSODYNE TOOTHBRUSH - national TV campaign.

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The Japanese Music Fair

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Jan 1982

Side B Tracklisting:

20:28 Richard Mitchell's electronic music for film.
20:47 - Dept. of Energy [1]
22:02 - Dept. of Energy [2]
23:05 - Alba Watches
23:53 - Dawes HiFi
24:30 - Windsurfing
26:27 - Mr Harris theme
27:36 - Sensodyne
28:21 - Windows Safari Park

E&MM Cassette #5 provided by Pete Shales, digitised by Mike Gorman.

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> The Japanese Music Fair

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