Do you want to write music for animation, which can be anything from cartoons to 3D animated movies.
Zach Heyde is an amazing composer, who have experience in this particular niche of music composition, and he kindly agreed to this interview where he shares great insights on writing music for animation.
1. Hello Zach, what is your background & story as a composer?
Music’s pretty much been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
My parents told me that when I was three years old, they thought they heard the Flintstones theme playing in the playroom. When they went downstairs to turn off the TV, they instead found me playing the theme on a toy xylophone!
I started composing when I was about 7 years old, writing music each year for a local composing competition. Truthfully, I never really knew there was a difference between being a performer versus a composer until I was about 13! I was about ready to quit piano, until my piano teacher introduced me to Rachmaninov. I was completely hooked on the emotional power of his music (particularly as an angsty teen), and I’ve committed myself to studying the craft of musical storytelling ever since.
I graduated from the Hartt School of Music in 2015, where I met my longtime collaborator Frank Tedesco. Frank and I have created nearly 50 piano arrangements of music for games, animation, and film on our YouTube channel, Frank & Zach Piano Duets.
After college, I moved to Nashville for several years, doing copyist work and composing for various clients before making the move to Los Angeles in 2019. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of writing music for Marvel Ultimate webcomics, a Kerbal Space Program trailer, and several other animations and projects I’m proud of 🙂
2. What is different about music for animation vs other types of projects?
What I’ve always found so exciting about writing music for animation is that—much like music-making—animations start off with a completely blank canvas. As a result, animation relies heavily on music to convey both the realism of what viewers are seeing, as well as the emotional depth of the characters.
In other words, we need music to speak to the authenticity of the characters, much more so than in live action, where we can literally see the emotions on an actor’s face.
That makes the creative process of scoring for animation a great responsibility, as well as an exciting challenge. I love how every animation I’ve scored has its own unique color palette, pacing, and rules for the world that’s been imagined. It makes each score vastly unique to the project it’s composed for!
3. How do you deal with all the audio/visual sync points in animation?
It can be really easy to get overwhelmed by all of the hit points that happen in an animation. Most composers (including me) tend to get so caught up in those sync points that their music can feel rushed, non-cohesive, or half-baked.
The trick is that not every hit point is equal. Nowadays, when I score for animation, I look for the most important hit points first, as opposed to looking for every cut, character movement, or piece of dialogue as a musical pivot point.
A really effective way to do this is to first watch the animation without any temp music, and pay strong attention to your reactions during your first viewing. Oftentimes, the most important hit points jump out at you naturally as a viewer. Keep those hit points at the forefront of your composing, as you’ll notice more and more as you continue to view the animation. Don’t get sucked up into scoring every moment—prioritize the character’s emotions and frame-of-mind over the little on-screen visuals.
4. What are your best tips on composing for animation?
One of the most important things I’ve realized recently about scoring for animation is this: just because you’re scoring for animation, doesn’t mean the emotions are shallow or comedic.
The temptation with animation is to score what we see on-screen, but the best musical scores depict what isn’t seen. So when a character says a witty one-liner or trips down a flight of stairs, you might be tempted to have some pizzicato strings or a cymbal crash. But we have to look at the bigger picture:
What was the character thinking?
Where is the character in his journey?
What are his/her goals?
Those sorts of decisions can help temper the temptation to “mickey-mouse” everything we see, and give our audience insight into the emotions that aren’t apparent on-screen.
(John Powell is a master at this… do a YouTube search on “Together We Map the World” from HTTYD2, and pay attention to how Hiccup’s yearning is the subject of Powell’s score—NOT the comedic hits of the scene itself)
5. Any advice on how aspiring composers can get projects in animation?
I remember hearing a statistic that claimed that 70% of the work you do after school happens from those you met in school. That’s been especially true for me—nearly every project I’ve worked on has happened thanks to someone I met in college, and even high school!
If you haven’t gone to college, it’s not the end of the world—the statistic simply points out that you get work through meeting others. I know, it’s the classic cliché—“It’s who you know”—but that really rings true in the music industry.
When I was looking to get more work in animation, I contacted the Top 50 animation colleges in the US and offered my musical services. Students create thesis projects every semester, and it’s a fantastic way to get experience in both animation and collaboration.
If you can’t find work collaborating with others, there’s Facebook forums and other resources available where you can find animations with the score removed. It’s a great way to practice your craft, without the added pressure of pleasing a client.
6. What are your favorite software instruments, effects and tools for composing music?
Like everyone, my gear has evolved alongside my career. I’ve used Logic Pro since 2012, and still am making exciting discoveries for both creativity and efficiency!
Some of my favorite VSTs include Cinematic Studio Strings, CineBrass Pro, 8dio’s Solo Winds, and Kontakt’s Noire Piano. I’m also a huge advocate for Valhalla’s Room Reverb, as I think it’s a fantastic reverb at an affordable price point.
With that said, I highly recommend that you first become an expert with whatever technology and resources that you have. Don’t over-invest in technology because you think it’ll make your music sound better. It’s the knowledge of your craft and experience with the tools at your disposal that make you a better composer—not how much money you’ve spent on gear.
7. Thank you so much for sharing your insights Zach, where can people find you online?
It’s my pleasure! You can listen to my music, contact me for lessons, or grab my orchestral template for Logic Pro X on my personal website.
You can also follow me on YouTube, where I upload weekly educational videos for composers and musicians. I also run a monthly series called “I Listen to Your Music”, where I invite composers to submit their music to be featured on the channel 🙂
Best of luck to all of you composers in the new year! Keep creating, collaborating, and sharing your music with the world!