On June 2nd I saw an announcement from Spitfire Audio “ENDS TOMORROW – Westworld Scoring Competition”. I hadn’t heard of this competition but I immediately wanted to do all I could to get an entry written and submitted in only 24 hours. I just purchased my first Spitfire Audio product (Studio Strings) a week prior and was newly added to the email list so thankfully I did get this final notice on the competition otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it. I have been asking around for video projects that I could score to to build my experience and portfolio so this opportunity is golden! I would not let it pass by without my best effort, I can lose a night’s sleep for this.
After watching the 4 minute clip to get a feel for it, I set to work composing right away and ideas started coming to me. The clip has quite a bit of action and only a few short bits of dialog so it begs for a good amount of up-front music. I broke it down into a handfull of sections 30 seconds to 1 minute in length where natural transitions occurred in the video and just tackled them in order. The mood is urban, night, intense pursuit with high tech gadgets: high performance self driving/voice guided vehicles, smart missiles, etc. so I didn’t shy away from pulsing synthy bass lines for that driving modern sound with percussion accents, electric piano, and classic string and brass to bring in some adventure theme type moments – gotta love some melody!
For each section I picked a tempo and feel that felt right to me and often worked from the bassline up from there. Some sections were more melody driven and the arrangement was tailored to that but my approach was more intuitive driven rather than formulaic. I would run what I had and then just be listening for what popped into my head to come next whether it be a melody or a groove. I would put down some rough outlines with just an electric piano sound as place holders and then drill into the exact tempo and cue points I wanted to hit before filling out the specific arrangement. I sometimes had to do a few iterations of tempo to line up with the picture how I wanted it to.
For this piece I didn’t use clicks or tempo tools or events in my DAW! Believe it or not, sometimes for me that creates more fuss than benefit. I don’t like to get sucked into a process that’s overly technical with tempo adjustments, I’m firstly an artist after all. As a result I must try to be as precise as possible in my rhythm so the track doesn’t get too sloppy but sometimes making it a little loose gives a great feel. When you are trying to bend the time to hit precise cues this method can actually work in your favor if you can pull off a live performance of a reference instrument then orchestrate everything else to that tempo. Sometimes I’ll even take a rimshot or clave and record my own click track in real time while watching the video. When using software instruments you can still easily make corrections to individual notes or sections on this click or guide track. You’ll see that working this way requires that you disregard all software tempo tools. I was around in the days of tape, so I’m pretty comfortable working like this.
Transitions create unique challenges, there are tempo and key changes from segment to segment to connecting them in a smooth way or at least a way that fits the flow of the story is critical. I am still at the beginning of my journey scoring to picture so I’m speaking here not as a seasoned authority but more in a journaling capacity. I could of course choose to keep the whole clip in the same key to avoid key changes, no problem with that, you don’t need a key change just for the sake of itself. But if key changes help to push things forward and create interest for the story’s sake then you will often want to have methods for transitioning. Jumping to related keys without transition chords is the easiest method, but the critical thing there is that they are related keys: like relative and parallel majors/minors, fourths, half steps etc. This can get you through a lot of key changes successfully. In these 4 minutes I did change keys a number of times, maybe they weren’t all necessary but it feels good to me. A big difference I see between my musical rendering of this clip and the 4 or 5 others that I listened to so far searching the hashtag #westworldscoringcompetition2020 is that I changed keys and tempos more. I am taking note about this and maybe there is something I can learn from this realization. Often, less is more. Minimalism can be striking and beautiful.
I had a very long night scoring, and the next day after working some other tasks that I had already committed to, I found myself not finished with the project with only a few hours until the submission deadline. I pressed forward knowing that I would not have time to review my work, make adjustments, or even mix it before the deadline hit! I pressed on determined to submit as much as I could and I was still there tracking drums and keyboards until about 10 minutes to the mark. I actually scored music to the end of the clip, and I was really liking what I had, it was just not polished and perfect but it was a solid composition. That last 10 minutes was enough to save a file, upload it to youtube, and fill in the submission form. So I made it! I wish I had found out about the contest one day earlier, then I would have been able to tweak and mix it properly but the whole process was a great success for me. A few days later I did clean it up a bit and that’s what I have linked here, but compositionally I didn’t make changes to what I scored in my frantic 1 day blitz. Great fun, and I’m just going to keep the ball rolling from here. Thanks to Spitfire Audio, and HBO Westworld for organising this competition and throwing it out there for us.