Al Reid is a composer who has been writing TV and advertising music for over 15 years. In addition to scoring three BAFTA nominated short films, his work has been broadcast on many major networks, including the BBC, National Geographic, PBS, Channel 4, Discovery and Five. Commercial clients have included Procter & Gamble, Subaru, Nestlé, Volkswagen and IWC Watches. In 2006 he won the VW Scoring Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, the same city in which he now makes his home. Drumming is what got him into the music business – espresso and cake keep him and his lardy arse in it to this day. Al’s chosen delusion of grandeur for 2012 is to compete in (and hopefully finish) his first triathlon.
There’s a push-pull at work in the mind of pretty much every TV / library / film music composer I know – it’s not ‘chocolate doughnut or danish pastry?’ nor ‘work in pyjamas or actually get dressed first?’, let alone ‘Mac or PC?’. It’s the push of ’I am an artist – I have a unique voice and the will to express it through the power of music!’ meeting the pull of ‘The people who might pay for my choons have a preference for stuff that is not too different to music that’s already out there, and prefer not to be taken unawares by noseflute / tuba beds or prepared piano gameshow themes’. No surprises there – it’s been this way since the stone age and isn’t about to change any time soon. The folks who do have the luxury of getting paid to do what only they do, simply because they do it better than most anyone else, have usually got there through playing the long game and stealthily gaining acceptance, bit by bit, for their particular way of doing things. For me, Dave Porter (wonderful composer for ‘Breaking Bad’), Cliff Martinez (Solaris, Drive, The Limey) and Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Shawshank Redemption) all fall into this category. For the rest of us mere mortals it’s ‘Can you make it sound more Skrillex meets Hollywood?’ (that’ll be the library music trailers album) and ‘Can we have that wooden plinky plonky thing with the sad piano?’ (for the doco producer who’s still got the hots for American Beauty, 10 years after even Thomas Newman stopped doing the plinky plonk with sad piano thing….)
So far, so normal then: from a composer’s point of view it’s hardly the end of the world – we’re still the lucky buggers who get paid (sometimes above minimum wage!) to sit around, play with gear and make noise. But it does often raise the matter of how does one sound like a dubstep symphonic orgy, or a moping marimba? Often not as easy as it first appears, particularly if you’re relying on a PC, some NS10s and an egg carton-ed spare room to conjure up something on a par with the LSO at Abbey Road. One of the most often asked questions amongst composers trying to get ‘that’ Hollywood sound is – how do I get everything to sound bigger….better……..more like Hans Zimmer? Why Hans Zimmer? Well, poll a bunch of media composers and his work seems to attract positive and negative reactions in almost equal measure – what’s too predictable / successful / safe for some is the epitome of invigorating / memorable / inventive scoring for others. Whichever camp you fall into, there’s no denying that it’s a very popular ‘sound’, which producers, commissioners and execs (i.e. the ones who might pay for your noodlings) often use as a benchmark to judge other music against.
It’s against this background that a recent post to the www.vi-control.net forum was made: ‘How does he get that big, roomy sound?’ A wash of replies flowed in from the well (and not so well) informed – ‘top engineers and top notch gear’ (kind of missing the point that loads of composers have that luxury but not Zimmer’s sound or success) ‘best software, live orchestra and good orchestration’ (ditto) ‘really good mastering’ (errrrrr….). And so it went back and forth, until on page two of the thread, the unexpected happened – the man himself pitched up and spoke his mind.
In a post that was a mixture of refreshing openness, technical insight and commonsense, he got to the heart of what I think a lot of us forget about when it comes to music making, regardless of style or application: it’s meant to be fun, it’s meant to be inventive, and hopefully, at the end of the day, fulfilling – all those things that perhaps got us turned on to music in the first place as kids. Here’s some of what he had to say: