Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Hi!


Hello all,

It’s just about possible you’ve noticed the lack of posts recently; sorry about that. I’ve been busily working on a number of production music (library) albums. Currently, I’m working on a superhero album. Here’s a little clip of me writing one of the tracks.





I’ll be back in a few days with a more interesting post. I promise!

TTFN

Sam x

Monday, 22 October 2018

Reflections

Hi! How the devil are you? Excellent!

Sorry I’ve not done a proper post in a while. Usual excuses plus some unusual ones, but anyway – on with the show.

Firstly, I want to say a huge “thank you” to everyone for the amazing response and kind words about my new album, Reflections. It’s been lovely to hear that people are enjoying it. I thought I’d use this post to take you through the album a little.




I first thought about making this album as I was writing The Forest. I knew I was going to be in the studio with a fantastic string quartet and thought to myself, “Why not record a second album at the same time?!” Yeah, not much work at all… I adore strings. They are my favourite instrument family. Cellos are probably my favourite instrument of all time.

I had a few pieces already written (this post will follow the timeline of when the pieces were written, not the order they appear on the album). The first was Dan and Lizzie, an imaginatively named piece written for the signing of the register at my eldest brother Dan’s wedding (can you guess his wife’s name?!). The second, my first string quartet, I wrote for my friends’ Chloë and Simon’s wedding and had always wanted to record. It starts with a lively, syncopated movement followed by a slow, more romantic section, and it ends with a busy, mostly pizzicato (plucked) movement, the middle of which has some portamento (sliding). I asked the players to play it as if they were drunk – it was a wedding, after all.

I thought I should write a second one as it had been so long and I had enjoyed the first so much, so I wrote String Quartet No. 2 (again, I hope you’ll notice the imagination that goes into my track names). When I played this one to a friend of mine he said it was “like a rock n roll quartet”. I rather like that! In the final movement, there is a nod to my favourite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich – can you spot it?

Okay, I’ll tell you. There is a way of using musical notes to spell things out called cryptograms. Many composers have put messages into their music, mostly their own names. Bach did it using B♭, A, C and B♮. In German musical notation, B♮ is written as H (B♭ is B) and E flat is written as Es (S). So B♭, A, C, B♮ = BACH. Shostakovich used D, E♭, C, B♮, or “D.SCH,” so I put those notes in, played in unison, as a nod to him. You can hear it just before the players stamp their feet. The first time they did this, it nearly knocked the microphones over, so they had to be a little more gentle with their stamping in subsequent takes.

The first movement of the title piece from the album started life as part of a score for a TV show I did many years ago. It wasn’t used in the show, so I decided to rework it into a new piece. The other two movements just followed on from there. It became a very introspective piece, hence the title.

Finally, there is an “acoustic” version of Abundant Life from The Forest. I included this because, when we were mixing the albums, fabulous mix engineer Joe Rubel had muted all the synths and electronics and was concentrating on the balance of the strings and piano. He turned to me and said, “You know, this is pretty cool as an acoustic version”. As we listened, I realised it worked rather nicely without the additional elements and decided to included it on Reflections as a sort of “bonus track”.

I’m really proud of this album. I think it’s some of the most “me” music I’ve ever written and I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed writing and recording it.



Reflections is now available to buy online via iTunes, Amazon and many more – and to stream on Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming platforms.

A huge thank you to the incomparable Laurie Anderson, Peter Gregson, Kirsty Mangan, Angus MacRae and Sara Wolstenholme for their amazing performances, to Joe Rubel for his fantastic engineering and mixing, and to John Webber at Air Studios for his amazing mastering skills.


Sam x

Friday, 12 October 2018

Hello all,

Sorry for the silence; it has been a very busy few months. But I'm back with a quick announcement. My new album, Reflections, is out TODAY!




It's now available to buy online via iTunes, Amazon and many more – and to stream on Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming platforms.

A huge thank you to the incomparable Laurie Anderson, Peter Gregson, Kirsty Mangan, Angus MacRae and Sara Wolstenholme for their amazing performances, to Joe Rubel for his fantastic engineering and mixing, and to John Webber at Air Studios for his amazing mastering skills.

I hope you enjoy listening to this album as much as I enjoyed writing and recording it. I'll be back soon with a more in-depth post about Reflections!

TTFN

Sam x

Friday, 21 September 2018

An Early Halloween

Hello all,

Sorry for the radio silence. It has been a very busy, very tough month or so. I’m just starting to get back to some sort of normal, but regular service should now resume.

I’m in the midst of a million (well, four) library albums at the moment, two of which I’m trying to finish in time for a Halloween release (ooooooh!!!). One of these is based on the idea of a haunted fairground and circus, so lots of creepy waltzes and scary sounds.




You may have seen this little video of me composing one of the tracks on Instagram or Twitter, but I thought I’d post it on here too. Enjoy, and I’ll be back with a more in-depth blog soon.

Sx

Monday, 13 August 2018

Oh My GISH!

Hello once again.

How the devil are you? Well, I hope.

You may have seen me tweet recently  that I was helping some friends out with #GISH:




What is GISH? I hear you ask. Well, it’s only the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt! Set up by actor Misha Collins, it’s a scavenger hunt across the globe every year for his charity Random Acts. Teams are sent a huge list of challenges to complete, and the team with the most points at the end wins. It’s really creative and a lot of fun.

Some of the challenges are things like, “Earn a gold medal in the Bellyflop Olympics. You must have judges and large score cards present,” or something like, “Beard garden”, which you must interpret for yourself. Many of them are incredibly charitable – competitors this year had to bring comfort items to children in foster care and play the nose flute (complete with lessons!) at a children’s hospital. So as well as being a lot of fun, the items have real social impact and will make a difference, which is what I love so much about it.

One of this year’s challenges was, “Make a super scary movie trailer of a visit to somewhere completely boring or normal (like a DMV – but now you can’t use that). You are not allowed to use any ‘jump scare’ scare tactics or actors. The suspense can only be created via how you shoot ordinary objects or people, and the score.”

I offered to help a friend’s team out by scoring their entry for this in the hopes that having some bespoke music might get them an extra point or two. It was a lot of fun, and the incredibly over-the-top result can be seen in the video below.

WARNING: Video contains scenes of an incredibly ordinary, possibly boring nature; no strong language, no sex, no violence, and the most cliché, over-egged score you will ever hear.




Told you!

If you want to do something good and have fun doing it, consider signing up next year and getting involved. But don’t all come to me if you need a video scoring; I’ll be too busy making a wire wool muffler or performing a magic trick in front of the Porta Alchemica in Rome or whatever the team at Random Acts comes up with next!

TTFN


Sam x

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Libraries - Not the Reading Kind

Hello everyone,

Sorry I haven’t written a post in a while. I’ve been swanning around Quebec City and San Diego as you do – a little bit of work, a little bit of holiday, which is always nice. But I’m back and I’m raring to go.

As I’ve been banging on about library albums here and on social media, I thought it was about time I wrote a post explaining a little about them. Here goes...

Library music, also known as “production music” and sometimes “stock music” (like stock photos), is music that hasn’t been written for a specific project, but is licensed (or lent out, if you like) to companies for use in a TV show, film, commercial, or whatever they want music for. Often, a library album will be written to a theme – something like “dark documentary”, “Hollywood action”, or “fantasy orchestral” – with a number of tracks in a very similar style. This makes it easy for editors, directors, or music supervisors to find the kinds of music they need. For example, somebody making a documentary on gang crime can find the “dark documentary” library and pick tracks from it, whereas somebody making a superhero feature film can look at “Hollywood action” music for the big fight sequence.

There are many production music companies out there who specialise in obtaining and placing library music. They all work slightly differently, but generally, they ask a composer to write an album – for instance, Bosworth (the company I mostly write for) have me writing an 8-bit video game album at the moment – and then put it into the catalogue of music they sell and try to get placements for it.

When writing a library album, I tend to be asked for 10 tracks, each one three to three and a half minutes long. Then, I have to produce alternate versions and what are called “cut-downs” for each of these tracks. Cut-downs are shorter versions of the track that can be used where the longer version isn’t necessary or as title music, for scene transitions, or as interstitial stings (the short versions of titles before and after adverts). It makes things easier for the company that wants the music for their production. Each track on the album will end up with between six and ten versions, depending on what is required. I usually end up writing:

      1. Full version
      2. Underscore version (or instrumental version if it’s a song)
      3. 29-second version
      4. 15-second version
      5. 10-second version
      6. 5-second version

The full version is the track in all its glory. The underscore version is a slightly thinned-out version of the original track. For this, I often take any melody away and I sometimes thin out the orchestration (depending on the style of music) so that I end up with what my brother Dan and I call “wallpaper” music – music that is really unobtrusive and easy to edit, which library albums often need because they are going to be used across a number of different productions*. Then the cut-downs are needed. The 29-second version is often useful in pre- and post-title sequences. The 15-, 10-, and 5- second versions are often just the last bit of the full track; in fact, the 5-second version often ends up being a few notes or sometimes even a single chord.

I don’t usually do the cut-downs until the full track has been mixed. This is mainly because it’s easier and faster not to have to mix six or more versions of the same thing. The only downside to it is if you have to rewrite anything to tweak it so that it works as a shorter version – then you have to mix it all over again. (You can avoid this by writing everything at 120 bpm, which makes for lovely cut-downs, but also risks limiting your music and making it less interesting.)

I usually do the cut-downs for both the full and the underscore versions (not something every production company requires), because it gives clients the most choice and flexibility when placing music and often means that they can use a single album for the majority of their production, giving the score a consistent sound.

I really enjoy writing production music as it allows me to explore genres that I might not otherwise get a chance to write music for. It’s challenging to write without the input of a specific project, because you have no story or images to guide you (which is why the “wallpaper” style of music works best); I often make up a scene to write for so that I can capture a specific mood or style more easily. The more I write library albums, though, the easier it gets and the more I enjoy it.

I had better get back to funky 8-bit music now. Feel free to ask questions or leave comments in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from people reading this blog!

TTFN.

Sam x


*If you’re lucky, that is! If a library track is really good, productions with very different genres and styles (think romance and horror) will use the same track – so it has to be versatile.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Studio Move

Hello!

As you may or may not know, I recently moved to Manchester, and this meant that I had to move my studio with me. What fun that was! Luckily, it’s all set up again now, and I have a bigger studio space than before. What’s in there? Take a look:

Custom desk, studio equipment and a “Send Help” picture given to my by my brother Dan and his wife – apt when there’s a tight deadline and the computer isn’t cooperating!

Let me take you through the setup. I work in a programme (known as a digital audio workstation, or DAW) called Pro Tools, which you can see on my screens. This handles the video, audio and MIDI (the signals from my master keyboard), and allows me to record real instruments or use virtual instruments and sample libraries.

Pro Tools on my 20-inch Apple Cinema displays

Pro Tools has two windows: Mix and Edit. They make it quite simple to use – one reason I love the programme. The Edit window is where you input all the data – like MIDI and audio files, time signatures, and tempi – and then edit it as needed.

Pro Tools Edit window

The Mix window is where you can, well, mix the music (more on that later). It is also the window you use to put virtual instruments and effects (like delays or compressors) onto tracks.

Pro Tools Mix window

Next to my computer screens, I have my monitor speakers. I use a set of Genelec 8020As, which I love. They’re great for writing and doing rough mixes, which is exactly why I need them. They’re real workhorses – I got them in 2005 and they’re still going strong!

Graeme sitting on top of a Genelec 2080A

Under my screens, I have an Arturia Beatstep Pro, which I use mostly for drum programming (by playing the grey pads in different patterns). There are all sorts of twiddly knobs and buttons on it that I’m yet to get fully to grips with, but it’s a great bit of kit.

Arturia Beatstep Pro controller and sequencer

Next to the Beatstep Pro, I have my Avid Artist Mix. This is a mixing desk made by the same company that makes Pro Tools. This allows me to mix with actual faders, which have a much nicer feel (and are much easier) than using a mouse to move the virtual faders in Pro Tools.

Avid Artist Mix

My screens, the Artist Mix, and the Beatstep Pro all sit on top of a rack unit holding my outboard gear (anything external to the computer, like amplifiers or modular synths). What’s in mine?

On the right, I have an M-Audio Midisport 8x8 and a UAD Apollo audio interface.The Midisport 8x8 is connected to my master keyboard (see below) via MIDI and to the computer via USB, so that I can record straight into Pro Tools. The Apollo is connected to the computer via Firewire and lets me hear what Pro Tools is playing, as well as plug in microphones and record real instruments. You’ll notice that there’s a gap in the right-hand rack; that’s where there should be an Eventide Eclipse, a great effects unit that adds all sorts of delays and reverbs. (GIVE ME BACK MY ECLIPSE, DAN!) I used it heavily on my score for Stormhouse.

Top to bottom: M-Audio Midisport 8x8/s; UAD Apollo Quad; gap for my Eventide Eclipse (seriously, Dan, give it back).

On the left I have a Focusrite OctoPre MkII Dynamic preamp and an Avid Digi 002 Rack. You plug microphones into the OctoPre so that you can record instruments. (“Isn’t that what you said the Apollo does?” Well, yes – the OctoPre is mostly a backup nowadays.) The Digi 002 is the first audio interface I ever owned. Made by Avid, it was linked into Pro Tools when I got it, but now it’s another emergency backup.

Top to Bottom: Focusrite OctoPre MkII Dynamic, Avid Digi 002 Rack.

In front of the rack unit is my Kensington trackball mouse and an EditorsKeys keyboard. I use the keyboard because it has all the shortcuts for Pro Tools marked on it. It’s very handy if I have a memory blank and can’t remember what to press for a certain command. Below that, I have my master keyboard. I use a Casio PX-5S stage piano. The keys are fully weighted so it feels like playing a real piano – great for getting proper expression into the music.

Editor Keys keyboard, Kensington trackball mouse and Casio PX-5S stage piano

Right at the bottom, I have the computers. I currently run a 2009 Mac Pro with 32 GB of RAM and 18 TB of hard drives (half of which which is just for samples). I use OS X El Capitan (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). And, speaking of not fixing what ain’t broke, I also have a PC linked to the Mac using Vienna Ensemble Pro, a networking programme specifically designed for studios. That still runs Windows 7!

Mac Pro

Custom PC with its little monitor hidden under the desk. In case you were worried that 8 TB wasn’t enough samples, almost all of the PC’s 6.5 TB of hard drive space is… guess what…

Finally, it all sits on (and in) a custom desk made by my brother Joe. There’s a lot more furniture (drawers and cupboards) that is spread around the studio now, rather than all connected as it was in my old studio space – you can see it all in a blog post from when I first got it, many moons ago. It’s gorgeous and works much better than adapting a shop-bought desk. I haven’t got any acoustic treatment up yet; that will have to wait a bit.

So, there you go. That’s my studio. I might go into more depth about things in a future post (I’ve already promised one about sample libraries and virtual instruments… must get on that…).

TTFN,

Sam x