Composing : Let's Talk Tech by Aleyna Brown

Aleyna Brown

Let's Talk Tech

A large part of our creation of a score has to do with the technology we use, that with the playback, cues, putting the music to the footage, so... I thought I'd open a conversation where we could discuss the softwares, techniques, and experiences we've had with these challenges and preferences for certain strategies or softwares... So let's talk tech!

Samuel Estes

Great Aleyna! Thanks for starting this conversation. I'll start with the basic setup. In the "scoring" world. Most of the "pros" have at least a DAW and a slave usually connected through Vienna Ensemble Pro. Some have multiple slaves to do the larger templates. Currently there tends to be a trend towards Cubase with Logic not far behind. Obviously this depends highly on your workflow and what you are comfortable with. I have worked with a few composers still on Digital Performer and several even on Protools, no one DAW is necessarily better or worse than another - it depends on your workflow. Myself, I am on Cubase with a 300+ track template connected to a PC slave using about 56-60gb total sample memory. All tied to my Protools rig as my "tape machine" - which I host my picture and I do my mixing on. Anything specific you'd like to know? or are having issues with?

Joel Irwin

Sam is a good example IMHO of someone further along with clients on films (I am guessing) with larger budgets. Here then is a different perspective. I believe having work in IT technology evaluation for Exxon in my 'first life' (for 23 years) watching everything from the IBM PC announcement in 1981 through y2k when I left - that platforms and software a just tools. You use the tool that works best for you in the job and within your budget. For those who are still composing for no or low budget shorts and low budget features - the composers may not yet be at the point whether they can afford to create a fully functioning and elaborate studio (al la Hans Zimmer - :) ). Things like Vienna and a high end DAW may be out of the composers budget. That does not mean that 'lesser' tools produce inferior products. One may or may not agree that it is possible to create quality electronic music with other than high end tools. What I have seen from my own experience is that the filmmakers and directors I work with who do not live in LA and who have little to now money to spend, can't even discern the extra difference a good scorer can produce from a Vienna versus say a EWQL (which is often chosen by the middle to lower end scorers). What about me - when I first started, I did not have a budget for anything high end like multiple displays, protools, vienna, etc. My rationale was I would start with something still functional and work my way up as I moved to higher budget features which paid (as most of the shorts did not). So my choice back in 2002 for a DAW was Sonar (I did like Cubase but I think I liked the interface, the midi functionality and the price of Sonar better back then). Then I had to choose a sample and back then, I believe the samples preceding Vienna were Miroslav. So I got into that orchestral suite and that followed with the acquisition of many more sample sets based on Gigastudio. As you know, Tascam dropped that sampler which was bought by Garritan (which never resold it). So when I moved from Vista to Windows 7 my hardware dongle/key stopped working and I moved to a substitute sampler which I continue to use to this day called GPlayer. Now I spent quite a bit of time in Sonar Producer but as I started, I also need to write music for live performance. I looked back in 2003 at Finale and decided instead on Sibelius which I also use to this day. Here was the predicament for me - I did electronic scoring in Sonar and live scoring in Sibelius and often send stuff back and forth but it was still a pain to finalize the product in the product the data was being sent to. Then I had the other major 'problem'. I was having all my music looked at by profs in schools and they had no clue how to read piano rolls of the DAW (and the scored output of the DAWs were inadequate imho). So a few years back as both products continued to upgrade, I found the the functionality of Sibelius was sufficient to handle my needs for both live scoring and film scoring (since it also supported all my sample sets - both the gigastudio ones and the Garritan sets which included my big band samples) - Sonar and Sibelius both allowed me to synch the music to a video of the film showing while I scored and played back the music. So today - I still have/own Sonar but have not used it in some time. I have scored my last 6 films in Sibelius (and two are award winning films). Keep in mind that Sibelius is also currently "Orphened" meaning that they are owned by Avid but they team left a few years ago and got hired by Steinberg - so I do not believe there will be any further changes to this product. Dan and the team are busy at Avid developing a whole new type of product from scratch. I am following the tweets. I feel that what eventually emerges say in 2016/2017 may likely sway me away from Sibelius.

Samuel Estes

Yes Joel is correct, I am working in/with studios with budgets to work with. But, I have also trained a lot of "up-and-coming" composers. If you want to be serious about your craft, and wanting to break in with the pros, it is important to start investing. I recommend either Logic or Cubase, as a start, along with at least Komplete from NI, make sure your computer is able to handle it though (2008+ with 16gb+ memory) BUT, you don't need to spend much to get going. Take for example Cinesamples' CineSymphony Lite ($199 for students, $399 regular)* - You can get Logic for $199 (or reaper for $60), and CineSymphony Lite, which can be used on any laptop or low-end daw with under 4gb of memory. You won't need to buy any additional software and there you go, a fully usable "standard" orchestral library toolkit for the cheapest possible, but will sound great and get you going. But to just emphasize: don't spend beyond your means, figure out how much you want to invest and how much you want to learn AND BY ALL MEANS don't just get stuff because some LA schmuck tells you it's what the industry uses, specially if you have no idea nor intention of learning how to use it ;) -Sam *Feel like I need to say this: Yes, I did work on Cinesymphony Lite, but I do not get any residuals from it or sales, I just wanted it to be used primarily for the purpose for composers to start out with some great sounds for not much money, and so I could having something to use on my laptop when I am traveling.... ;)

Joel Irwin

Let's just keep in 'context' here - we are talking about tools somebody uses to perform music with. We may not be moving our hands with bows or blowing into a woodwind reed, but we are performing with instruments just the same. Each sound we use is an instrument - it has its own particular sounds and articulations and just like a physical instrument you need to learn how to play it. And THEN if you are planning on having more than one instrument play, it is the same as players collaborating in an ensemble. You have to understand how to get the instruments to play with each other. I am not talking about the composing issues - I am assuming you understand how to create music, how to structure it (or not structure it), how to write 'horizontally' or 'vertically' and how to effectively use rhythm and tempo - that is all beyond the scope of the use of the tools. What the tools enable is the 'arrangement' - so not only should you be well versed as a 'composer' but you need to take your musical creations and produce a 'realization' of that creation. Whether it be with piano roll or music notes you have to think multidimensionally - each instrument plays its music in conjunction with all the other instruments. You can be an expert on the use of the DAW or whatever tool you use and still produce 'unappreciated' music. Notice I don't say 'bad' or 'lousy' music since music is an art form and what makes sense to you make not work for those who have commissioned you to write the music. So for example, you may be great at taking percussive or drum loops and putting them together in creative ways, but if your job is to have percussion which sounds like smooth jazz or salsa, cut and paste or pre-canned loops may not do the job. You may need to consider each percussive object as a separate instrument - the kick, the snare, the toms, the hi-hat, the various cymbals, for example. And you may have to 'think like a drummer' - so at an instant you may have to answer the question what each of your hands and feet are doing. If all you need is a dance/club track, perhaps not necessary but if you want to sound like a 'real drummer', you may need 4 to 8 percussion tracks that interact realistically, perhaps more....

Samuel Estes

I agree completely Joel, and maybe I missed the OP's original topic, but I thought we were talking about the tech tools we can use to write with, essentially "mock-up". I will be the first to tell you - ALWAYS write to the medium in which it will be ultimately performed, AND You are exactly right - If you know you are going to record live musicians, write to their strengths and NOT to the samples. If there is any doubt in your abilities to write for a specific musician, ask or consult that musician, don't rely on the samples to do the job, specially if you do not know how to program them. What you are bringing up is very, very valid and something I teach university students on a regular basis. ALWAYS have the sound in your head first of what you want, not what the samples can do, do everything you can to use live players. But unfortunately the reality is - you are making a product that you are trying to sell to a film maker / video game programmer / studio / etc... You have to make yourself sound good and contemporary with your competition, and ultimately whatever your client is looking for. Unfortunately what a real musician can do and bring to the table is rarely part of the discussion on many lower budget projects, so we have to fake it... Since we are creating product here, we need to know our tools, the limitations of the tools, and above all not to pass the tools off as the real-deal. I would love for you to start a thread on the pitfalls of writing for live players and the limitations of writing to samples and what you miss when limiting yourself to samples.

Samuel Estes

But back to the OP's original topic on technologies - So issues with Framerate: This technology a rather archaic, but EXTREMELY important topic. Do you all know the differences in framerate, why they exist and what happened when you are not sync'd properly? One thing I make sure any young composer or inexperienced director/producer does is make SURE you session framerate and burn-in (the physically printed timecode on picture) are the same as the file formats It saves SO much time and headache to make sure everything is sync'd first to timecode, this is the first step I do in session setup, even before I start spotting. If you don't have burn-in, this is one thing you need to demand before even starting work.

Alessandro Ponti

Hi, this is an interesting topic. I work on different projects, from games to films or commercials and my setup is based on Cubase as main DAW. I use a slave too, connected via Vienna Ensemble Pro. My work is mostly for games, so most of the time I don't need to sync a video but I do it in Cubase when I am working on films or commercials. One of the most challenging, but rewarding task for the modern composer - I think - is 'mixing' your composition with orchestration. With this I mean, choosing the right samples and sounds in your arsenal and using them in such a way as to get the specific 'sound' you want for your score. I am talking about the overall sound of your score. Then, it is always a good move to have live players come in and layer them on the sampled score.

Andrew Stamp

Great topic! I work in Logic currently and it is doing the job pretty well. I'm currently on a one-computer setup, but I'm getting to the point now in my work with bigger projects coming along where I'll need to get a slave system set up. I come from a classical music pencil-and-paper composition background, but it has been my dream to write film music ever since I was young so I am enjoying getting up to date with the current technology.

Anthony V. Dominello

I started with Pro Tools years ago, but when I got into scoring I found the limitations of its MIDI editing made even the simplest work excruciating. I now use Reaper which, besides having excellent MIDI editing, also has the power of the JS scripting language and SWS macros. I also use MuseScore and/or Lilypond for my scoring, if that's needed. I know these aren't everyone's first choice, but I do have a programming background, so I'm more comfortable with scripting and programming environments than most.

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