Friday, August 23rd, 2019

Al Reid : ‘it’s not chocolate doughnut or danish pastry’

By Al ReidApril 30, 2012


Al Reid
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 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:‘I think there is nothing worse for a composer to be at the mercy of technology, the players or a recording engineer. It’s your piece of music.  No one understands it better.’

This particularly rang true for me – in the past I’ve often found myself compromising on the creation of a track due to not knowing what to ask for from collaborators.  With good players and engineers the ideal situation is that you come out of the studio with something sounding better than the way you heard it in your head, not the other way round.  A good reminder to never stop learning about what the people and tools you employ can offer you….

‘I’m a bad player, but a good programmer.  I’m forever trying to explain to great players that want to become composers that they need to treat learning and practicing the computer as seriously as they practised their guitar or piano.  The computer is a musical instrument and the more virtuouistic you get on that, the better you can express your ideas.’

This feels particularly relevant in 2012, when sample libraries and virtual instruments sound so impressive straight out of the box – too many composers seem to rely on them to do all the heavy lifting in a composition, forgetting the crucial step of crafting a performance from them.  A computer can go a long way to expressing an emotional, engaging performance – but only if you’re willing to work with it, to make it happen.

‘Start with a concept of your sonic world.  Limit your palette to fit the sonic world you’re trying to create – you can get lost and never write a note if you scroll through 1000 presets on average sounding synth.’

This is advice that’s never going to get old – we’ve all been there, and I’m sure I’ll find myself there again in the future.  Too many choices can definitely get in the way of a good idea rising to the surface.  I occasionally listen to tracks I created 15 years ago with just a cheap Roland GM module, and whilst sonically they may be lacking, the inventiveness on display dwarfs that of some tracks I produce today.  It’s all about the quality of the ideas……

‘Most of the stuff I use on a daily basis is off the shelf software – and not the really expensive stuff, either.  The best DAW is the one you’re used to.’

We’re all using the same tools these days, so that sorry excuse has gone out the window…..

‘I don’t understand why people don’t sample their own stuff.  I’ve been (more then once) asked to judge “young composer” competitions.  After a while you can’t hear the music for the sameness of the sample libraries.  I wonder how directors or producers can tell the difference.’

Definitely a problem amongst media composers – we’re all buying the same ‘must have’ libraries as soon as they’re released, and within a few months you start hearing the same dozen or so cool patches on every ad, TV programme and film.  Best way to set yourself apart from your peers?  Dig out your mics and record your own samples or dive into a soft synth and get some unique sounding patches of your own happening.  Putting some effort into separating yourself from the herd is always going to pay off.

‘And no, you can’t sound like me.  You are not me, you are you.  Just like I can’t sound like any other composer.  Not with any degree of authenticity.’

Possibly not what we want to hear when we’ve got a producer asking why your cue doesn’t sound more like the theme from Inception, but a timely bit of advice to remind ourselves that, no matter where we are in our career – do what you have to do to get the job done, but don’t lose sight of the need to inject a large amount of yourself into the music you create.

This is the kind of advice that crosses the boundaries between musical styles, and I think is relevant for almost anyone who finds themselves ploughing a furrow and wondering why they ended up there – check out the whole thread at:  It’s well worth the read.

Al Reid

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