Tuesday 2 April 2019

Real Talk

Hello again everyone.

I’m going to be serious for once. This is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for a while now. I want to talk to you about mental health and about making mistakes. Both of these things are not spoken about much, so I’m going to tell you a personal story in the hope that it will help one or two people.

In 2005/06, I started working as a freelance composer. It was scary, but exactly what I wanted to do, and my parents had always said, “If you don’t try you’ll never know. You don’t want to end up regretting not trying.” My stance on it was, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else.

Fast forward to 2014. I’d had nine years of non-stop work on big shows like Planet Earth, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Wizards vs Aliens. I was, by some measure, a success. I had managed to make a decent living doing what I loved. What luck! But…

I was tired. Working very hard had drained me. I wasn’t in the best place, so I decided that I would take a few months off to relax and get myself in better mental shape. I was lucky that I could afford to do so. But that’s what I’d worked so hard for, right? I enjoyed those few months, so I decided to extend them a little so that I could work on writing my first album (The Forest, which was released much later). I hadn’t written music just for the sake of it for nine years; it was going to be fun. And it was.

Here is the mistake: “Time off”. I put it in quotation marks because I was working; I just wasn’t getting paid directly for it. I hate it when people say creatives “aren’t working” because they’re not currently under contract (I could do an entire post just on how wrong that perception is). Yes, I’d just had a few months of swanning about in my underwear, binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but now I was back to work. Working as hard as anyone else does to create a good product that I could sell.

Five years later and I have worked very little in film and television since. I have been incredibly productive – I have written and released three albums (and am finishing my fourth), along with a number of production music albums. I have begun writing a musical. I’ve contributed to a book. I’ve been pitching for ads. I’ve been trying to network to get jobs. I’ve been attached to three projects that have fallen through (which is soul-destroying). I haven’t stopped working. I just haven’t had very many commissions.

What I should have done is kept working, because in this industry, you have to be busy to be seen. I wasn’t busy. I wasn’t seen. Now people have forgotten the work I have done and who I am (not in a “don’t you know who I am?” way – just, literally, my name doesn’t resonate because it hasn’t been seen or heard in the right circles for a long time). So in 2016, when I started to try and get work again, nobody wanted to hire me. It was like starting my career all over again.

While all of this was going on, unseen by me, my relationship started to have trouble. The beginnings of a breakdown in communication: small and seemingly insignificant at first, but which would eventually (spoiler alert) decay into a breakup. I’m not going to go into great detail out of respect for my partner’s privacy (and my own) but, after a 15-year relationship, I ended it. The hardest decision of my life. It was taken because my mental health (both due to work – or lack thereof – and the relationship) was at its lowest. I was depressed. Drinking a bottle of wine every night. No, let’s be honest. More than. Starting at 6pm. Then 5pm. Then 4pm… It was a real problem. There were times when I was suicidal. My physical health declined, too. I was broken and trying to numb myself. Eventually, I had no option but to change the cycle, or I’d probably have drunk myself into an early grave…

Mistakes happen. You can regret them but, ultimately, you have to deal with them. I am dealing with mine. I moved to Manchester. I have had to start my career from scratch – again. It’s still an uphill struggle to get work, but that will change. I know I’m good at what I do and I know that the right thing will turn up soon.

I have a new partner who loves me like crazy and I love him twice as much as that. I’m barely even a social drinker these days. I'm happier than I have been for longer than I can remember. I still have bad days. There are still times when I think I’ll never get hired again. There are still times that I don’t think I have any talent, that I’m not good enough. But that’s okay. It’s okay to not be okay all the time.

We live in a world where happy faces doing exciting things greet us daily on social media. Where everyone in the world is constantly having fun… and it’s a massive lie. I am guilty of the same thing. The majority of my social media posts are positive, silly, or of fun stuff I’m doing. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Who wants to see a constant stream of misery? But maybe, like this blog, we should all be peppering our “public image” with the odd not-so-fun thing. Real life is hard and full of struggle. It’s also fun and full of love. We should remember both of these things, because if we believe one or the other is the only way it should be, it can only lead to bad things.

Much love,


P.S. Any directors/producers/execs looking for a composer? 😉

Friday 15 March 2019

Gallifrey One 2019

Hello all,

I am back from LA. Yay for LA! What a fabulously bonkers place it is. I do love it.

Hopefully, I saw some of you at Gallifrey One – and, if not, maybe I will next year (if they’ll have me back)! For those of you who don’t know, Gally is the largest and longest-running annual Doctor Who convention in the world. And what a lot of fun it is! Shaun and his team do an astounding job, from the breadth of panels, the variety of guests, and the way guests and attendees are looked after to the inclusive, safe space they create.

This year was a busy one. I started off on a panel about the Buffy the Vampire Slayer “reboot” with my partner, Mick, which was a lot of fun. Lots of people with great opinions and knowledge of the extended world of Buffy from the comics to the novels – and a lot of great discussion about what people would like (and not like) to see from the TV “reboot”.

I then had a great time on the main stage with Mark Ayres and Blair Mowat talking all things musical in the world of Doctor Who. The lovely Edward Russell guided us through it and kept us in check. It was interesting to hear Mark’s and Blair’s experiences and how they differed from mine. The one thing that was definitely consistent was the feeling of being a team, a family even, when working on the Whoniverse. It’s a very special thing.

The annual music panel was next. Again with Mick and his friend Ramie – the two of them started the music panel at Gally nine years ago, along with two other friends who sadly weren’t there this year. We’ll have to think of something special to do for the tenth anniversary next year! We were with our friend Kat, Doctor Puppet composer Scott Ampleford, and a lovely fan called Brian whom I first met at The Attic (the tenth anniversary convention for The Sarah Jane Adventures) a few years ago. We chatted about the new series of Doctor Who and, of course, focused on Segun Akinola’s new take on scoring the show. There was a lot of love in the room for him, even if I do look angrily animated in this photo… I think I was saying how I love that Segun doesn’t crash all over dialogue with heavy drums…

Following on from that was a kaffeeklatsch with me, Mark, and Blair. These are possibly my favourite thing to do. It’s a small group of about 12 people who come to have a coffee and a chat. It’s informal, friendly, and really good fun. This one was interesting. I think it was as much fun for me to just get to chat nerdy music things with Mark and Blair as it (hopefully) was for the attendees. There were some great questions about things ranging from technology to composition process and the three of us got to tell some of our favourite stories and generally have a good laugh. Mark was a little late and there ended up being no seat for him so…

I also did a few signing, which I still find a strange concept. Mick edited my name card to let people know who I am…

This actually came from a conversation in the lobby with a very lovely guy who, when he found out that I’d worked on The Sarah Jane Adventures, said, “Oh! You’re a minor celebrity, then.”

Finally, the closing ceremony – also a lot of fun. The guests all parade onto the stage and say a little something about their weekend. It’s lots of thanking Shaun and the team (rightly so!) and thanking the fans (also rightly so!). I usually attempt to be funny – not always the best idea; this year I think I said I was sad about the fact that it was the last year at the convention with the carpet. We all love the carpet. Look at this beauty!

Next year, they will be auctioning off sections of the carpets from the convention floor (well, not actually off the floor itself). I may have to save up and bid on one.

The closing ceremony also lead to a very silly thing on Facebook. We ended up posting a picture back and forth with more and more marking up done on it in a game of spot our friends/spouses/selves:

Aside from my own programming I also attended a couple of things Mick was doing, starting with a a panel about science (with our mate Rod – everyone should have Rod in their lives; he’s truly one of a kind), which was fascinating. He also led a workshop on scientific realism in sci-fi, which was so much fun, fascinating, and a really big hit. 

Mick was mobbed in the corridor afterwards. Hopefully, he’ll be able to put it on again next year. 

I was also dragged on stage by Tony Lee to moderate a panel on writing audio drama with Lisa McMullin, Tony, Simon Guerrier, Darin Henry, and Lance Parkin. That sort of spontaneity sums up both Tony and the things that happen on panels at Gally.

We also got the chance to catch up with friends. We had a very pleasant lunch with Richard Dinnick (a truly lovely man with whom I always enjoy spending time, and I’m not just saying that because I want to work with him on a show…), as well as chatting with Tony Lee while he demonstrated his new iPad’s drawing features on us.

We always have a laugh with Tony; he’s a great example of how genuine and caring the guests at Gally are. Simon Guerrier is another example of this. A fun chap to sit and chat with. It was also great to catch up with Audry Taylor and David Wise, a “relationship goals” couple if ever there was one.

Making new friends is always easy at Gally. This year, we met Lisa McMullin. Lisa is a wonderful writer and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. It was a true joy spending time with her. I would put her in the same category as Katy Manning – those who leave you feeling happier and richer. Speaking of which, we managed to fit in a hug with the lovely Katy too. One of life’s unstoppable forces, Katy is one of those people who makes everyone feel welcome, happy, and loved.

LobbyCon, as it has become known, is possibly my favourite part of the convention. Hanging about and just chatting with anyone and everyone. You meet so many great people and it’s often the only time you have to catch up with friends. We managed to make the White Elephant Gift Exchange again this year – it’s run by our friend (and honorary godmother) Anna. She has a couple of fantastic shops in Santa Clara which she runs with our other friend Mark – if you’re there, you must go.

If you’re not familiar with it, a white elephant gift exchange is such a fun thing: you bring a gift, if you can (if not, Anna and Mark bring spares!), and you take turns picking one. They’re all wrapped, so you have no idea what they are. Each gift can be stolen twice, which adds a fun element. The gifts we brought were hotly contested by a couple of our friends – who wouldn’t want Star Trek Trivial Pursuit on VHS? I picked a bag that contained a stuffed narwhal. I instantly fell in love and hoped that nobody would steal it from me (fun fact: I love whales). Luckily, they didn’t, and he now lives in our living room. He’s named Shaun after the convention’s founder, naturally.

It was also a great pleasure meeting Chase Masterson (I know, Leeta! I did have a bit of a fanboy moment). We love her charity, Pop Culture Hero Coalition – it’s such a great idea and really makes a difference. Hopefully we’ll be able to help her bring it across the pond and do some good in the UK, working against bullying, racism, misogyny, homophobia, cyber-bullying, and other forms of hate. We will get around to emailing you, Chase, I promise...

Outside of the convention we got to have a little downtime, luckily. Our friends Jennifer and Blake came with us to Disneyland. What a place! Luckily, it was terrible weather, so it was really quiet and we got to go on loads of rides. My favourite was the Indiana Jones ride. It was a lot of fun and great to spend time with friends whom we only see once a year.

We also went to Manhattan Beach with Chris and Kat. The weather wasn’t the best, but we still had a great time eating seafood and ice cream – not together, obviously. That would be gross.

On the last morning we went for breakfast with Mark Ayres and his lovely wife Nicki, along with Edward Russell and his adorable husband Gareth. It was a very civilised way to end the week. Great company and a good few laughs to end our time in LA. We even got to wait about for the planes with Mark and Nicki, which certainly made the time fly.

Well, now that you know absolutely too much about the trip to LA, I’ll leave you in peace. Have fun, and I’ll be back soon with more (un)interesting stuff.

Sam x

P.S. Thanks to Mick and Audry for the additional photos.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Sample Libraries

Hello again.

Today I’m going to talk about sample libraries – digital recordings which are loaded into virtual instruments for use by composers/arrangers/producers. There are hundreds out there. Huge full orchestras, tiny finger cymbals, guitars, pianos, pretty much anything you can think of. I mainly use products by CineSamples, Spitfire Audio, Orchestral Tools and Cinematic Samples. The range and quality of the sample libraries out there is amazing. I often layer them up, so I’ll put Cinematic Studio Strings on top of Symphonic Strings or the full string staccato patch from Inspire over the Cinematic Studio Strings playing staccato. This creates a full, thick sound and allows me to choose the sort of sound I’m getting from the strings – or whatever instrument I’m using.

Sample libraries like Orchestral Tools’ collections allow you to quickly create realistic-sounding orchestras with minimal effort. There are patches that allow you to play an entire woodwind, brass, percussion, or string section in one go. There are patches that you can layer on top of smaller groups of instruments, such as legato violins, should you need a soaring string line over the top. This is great when you’re on a tight deadline, which you often are in film and television. I often have five days to write 20–25 minutes of full orchestral music, so any shortcuts to making it sound great are very welcome.

CineSamples have produced libraries that allow you to play individual instruments. You can, for instance, play each of the woodwind instruments individually (three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, and contrabassoon perhaps). They are great and allow you to decide on the balance and exact orchestration. The only downside is that this approach takes a lot longer to write, play, and mix.

VIs and sample libraries allow the composer to create music that sounds as real as possible without the need for a full orchestra. Why? So that it can be heard by directors and producers before being recorded, or in case the budget only allows for synthetically created music. That’s why they’re a composer’s best friend… but why are they also our nemesis? Sample libraries have become so good now that many people believe there’s no longer a need for live musicians. That isn’t true! No matter how great VIs and sample libraries are, there is no substitute for live musicians playing the music, feeling it, and expressing it. I always try to convince the people I’m working with of the vital role musicians play in breathing life into a score. Not every production can afford (or requires) a full orchestra, and there is a time and a place for electronic scores – but, even on a production with a small budget, I will always try to use one or two live musicians. It lifts the score so much – you can’t sample emotion.

Sam x

Monday 21 January 2019

Virtual Instruments

Good evening/morning/January/birthday/elephant*,

I hope you’re well and looking forward to a bit of a read. In this post, I’ll be talking about virtual instruments and in my next post I’ll talk about sample libraries. These are a media composer’s best friend and also nemesis – I’ll explain about that in the next post.

Virtual instruments (VIs) are also called software instruments or software synthesisers (softsynths for short). They generate digital audio and can be standalone programmes or plug-ins that are opened within a digital audio workstation (I use Pro Tools). They can be an emulation of an existing instrument (like a Moog or Roland synthesiser), designed to create new sounds, or a piece of software designed to host other sounds (like sample libraries).

One of the industry’s leading (and one of my favourite) VI makers is Native Instruments. I use their Komplete bundle on almost everything I do. Kontakt, Absynth, Massive, and FM8 are absolute go-to instruments for me. I own and use many VIs and sample libraries but there is one that I use above all others, and that’s Kontakt. It’s a sampler that hosts sample libraries so that you can play anything from a drum to a piano to a full orchestra.

I often have dozens of Kontakt windows open to create an orchestral score. You can open multiple sounds within one instance of Kontakt (so that you can create, for example, a whole string section all in one place). Many companies make sample libraries designed to be used in Kontakt. It has a great feature called “Quick-Load” that allows you to organise your samples however you want – I categorise mine by instrument type and then the name of the library, which I find is best for my workflow. If I want a solo violin, I can look in “Strings”, then “Solo”, and take my pick.

Some sample libraries are set up so that you can have multiple techniques loaded into one “patch” (a file you load into the VI). Say I have a violin section and I need sustained notes and short notes; I can load a multi patch and use keyswitches to swap between sounds. Keyswitches allow you to change sound at the press of a, well, key. They tell Kontakt that you are switching sounds and are usually placed right at the bottom of the keyboard. Luckily, Kontakt has a keyboard display that shows you where the keyswitches are, so you know which key to press for each sound.

My other favourite VI is Keyscape by Spectrasonics. I used it exclusively on my album Cypher. Unlike Kontakt it is a standalone product – a VI and sample library in one.

You need one instance for each sound you want (unlike in Kontakt), but you can play about with those sounds really easily. There are tweakable knobs and buttons all over the place, which is great for getting exactly the sound you want out of it.

For me, Keyscape has the best-sounding pianos out there (not to mention the dozens of other keyboard instruments it has to offer).

Omnisphere by Spectrasonics is an example of a VI that allows you to play with waveforms and all sorts of settings to make your own sounds. You can do this in VIs like Massive and Absynth, too. They also come with premade patches that you can use as-is or tweak to make your own version of the sound. (In fact, Absynth has a “Mutate” button you press to randomly modify the patch you’ve loaded – it’s a lot of fun and a feature I use often). Sometimes it is necessary to use the sounds that come with a VI, but I prefer to make my own (or at least tweak them) if time allows.

Many sample library companies are now starting to make their own VIs – which is great, because they can be adapted to work perfectly for the sample library they’re hosting. However, sometimes it backfires; the VI can be clunky or drain too many resources from the computer. Spitfire Audio have made their own and it’s pretty good. It works especially well for their Evo Grid concept. An Evo Grid is a collection of samples that have subtle movement in them. They’re great for creating atmosphere and giving your music a sense of realism. You can also select different parts of the grid to change the sound so it makes it sound a little more unique.

Hopefully this has been interesting or useful or at least not entirely boring. If you have any questions or comments please do use the comment section below. I’ll be back tomorrow with a follow-up post about sample libraries.

Until then, TTFN.

Sam x

*delete as applicable

Thursday 10 January 2019

New Year, New Music

Hello all,

Happy New year. I had a great break over the holiday season and I hope you did, too. I spent it with family and then had a week away in Kielder Forest (what a stunning place). I'm now back in the studio working away and will bring you new posts about music, drinking coffee, and the dog soon (I know you're all really here for the dog).

Here's to a bright, successful and happy 2019.

Sam x

P.S. Here's a picture of the dog dressed as Santa. You're welcome.

Tuesday 27 November 2018


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!


Sam x

Monday 22 October 2018


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