Just Mickey Mousing Around Here

A reddit post caught my attention this week, about film music and the phrase “Mickey Mouse” as a way to describe a composition style. I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days now and on some projects I’ve done a true Mickey Mouse job at scoring, admitting that with no shame. What I mean is that I have employed a direct connection between on screen visual events and what the music is doing in real time. This is the method of many cartoons and to me it’s also a very classic silent film or Vaudeville type of style. My last project was scoring a 1910 silent film after all. I wasn’t familiar with the term in that specific usage until I read this post. I would have assumed it referred instead to a non-advanced type of compositional style, simplistic in a way that was lacking skill and depth. To many it may mean this too but what I’m talking about in this post is specifically having the music blatantly accentuate the visuals, like a xylophone on the blink of an eye or something like that. There’s a time and place but usually we don’t go to that extreme unless we want it to look silly.

Consensus in the comments of the reddit post was generally that this practice is not in style and will give an effect of making you irrelevant if you overdo it. Many say it’s not trending and should generally be avoided. The author’s reason for the post was expressing that they lost a job because they were Mickey Mousing it too much, so there’s a case in point argument for why it may be a bad technique. I then naturally considered my own work and the question arises if it’s irrelevant and by association that would make me irrelevant as an artist and maybe even as a human being if I’m feeling especially dramatic. Without answering my own question yet, I stand firm that there’s a place for Mickey Mouse. I strongly associate the character Mickey with the inspiring story of Walt Disney and so I have a hard time coming around to use the term in a negative way. This, while somewhat related, is not actually the point of the whole discussion though so I’ll get back to it.

Most motion picture works are a huge abstraction for many reasons, so having a soundtrack that is closely woven into the action in a direct way it’s not going to automatically kill the mood in my opinion. It can surely get to a point of distraction or add an inappropriate comedic feel that will kill the vibe if it’s contrary to the nature of the story. I’m going to consider these things pretty seriously going forward but I’m not going to rule out using these effects. I just heard an interview with Danny Elfman where a film editor complimented his soundtrack saying the music fit so well it made it look like the editor had fit the film to the music instead of the other way around, is that Mickey Mousing? To me it seems kind of like it is and it also seems like something I want to do. It can be a good thing, I think it can be a very good thing. Humans like things being synchronized. That’s why music and dance is such a universal love of people worldwide in every generation. Doing it tastefully, yeah that’s important, but let’s not throw it all out, that would be losing something beautiful.

I think I haven’t done a bad job, I also think I can improve and that’s my take. So how do we all feel about using this so called Mickey Mouse technique, yea or nay? For my next project I’ll ask the question whether it’s necessary, whether it helps the story, whether it distracts, whether is can be just as good without it, but ultimately I need to deliver what the customer wants so that is also a big factor. Being more aware of it should be a good thing though. Just remember though that Fantasia is a classic!

Sampling Autoharp and Pan Pipe

Listen to the clip to hear my new sampled instruments in action:

This week I recorded 2 instruments and created digital sample instruments from them. This is the first I’ve done with sampling instruments to be reused with midi. The motivation for this was my coming across an Autoharp in a second hand store. I took the harp home and tuned it up, which is not a quick task but considerably easier than tuning a piano. It was after the tuning that it occurred to me that if I sample it then I can use the sound next time without the need to tune up first! Using the sampled instrument will not be the same, especially on a strummed instrument like this. I didn’t actually sample strums or chords yet, I think I may do a bit of that later but first I captured some single notes. I went up through the range of the instrument in 5ths and captured 8-10 velocities of each note. So I didn’t sample every note on the instrument, that would take a while. The notes between samples I just repitched the sample to fill in and it’s a good result. Very usable. The single notes gives it a particular sound, not immediately recognizable as an Autoharp but a good crisp pluck sound. Much more bite and complex resonance than compared to most guitars, it has a lot of strings that I didn’t dampen so there was some nice sympathetic vibrations going on.

Before working in the sampler I did a little bit of processing on the clips, tuning and trimming the start and end points of course but then adding a small touch of reverb, a little eq, and smooth fades for the cutoffs. Then I mapped them using the multi sampler tool in Logic. The whole process took a good part of a full night, I had to look up some info a few times on how to use the tools properly since it was my first time but now I have an instrument to use whenever I need it.

I’m thinking about doing another virtual instrument sampling strums, but that will take more organization up front to decide how to implement it. Single notes are much more straightforward. The instrument has a limited number of chords that it plays from the push buttons, with one chord selected you can strum it in different pitch ranges too so I need to find a good way to organize those within the framework of a keyboard midi controller. A nice benefit is I can transpose the samples and extend the range of keys that I can play compared to using just the instrument itself, but I’ll be limited in the type of strumming effects I can use with the samples.

Last night I was still on a kick from finishing my first sampled instrument and I was itching to find something else to sample. The perfect thing came to me; I had some 1/2 in. PVC pipe sitting around that I had planned to make a set of pan pipes out of. I cut some lengths of pipe and didn’t get any farther than that. I tried to get a sound out of it and I could do it but it was not easy. Instead of taking the time to try finish assembling the pipes and then learning to play it, which I may never be great at, I can now save myself a lot of trouble by just building up a sampled instrument to use, provided I could record myself getting at least a few good sounding notes! This was still a task but I managed to get some usable tones. Controlling the dynamics on this one was not as much an option, I couldn’t get a quiet sound, so I just had about 3 levels of velocity on most of the notes I sampled. I couldn’t do a very big range either, I think I ended up sampling 4 different pitches and just extended the lowest one over a large section of the bass notes, kind of unnatural but I figure you can push the boundaries and call it experimental.

The end result of the pipe instrument sounds very much like an airy organ, especially played on the keyboard in chorale style and with the artificially pitch shifted bass notes, it’s pretty nice but since I run out of breath fast on these there is not a lot of sustain. I think there is some setting in the sampler to make it loop a section for eternal sustain but it’s very usable without that, and if I’m emulating an actual pan player then it’s accurate.

Para Marisa – an orchestral work for film

In an earlier post I allude to a piece I wrote to submit to the Gil Family Estates Soundtrack Contest. I was holding off from sharing my composition until the contest played out and now that the 12 finalists are announced I can share my piece, I’m not a finalist; in fact I don’t know if my entry was even considered because the cutoff age is 35 and as I submitted a passport scan with my entry showing I’m over 35. They may have disqualified me directly, I don’t know. I can only hope that that is the reason and that it has nothing to do with the quality of my work! At any rate yes I’m feeling old and dejected but I’m going to keep making music with a fierce passion regardless of the lack of reception.

I like the film and I loved the opportunity to apply my skills to compose to a clean slate, a new film which hitherto had no soundtrack, and not even any temp music. One of the requirements (one that I didn’t blatantly disregard as I did the age requirement) was that the instrumentation should be for a traditional orchestra of strings, winds, brass, and percussion; harp and piano were also allowed and they are both dominantly featured in my piece. Additionally a pdf full score was to be submitted as well, quite an academic exercise in all when you consider the orchestration and engraving. This in effect was my first traditional orchestral score of any significant length, just over 8 minutes.

None more to say about this except that I proudly present the demo here to you, I’ve been eager and waiting to share it. To me, it’s a winner.

Reviving a Silent Treasure – A Gold Necklace

A Gold Necklace is a 10 minute short film from 1910 starring Mary Pickford who was at the time early in a career that would see her become a major silent film superstar and influential force for the future of the industry. This film is cute and lighthearted with a comic air as a necklace gets lost and found and we see the mishaps of good intentioned players trying to restore the necklace to its owner without having a correct understanding of who the owner is. Mary Pickford is delightful in this, and I got a kick out of Mack Sennett’s performance of Sam on a few occasions when he looks directly into the camera with a smirk or a stunned look. The biggest problem with this film though is that the original finished version doesn’t appear to be available; I’m no film historian but all I could find was a collection of the scenes out of order, maybe the order they were filmed in, or maybe just a random order of clips spliced together on one reel, I don’t know but it made no sense to watch it like that. The Library of Congress has a digitized version like this and they have even posted it on YouTube.

I do think that there was a finished version at some point, and it seems to have been released and viewed publicly based on historical print adverts I have seen, but at any rate if it does exist somewhere (likely not) it’s not easily available to me or the general web surfing public I would imagine. This was a golden find for me, as I needed an interesting picture to score and here I could score a fun old movie and provide a corrected version of it to the public with just a little bit of video editing up front. Public Domain can be a great thing sometimes.

With the aid of a 1 paragraph synopsis I spent a day sorting out the correct order of the scenes and then dreamed up appropriate title cards or inter-titles to add to help the viewer follow the story for the bits that can’t be conveyed silently by body language, those are the slides between scenes that show dialog or explanation in a silent film. Visually I made these titles in a classic vintage style, and added my fish logo on there for good measure. So then I had a rather unique picture, about 11 minutes long which is a silent clean slate to add some musical inspiration to. Leading up to this I had spent a few nights flipping through public domain footage in search of something interesting to score, there’s a lot of weird stuff out there, a lot of boring stuff too, and a few gems which is how I regard A Gold Necklace. It took some extra effort to get it to a point that it was ready for music given the unedited state it was in but it was well worth it and really cool actually that after my own edit it was a unique version that nobody else had.

I discovered some particulars to scoring for a silent film that make it quite different from traditional film scoring and by far the biggest thing you notice right away is that you don’t need to make room for dialog! So as any composer who does underscore knows, rule #1 is dialog is king, you don’t crowd out the dialog. In this case I threw rule #1 out the window. The next thing you notice is the lack of ambient sounds and effects, which also makes a big difference, it was only an 11 minute show (with titles and credits added) which is short but it’s a huge sonic emptiness that needs to be filled and the music is a lot more of a focal point in silent films than in our modern talkies. So I needed 11 minutes of significant music, filler would not suffice here and I paid a lot of attention to transitions too. Every scene flows into the next with deliberate tempo and key changes. I didn’t just end segments without knowing what would come next, I basically had to write the ending of a segment and the beginning of the next segment simultaneously to ensure they fit and would flow together.

Silent films have a tradition of physical comedy, or over the top physical acting and this is quite understandable given the format, additionally the reels are often spun to playback faster than real time which adds a certain physical comedic effect. The music for these films was probably regulated even less than the playback speed because each showing was a unique live performance of an organist in a theater and every theater’s organist I’m sure had their own style and conventions but the music I’ve heard that accompanies silent films is usually also rather brisk and jovial. There were probably some amazing performers at the organ in many of these theaters, but I didn’t set out to recreate a historically accurate score. I wanted to come at it with an open mind and not rule anything out in the areas of instrumentation and style. I tested a few ideas out before deciding on some themes that actually had more of a traditional sound than I expected to use. In instrumentation I used a few modern instruments like electric piano, electric bass, and a little drum machine but acoustic guitar and a music box sound play a big role and it gets thickened with strings, voice, harpsichord, organ, piano, marimba, and percussion. The music box is from Spitfire Labs (free and extremely useful), the strings are a hybrid of Spitfire Studio Strings and me playing my pawn shop violin. The vocalizing is also me and the guitar and bass are actual instruments but the rest of the above listed are Logic’s software instruments.

I used no snare drum at all (weird right?). The percussion consisted of a fair amount of cymbals, shaker, knee slaps, claps, stomps, low tom, tapping on the guitar body and neck, triangle, and glockenspiel, and the software instruments I used were wood temple blocks, timpani (very fun to work with), a few additional cymbals, bass drum and a filtered analog drum machine sound. I did map out the tempo in Logic, I often work just in free tempo without a click. This is the longest piece I’ve done with the tempo mapped from start to finish and it has a lot of BPM variation as you see in the tempo track.

It took quite a bit of time to get all the changes programmed and to synch correctly with picture but I think it was the right way to go in this case. It was a complicated piece to do to hit all the cues and it just required a strict backbone to keep it all in place.

I plan on scoring more silent films in the future, and depending on the story I may step out further from tradition, it would be fun to get experimental with it, but since A Gold Necklace has such a playful story it didn’t fit to get edgy or too weird with the sound. I like the nod to early 20th century American song, hopefully that comes across but I think the Rhodes piano and harpsichord especially give it a little extra zing. I am guessing that most composers don’t have something like this in their demo reel, and it’s probably not an obvious fit to pitch something like this for most jobs that would come up but regardless I will be putting a clip from this in my next demo reel, which I think will be the next thing I put together. Now if I can only decide which section to use… I’m open to suggestions.

Beethoven and the Power of Understatement

This year as we celebrate the 250th birthday of Beethoven I want to give a nod to the man with the intense furrowed brow. For a while now, I’ve been captivated by the first notes of the very famous Beethoven Symphony No.5. It’s a melody I’m sure we all know well, it ranks up there with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in recognizability. I’m really focusing on the first 4 unison notes, or 8 notes if you want to think of the repeated eights as different notes, but I mean the G to Eb and F to D part where G and F are 3 eighth notes and Eb and D are held out. My primary fascination with this part is 2 fold: 1. it’s unison so there is no harmonic chord backdrop to set the tonal context and 2. the tonic note is not included in these first notes which further creates ambiguity for the listener about what key its in. Given those 2 points, the listener is left a bit in the lurch as to how to make harmonic sense of it for the first few bars until the unison breaks into chords, at which point it’s clearly in a minor key (C minor). This may not seem terribly unusual, and there are probably other great pieces that do something similar but in my experience I have avoided doing things like this in my composition because I was worried that the listener would not make proper sense of an unsupported melody to start a piece off. I thought it would be confusing and thus not a good experience for the listener but now that I recognize how effectual it was for Beethoven, I must repent of my ways.

As I was pondering these notes, I wondered if the line was really so explicit in suggesting the minor mode that the tonality is obvious even without hearing a C minor chord or even the note C. I imagined just the first 2 tones: G and Eb and that interval is a major third, and then I imagined that the tune “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” starts with that same interval and it’s in the major mode. So I shifted my thinking to favor the idea that it’s not clear what the tonality is going to be when it starts, and that’s an acceptable ambiguity. It may even add interest to the overall experience! So I wondered if this melody could then be fittingly paired with a harmony of the major mode variety. So I devised some chords to go with the same melody that would change it into a major key and you can hear that in the video at 3:52. It works rather well actually for just a passing exercise.

The key takeaway from this experience for me is that time doesn’t just go linearly from start to finish in music; things that happened in the past are not gone forever even though the sound dies away. For the human listener, things at the start of the piece are still resounding much later on. A note alone, or even a chord alone doesn’t mean much by itself, it takes a melody, or a progression to give it meaning, and not only the notes that follow it matter but the notes that preceded it equally so. An event can occur and the full importance of that event won’t be made clear until things that come later give the information needed to process the relevance of the initial event, so it’s fine to leave some things to the imagination and then give clues as the piece progresses to fill in some details, it will probably enhance the listener’s experience.

*in the video I play the piece in G minor instead of C minor, just because I was in the mood for G minor that day I guess.

DAW Project Template and its maiden run

There are many others out there who have done a lot more projects and have published video and commentary in detail on setting up a template, I’ll let you seek those out for more experienced nitty gritty, but I am just documenting my journey here so I’ll share my perspective as one who is just doing a first pass at setting up a template, not one who has years of experience with it.

I am working more with large ensemble projects and so I recently created a default project template for Logic. I’ve been using the program for years so it may be a little surprising that I’m only doing this now but I didn’t actually consider this option till about 2 months ago. The majority of what I did in Logic previously was using guitar/bass inputs or mic’d instruments and voice, it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been working on larger projects with many recurring midi patches and orchestral type arrangements so the time is quite right for me to use a template now. I’ve grouped my instrument tracks in sections: Winds, Percussion, Keyboards (and misc harp, synths, etc.), Guitar and Bass, Voice, Strings and I’ve got them in order from top to bottom as you would see them reading down the score (flute, oboe, clarinet…. strings at bottom). I see that this is the way to work, each instrument can have its own FX patches preset, and then the section groups can also be preset through a chain. For projects with many instruments this is such a timesaver. For better or for worse it will also have the effect of maintaining a specific “sound”, if you always use the same instruments through the same types of routing and such. I haven’t decided if I’ll use one super master template to cover all projects or a handfull of templates each covering one specialty. For this first template I want it to be a catch all, and after I play with it for a while I’ll decide where to go from there.

This first template is the most comprehensive, with the idea that if I’m going to score for full blown orchestra this will cover me, for mock ups. I’ve left it open to sweeten it up with some mic tracks to add live instruments but the majority of it is samples and such. I’ve got the winds and strings and bells and whistles at my fingertips here including my favorite keyboard sounds and some instruments that are non-traditional orchestra. My favorite extras are vintage electric pianos (so useful for a lot of things), a little B3 organ, celeste, some bassy and ambient synths (I don’t use a lot of synth at the moment), the Spitfire LABS music box and felt piano are really cool, and a few drum machines. I’ve got some favorite electric guitar and bass patches at the ready too. Guitar is one of my main instruments so I like to loosen tracks up with a bit of that when it’s appropriate. Having an actual electric bass performance instead of a midi performance of a bass sound is important for me but that’s the bread and butter of my background so I’m biased in that regard. I usually don’t do anything too fancy with the electric bass signal chain as I like a simple vintage type sound. I want to get myself a double bass soon, I played it in college but I need to find myself an instrument. I have some midi triggered sounds that do well for the plucked bass sound but the real deal is the real deal.

My string section is the Spitfire Studio Strings, which has been doing the trick for me, but when I get the chance I will upgrade this. Before I do that I will get a woodwind library as that is the weakest link in my setup. I like the default mallet percussion sounds in the Logic package and I’m using some other percussion that works really well, timpani and others. I have an acoustic drumset in the studio that I use a lot, even for some of the orchestral things. The snare is quite useful for many styles of music and you can get a really dramatic cymbal swell by doing a crecendo roll with soft mallets so I’ll mic live percussion sounds frequently for all styles of music. Shakers and tambourines add a lot of good vibes to tracks and you can readily add these instruments and play them yourself even in the smallest studio without having to do years of study on them, while it does take some practice to do it well, it’s a lower bar to hurdle than learning the bassoon or horn.

The maiden voyage of this template was an 8 minute orchestral score for the GIL Family Estates Soundtrack contest. The brief is for a traditional orchestra score for a short film emphasizing themes of family, home, land, and passing on history and legacy through generations. Quite a heartfelt film with a lot of room for music. I had not scored for such a large ensemble up to this point, I utilized the strings of course but also had a fair amount of harp and piano along with sections of winds and brass. Percussion was minimal, but there was a good amount of glockenspiel and just a bit of other percussive elements here and there. The project was quite a success! I spent about two weeks in the composition and recording of it. I will be able to share it here with you in the near future. A lot of the melody was written just in my head as I was imagining the feel of the film and pondering what kind of music it was asking for. Then I would later take these themes to the piano and then to my digital orchestra part by part layering upon a piano guide track. I didn’t use metronomes or clicks for this one.

Transcribing the written score for it was the tedious wrap up work, but really not too bad. I composed a lot of it at the piano and then from there to tape (or DAW really) so getting it to paper came last in this case. I do write some of the themes and ideas down initially, so I don’t forget it. I will usually write the parts out in detail later and sometimes I will make some voice leading and harmonization changes and edits as I write the score out in full. It’s easier to get a grasp of how all the instruments are working together when they are all laid out on paper sometimes but it’s really only necessary if it makes a noticeable sound improvement, otherwise I don’t care how textbook my score ends up because all that matters is how it sounds. Trust your ear but sometimes seeing the harmony on paper helps you get to the right answers quicker to give you a chance for your ear to confirm it.

Finishing that project was great for me, I ended up realizing the vision I set out to accomplish and in the process I created version 1 of my orchestral template. This will I’m sure be the first of many versions and updates it will go through, but I just think, all the tweaks I make this time around will be already set for me on the next project so it starts paying off right away.

Using Digital Instruments and Samples: pros, cons, and morals

Dinner Music for Bari & Tenor Sax with Electric Piano, Bass, and Drums

I love to use real instruments for recording, but let’s be honest, the convenience of midi digital instruments and samples wins out in many situations. I use Logic’s software instruments regularly. Starting in 2015 I was pleasantly surprised how good the vintage pianos and clavinets were and I started adding them as secondary instruments to the guitar based tracks on my 2016 alternative pop rock release Silver Streak. I would have loved to add the actual instruments to my studio and mic them up, believe me! but it wasn’t in my budget. Furthermore I recorded that in my garage and many of my sessions were in the middle of the night when my family was sleeping so the midi keyboard was a lifesaver for other reasons too. In using software instruments the pros generally outweigh the cons in most circumstances. When faced with the option to have the faux Rhodes that sounds quite good or no Rhodes at all it was an easy choice.

It’s easy to recognize the benefits, but what are the cons to using the digital fakes? My main worry in all of this is that we will become so reliant on digital shortcuts that we lose the actual artistry of the instrumentalist. Will there ever be a day that our string samples get so good and widely used that people stop learning to play the violin altogether because the demand disappears? That’s an extreme case, and yes I know that we still rely on people to play the instruments to create the samples but it’s a scenario that shouldn’t be ignored because it’s a trajectory that we’ve been headed towards since maybe the 1960’s when synthesizers and electronic instruments started becoming more commonplace. Imagine the situation where you have a drummer, a guitarist, and a keyboard player in a session and you choose to have the keyboard player do a double pass and add the bassline. You just saved yourself $ from having to bring in a bass player but you might have just put a few bass players out of work too! Actually you have to look further back than the 1960s: the invention of the radio, and phonograph records really put a damper on the piano industry. And then just think of all the events where DJs get hired: weddings, corporate functions, school dances, fairs and festivals; there would have been live bands hired to fill many of these spots in the past. And then with playlists and streaming you can even get by in many situations without hiring a DJ at all. It becomes somewhat of a moral question as we outsource our creative musical jobs to technology.

I want to preserve our arts and artists, to be sure. I have picked up a wide variety of instrumental skills myself because I’m so fascinated with the act of playing instruments and in love with the sound and feel of it. I also have come to terms with my boundaries, financial limitations, and the reality of the world we live in so that I can use the technology of convenience without much guilt. When I have the option, I will use a real instrument most of the time. I have discovered though that in the small room I have to record, I haven’t yet figured out a great way to mic my piano. So more often than not, my digital piano sounds better than my acoustic piano when playing back the track although it feels way better to play on the acoustic piano.

I don’t play the saxophone and don’t have one lying around the house, I haven’t used saxophone on my projects in the past but I was making a track about a month ago and it popped in my head that bari sax would be really cool on it. I hadn’t yet tried out Logic’s Studio Horns, which I think came out back in 2018. I loaded it up and was really pleased by the sound of the bari sax. I ended up writing it as a duet for bari and tenor and it sounds great to me. I know there are probably more advanced horn libraries out there, but the studio horns is really wonderful as part of the standard Logic package and quite usable. A benefit to having good quality sounds at your fingertips is that the sound of it can inspire your composition in ways that might be different than what you would just imagine if left alone with your minds ear and a piece of manuscript paper. A good composer can imagine in their head the sound of many things, but there is a different experience to be had by playing around with an instrument. Different instruments can inspire different kinds of writing and likewise with digital instruments. My bari sax composition was only half written when I loaded up the horn sound and I have no way to test this but I bet having that cool sax sound in my ear informed my compositional decisions in a positive way to finish out the piece.

I don’t have a large collection of sample libraries, and although I’m getting more into using them, I don’t see myself going over the top in that direction. My next area I want to expand is my wind section. A good oboe is hard to come by. In my ideal world I would live in a neighborhood full of musicians and we would get together often and play, I’ll work towards that goal. During this COVID pandemic there are major roadblocks, the distancing requirements for one and another is the hit to the economy which has gotten many of us down and is having widespread effects on many aspects of life. Given this climate, I’ll continue to do as much composing and recording as I can and digital instruments definitely help me to do that. For me, it keeps me going.

Westworld Scoring Competition

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.

Demo Reel 1 Now Posted!

Music for film, television, and advertisement – 10 audio clips of a variety of styles, moods, and instrumentation are included in Demo Reel 1. The songs are action packed and trimmed into a six and a half minute file but it demonstrates the capability of JGT Music in a broad range of sounds and textures. It’s a great feeling to have this completed and posted, 9 out of the 10 pieces were written and recorded in the last week and a half for the sole purpose of showing the quality of work I can deliver. Take a listen:

The tenth piece is from a track used on a new Gillwire release, Big Win 2020 and is a dynamic funk rock arrangement with string and vintage keyboard accents, check out the full version with vocals below if you have a moment. It has a theme of striving to achieve, working hard to reach a goal, win a championship, or succeed in the face of a big challenge.

Now that we have actual media on the site the goods are publicly on display. This is the first of many pieces that will be shared. Thanks for coming by to see and hear what I can do. Please let me know if you need music for anything.

gillwire@gmail.com

Music Creator Blog

I have this new website, perfect for letting all interested parties know what kind of music I create and a little about who I am and what I do. That’s great, it’s just what I needed, but I can also publish regular posts and updates in blog format, and that gives me the opportunity explore this space for purposes beyond the initial targets of the website as needed for showcasing my music. I intend to take advantage of this opportunity to dig into the craft from an academic perspective and share my voice in the community of creators. My vision is that those who are interested in the process of music composition and production will find these posts interesting and valuable. Topics will range from music theory, arrangement, orchestration, instrumentation, electronic audio mixing and recording, to dramatic effect and emotional responses to music.

On Theory and Notation

My first passion is the music, the notes, the sounds, the melodies and harmonies. I developed a keen interest in the mechanics of notation and chord structure starting in my youth and I encourage musicians to learn the “rules” of music theory, learn it well but not so well that you live and die by the rules. The ultimate rule above all is to use your ear and your heart; if your ear is telling you something contrary to a rule then by all means disregard the rule and listen to your ear. After all, the rules were just created based on what sounded good to the ears of masters who preceded us. The rules and conventions have merit, of course, and I have much respect for them, but I regard the formal definitions and vocabulary of music theory not as an eternal law but as a tool of convenience for helping us create, preserve, and share musical ideas.

The traditional system of tone classification, harmonization, and notation is an excellent one. The fact that we can represent the pitches and rhythms of works of a wide range of complexity on a concise staff of 5 lines that can be read, played, and understood worldwide by instrumentalists and vocalists of all different types is a wonderfully beautiful thing. As a musician, you should embrace that and know that by learning the formalities of theory and notation, you open yourself up to be able to play a more connected part in the history of humanity that is found within music. The ideas of theory and notation have evolved a lot over history into the very efficient system that we have today, it would be a shame to toss it out the window.

Of course you can be an excellent storyteller and be illiterate, but given the option wouldn’t you also prefer to learn to read and thus be able to appreciate a wider range of art and expression? Your own storytelling would likely benefit too. This analogy is naturally applicable to music and I’m sure it’s clear the point I intend to convey. I will add though that there have been master musicians who play solely by ear and haven’t been able to tell you a C sharp from a B flat by name, this in no way diminishes their achievements, but given the choice, it’s always a good thing to learn the “rules”. You can then reap the benefits available and when the time is right you can surely also learn to break the rules so you needn’t fear that your education will constrict you.

On Gear and Technology

Oh how we love our gear, almost every musician I know gets some childlike excitement out of trying out new instruments or the prospect of adding instruments to their collection and learning the features and benefits of all the various types. While I do love a good guitar, I don’t lose sleep over whether someone is using a Stratocaster or a Les Paul. I’d much rather spend my time picking apart a chord progression than doing A/B comparisons of amps and distortion pedals all day. But tone is important and there is a time and place to get very particular about it and the gear that helps you achieve that tone. I tend to stick to the vintage and classic tools of the trade for the most part; I feel that there is a real relatable quality to those dusty old sounds. On an emotional level I can really get into a track where you can hear the sound of the room and little squeaks and things that some may consider imperfections as compared to the sterile sound of an all digital track that is synched to a click and processed to exactness. So in a way I suppose I am rather particular about gear and tone.

Among the considerations of a modern artist beyond the music itself is the necessity to record your art in a distributable form and in the current setting that is to say a digital format. For a musician today, acquiring at least a basic level of proficiency at audio engineering is almost imperative. You need to be comfortable recording and editing with the apps, digital audio workstations, otherwise known as multitrack recording software. It doesn’t need to take up all your time and attention but take the time necessary as an initial investment to get up to speed here and as you go forward utilizing these skills on a regular basis you will be rewarded.

Finding ways you can take time saving shortcuts with the aid of digital technology is a great way to boost productivity especially when you don’t have to sacrifice any quality. There are a lot of ways that digital technology has made things easier and better for us, one of the biggest benefits is that you can create a professional level studio setup at a modest cost. There will always be more items you can add to your studio that have large price tags but you can definitely start out with a small budget and get great sounding results if you work realistically with the resources available to you.

I have a warning for you regarding digital audio recording: Beware of overdoing it, yes you may have hundreds of plug-ins at your fingertips, you don’t need to use them all! How can we manage having so many options? It’s difficult, there is data that shows that having more options is not always a good thing for the human psyche. Having a few good options is great, but if we have hundreds of reverb options (not a hypothetical situation) then do we have to try them all out on every track we work on to find the best one? I don’t think that activity is even humanly possible, our ears and minds would fatigue to the point that we couldn’t make a sensible decision. My approach is to find a handful of good ones that work for a lot of situations and just stick with those for 90% of what you do. If you try 5 or 6 and find one that sounds great then use it and save that setting for next time. There will probably be a voice in your head that says “but you haven’t heard the other 300 settings! you must try them all!” but don’t listen to this voice. You will never finish your project if you get caught up like that. If something comes up that requires a unique sound then you can spend extra time in those rare instances tweaking every knob but there are a lot of reverb presets in my toolkit that I have still never tried even after making hundreds of recordings.

If my primary goal was to be an audio engineer or producer then I would allow more time to fully explore the nuances of all the bells and whistles of the tracking and processing gear but I am first a composer, and a musician, and second a producer. For me being a producer and recording engineer is a means to an end, the goal being getting a great sounding recording of the music. I still hold myself to a high standard for audio quality but as long as I have met that goal, I move forward with creating new music instead of listening to that voice that would have me spend my time comparing between many passable options. You must define your priorities and determine the correct balance for yourself to achieve your specific goals.

In writing an overview of the scope of what this blog is about I’m seeing that there is a lot to talk about. I’ll dive into specific topics in detail and I’m sure new things will come up that interest me as related to writing and creating music. I’m excited to share my thoughts, procedures and philosophies; I don’t imagine this will cause any big waves but maybe someone out there will get something from it. You can let me know if so, but it’s a good exercise for me regardless.