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Picture Music

Article from Electronics & Music Maker, December 1984

What goes on behind the apparently calm world of soundtrack-writing, by Steve Howell, who's been through it all himself.

Fancy yourself as another Vangelis? Writing music for film and television isn't nearly so straightforward - or as easy to get into - as you might want to believe.

Making music with modern technology isn't always as straightforward as it should be. (Still from the film Electric Dreams courtesy of Virgin Films.)

First of all, if you seriously intend carving yourself a niche composing synthesiser music for film and/or television, there is one thing you simply cannot afford to be without - adaptability. You have to be unbelievably versatile as a composer because you'll be required to supply music in an almost limitless variety of styles. Time and the odd Oscar or two might elevate you to Vangelis-like status and all the artistic independence that implies, but to begin with, and probably for some while afterwards, you'll have no option but to meet the demands placed on you by the people that matter. Otherwise, you'll soon find no demands are placed on you at all...

This musical adaptability must be matched - if not bettered - by a willingness to program more or less any type of sound at will. If the producer wants the theme tune to sound like Depeche Mode and the incidental music to be a cross between Tangerine Dream and Bucks Fizz, you've got to be able to comply both melodically and sonically.

And as a synthesist you'll be expected to provide sound effects as well as music in its accepted sense, so be prepared to exercise rather less in the way of experimental restraint than you're used to. Again, time may gain you a reputation for a certain distinctive brand of background music, but until that stage is reached, you've got to be prepared to imitate other people's styles of synthesis.

So, never forget that you're providing a soundtrack for someone whose musical preferences may be as far from your own as the laws of aesthetic taste will allow. And however banal their requirements may seem, always bear in mind that they're paying for the next month's HP instalment...

Instant Music

The second point to remember is that the music you write must be 'instant' in its appeal and effect. Unlike record or cassette listeners, film and TV audiences will probably only have one chance to hear your creation, so it's got to convey the right mood and atmosphere straight away - otherwise it's a failure.

In the world of picture music, there's little or no room for self-indulgence. Whereas a conventional pop or rock song can use five minutes or more for all its melodies and variations to be aired, a theme tune has no more than a minute or two to make its impact, so your composition has got to be concise and to the point. You may be lucky and find time to develop themes a bit more during incidental music, but the problem here is that melodies and arrangements that are too strong could well overpower the action of the film. And if they do, your music won't be used nearly as extensively, if at all.

It's nice when it arrives, but don't treat a commission for a film or TV score as a licence to record that great synthesiser epic you've had lying around in the vaults for the last couple of years. In almost 100% of cases, soundtracks are tailored to match the film they accompany, not the other way around, so whatever you write, it's got to be both striking and economical.

The problem of music overshadowing action must also be borne in mind when you're balancing the various sounds in your composition. A huge Gabriel-esque drum sound will almost certainly cut through too much, so if your music does feature drums, keep them well back in the mix. The same goes for whiney, narrow pulse sounds and highly resonant filter effects: you've got to remember that a great many TV sets possess annoying resonant frequencies, and as soon as a note on the soundtrack hits that frequency, half the television sets in the country will start vibrating in sympathy. Unfortunately, predicting exactly which frequencies to avoid is well-nigh impossible because each model of TV is slightly different. The best you can do is to be aware of the sorts of sound that can be troublesome and avoid using them. Low bass sounds can also upset TV speakers - far too often, these have a very poor bass response - so watch those when mixing, too.

You should by now have gathered that mixing on the finest quality studio monitors is pointless, as the music will eventually be heard on something resembling a ripped paper bag - even Auratones are too good. The only way you can really judge what your composition is going to sound like through a TV speaker is to use one at the mixing stage. If it sounds OK on that, it'll sound good on the airwaves.

Filmscore composers are fortunate in that sound quality for motion pictures is probably higher now than it has ever been. However, most cinemas are not equipped to cope with such a glut of sonic information, so a similar - though obviously less drastic - set of rules to those for TV music must be adhered to.

You may think that a natural sound balance will be the only way of getting your soundtrack heard at its best, but nothing could be further from the truth. It may seem like a compromise at the time, but tailoring the shape of your mix to match the characteristics of typical playback media can bring rich rewards.

Sound Quality

Mind you, just because your music has to have an unconventional - by studio monitoring or hi-fi standards - sound balance, doesn't mean to say you can forget all about signal quality.

The finished master tape must be of as high a level - and as hiss-free - as possible, because it's not uncommon for incidental music to be dubbed four times or more from one medium to another before the film/TV programme is complete. A typical procedure would see your masterwork transferred first from your own two-track to sprocketed tape, then to a further quarter-inch reel for editing, on to a video tape and thence to a separate master video tape.

So, as with a recording that's intended for cutting onto vinyl disc, picture music often benefits from a bit of extra brightness just to make sure all those generations of recording don't remove too much in the way of top end.

So much for the rules your soundtrack output should follow. What about the work itself?

Well, as I've already hinted, the music for a film or television programme is more often than not an afterthought. The filming itself may well have taken many months, but chances are you'll only be contacted to write the music when the film has reached the editing stage. And as a result, you may only have a few days in which to write the music, get it approved by the powers-that-be, and record it. You should, of course, have access to the screenplay, from which you can gauge a measure of the film's mood and atmosphere. It'll also give you a rough idea of timings (just read through the cues at a sensibly dramatic speed: remember that normal conversation or reading speed is a lot faster than acted dialogue), but don't expect more than that, because it might not come.

"Mixing on the finest quality studio monitors is pointless, as the music will eventually be heard on something resembling a ripped paper bag."

If you're lucky, you might be invited to see a rough edit of the visuals, which is always a help. If at this stage you find your views on what form the music should take to be at odds with those of the producer, now's the time to air your discontent. If you wait till the music is finished, the producer may take the decision to reject your recordings and use library discs instead, or worse still, employ somebody else.

OK, it isn't always this hectic and there are times when the soundtrack composer is given plenty of breathing space in which to produce everything, but these are the exception rather than the rule, so it's best to be prepared for panic situations. My own soundtrack-writing career has been littered with rush-jobs, none more hectic than the occasion on which I was contacted late one afternoon to provide three pieces of music by the following morning. I lost a lot of sleep, but the master tape was on the producer's desk before he arrived for work the next day. And what's more, it fitted the pictures exactly...

What to Use

I said right at the beginning that to be a successful picture music composer, you've got to be adept both as a composer and as a programmer. Naturally, the latter involves being familiar with a variety of synthesisers and their associated technology. This may seem quite a basic requirement, but you'd be surprised just how many musicians try to take on film work with a knowledge of only a couple of instruments, if that. Creating a certain sound texture may be beyond the resources of the hardware in your possession, so hiring in some gear may be unavoidable. Just remember that if you do hire some equipment, it's best to be at least familiar with its basic operating principles, because with time being so critical, the last thing you want to do is spend priceless hours working your way painstakingly through an instrument you don't understand.

It's always nice to have access to - as well as a knowledge of - a wide range of musical and recording equipment. In fairness, this isn't absolutely essential since you can always resort to hiring, but in the initial stages of presenting your output to a producer, it helps to have the means of making your demo sound as good as possible - hence the recording gear.

Still, no matter how much recording equipment you have, if you're working on a TV soundtrack you'll still have to re-record everything at a television studio - it's a Union regulation. This can be a major stumbling block, since even if you've had plenty of time to work at home, you'll only have a morning or so to put it all together at the TV studio. And that's not the last of your troubles, because it's very unlikely that said TV facility will be anything like as well stocked with synths and the gear necessary to connect them as your own. Television engineers are notoriously 'textbook' in their approach to recording, and you may come up against one or two raised eyebrows if you turn up with a whole load of music computers and outboard processing gear. Having said that, even trained engineers are reasonable human beings, so unless you go out of your way to be provocative, you should receive their full support.

The need to re-record your music shouldn't arise if you're working in collaboration with a freelance video production company (such as those used extensively by Channel 4, for example) or a film crew, but that in itself requires your own studio facilities to be reasonably comprehensive, which is why it's always a good idea to re-invest any royalties you do receive in the purchase of more equipment.

Getting the Break

If you think you can fulfil the requirements discussed and are capable of tackling the many logistical problems that can arise, you're probably wondering how you go about getting into writing soundtracks in the first place.

My honest answer is that I don't know. I fell into it by accident. I was asked to write some music for a play which was seen by someone who needed some music for another play. This happened a few times until one particular play was seen by a TV producer from the local independent station who required some music himself. Word got around the television studios and I found myself doing more and more work for them. Producers move around the country a fair bit and my cassettes tend to go with them. So they get heard by other producers at other stations which, in turn, brings me the chance of more work.

And so it goes on. Partly through word of mouth recommendations and partly as a result of my own perseverance, the level of work coming to my door is now fairly steady, with commissions from throughout the UK and, with luck, other countries too.

It's possible that you could follow the same route. Hassle a local theatre group, write some music for them and see what happens.

Alternatively, put together a demo tape and send it to as many TV stations and production companies as you can find. Be prepared for disappointment, however, as it's quite likely that your cassette won't even get a fair hearing. You stand a better chance than the multitude sending demos to record companies in search of a deal, but not much.

As a writer of soundtrack music that is predominantly electronic in nature, you do at least have two points in your favour. The first is that there are literally hundreds of organisations working in this field, and although many of them will already have regular sources of music that they tend to stick by, the more people there are to send demos to, the more likely it is that someone, somewhere will hear your tape and consider it worth following up.

The second advantage is that producers and their ilk are becoming increasingly aware of the potential inherent in using electronic music for a soundtrack. The inception of microprocessor-based instruments such as microcomposers - and indeed music computers themselves - has increased the speed with which scores can be created and recorded, as well as easing the syncing of soundtracks to video tape considerably. If you're a bit unclear as to the usefulness of sync codes and so on, I can only refer you to last month's instalment of Everything but the Kitchen... which explains things with admirable clarity.

Qualifications are of absolutely no use. In fact, they may even be a hindrance. I know of several highly qualified musicians who stand little or no chance of breaking into the world of picture music because their output is so classically stylised that any attempt to write more 'modern' (for want of a better word) pieces results in a lacklustre amalgamation of musical cliches. The same is usually true of musicians trying to do things the other way around.

Don't expect things to happen overnight, either. Getting yourself established is invariably a slow process, and over and above your musical abilities (or lack of them), you'll also need other, personal attributes in some quantity. These include drive, stamina, determination, patience, and a fair degree of diplomacy (for dealing with producers, engineers and the like). And in amongst all the artistic headaches that will inevitably come your way, you'll have to keep some semblance of organisational ability to cope with the bureaucratic ravages of contracts, accounts, tax, VAT, music publishing, PRS, MCPS and production meetings.

It may be a precarious and demanding lifestyle, but it beats having a proper job!

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

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Electronics & Music Maker - Dec 1984

Feature by Steve Howell

Previous article in this issue:

> Soil Festivities

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> Powertran MCS1

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