Single Systems – Yes they work too

I have been an avid single PC system user in my setup for years now. I have adopted this for quite a few reasons but i wanted to break into this as, with many reoccurring convos on builds, i wanted to reassure at least a slice of the composer market, its not law to have a huge Mac and 2-3 slave pc’s and a small server room to write and produce your music.

It certainly sells itself glamorously when every Hollywood composer you admire has a room full of the best gear and maps their rig in such a fashion. But its handy to take into account someone elses huge operational budget might not sit side by side with your daily needs. Sure id love a huge network of rooms and studios, server rooms and “staff” helping me accomplish my tasks, but personally id find this all overkill.

Dont get me wrong, if i was scoring some truly huge work for a block buster movie and insisted in having a working template that takes 15 mins of scrolling to see it top to bottom, id agree.

But thats not how i work, and perhaps for some of you, just a few, it might not be how you work either. Im absolutely not trying to take a swipe at anyones working practice or belittle peoples choices. Thats never going to work, and frankly what someone else does or doesnt do, has nothing to do with me. Im not paying their bills so i def do not get a say.

But bearing in mind most of us arent cavorting over a duvet made by 50 pound notes or 100 dollar bills, you have to be mindful of your realistic budgets and a system in place that actually tailors itself around you.

Ok so things i dont do:

I actually dont run a big template of any kind. It annoys the crap out of everyone i speak to, perplexes my chums and yes it makes me billy no mates in the usual, ‘so how do you arrange all your sub groups on a 1000 piece template’ conversation.

But for me, it works and efficiently so.

I dont run a Mac and never have done. Despite having used them from time to time, i have just found a complete symbiotic understanding of PC’s. I love the fact its open architecture form allows me to piece together something really special for my needs, it doesn’t break the bank coming in at least half the cost of a Mac build. It actually doesn’t crash or go wrong. Windows pcs arent the old fumbling relics of 1996, they are like the Macs of say, a few years ago which i was told in a preachy way, “just work”.
Well i have no desire to constantly update an OS every so many months and spend weeks crying about all the things that dont work anymore.

Simple fact is, PC’s arent the troll under the bridge and haven’t been for a few years, you just assumed the status quo and followed the pitch fork wielding locals chasing it out the village.

Im an alien visiting your planet clearly as i have never used or wish to use VE pro.
Strike me down and cast me to the river of shame and wash my naive face in the water or righteousness,…or something like that. But i dont have that need right now.Ive been told a few times why apparently i do need it, but for the lack of its presence, no one lost their life and all my music was delivered on time and sounded marvelous.

Im currently more than happy with 64gb ram and an all SSD system. Its quick, it doesn’t stall, crash or randomly yank the steering wheel at 90mph and dump me in a ditch.It actually “just works”.
I tend to use a few small blank templates with common instances loaded in that i will def use. Some effects routings im typically always happy to see,some of those short templates have my external syths mapped, some are for comedic writing, some tension, organic hybrid stuff etc and on and on….

The very closest to a multi system setup id get, would be to just buy all this over and again and have a sister clone setup. But im not going to do that.

The reason i advise single systems to others ,is many fold and ive certainly got my shit in a twist above, so with a calmer less nerdy driven simmering fury, ill just say, dont make yourself broke cos you really didn’t want to feel the odd one out.You dont need to go Hollywood or go home on this one.

Another perfectly good reason i use these practices on a single system is, the highly changeable styles and genres i need to adapt to and respond to. I find it so much easier having a basic rough template which still demands i engage some thought, some practical choice making when firing up sounds and devices.
I dont really relish when everything is preset, when all the functionality and decision making has been made super efficient and rigid. It feels like some of that ‘fun panic’ as i call it, has evaporated in favour of work flow enhancements.

It all feels very corporate and machine like to me. On one hand we sob over some advancements which steal our musician soul, and then we happily embrace the process of relinquishing our creative control over to a bunch of boards, plastic and flashy led’s. Mind boggles….

It is all relative and i fully understand that before you erect a cross and nail me to it, i get it that you have composers who work in a much more orchestral environment these days, and dont crave long biblical loading times, starting from scratch, and running out of resources. But their are many exceptions and thats all im saying. Kinda……



Journeys with no end

Every one i speak to has a unique take on music. The education they have, whether this is a traditional scholarly route, or an exploration you took in your bedroom or jamming with your friends in someones garage. The way we all got here is a big part of who we are as creative people.

I have watched interviews and read books where you hear some say, you are always a sum of your influences, but its really nowhere nearly ‘linear’ and finite as that in any shape or form. We are a sum of our collective experiences, our moral stand points, our opinions and guilty pleasures. We are a sum of our environment, location, weather, relationships and our interactions with every single thing we touch each day.

Absorption is so very unique and this is what interests me when i hear someone elses music. The output is based on so many trillions of minute factors, you can pick out that persons voice even when they are perhaps unaware of having one. I mean, yes its very easy to turn up to the job and all use the same string libraries and “hybrid” preset effects and whooses, booms. But underneath the layers, we have something we arent always tapping into and maybe being individual is terrifying to some of us?

Its good to take those little personal risks. If we chose never to do this, nothing develops or changes. Its really ok to use your instruments, tools and effects in any way you see fit. Their was never a one size fits all in the first place. Convention and stereotypes are old frameworks we reach back to and check ourselves over with from time to time.

Tradition and practice, study and then finally, being judged and assessed by your peers or a mentor. The days that scare me more than others are the ones where you feel you have stayed in one place for far too long. It become not only very comfy, but you wrapped up lots of little reasons why its ok to chose the same way time and time again.

Maybe budget is a good excuse for not breaking rules? Is it ok to tread a very narrow route in fear of getting corrections and notes? Is it better to hide behind some familiar musical mechanisms that are both commercial and ‘safe’ than skip the beat and throw in some invention?

We know the sense of those statements but it doesn’t stop us being clogged up every now and then. I like to reboot on the weekend with new ideas. I often post some of these online and to be perfectly frank, they really are mainly for me to express something outside of my daily work needs. To write in a different way, to sound design and program, to arrange and gather in a way that for me, feels like im heading somewhere else.

Their is a divide in ourselves when we write as we spend time choosing conformity over risky invention and pander to the whims of todays ‘sound’ and not listening to the person we are.

Ive had so many lovely chats with other composers who quite often say, “im still looking for my own voice, i guess it will come out one day”.

But it saddening when you think of it like that, that it may just appear like a genie from a lamp and grant you 3 wishes. But then choosing to do something stupid musically isnt what you crave either is it.

One of the many methods or ways i try and employ that kind of growth, is to challenge yourself in many diverse genres as you can. Not only to grow, but to stay commercially fresh and able in a market place that has so many rich tastes now.It really doesn’t matter whether you write for games, tv, film, ads or writing pop songs. It is highly beneficial to stretch yourself and at least step in and out of some uncomfortable zones every few days.

I know a lot of the time your saying. “well i tried xxxx genre and it came off weak”.

Well for a first time, id say no shit. Of course it will sound weak. Others will have spent a large part of their live loving and absorbing this genre and you have merely wandered in clutching some trademark sounds and scant ideas. Its fine. Its what is meant to happen when you try a genre your petrified of.

But during this process, writing over and over, trying things that take you well and truly off piste, this will help you find a voice more than any other tactic. Its how to problem solve in very unfamiliar areas that leads to moments of innovation and growth. When you make some creative left turns and mix the track in a certain way, grabbing effects and solutions and not realising what to do, you trick yourself into some grey area that provides you with brilliant personal discoveries.

That has worked for me for as long as i can remember. I dont profess to be great at any one genre, but i certainly dont fear them. When you find a reason not to pursue an opportunity because its too risky, then how big is your lake going to be when you are fishing for new work?

The most accomplished composers you know all walk that line. People as magnificent as John Powell and Hans. They can and will write in any given genre and bring something to the table that tells you thats them doing it. That is how a voice is sculpted. When you allow it to go out and play for a while.

Never fear to do silly things. Dont hesitate when you’re dying to try something new, but telling yourself everyone else is better so i shouldn’t.


Buying your first Synth – Basics

So this one has come up so much in the last year. Im not sure whether to file it under revival or something else, but its fantastic to see so many people turning back to hardware, or discovering it for the first time. Either way, its a big win in my eyes. Anything which leads a composer/musician back into a process where they are directly manipulating any instrument, this is still progress from where we are now.

I don’t mind a nice GUI on a tooth removing hybrid library, i honestly do enjoy vst soft based modular synths, meat and taters libraries, and i see the total instant value of them and how easy and fluid working “in the box” really is. For the sake of a personal history reflection, i really don’t hark back with a deep longing to fire up 20 synths, play with a 100 cables, booting a session from footnotes and ZIP disks just to write or edit a small part that day.

Progress is a good thing, but for a wee while, we did just stay on target (gold 5 style), and think Mac or Pc and our chosen daw.

So with the advent of pad controllers like maschine, Push and groove box, a totally new generation and beleaguered older one, are turning to the magic of hands on hardware, not least hardware synths which as always, have come back in vogue but perhaps with a proper intention to stick around this time. The integration is much better, it all makes more sense now to sit a Moog alongside Logic or PT than a few years ago when it still felt a little like “this way” or “thatta’ way” and not much middle ground.

We have a bevvy of synths that come with USB midi, editors acting in realtime,plenty of panel controls. knobs and sliders and a spec that kinda makes sense now.

Even the grandfather of synthesis, the modular system, has made the biggest revival of them all, now sporting dozens upon dozens of euro-rack companies and startups all tinkering in the basement, releasing new modules each week. Who would have thunk it?!? Modular the lust of many a composer and EDM producer. But it happened, and im so glad it did.

Now swiftly bypassing the pointless analog vs digital debate, just for your info if you are in your twenties, this is a preoccupation which absorbed a huge amount of time for some people, the remnants of which still clog the forums trying to religiously convert you to analog and wash your mouth out.

For the most part, i think you can spare yourself that utterly futile argument.

If you are totally new to synthesis and the closest you have come is firing up Omnisphere, then this is mainly aimed at you. Omnisphere is a fantastic place to start by all means. It does come with the most comprehensive modulation source routing any hardware synth would be envious of, copious DSP effects, the ability to import audio in Omni 2, and so many features it would take all day to delve into.

But soft based vst synths aren’t by any means a bad place to start.

For your first hardware synth you need to look at things standing back a bit and evaluate the basics before you lunge to buy a 1000 dollar synth because Junkie XL or Dead Mau5 has one.I cant fault you, i followed my synth using idols all the way to debt and more than my share of face palming and long repayments, so understand your budget because the “value” side of things is very misleading. Ask any Access Virus owner like myself who bought one brand new and that’s your answer…..

With an understanding of budget, what is it you think you need?? Are you interested in one of a million mono synths?? These are perhaps the cheapest means to get a foot on the ladder, do you hanker for a poly with or without onboard effects?? added arp and sequencer?

All the things you would want, they all reflect on the added price, then factor in “coolability” with some of the big names, or niche builder with a cool reputation, you can be buying into costs you could do without for your first foray.

What i would always suggest, is looking into synths that cost a few hundred dollars/pounds/euros, whatever. You don’t have to go big or go home on this one. Something very cheap like the Novation synths, the bass station II which has not long had a revision, has seen it price come right down in the process. Its a full analog signal synth, USB buss powered if need be, beautifully made, lots of features, but a short keyboard, no effects etc blah blah.

If you just want to literally ‘learn’ synthesis hands on, then something like that will be the best tool you could imagine. Simple, yet cunningly powerful. It will walk you through what the basic wave forms sound like, their distinctive character and how they interact with filters and LFO’s.

A basic synth will just help focus your mind into the process. The chain that is fairly typical for a hard routed synth IE: one that is rigidly mapped out unlike a modular in which you create the path of the signal taking your oscillator and feeding this into ……….< whatever the hell pleases you that day. In a regular routed synth, you will see all the familiar parts of the build

The oscillator, in which produces your sound, your chosen waveform. You may have 1 or more, its nice to have 2 on the go for sure some have a 3rd or a low sub oscillator, and some have a noise generating oscillator also.

Then you have your attack, decay,sustain and release to shape the sound alongside your ADSR for your filter and envelopes. Ok so lets cut short an actual full on lesson, but i would suggest something that is a monosyth and has it all laid out on the panel easy to see.

The Moog Little phatty, now discontinued but readily available, is what i would describe as the easiest damn synth to grab the basics on. The stage 2 model has half decent CV connections and not badly implemented USB midi too.
As mentioned previously, a lot of the novation synths are extremely good value for money and handy to learn on.

Dont be afraid of older tech at all, but obviously be very wary of the price as second hand prices are nothing short of sheer lunacy, but their are gems to be found, so use as many sites as need be to research and figure out whats useful, whats a bargain. When i say “older”, you can easily find any number of forgotten gems made during the 90’s when some would say it heralded the most questionable range of “techno” plastic and very digital synths for a generation.

Their were also some amazing synths during this time, but typically most are menu driven and not very hands on at all. It was one of the reasons that synths took a decline into the 2000’s. in that we did away with very useful controls and thought a small LCD menu and wrapping our fingers in tight knots was a better way to do it. Hence why with the progress of in the box computing, we got outright sick of synths and clicked mouses and keys instead. Its kinda like progress just consuming itself but thankfully, hands on synths have made that strong return so you dont have to have a PHD in finger/menu acrobatics now to enjoy the process.

On the side of synth power alone, you have to factor in what you really need or could do without.You will always pay more for synths with big flashy onboard DSP, so ask do you really need it? Their was a time when man would wander into a music shop, and a synth drowning in every reverb you could imagine, reigned victor among a swathe of much better synths, not coked up in 8 bit garbage.

You already have a huge ocean of plugins and effects, so if you don’t need that side of things, if you’re buying a synth for studio work, its a big factor you can side step.

Now poly synths will always tend to cost more, none more so than full analog signal path polys.It supposedly costs lots more to make them, so typically expect to pay a percentage per added polyphony, im not joking either. This is where virtual analogs come in play and give you a huge amount of feature set from the get go, but minus the mahoosive cost of pure analog.

Dave Smith instruments are for me, a great example of where analogs laden with all the bells and whistles, come with the hefty price tag i mentioned earlier. Their bloody brilliant, sound incredible, very unique among anyone’s synth pallet, but you will pay the premium to have one.

Lots of companies made “virtual analog” synths going back a lot further than you probably realise.The Nord lead being a good example. Made in 1995, its mission like all VA’s. was to mimic analog oscillators, the signal path behaviour and give this random feeling analogs give you. Subtle detunings,none of the harsh crisp defined “stepping” in a digital synth, but all of this essentially written and at its heart still digital framework.

The Virus TI being a brilliant example of an old VA concept still sought after today, not only for its ability to mimic lots of classic synth models with its huge bank of waveforms, filter types, DSP power, but its also very well supported and relatively easy to integrate into a modern daw setup.

On that issue on integration id also suggest thinking ideally about USB. Purely for now because its so damn easy. Its plug and play in most cases and i find that a majority of the modern USB synths just make a typical work day much easier. All of your knobs and sliders sending realtime info without any extra mapping that you do when you link up a VST to your chosen controller keyboard.

Im not anti 5 pin MIDI as such, but for the most part, in the line of work i do and the demands, i just find that messing with MIDI routings, thrus,old school paramters, kenton interfaces, patching, is a huge pain in the arse and one of the things i dont cherish with modern gear. It steers me away from the over priced gems of yesteryear which are all due a good service, dont always work, their midi timings can be very debatable and they take up way too much room if you have just a small space to play in.

If you can whittle down a few areas like you initial budget, expectations and goals, you can make this first time buy easier than you think. During your research, you will find that everyone is heavily opinionated on what sounds best, and what you should spend your money on. To the degree, your almost handing over money to strangers, so spend as much time as you need making sure whatever you buy suits you, and not the guy 5000 miles away writing totally different music in his bedroom putting the world to rights.

Ill make some lists of things to read up on, that way you have some idea of features and how they might migrate into your work flow.

Korg Micro korg – Despite diminutive stature and mini keys, tons of power, very distinctive and widely loved tone and decent range of features, very bargain price.–9229

Novation ultra nova – Again, small but very well specced. Virtual analog, poly, usb buss powered and easy to integrate, lots of hands on action.–78785

Moog Sub Phatty – short board but full size keys, doesnt take up lots of room but hugely powerful mono synth,daw librarian editor, full analog signal path, silly amount of hands on features, USB,authentic Moog sound.You can buy these around half the cost of its big brother the sub 37, which btw is def one to take a good look at too.

Nord Lead 4 – Admittedly pricey, but an extremely powerful virtual analog poly with lots of effects, distinctive creamy Nord sound, not something id compare to any vst synth i know of and a good alternative to the Virus TI.*All+Products.+Avid&merchant_id=1279443&product_id=34654d1&product_country=GB&product_partition_id=120670123519&gclid=CK-JrsaQ_sgCFRcUGwodaqYHCw

Novation BASS Station II – Dont be mislead with the name, just think ‘extremely cheap yet powerful full analog synth thats very easy to program integrate, and wont make you broke’. I totally swear by this for a first time synth.*Novation.+All+Products&merchant_id=1279443&product_id=50299d1&product_country=GB&product_partition_id=58653458924&gclid=COSqv_eQ_sgCFUsYGwodKJ4FAg

I wont make an exhaustive list here as its going to be more of a distraction than assistance but just focus on your needs. That you want to learn, have something unique in your setup that isnt just point and click, something that will bring the fun and creativity back into a jaded work flow, that wont cripple your finances or need too much time to get the basics from.

Their are a ton of online guides to give you synthesis basics and if you spend just a little time watching some walk throughs, especially if you did buy a synth and want to learn on the fly, vid tuts are great for fast tracking and bringing you up to speed. We all approach this our own way, their is no right or wrong way to discover synthesis or how you adapt and learn. Some will instantly take to it and have music infused with home grown sounds during that day, others will want to tinker and study more, thats fine, its all part of the fun of it.

I had left behind hardware synths for a good few years. They were all i knew and i adored my time learning their quirks and choosing what colours to pick that day, but my own return was because i just woke up to he banality of clicking a mouse all day.
When i did buy synths again, i wasnt in any rush to lay them down in my music, in fact it was a good year at least until i did ,and it became more and more a natural daily usage turning to what had a certain flavour. Dont feel under any pressure, any expectation from your self or others.

It is a journey worth taking, you will have a lot of fun, take your time, research and then pull the trigger

How to use external synths in your daw video tutorial – Logic.

How to setup external hard ware in Cubase

The fundamentals of Synthesizer programming Part 1

Nord Lead 4 Virtual Analog Synth review

Moog Sub 37 Hands on review

Novation Bass Station 2 Hands on review

Arturia MiniBrute Hands on review


Long Term Survival

For this entry, i wanted to broach the subject of sustaining your sanity, creativity, health, and keeping focus on objectifying goals and not just fraying at the edges. It can happen, and without some grasp on a long term plan, however basic, means you can start to lose the plot a little and heres why.

Any career path which sees you being a force of creativity, whatever branch of artistry that may be, you’re constantly drawing on a ‘well’. Its very much like a real well and for the sake of a throw down analogy, lets just say it will behave as such on many real world levels.

It will run dry, it can become unstable and collapse, you need to appreciate your climate and water table and understand what you can draw from it, and when you need to allow it to gather etc.

I cannot say with any grand authority as a fulltime composer and allround sound twiddler/messer, that my tentative 4-5 years give me the resounding voice of all reason on such matters, but having gone through quite a bit in the last 25+ years working within music in some form, and as said, these last 4-5 as a fulltime composer, i can def add something into the pot. Things that happened to me, around me and the forces of nature life throws up that one simply cant sweep under the carpet of wishful ignorance.

So lets begin.


Nothing allows your creative juice factory to remain ,well, juicy, quite like having options and variety. Its something tapped directly into human nature that despite appreciating routine , having a plan and lots of focus, but actual stimulating change is what allows long term survival.In fact it not only allows you to function over many years and dozens of projects, it outright facilitates this. It nearly ties in with the need to adapt anyway.

As a composer, you always need to constantly tweak and adapt to market trends, the new twists and turns in the way stylised genre is just evolving around you. Like when dubstep just arrived from nowhere, from the outskirts directly into all things main stream. Or when jingly ukulele folk pop announced it self a few years back, and like an overstayed relative, just doesn’t know when to go the fuck home.

Try as best you can to make your work day varied. If the music is all the same, then make other small changes around you, like when and where you go to take a break etc.

If all you ever do is super strict, and the music is just one flavour,ill break it to you gently, going from weekender bedroom hobbyist to full time is going to be a stark shock to your system and you may not have the legs for it past a few months if suddenly the opportunities aren’t their for writing nose bleed trailer cues or sports rock jingles. You will need to diversify and not just for our long term sanity, for the means of having other streams to tap into over a very long period.


As blogged about last year in my entry, fat, sick and composing, you will be quite surprised at how dramatic a long term career doing this thing you love, can alter a lot about your physical and mental make up. For me personally, the effects were physically dramatic in that i felt very sick most of the time, was gaining tons of weight, and felt less driven and focused. Losing valuable elements such as focus and motivation, are big concerns.

Mentally, you cannot simply expect to head off on such a big career and not take into account of this part of ‘you’. Its not only the nuts and bolts which make you the person you are, but the person you are for others around you too. You’re family and friends, loved ones. You need to understand that finding your own release and break time, is as critical as anything else.

It really isn’t like having christmas every day. People on your facebook feed who bore you to tears every 5 mins with another “love my job” post, aren’t telling you about the unpaid periods that year, the huge time and financial investment that went into their work, the failed marriages, the endless candle burning exercises whilst trying to meet all deadlines. Yes, it is without doubt a very unique and brilliant job indeed, but dont buy into someones foot notes, and then think, “this is the job for me, that guys always shouting about how awesome his job is, life etc”.

It can be, has the potential to be, but its not for the summer hols. Its not like a 2 week holiday in the Med. Its not going to clock out and become something else if you have a hard week.Someone elses edited life footnotes are just exactly that, take with a pinch of salt.

So take care of your well being in all ways because you are you’re own fuel cell. If any of that runs dry, its hard to kick start for a while, trust me.

Friendships, relationships and contacts.

When you do it right, all three can become more or less the same thing. I mean their are distinctions, i dont want to have a pint with my bank manager but i dont want to piss him off ether.

Its not quite like the saying, “its not what you know, its who you know”< but its not that far off either. You’re not looking to grease your way up the pole and stitch up everyone around you, mercilessly sleeping your way to the top, selling your grandma for a new gig. But yeah it still happens in abandon. Their are still a lot of people around you who will always be looking for an angle, and this clearly, isn’t a way to forge a long term friendship that will sit alongside you during your career.

You just need to realise this is a long term investment of your passion and creative juices. Its healthy and indeed sensible to help out people alongside you.As much as the next person can be seen as a potential competitor, their also your greatest allies too. When you are working on any project, for whatever team, despite the demands, the questionable way your spoken to, you need to keep calm and learn these people.

Everyone has their own language within their spoken language. Be respectful and patient with each and every person. When you are awesome to work with, easy to talk to and you know how to do your job, you are someone who is then instantly recommendable to others.

In the exact same way you wish your facebook and Linked in accounts to function, you have to actually do this in REAL LIFE. Not just hope some form of seven degrees of social networking separation will one day see you sat in front of Chris Nolan chatting about the free form score you’re allowed to write with a budget the size of a manor house.

Be a nice guy to be around. Short version, dont be a dick.

Recharge and Reboot.

It sounds simple doesn’t it, when you are in fulltime employment and feel like life and work are getting the upper hand, you book a 2 week break and fill your time with excess, booze and lazy sun filled days to recharge. Or you might disappear on a sole Scandinavian tour, camera in hand and a glass of red every evening etc, but as you will soon discover, being a sole trader or in charge of your own small company, taking a break and finding time and money for this, are a lot harder.

Their really isn’t a fool proof guide on how to do this and in my honest opinion you wont find one. The reality is, a fulltime job composing means you have to be creative not just writing, but you have to be crafty at carving out time to reboot. And even if you are telling yourself you are tougher, harder than others, try and tell yourself this after a year or so. Its not practical to believe you can function at 100% if you never allow yourself to gather.

But yes, you need some smarts on how to plan this. Your losing money when you’re not making money. Simple as that, but as several dear friends and relatives said to me, and all of them are now sadly passed away, you only get one shot at all of this. To say that old saying has a myriad of parallels for your career and life, is a huge understatement. Despite what you see as immediate cost to you, the payment will be far greater if say, in 18 months onwards, you cannot bring yourself to write a damn note of music and the other half has packed her bags because music is all you care about.

Long term survival is so many life skills you already have under your belt. You’re not reinventing the wheel that turns inside you, but you are reengaging with these life mechanisms, the understanding. Its exciting doing this for a living, that much i can say with not a cynical pause for comment! but doing anything long term quickly becomes a “Desert island” moment if you dont adapt.

Music Libraries : Self Managing Time Vs Hours

A lot of my blogs arise from conversations. I would guesstimate nearly all, bar the odd delinquent rant to vent some steam from the machine. On this occasion its another frequent convo that gives birth to this latest entry.

So how do we manage our time exactly? Specifically when it is related to our success rate? Our returns and batting average? This is the area i wanted to bring up this time round.

Writing for music libraries, is a fraught process of trying to supply the right music for the right situation. To ensure we have important things in our arsenal like “stock”,  the ability to demonstrate the genres we can cater for, our production value,  our efficiency, speed and willingness to turn over high quality work on a dime when asked 20 mins ago, and the track is needed an hour from now.

I want to break it into smaller chunks and start with a less generalized market. The last time i made a really big guide to writing for music libraries, i was lynched because i failed to separate all the various market places we lean to. So lets hone in on the area of writing for tv in general. Not for promo specifically, or advertising, just for tv shows that need the right cues. Lets say we cover all of the reality market, some drama, certainly documentary and other areas maybe like comedy etc.

The problem i think a lot of us face is how do we segment our creative time and allot this to the best opportunities and maximise our earnings. Now i didnt just say placements, and for a very good reason.

Having placements, has become a complete red herring and too many composers are in search of a record breaking personal win of achieving lots and lots of “placements”. For example, im good friends with a large number of people who write in this area. Their are some who have chalked up a huge amount of tv placement credits. Like obscene amounts and yet a proportion of those will often say, yeah i mean im getting tons of placements, but its sketchy, bitty, and the income isnt great.

You would be saying to yourself, well that doesn’t sound right does it? Thats not ideal.And no, it really isnt. Their are a lot of really good reasons this is happening and here are some of the things i have found over the years and things i then changed, altered to make it head down a road where my hours translated into good income and more besides.

One of the issues is this.


When you work for a music library/agency, it takes time to form a bit of a back and forth friendship. It takes more than just sending in music. On occasion, it can mean not leaving the house when you had plans cos library A is really in a hole and need a track by days end. They have tried to find a way out, made lots of promises and now its getting tight. For whatever reason, a clearance bounced, the producer hates the music they had at the 11th hour, whatever, if you go the extra mile, you are more likely to be seen as a goto guy.

Its human nature after all. If someone goes out of their way for you, you;re inclined to gravitate back them soon afterwards.

The other side of building bridges is that understanding. Learn each persons language, be flexible about your hours and what genres your willing to do, even if you hate writing Peruvian goa slash rock with bells on, go try anyway.

Over time, you will have a convo that starts more like, “hey Russ, hows life, whats going on your neck of the woods?” or someone wishes you a great weekend to which you say, thanks you too, got anything planned??

Its just humanising in a way you would naturally, just because an ocean or 2000 miles of man land separate you, doesnt mean you should be that distant in your presence. It makes little sense does it.

Writing for ALL the damn companies

Boy does this one come up a lot!!! So your talking shop and guy A says, “yeah so im hitting up like 12 companies right now”. Ok firstly, where does that leave you with my first point? You cant really build some nice bonds with anyone if you are spreading the love so thin on the ground, you never really know who you are speaking to.

The other aspect which is crucial, is getting to know that company and what music they need, what genres they favour in. Which seques neatly into, the kind of shows on their roster too.

Your all pumped up to write huge hybrid cues and cant get your head around the fact they need live sounding band cues, preppy pop and catchy vocals. Your hit rate will increase if you spend some quality time researching what kind of music their big on, what shows they have right now, and how you can adapt and generate music they need.

I tend to write for a limited collection of places for different needs. ie: a couple of companies that centre around big promo, teaser, sizzle reel cues, others that are all exclusive for cable shows, that kind of thing.

But having a dozen or more companies on your hit list isnt always such a bright idea.

Again, for reasons stated above and lots lots more.

Repeat work and rotation

This one foxes a lot of people but its all very simple logic when you think about it. So a 100 shows in and you have a couple 1000 bucks per quarter. You also have bragging rights that your resume is now heaving under the weight of all your one placement 20 second wonder moments. But the key to maximising that music is getting a relationship with the people who make the shows.

It doesn’t take a face to face lunch meet, it means listening to the feedback, researching the show your supplying for,  and sending in music they really want. Even when your digging in your heels screaming at the monitor that you dont need notes on those cues, yup you do. Thats why you got them.

When you get into a groove with a show, your music gets placed a little more, you get asked for more like this. It benefits EVERYONE in the chain. If its easy to edit, great production value, hits all the key points it needs to, to work in the scene and perhaps others just like it, means you need to pay big attention to what your writing for and adapt, all the time adapt.

Reflecting on the above once more like a broken record, build key relationships, dont try and give a big hug out to every single place you just googled or stole a lead for! Work with a smaller circle and refine this.

When cues land in shows you were asked to write for, when their so usable and amenable, they get used again and elsewhere. Repeat work is great. Its when the same crew heads right back to that library you write for, and ask for those cues and they list all the best examples, and guess what? they reference your music. Loads of other guys hear the temp cues that nailed last season, and its your music they have to follow.

Repeat work means season after season of solid income.

And rotation is when you have enough volume in seasons and these are show over and over again on the main network, its sibling channels and subsidiaries.

Cue Sheet – Statement Researching 

When you do get a royalty statement, before you get all giddy and list it, grab a google pic and make your “im awesome” folder on facebook bigger, try and sift through this and work out whats landing and where. The genres you were strong in, what music library you were hitting well with versus ones you aren’t, and perhaps had invested lots of time with no payback.

This leg of your homework is pretty basic really but just as essential as watching the shows you write for. If you can break down those minutes and then scan them for the pay versus time it takes you to get these cues in, you can get quite sharp at this.

Its all well and good saying ive hit up a show on ABC, look at me im awesome, but when it nets you 20 bucks, doesn seem like a show thats in rotation, and your just basking in the credit?

Who are you trying to convince?? Its either yourself or your bank balance, thats it.

Never Write Cold

This may seem obvious to some, but if your time is so damn precious for you, you work fulltime and have to manage a lot of other things in life aside, do you really want to be writing endless cues that arent being called for?

I went through a period doing just that years ago. It seemed like a hot idea at the time. I mean whether you write for non or fully exclusive, its a personal choice just for you. For me its about quality exclusive music. I just plain stopped writing non ex for various reasons but mainly due to overwhelming feedback from many music supervisors, editors and producers who were just sick to the back teeth hearing the exact same crap every other show.

Others will tell you its good to have a huge amount of stock. Well it is and it isnt.

If you have a hundred tracks in the bank ready to go, chances are your touting them to a dozen places and your not talking to anyone, building any bridges and your wondering why some lands and some doesnt. Well if you throw enough crap at the wall, at some point, some will stick. Thats not really the quality image you want to present to anyone.

I sometimes get random calls for stock and i say, look i  write exclusively for people. If you need me to try and work on something, lets talk. But for non exclusive work, im kinda out of that region now.

If i write a cue, its 99 times out of a hundred because someone needs it. And if for any reason a cue isnt right? I have a personal policy that a lot know me by! and thats, no cue is ever wasted.

Eventually its got a place somewhere else, it made need some fresh tweaks, but never ever waste good music. I mean dont spend all day trying to sell it on a royalty free site, but if you have stock made up of stuff not quite right, its still useful and can be brought into play.

If anyone wants to hear you in action, by all means thats the time to name drop the credits and show them your best work. But sitting their all day and night writing with not a single cue?? Thats a waste.

Even if you can market this somewhere as a project, at least write for that purpose itself. If you are responding to a market need for rock blues cues, then by all means make an albums worth of them to the best of your ability, but just remember what ever it is,your time is very precious.

We wait over 9 months for that aired cue to come around in a form of a few bucks, so dont leave huge vast writing gaps and then wonder in a few months why it all slowed down. If you arent consistent with the few companies you work for, you tend to lose touch, just like real world friendships. You need to touch base and stay in the zone.

Not forgetting, big pauses in writing and aired music, means big pauses in pay too, as all snowballs rolling down the hill, still need snow to top up.

Anyway, to sum up a little. What im trying to say in my own haphazard fashion is, take down all that info your getting. Its coming at you from a lot of places and its quite easy to break down.

If you are having trouble getting a bond with companies, cut back a few.

If the cues never sound right, try listening for music they have used and ask them for some example cues if needs be.

Spend time working with people who ARE responding to you. See if you can get more to them, ask for other things you can do too, what edit, sound design, anything.

Get reading your payments and see whats maximising and then hit it twice as hard next time round.

Their is like hours more i want to say on this is greater detail but im not the journalist i need to be to achieve this! and i am horrible to sit and watch on you tube, so i hope i have hit a few areas. Contentious and debatable as they are, im sure a lot of guys will be throwing darts at me sometime soon, but these are the realities we face, and only by stripping a few elements back, do we stand a chance of making that precious creative time count for more than bragging rights and a new mic stand.

You Can Go Your Own Way

Being a “composer for media”, man i do hate that bland title, you will no doubt be searching for all the nifty latest tools, the USB and Wireless controller options to map your favourite libraries. You might be listening in on mixing/ mastering tips, hawking video casts to glean new ways to work and improve your skill set. You may even spend so much time in a community, and in various groups, that you start to really soak up a lot of ways to work.

I don’t have a problem with that, it wouldn’t really make sense to take issue with improving your average day at the office. But their is certain point where it starts to feel a lot like duplicating someone elses setup, or their work management and less about what actually suit you.

Its very easy to just go and buy the same software and hardware controllers and emulate another composers method. I’ve watched a lot of guys first hand at work and im always reminded that, despite all the tools and sounds we have in abundance, we are at our core, so very unique. But something strikes me about using a LOT of the same gear and methods, in that its sometimes diluting an instinct and gut feeling.

Let me explain best i can on this one.

If you have say, 10 composers all using Logic, Mac pro,a few controllers mapped for essential editing tasks, CC input etc. We all share the same short cuts and we now go about organising the same way. We all had endless discussions and came to the conclusion, we all like Omnisphere and 2-3 string libraries. In fact, in this example lets keep the structure nice and tight to make the point.

During a long series of late night procrastination chats, ie: after 11pm via FaceBook, we whittled down so many ways to go about our work and what our preferences are, those personal choices just become more and more blurred. In seeking a favourable starting point, we diluted some actual personal decisions.

Now that’s a broad stroke, but its a valid one i feel. Not in a random looking into the sky, dreaming random thoughts kind of way, but through years of conversations working with lots of people. One thing i noticed was that many years ago, ‘pre internet’, their was far less cross talk. Less exchange.

So we had to learn a very specific route all to ourselves using all manner of choices that rarely imitated anyone elses. Walking into one studio or setup, was drastically different to the next.

Its one of the many reasons i re embraced hardware again. We had a LOT of it. Not always through choice but purely because we just simply had to run like this. Their were a rack of Akai S series samplers, a few Roland synths, tons of expensive, room engulfing outboard and lest we not forget  the true sea of cables and a big desk devouring the room. I pause to say “studio” as its one cool parallel about back then, as to where we are today.

We all built something from nothing and every choice was even more considered due to the far greater costs to run. Like run anything at all. Outside of an Atari ST, a sampler, Mackie desk and some tricks up our sleeves, most of us were only buying exactly what we know we needed. I mean really needed. Each purchase was more considered and one false step, led you back to a long road of saving. Professionally, no one can afford to just buy a 2 grand synth or a 5k chunk of outboard and hope it all pans out.

But that’s where we have changed in our approach, our perceptions and we have forgotten what a little personal choice was like based on restrictions and just making up your own bloody mind.

I love and hate in each measure how easy things really are now. From gaining work 5500 miles away, buying a full orchestral library that cost hundreds of thousands to make, to having a very high production value is but a plugin preset away, you know who you are Ozone user!

The people whos work tends to excite me the most, are those who aren’t always wanting to follow the trends right now. Those who can play instruments and don’t want to lose that valuable connection, that strong musicality they came into all this with in abundance.

I mean, when the power is down, can you sit and strum a GUI?

Its just as valid to know who you are when you make music of any kind. I know guys with walls of Mac, some with very basic home PC’s, some who have never booted up a computer and create wonderful music minus the ones and zeros. I know very successful guys who are using some famously tired and out of date gear, but still make astonishing music under awful limitations by todays standards.

Where i feel worried, is when we listen a bit ‘too’ much. Take too many tips, start to emulate too many other creatives. When you are all just using mainly one synth in your work and you know a million other guys are too. When your just finding ways to get that sound <

Its worrying for sure. Again, its where i found a slice of personal freedom buying more hardware again, playing more bass guitar when i can, pick up interesting real instruments you can have a tactile relationship with. When every decision is, i guess i must buy that type of computer because everyone told me to. I would be a fool to use XXX Daw down to the lower than average opinion poll in the group i use.

Its most certainly cheaper than its ever been. For newcomers, trust us tired old dogs, its a damn sight cheaper and easier to run a typical writing, recording session than it was 25 years ago.Its also very easy to come about work. But that’s saved for another rant in a different blog, some other time……

Id just say to anyone who is writing “music for…(pauses to sick a little)”, just remember who you are and the very unique set of ears you have. How your interpretation to writing music is as perfect and unique as your listening experience. No one really hears the same thing. Outside of the sonic foot print of any music, we all write our own story, relate to the personal experiences we have, the life we have lived. And does this translate into how we sound like others??

Yes shamefully for all that unique emotional living, we can come out dangerously mono. In some musical genres, i fear this is approaching a big crunch point where trend based emulation is getting ridiculous to the point of a bad photo copy running over and over.

When someone sticks their head above the noise and you discover they are just doing it completely as it feels to do so, its such a big breath of fresh air. I mean you don’t have to run your Ukulele through a Pittsburgh modular, or adopt a weird bizarre hipster lifestyle.  It really is just spending some time investing in a few less GUI’s, and taking some time to be you and enjoy your own interpretation.

The risk long term isn’t one of, we didn’t quite keep up with the trends, its just that we simply did, and too our detriment.  Be yourself, learn to enjoy your though process, dont listen to any of the nay sayers. Just enjoy.


Composer Art Vs Client Needs – The Big Divide

Whether you are writing for music libraries, trailers and promos, game scores or anything else commercial, it’s imperative you appreciate, respect and acknowledge that it is exactly that – COMMERCIAL.

There is a huge divide between our art and what we work on for a client.

Now the big reason I bring this one up is I believe its holding a lot of people back. From honing to a brief, actually thinking like a client or customer, or just having a basic understanding of the current climate and the market place you are driving at. You simply cannot look at every “job” as a place to be just your “art” and screw everyone else. It won’t work, you won’t get paid and all you are left with is a FaceBook moan or a smart arse blog just like this one to vent upon.

Part of what motivated me to blog this was the amount of convos I’ve had in which I’ll get a PM notification, open it up and you get a chat that’s something like this (or a variation of……)

“I replied to a brief by company XXX, they want tension music for a show but they said my stuff is too emotional, and the mix/production quality isn’t good enough”

What follows will either be disbelief in any advice you are giving, or better still, the air or vibe of ‘Well if he can do it, and his stuff sounds crap, then why on earth can’t I?’

Now I will state categorically, that is a rare event. To have someone come ask for help and systematically judge you. Like ‘Can I have all your client leads, and why isn’t my music selling, and what’s so great about you anyway??’ It happens, and yes it’s as awkward as it sounds too.

The elephant in the room is the commercial aspect of the industry. For some reason, unknown to me, there is a really poor attitude to those writing for libraries or custom brief work for TV. It’s seen as something throw away, rubbish, like you didn’t care for one second about it, you made it too quickly and on a academic or ego level, where are my awards bitch?? Hahaha!

No, it’s not art. It’s not you trying to convey lots of complex personal emotion. It’s writing under instruction. So yeah, when you score to picture, you get some room to do your job, to think, to feel and follow the story. But you also follow a lot of temp music too, by some other guy.

You follow implicit instruction in your spotting notes, and if you are very lucky, there may be some great union between you and the film maker that allows you to do much more broader brush strokes and dare I say it, invoke your “art”.

Right at the bottom of the page, classed as least important to someone of art and substance, is your pay cheque. You almost don’t want to take it, because how many famous composers and artists do we know who said, “nah keep the money, I really do just live for the art”??
Yup, bullshit. I call bullshit on the mixed principle, the convoluted moral stance or opinion, self worth, social presence and standing. It is a job no matter how you colour it – whether you enjoy it or not is another matter.

You work for someone on a job and it may or may not allow for you to pull all the toys out of the bag and bang away, but we like to eat right?? We like to have a place to live??

So let’s get that in proportion first. No one out there is just simply brilliant. You have to work extremely hard to find a voice for yourself and understand musicality. Not be taught it, but just plain feel it in your bones.

So back on point, it is a blog, we do rant you know……

What does an audience member want?? From say a tv show?

They want a theme tune, they want something that just keeps the flow and feel of the content. Move the story or documentary along with a mood, a vibe and pace. What works in cinema??We need trailers to capture us like hungry kids in a sweet shop, all eyes and ears on a big screen, a big chunk of music, snappy edit.

What your client usually wants as the end result, is something you want too. But the leap from audience member, bum firmly planted in seat, to creative composer, all gets lost in translation somewhat. You forget what makes the thing exciting to listen to. You instead go in search of the art in it all. Well if it’s a pet food commercial, for one, there is little wiggle room for lots of art and accolades lol.

It’s the same when it comes to mixing as it is for you to write those notes in the first place. What we think we ‘prefer’ to do over and above, what is appropriate for us to do, that’s the big bear for a lot of people.

“I hate plinky plonk dramedy, all those marimbas and pizz, its crap”

Well, it’s something haha. Yeah, ok, for the most generic of requests and needs, it can be rudimentary and for the target show and audience, you know what? Sometimes you need to throw out the high ideals and extensive training you have, and just do your job. Do the work and be thankful you’re getting paid. Hey, tell you what – at the weekend, go collab with someone and write your solo album Opus and session in some Peruvian nose flute, that no one gives a crap about. It will sell modestly…..again, you don’t care about money when it’s art, you will love the process. The entire experience will enrich you like an Apple Watch advert – Ukulele win.

Sometimes it’s hard to think that way when it comes to any work. You have to make that little bond, understand exactly where it’s headed, what show, what scene, or what product. I know a majority of composers hate the word product, I get that. The sense that your work or again, the art, is somehow devalued because it’s serving a function. Because you didn’t feel in control or have enough creative spread. Well it’s kinda rare.

But it’s all to serve a need. Even with your private, personal album noodlings, you still want people to listen somehow. If you have a nice paid job fulltime and music is your hobby, you love to give it all away for the fun! That’s great, but a career musician or composer still needs to eat and have somewhere to go home to. A 9-5 and a weekend hobby really isn’t anything like the feeling of being full time, flying by the seat of your pants, hoping you land those cues, that the pitch hits the target.

That’s why even during those times I’m writing a very commercial piece I might not be totally in love with, I say to myself – this is what you do, it’s not all f*cking skittles and rainbows every single day. You need to get your hands dirty. Just like any composer you’ve heard of. As big as they come, they ALL spent time in that trench writing for all kinds of bizarre, weird and crappy gigs. It is a career survival skill and if you don’t learn to adapt, you will niche yourself into artistic obscurity but apparently be magnanimous and enriched because music feeds your soul, or some other idealistic crap along those lines…..

Hobby it, or do it for a paid purpose, but always appreciate the huge divide.

I’ve worked on projects where I have wanted to pull the skin off my face, some times I love it and wish it would never end but in between the love and madness, there is knowing why it’s not working at all.

Now from a writing point of view, I always do a lot of research. If it’s a tv show, I check to see if there are any episodes of this running. Can I listen and hook up with the vibe? If it’s a new project, then yes, you are in the woods a little more, but research the genre, the kind of shows that network makes. The overall feel.

Ask lots of questions as the usually fare means being told little. Execs, EP’s are famous for having “ideas” and by the time the show comes to air, they have gone full circle, with a 100 changes and hardly any of them resembles the first email of “Can we have this”.

Now you COULD drop in a selection of nice world percussion in the middle of a cue that has no need for it at all, you COULD track a live solo in the middle to give it a nice change of feel, but if you were watching this drama unfold on tv, and then had to endure an out of place Dhol drum pattern or an extended solo, at what point would you sit up and think what the hell happened there? It’s a good thing we do have many things in place to stop our deepest urges getting to air!

I tend to listen and research a great deal. If I ask composers, then I respectfully ask about certain things or ask general advice, leaving it open to them to either invite you in for tea and biscuits, or tell you to mind your own business lol. I’ll play list music, watch shows, films, ads, anything that gets you into that commercial zone. Analyse why the simplicity of that cue made the show come to life.

Or how that simple melody or underscore was the thing that was needed, not the intricate heavily melodic piece you want to write, and damn everyone else if it’s not received well and awarded at a later date.

It’s like, when I want to screw around and write cues for just me, I do like a good synth noodle. I like to experiment, and during that time, I’ll learn a few skills for later, do some weird shit and basically have downtime fun. But I wouldn’t then bring my synth weirdness to the table for the next project “just because I thought it deserves a come back” or “the audience doesn’t know shit, they will love this Moog patch as much as I do”.

They won’t.

Have a little respect for what anyone does in their creative career. Do a lot of ground work. Listen, watch, revise, throw away and start again. Think as a customer, as an audience member, as an EP (perish the thought), but understand the nuts and bolts of it all. If you only want art, if you just want pure expression, get a 9-5 and fill your weekends with guitar solos and nose flutes.

Your neighbours will love it too.