This is the fourth part in a series following my process of composing music for a short film. I’ll take you along on the creative journey with a specific real-world example, from conception through festival premiere. At the end of the series, see the finished product and listen to the full score!
This fourth installment will focus on finding the core instrumentation for the score, what I call “voicing.”
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- Basic Voicing Needs
- The Ensemble
- Drawing from Inspiration
- Sourcing Instruments
- Final Mermaid Voicing
- Next Steps
Basic Voicing Needs
Every score is different, but there are always some basic voicing needs for film music. Whether you’re using an orchestra, a rock band, or a rack of synths, the dynamic and chromatic range of your score needs to be broad and varied.
Basically, you need voices in the low end, middle range, and high end. If you think about string instruments, the upright bass, cello, viola, and violin are essentially the same instrument. But, each one plays a defined (and somewhat overlapping) range. Each of these instruments is a voice, and covers nearly the entire range of frequencies the human ear can discern.
Check out this detailed chart from Wikipedia that shows the chromatic range of common orchestral instruments.
It’s important to have this range in a score. As a film composer, it gives you maximum flexibility for your compositions. More range means more options for texture, subtext, and emotion. Plus, most of a film is (usually) dialogue. The film music can then play in the ranges above and below the human voice, allowing your score to play in the mix without stepping on the characters.
For this film, I wanted the full spectrum to play with; I didn’t see a creative reason to constrain my voices.
So we have the lows, mids, and highs. These can be split up into further ranges, and you can have multiple instruments in each. But, there is one more basic voice that is usually called for in every score: percussion.
Percussive voices can vary wildly, but I lump them all together because they are atonal, and serve to build rhythm or accents rather than melody. As with melodic voices, your percussion should span the breadth of frequencies. However, these instruments can typically reproduce even higher highs and lower lows (think of a crash cymbal and a kick drum).
For this short film, I wanted some basic percussive elements in order to build drum tracks. But, I wanted to go non-traditional, in keeping with the rest of the instrumentation.
If you’re writing a score for a full orchestra, your voices and instruments are pretty much already defined for you. Often, though (and especially in the DIY or indie film world) you don’t get to write for an orchestra.
In this case, you need to build your own collection of voices – what I refer to as the film’s ensemble. When you pick a specific voice, you are adding an instrument to your ensemble. You might end up with four intruments or forty, but it’s still your ensemble.
When you being to write each cue, then, you come in knowing what weapons you have in your arsenal. Certain cues may call for extra instruments for certain effects, but your core ensemble remains the same.
This helps you be efficient in a couple ways. First, you’re not starting from a blank slate for every cue. You’re not sitting down to write and having to pick all new instrumentation for every scene. And, when working in the digital world, you can create one master template project as a starting point for every cue.
The Ensemble may evolve as you start sketching, but before you start writing to picture, you’ll have nailed your core ensemble down. Every instrument, virtual or recorded, gets assigned a track in my DAW. And as I experiment, I’m figuring out how I’m going to mix the instruments – EQ, reverb, relative levels, etc.
Emsemble Template Project
To make my ensemble template, I make sure all the instrument tracks are organized and labeled (very important!). I double-check any channel effects, panning, and any virtual instrument settings. I delete any stray notation or automation. That then becomes my template project for every cue. When I start a new cue, I can duplicate that project and all of my voices are ready to go, all of my presets are saved, and the Ensemble is kept consistent between cues.
Drawing from Inspiration
In the case of this short film, I had decided on a fairly specific aesthetic in the inspiration phase of pre-production. I wanted a bit of kitsch, but with a heart. I wanted something warm and analog, but with a side of cheese. Based on the music and images I was referencing, I had decided there was only one instrument I absolutely needed as a voice: a vintage electronic organ.
Beyond the sound, the beauty of an organ is that it offers many different voices in one instrument. There are multiple “stops” on an organ that, in a pipe organ, would route air through different types of pipes. Electronic organs still emulate that effect with samples or synths, effectively giving you a church’s worth of ranks inside the console. There are also usually multiple “manuals,” or keyboards, that let you play mulitple voices at once, or assign different voices to each.
I was hoping to get the majority of my voices from the organ, since it can cover all the tonal ranges from the lowest bass notes to the highest octaves. For the percussion side, I was also hoping to get that from the organ too. Many organs in the 70’s and 80’s started employing basic drum machines. A lot of them had preset patterns to accompany your playing. They were pretty much all really bad synth drums, which could work for my aesthetic.
I was also open to finding other percussive voices that fit. Samples can be great for drums, and I already had a collection of toys and noisemakers from previous film projects that could potentially lend themselves to this project.
My challenge was to find a vintage organ that: (1) sounded great, (2) was cheap, and (3) still worked. For this, I turned to the DIY-ers best resources: thrift shops and Craigslist.
I haunted the three or four thift shops in my area for a couple weeks, coming in every few days to see if they had an organ for sale. There were a lot of small, crappy organs from the 80’s in various states of repair, but none of them sounded great. I thought I had struck gold when a Goodwill store put a large Lowrey organ out on its floor. Unfortunately, only part of the keyboard worked, and many of the stops did nothing.
There were a few on Craigslist, including a five-manual theatre organ and a Hammond B3 complete with working Leslie, but they were all thousands of dollars. I had started hunting around for virtual instruments and plugins that would give me the same sound when I found her: A two-manual Wurlitzer from the early 1970’s. Good working order, minus the footboard. The price? FREE – as long as I picked it up. Needless to say, I borrowed a truck and got there as fast as I could.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present my baby, the cornerstone of this film’s score, the Wurlitzer 4300:
This thing had pretty much everything I was looking for! It was from the right era, the price couldn’t be beat, and it worked (mostly). There were a few stops that didn’t work, and several keys were sticky, but I found that, after blowing a lot of the dust out of the cabinet and letting it warm up for half an hour or so, most of those problems went away.
The Wurlitzer was a completely analog work of art. Opening up the solid wooden cabinet revealed thousands of feet of wires and circuitry, all assembled by hand. This organ was a generation too new to have vacuum tubes, but there was still a definite character to the sound, piped through a series of vintage speakers.
After playing around on it for a while, I found many combinations of stops that I could define as unique voices for the score. Check out this video to hear it in action!
As I had hoped, the Wurly came with some synth drum patterns. They called it “Electronic Swinging Rhythm” (!). I really wanted to use these in the score somewhere, but they were fairly specific, and offered no flexibility other than tempo. Either way, they are fun. Check out the presets in this video:
One of the scenes in the film took place in a souvenir shop on a beachfront boardwalk. It was filled with trinkets and novelty gifts. One of the cheap items caught my eye: a coconut husk with tuned metal tines attached. In effect, a kalimba.
It was by no means a quality instrument, but it was playable, and the tone wasn’t too bad. I loved the fact that it came from the actual setting of the film, so I picked it up and decided to use it in the score. After a little bit of manual tuning, it started sounding pretty good. Check it out here:
If you’re interested in playing with one, this is pretty much the exact instrument I found in that souvenir shop:
Final Mermaid Voicing
After lots of experimenting, I landed on several defined voices for the score. All of the melodic material would come from the organ itself, except for certain cues that would feature the coconut kalimba. I also included a toy instrument and some sampled drums (alas, the “electronic swinging rhythm” proved too specific for my needs).
For each unique sound, I wrote myself notes of the exact stops and effects to use on the organ itself. I also gave them nicknames that made sense to me such as “Lower Bass Sinister” and “Upper Lead Baseball.” Hey, I knew what they meant!
Here’s a cue that uses pretty much every voice in the ensemble. Mixer tracks 4 – 9 are the sampled drums and recorded toy instruments. Tracks 11 – 15 are the organ voices I chose. As the cue plays, you can see when each voice comes in. (Watch it fullscreen to read the track names!). Notice when the entire ensemble is playing you get a full rich sound that covers a lot of the sonic range.
Now that I had my voicing nailed down, I was ready to start sketching out some music. Check out the next post for a look into my process, and some early examples.