Composer FAQ

If you've landed here, it's likely you asked me one of the common questions answered below. Check 'em out.

 
 

QUESTIONS FROM COMPOSERS

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What studio gear/sample libraries/monitors should I buy?

I've been around dozens of studios—whether to work, to troubleshoot, or just to hang out. Each one is a little different. You need to spend some time, if you haven't already, figuring out what setup and workflow is best for you.

Having said that, I'm happy to add that these days the leading makers of music gear (hardware and software alike) almost all offer strong options for you to consider. You can still go wrong, but it takes some doing.

For film scoring, you want the most powerful computer you can afford, equipped with a digital audio workstation with strong MIDI capabilities. Digital Performer is what I use, but Logic Pro, Cubase, and Pro Tools* offer competing products used regularly by working professionals.

You also need some sounds. Which sounds you buy really depends on the style of music you're doing (and your own preferences), but you'll want to start with a solid all-around orchestral library (Cinesamples, Vienna Symphonic Library, EastWest or similar) and one or more software synth modules (Omnisphere is ubiquitous in the industry, primarily because it's just incredibly good—but there is a dizzying array of options here).

A working composer will quickly accumulate dozens, if not hundreds, of go-to sound sources. Many of them will be proprietary "secret weapons," custom sounds created in-house or by a boutique custom manufacturer like Umlaut Audio. Depending on how elaborate your studio rig is, you may need one or more server computers to handle all your sounds. Some composers have as many as 20 of these ancillary computers, all of which play back sounds and feed them into the main computer. Keeping this network running smoothly is almost always accomplished these days by a piece of software called Vienna Ensemble Pro (which is made by the same people who make the aforementioned Vienna Symphonic Library samples, but VEP is a separate product, and will handle pretty much any sample platform or software synth).

Your finished product will benefit by using mixing and mastering tools like iZotope Ozone, a Waves bundle, or one of any number of competing products, but you can do a thoroughly creditable job using only the mix tools that come with your audio workstation software.

And now a word about music notation software. From time to time I encounter someone who uses their notation software as the interface through which they create a finished audio product. This is a very, very bad idea. Apps like Finale and Sibelius have as their mission the creation of beautiful printed scores and parts. Any playback capability is really just a crutch for the person doing the music notation. Under no circumstances should you, as a composer, release that 'audio blueprint' into the world as anything approaching a completed product. It's just embarrassing.

It's a little like, oh, writing a novel completely in Photoshop. The software can do it, I guess, but it's just not what it's intended to do. And you miss out on some crucial features that make the end product so much more polished.

On the hardware side, your setup depends, first and foremost, on how much recording you do as part of your process. If recording musicians is fundamental to your process, you'll want to create a space for that, with a decent mic cabinet, mixing board, wiring, outboard gear, etc. If your recording sessions are less frequent (maybe just you recording yourself playing in a guitar line or the occasional vocal track), you can probably get away with "mouse mixing" and a good all-around mic.

A good pair of near-field monitors, and some rudimentary acoustic treatment of your workspace, are essential. People tend to get extremely opinionated and picky about the former, and neglect the latter. I recommend that you pay attention to both. A $25,000 pair of speakers will still lie to you if your room itself sounds like crap (to put it in technical terms).

Last thing—I can't stress enough how important it is to have a comfortable, high-quality studio chair. If all goes well, your rear end will become extremely well acquainted with that chair, as you work constantly on hit show after blockbuster movie after AAA game release. A cheap chair that doesn't support you properly is a recipe for pain—the kind of pain that will bring your productivity to a dead stop at the worst possible moment. I couldn't be more serious about this. I'd rather lose half my sample libraries than my task chair.

*Pro Tools is the standard for post production audio mixing, but its MIDI functionality has historically lagged its competitors.


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How do I find work as a composer?

First off, get to know the players in the game. And by that, I don't mean composers (although it's nice to know your colleagues, too). I'm talking about filmmakers. Producers, directors, editors, music supervisors… anyone and everyone who can either hire you or sing your praises to someone who can hire you.

Being fun to hang out with is a huge chunk of the battle for most of us. Unless you are universally recognized as being brilliant (along the lines of, say, Bernard Herrmann), you need to develop the social skills necessary to interact with the gatekeepers.

Next, show up where the filmmakers go—festivals, conventions, anywhere and everywhere you can think of where an up-and-coming filmmaker might want to hang out. Use that newly-honed charisma to strike up a genuine conversation, and you just might find that your sensibilities align. If you can find that, then the work will come.

In terms of targeting specific gigs, there are any number of free resources out there nowadays that you can use to track what's in development in the entertainment industry. Keep track of those projects. Read the trades. If you have connections at a network or a studio, use them.

Next: know yourself. Know the level of project that it's appropriate for you to expect to have a legitimate shot at landing. (Don't be afraid to aim high, and even take the occasional wild shot for the stars—but you'd better have the goods to back it up.) Then, well, go for it. Find the best "in" you can, work your network of connections, and get a demo on a desk. Be polite and cheerful yet persistent. Project confidence and make friends with the assistants—they can make you or break you.

Basically, everything you've heard along the way is true. It's impossible to "get in"… until the moment it isn't. Everyone has a different story about their lucky break, but they all boil down to persistence and talent and a little luck.

Also, if you're young enough, take up golf. (I'm not kidding.)


Do I have to live in LA to be a composer for films and TV?

Here's one where the answer has changed in the last decade or so. A few years ago (I'm writing in 2017) I told aspiring composers they absolutely had to be in the LA area in order to work full-time as a composer for media. That's no longer the case—several friends and colleagues now work from New York, London, Vancouver, Austin, Las Vegas, Nashville, Seattle and elsewhere.

The one thing those friends all have in common, though, was that they made connections that allowed them to work in the city of their choice. And—you guessed it—most of those connections were made here in LA. It's to your advantage, professionally speaking, to be here as much as possible. Even if your legal address is somewhere else.

At a certain stage of your advancement as a composer, you're going to need to meet with people at the network/studio level. Those executives will approve your attachment to a given project. The executives are almost all here in LA.

By the way, the producers and directors who love your stuff so much, and who fight to get you on board their projects? They have to interact with these executives, too. So that means they're usually located here, as well.

Post production on projects of medium size or larger generally happens here in LA, so that might necessitate some travel on your part as well. Last but not least, premieres, professional gatherings, trade shows and award shows are all incredibly LA-centric.

So a certain amount of your career will happen here in LA, whether you like it or not. If you absolutely must live elsewhere—for financial or personal reasons, I'd recommend another music-heavy town (like Las Vegas or Nashville) where the cost of living isn't quite so exorbitant. Buy a post office box here, so that "on paper" you can pass for an Angeleno. And figure the cost of frequent commuter flights into your budget.


Money

How much should I charge for a gig?

Simple. Figure out how long it takes you to produce a completed minute of music, multiply that by the number of minutes of music for the film (or episode, if it's a TV project), then multiply by the amount you'd like to make per hour. That's your rate.

But.

The chances you'll actually get paid that amount—especially starting out—are vanishingly small. Keep in mind that your competition will gladly charge zero for their music. That's what you're up against. The value of music for media starts at zero. The only thing that changes that is you. Your creative voice. Your dramatic opinion. Your reputation as someone who gets the job done, on time and under budget, always. That's the only chance you have of rising above zero.

I think it's important, even if you're doing a gig for "friend prices," that the filmmaker knows how valuable the score you're providing actually is. So if you're doing it for a thousand bucks, you really ought to let them know that they're getting a $15,000 score. Or a $50,000 score. Or whatever.

Last word of advice here: People raise their rates when they can. When they're so in-demand that they have to turn down gigs. The increased composer fee, then, is a means of figuring out which gigs to turn down. Set your rates, but be ready for the phone not to ring if you've priced yourself out of your reasonable market. This town is absolutely cold-blooded about letting you know where you stand.


Will you send me one of your contracts as a sample?

No.

But you can find all kinds of sample contracts with a reasonably clever Google search or two. And if you want to understand what all that legal jargon means (and you really should, you know—no one will ever care more about covering your ass than you will), you could do worse than picking up a book or two on the subject. Classics in the genre include All You Need to Know about the Music Business; Music, Money and Success; and This Business of Music. There are many others, and some include sample contracts for your own modification and use.


How many revisions should I be expected to do on a cue?

What is your creative process?

Will you send me one of your contracts as a sample?

Should I go to film music school? If so, where?

Do you do sound effects/sound mixing as well as music?

Will you send me your music to use for my church project/home video/spec episode/workout mix?

Do you have your own music library?

Can I license a piece of music from you?

I have a tight deadline and not much budget. Should I even consider hiring a composer?

Who is your favorite composer/What is your favorite film score?

Is there an online film scoring community I can join? What about a real-world one?