Hello Composers, Mike here! =)
Do you want to compose music for picture, like film music or TV series? That’s great, but how does it work?
Well today I have the great opportunity to share an interview I did with Joshua Sohn (in the picture), who is a composer that have scored several films.
In this interview, Joshua shares his background, experience and journey towards becoming a composer for media.
First: Check out his composer demo reel here.
1. What’s your story and journey that got you into this field of music composition for Film/TV?
Music was something that was always around me but I didn’t consider composing as a career until I was in my mid-twenties. Before then, I played in the rock band Stereotype, Inc. and later taught music in grade 6-12 as a band director.
However, during my free time, I found myself gravitating more towards arranging and composing with notation software like Sibelius.
Then, I learned all I could about music production on DAW’s starting from Fruity Loops to Ableton and then finally settling on Cubase. The spark that changed my career path was when I had an important moment of clarity after reading the book, “The Alchemist,” by Paulo Coelho.
Everything came together for me and I could not ignore the calling I had that was screaming at me. So, I eventually made the switch and fast forward 5 years later… here I am composing for film.
I am still fairly new in the game but have worked on over a dozen short films that were accepted into festivals such as the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Audience Awards Film Festival, Slamdance, Official Latino Film Festival, and the Utah Film Festival & Awards. I also have worked on commercials and jingles for local to national entities like the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
2. Let’s say you just got a new film scoring gig, how does your creative work process look like?
Granted that you have taken care of the business side of things, there are essentially 3 phases of the scoring process: 1) Preparation 2) Composition 3) Mixing & Delivery
In the first phase, the preparation, I will try to have a spotting session with the director to get a first-hand glimpse of what is going inside the director’s head. I try to see it from their point of view and listen as closely as I can. This is the best time to establish when the music should be in or out.
After that, I’ll go back to my studio and prep up the session inside my DAW. Here, I will drop in the video and audio files, line everything up so that the timecode matches up and then then mark up the cue start/end points.
This is also the time to create a sonic palette which will be unique to every project. Choosing the instruments can be a labor of love and usually takes a whole day or sometimes a week. These instruments can be orchestral, synths, or original sound designs.
Once the sounds have been carefully selected, then I figure out how much music I need to write by marking up all the scenes that require music. I’ll get a good feel of the story and tempo of each scene, making notes along the way in a cue sheet. After all of this planning, I’m ready to write.
For the second phase, composition… this is where the magic happens! Coming up with the main themes and drawing upon influences usually happen so fast, that you don’t have time to analyze where they are coming from.
Sometimes, the melody comes on first thought where as in other times, they take time to emerge and develop. I struggle at times to come up with original themes because I will notice that it sounds like another composer’s work (it’s hard to not infringe on someone else’s copyright work).
However, with enough trial and error working out different variations or after going for a long walk, the moment of inspiration will come in.
As for tempo, John Williams was quoted saying that the pace of the music to screen is one of the most crucial parts to get right in the film. I couldn’t agree more. Setting the tempo and hitting the right spots or each scene is something that can make or break the music.
I generally start on a vague tempo and then fine tune the tempo as time goes on. Working that way helps me to not get caught up on one cue so that I can work fast.
For the last phase, mixing & delivery, I will spend some time to tweak and polish any fine details before printing the music to wave files.
Once they are printed, I’ll put on my mixing engineer hat and go to town with creating the best possible mix. I may put on my music producer hat as well and find anything missing that I can creatively solve with delay, automation, and other fx processing.
Balancing the music to the rest of audio will be something I do as well, although it may be better to have someone else be in charge of that, if they are proficient at it. Once all tracks are mixed to my liking, I will either export the stems or stereo mix for each cue.
3. Scoring for picture means you work for a client. Can you share some tips on the actual collaborative process?
Every director will have their own way of collaborating. Some will give you full reign with little direction while others may be more particular on the music.
Luckily, I am pretty easy going and can adapt fairly well to each director’s personality. My tip is to try to be flexible and open-minded to the director’s feed back any time there are some revisions on the table.
Really listen to what they have to say without judgment. Some directors might not be able to articulate exactly what they feel or what they want.
Other directors might be intimidated correcting or describing what they want in terms of music so make them feel comfortable so that they express themselves. In other words, get a sense of them as a person and if you feel like something is bothering them about your music, take time to listen.
4. Can you give some tips on the technical side of scoring to picture (ex: cue list, time codes etc.)?
On the technical end, you are constantly working and manipulating your music to land on the hits with what’s happening on screen. Be very familiar with the features that your DAW offer. Most DAW’s have a marker track for cue markings that you can quickly organize throughout the score.
Make sure that the markers are set to a “time-based mode” (the term used in Cubase) instead of “linear musical mode.” If you set it to “linear mode,” then what will happen is the markers will shift whenever the tempo is adjusted over the course of the scoring.
Also, there are very cool ways to proportionally stretch or shrink the music tempo to fit the film’s need especially when you get a new version from the director mid-way. So, knowing what features are available and implementing them in your DAW is paramount to success.
Another important consideration is the framerate and time code. That can be overlooked sometimes and if your session is not in the same framerate as the video (i.e. 24 fps versus 23.976 fps) then your music will slowly drift and unsync with the film.
The framerate is directly linked to the time code also. So understanding how time code works in relation to music is something that can save you a lot of time and mistakes. Once you have your cue markings in place, have a system down where you are keeping track of these separate cues in a cue sheet.
On a gear related topic, it is almost a necessity to have a separate screen dedicated to the film. I found in the past that it bogs the workflow when you share the video window inside of the screen (at least with Cubase because the video is in a floating window).
So think of ways on how to be more efficient. It’s nice to be resourceful and use what you have, but sometimes you have to “bite the bullet” and invest in something that can you save loads of time in the long run.
I personally don’t use a touchscreen for macros or shortcuts, but I know many other colleagues who do and rely on the technology for the max efficiency.
5. What are your go-to VST instruments, effects and tools when composing for Film and TV?
I love the Komplete Ultimate package that Native Instruments offers. It’s probably the best deal anywhere and once you have it, then you can start working right away.
My go to FX plugins there are Transient Master, Replika XT, VC2A, Supercharger GT, and Guitar Rig Pro. I really like their Rise & Hits, Alicia’s Keys, The Grandeur, Strummed Guitar, Action Strikes, everything in Reaktor and Massive for their instruments.
Besides the Komplete stuff, I use the mixing plugins like Waves Renaissance EQ, Izotope Ozone, Slate VTM and Valhalla Room.
My go to orchestral samples are Metropolis Ark 1, EW Hollywood Orchestra, EW Symphonic Orchestra, Cinematic Studio Solo Strings, and Embertone Joshua Bell Violin. Also, I’m a big fan of the Orange Tree Samples for very convincing guitars.
I highly recommend using Reference by Sonarworks as well for getting a more accurate monitor representation of the frequencies. When it’s all said and done though, use what you have and master those tools before investing in the fancier ones.
6. What are your future goals regarding your career in music?
I’d love to keep scoring films and work my way up from independent to Hollywood. That’s the dream and if it goes well, then I’ve done my job.
Another path that I can foresee myself doing is working in the game industry which is a contrasting career but has much potential especially with emerging technologies of VR and the mobile trends.
I love to learn new things every day. I try to make it a point to invest in textbooks and online courses so that I can stay with the trends. Also, from the teacher part of me, I love to give back, sharing the things I’ve learned through music lessons and production tips on my Youtube channel.
7. Anything else you want to add, words of wisdom and motivation perhaps?
One tip as a film composer is that you should always double check everything before delivering the music. Something can always go wrong and if you deliver music that has a simple, overlooked mistake, then it can cost you all of those hard-working hours.
Also, I played in a band as a drummer for many years and I have to say, being a drummer is very similar to being a film composer. Our role is to support the film, elevating the scene with the pacing and energy that we provide.
You probably heard the saying, “A mediocre band with a great drummer can make the band sound great while a great band with a poor drummer will do opposite.” Well, that can be the true with the film composer in the context of the movie.
We are the instrumentalists of the “band” and it’s our job to support the “frontman” which is the film and it’s story. We are constantly solving puzzles to what’s happening on the screen and sometimes, you won’t be making the kind of music that you always want to make.
So, if you want to get into this profession, you have to love ALL MUSIC and be proficient in writing for them. I find this career very challenging but equally rewarding. It’s something that you can always improve upon through your whole life.
8. What’s your website, social media etc?
- Website: www.sohncompositions.com
- Instagram: @sohncompositions
- Sound Cloud: www.soundcloud.com/
- Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/
- Music lessons and Production Tips: www.youtube.com/
My name is Mikael “Mike” Baggström, and I am a composer, sound designer, artist, video creator, coffee lover, and true nerd…
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