Music Composition / Production for Video
This piece and it’s accompanying video discusses the process of composition/production mainly for video (films, ads, songs). It is a general overview of this process, mainly highlighting my creative process and some tips and pointers, based on my approach.
The included tips are mainly for people starting out in the Indian music industry. People who’ve been working for a while, may want to skip some sections, but I’ve tried to include some valuable information for anyone who is reading.
I must mention that my views are based on what I currently believe. A major part of growing as an artist, is to constantly evolve and learn more, so these views may change over time. I’d be happy to update the readers with those, if the need arises.
(I’ll try and keep the tips/pointers as short as possible, so this doesn’t seem like a long and boring academic article).
– director/client’s vision: Understand what they’re trying to achieve, what do they have in mind, what they are trying to communicate to you and through their film
– understanding the person and their sensibilities and background (the music they’ve listened to, how prepared are they to experiment/try something different)
– Understanding people based on who they are. I know it sounds judgemental, but it helps us understand what we need to deliver in a work context. The person’s likes/dislikes, background, exposure etc. all add to what they will like as clients and eventually approve.
– What the project or brand requires/is ready for. You can’t caste your pearls before a swine 😉 Ok, Haha! Maybe that’s a bit harsh.
In music for advertising, it’s important to understand what the brand is, what it signifies, what it’s public image already is. This helps in creating a sound for the brand that is unique, suits the target audience (the masses, a niche audience (or as they call it – ‘Premium’)
– The video content: Your music should support the film and tell a story. It’s not about making the coolest music in the universe, it’s also about what will work for the film, it’s story, it’s audience and of course the person approving it.
– Video’s geographic/sociological/demographic setting: Where are your characters based ? Where is the story located ? Does it connect with a section of society ? Can you push their boundaries or stay within what they’re used to ?
– Colours in a film and how it affects mood. Colours demand emotions and feelings. (e.g. blue, black and white, red, green) [These can be subtle or typical, based on your vision and approach and content of the video]
Communicating with a director/client
– Understand what they want (References help, not for you to copy them, but to understand what they hear in their head)
– Understand what they want based on their sensibilities
– Understand what they will approve. It’s no use shooting in the dark if you know you’ll never hit the target.
– Don’t copy a reference. Assimilate all the information you get. Understand the vibe of the reference, it’s tempo, why it works, energy levels, genre, why it’s working for the client. That’s what will help compose, it affects your thinking in that moment, so it will be heard in the work you deliver.
– Being patient if something goes wrong
– Trying to be calm in a frustrating situation
– Taking time to calm yourself down, if they don’t understand you
– Looking at things with another approach (should ideally be done when you have a fresh perspective/time off from the project
– They won’t always understand you, so work towards showing them something that’s closest to the final product.
– As much as they claim to ask for a scratch, they won’t understand it (only experienced directors/people who trust you completely will) This trust has to be built over a number of projects where they like your work.
Respect and trust grows over time, but it takes that time with each client, from the time they start working with you. SO, PATIENCE!
Right state of mind and body
Always helps to include a good routine, exercise, well being, waking up early works for me, eating right and staying fit helps you function well.
Important to have good energy levels, confidence when you are working so that any negative state of mind doesn’t influence your work.
Meditation helps patience, focus, awareness in your work etc.
Might sound too pious for a musician, when the stereotype says – sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll. Which is all cool, but let’s face it, you’re not Jimi Hendrix.
– Inspiration is everywhere, nature, cities, people etc.
But what about a closed studio room ?
– Finding inspiration on a professional job:
– The film
– The place you’re working in needs a great vibe
– Food, drink, walking away, taking a break
– References can inspire as long as you aren’t stealing/being asked to steal 😉
– Optimal experience [Psychologist – Cziksentmihaly (uni.)] – Refer to Mihaly Cziksentmihaly on the internet, to read about this in detail
– Important to be in a state of flow to be happy and create good work
– If it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it
– Establish boundaries, so you don’t get walked on, without being rude of course
– Taking time off, to be inspired
– Returning to work after a break
– New experiences help you think of new ideas without you realising it (these don’t have to be musically related)
– Listening is everything (Keep listening to new music)
– Study music, engineering, production, instrument
– Learn from the musicians you work with (even the little things you pick up)
– Always keep learning, you don’t need the resources and money to learn, it’s online
– Composition and production ideas are online, engineering
– AI will make it easy to compose/produce in the future but knowing it yourself makes it more human
– Break Stereotypes by being able to deliver a variety. You can manage variety, through learning, even if you don’t think you will ever use what you learn.
– Harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre
– Understanding the emotion of what you’re composing for, knowledge of an instrument and music will help create that emotion. Understanding how chords, melodies and rhythm affect your mood, uplifting/sad/energy etc, how to use them.
– A lot of people say production is enough. It’s ok to put sounds together and have a musician play over the top. But if you don’t know how to communicate with them, you’ll never know how to collaborate right and get something unique.
They won’t be inspired either, if you don’t know what you’re talking about.
– Composition can be of any nature, rhythmic/melodic/production idea. If you compose a song and have a great song in it’s basic form (instrument and voice for example, it will always translate well, with most styles of production. So the composition has to be right, at it’s basic stage. (took me a while to realise this)
What is production?
– Having knowledge of music, engineering, dealing with an artist, creative direction, being able to create something with tasteful/unique sensibilities. Aesthetic presentation of your music.
– Production could be beat making, creating a unique sound for a band or artist, creative direction in music. It isn’t necessarily being an electronic musician.
– We don’t have the traditional role of a music producer in our industry and the lines between composer/producer/music director/artist/arranger are blurred.
– In my work, it’s mainly creative calls based on everything i’ve spoken about before, brief, film, inspiration, influences, what you’ve studied, experiences, interests, exposure, sensibilities etc. These are primary. The production and instrument playing I do comes next. But you need to be good at both, to be able to create something of value.
Questions you should ask yourself while producing
– What does the film/music require ?
– Does it require a certain mood
– Does it require energy/tension etc
– Does it require excess, chaos, minimalism, grandeur, dance
How do I do this?
– I could talk about how to make your kick drums phatter or snares slam harder, but I’m sure there are enough videos on youtube demonstrating that. This write-up is about a general overview of the production/composition process. So if your questions are how questions….youtube is your answer 🙂
– Understand sound production techniques: Synthesis, sampling, recording, Effects, Dynamics etc. This will help create the sound in your mind. Or you’ll always wonder how to get the sound in your head. Took me a while when I first started producing and it still does sometimes. To begin with, start with a preset and learn to tweak from there. But understand how the preset is working, so you can design your own sound the next time you want to create from scratch.
– Working on trying to achieve unique timbres, through synthesis, sampling, processing etc, will help you create a new sound for your song. If you were to work on a very basic pop song that had a [ I- V – vi – IV ] chord progression, a progression that you hear in a million pop songs, you would want your version to still sound unique. That’s where creating new timbres comes into play. Of course you can create unusual rhythms, melodies, etc. But timbres create an instantly recognisable difference in how you hear something. It’s why we can hear the differences in sound made by a guitar or a cello, a bird or a lion (apart from the obvious visual differences of course) So if the elements in your music sound different, it will naturally have that effect, even if the harmony, rhythm is something you’ve been hearing for decades.
– Everything is not EQ and compression, learn about the other aspects of dynamics and learn about transient and envelope shaping. Is your kick drum’s envelope to long for your track ? Does your synth release need to be shorter ?
You can clean up your tracks better and craft how well your rhythm section grooves, by understanding envelope and transient shaping.
– Reverb is not your enemy, learn to use it well. I like using large reverbs, but they should be clean, so it sounds like the musical element is in that space. In normal situations, you don’t want it to sound like you’re listening to reverb, you want to listen to the instrument in a natural sounding space.
Of course, you want to use excess sometimes, for an exaggerated effect, but not in most normal reverb applications
– Learn about spatial processing, making things wider or narrow to sit in your mix.
Arrangement (clean, not minimal)
– Some people find my arrangements to be minimal. They are not minimal, but clean.
This comes from understanding how elements in a piece of music sit together with each other in the frequency spectrum.
– This is not from looking at a free chart online, showing you where your instruments sit, but listening and understanding.
– While composing/sequencing, you can hear what sits together and what doesn’t, based on your ear and sensibilities. If it doesn’t sit, don’t use it.
– Don’t try to fix it in the mix. A lot of people feel they can fix things in the mix. Imagine that your mix will enhance your music 5% more. Not correct your music by 75 %.
– If you go by that logic and arrange your music, you’ll always end up with a good sounding track. That way, any mix after that will only sound a lot better than you expected it to. Works every time.
– The golden rule of music production and engineering is: Have a great sounding source.
If your source material sounds like a turd, you’ll only get a well polished turd from your engineer. If you have something that sounds like gold, you’re going to end up with shiny spankin’, platinum.
– There are only a few things that register in your mind, in a song: The melody, the rhythm, the pulse from the bass, the timbre of sounds, the emotion that harmony brings, in different ways. So it’s useless filling your music with unnecessary things that won’t register. You’d rather have 5 great elements in your track rather than having 15 and wondering why tracks from overseas sound so much better and why you can’t fix it in your mix, why is it not clean ?
Whether you take precisely 5 tracks to do that or 5000, it doesn’t matter, as long as its all clean and heard well (clean does not mean not adding distortion/saturation when needed) Clean means making sure everything complements each other.
– Don’t fill things up due to your insecurity. Don’t feel like you haven’t done enough. Do what the music requires. That’s it.
– Your music should sit around dialogue, not fight with it. Musicians and directors make the mistake of trying to create the best music in the universe for their film. Constant transients, rhythm, melodies, all fighting for attention, when there is a dialogue throughout. The same people wonder how it sounds so clean when Hollywood or Western music industries do it. But the difference is that they don’t.
Let the dialogue have it’s space and let the music support it.
– Everything doesn’t have to fight with each other. This probably comes from us listening to traffic and chaos all day. Our ears are used to having a lot in them, all the time. But is it right to have constant traffic, industrial noise and talking in your ears all the time ? No. So should it be in your music then ?
– Voice brings out a lot of energy in a track. It’s the midrange that our ears are most sensitive to, it’s why melodies are more popular than other aspects of music, it’s the human element in a song. It’s what connects instantly, it’s why singers are more famous, the aural equivalent of an actor. The human element on screen, for our eyes.
– The biggest hits without voice can sound minimal and generic, almost tasteless. The power, energy and life a voice brings is always going to take a piece of music a lot higher in terms of emotion and energy.
– Sometimes energy is just hi-hats, double time high frequency content that makes things seem faster.
– Study pop music, even if you’re a jazz snob. Helps you understand arrangement and structure in a song.
There are a lot of resources/youtube videos that explain this. It helps you understand and manipulate a listener, through structured excitement, upliftment, energy, repetition, taking them on a journey without losing their attention. Make your song engaging to the listener. If your journey is your own, that’s great. But if people are listening, they should understand that journey and be interested enough to be a part of it.
– Get your sounds and balance right as you go.
– Proper gain staging, so nothing clips.
– Always name your tracks (not Audio_1_0_7) It’s completely fine if the engineer slaps you if you don’t.
– Communicate with your engineer and musicians, singers, ask them their opinion and value it.
– Understand the sound you want but trust the people you work with.
– Be respectful when dealing with them
– Make sure your source material is great, so you don’t have to separate your pre-mix time from your production time
– I’ve always got my sounds right while composing/producing, so I know it’s right, from the beginning.
– Don’t rely on your mix to fix things
– Don’t compress/limit anything so hard that the engineer can’t do much with it. Parallel compress instead, as long as you’ve got appropriate delay compensation and everything is in phase. When you parallel compress, you can get elements to sound larger, without leaving them unworkable. Compress only if you understand it well, only when it’s required and only when it can be worked on by the mixing engineer.
– Of course there are cases where you may have to do the opposite of what I’m suggesting.
That’s when you break rules and may possibly end up with something unique. As long as you’re aware that you are breaking them and you believe there’s a good enough reason to break them, things should be fine.
– The most important thing is to have fun doing music. Would you be happy in a job as someone’s slave ?
All fantasies aside, you’ve dreamt of being in music, not at a desk, so enjoy what you have and be grateful.
– A lot of people say Indian film music is trash, or it’s not complex enough or it’s too tacky. Over a billion people listen to this music and it’s your mainstream market as a musician in India. So you can either be a snob/cry about it, or make things change by being a part of it. If you feel you have great sensibilities, musical knowledge and skills, put it to good use and turn things around.
The more good people there are, the better the music will be.
Don’t expect that people who are a part of it aren’t good. Some of the most serious cats in the game work in the Indian film/music industry, so if anything, there’s a lot for you to learn.
– Over time, you will get more recognition and opportunities. This doesn’t make you invincible. As hard as it may seem, make an effort to stay true to the music. Your music is a gift given to you. Never start believing that you are above the music.
The confidence your recognition brings, does not make you a God. There will always be room for improvement.
– A lot of really simple songs touch people the most. Sometimes, that’s all you need. Work towards what the song/piece requires, not what your brain can deliver or how smart you may seem by doing something complex.
But, where complexity is required, you better know your sh*t.
– Appreciate good music that others make. Make an effort to tell them it’s good. Let good music inspire you, instead of making you insecure or bitter.
– When collaborating with other musicians, leave most of your ego at home. You want to create a great piece of music and that’s above everything else.
– Try and understand the client/director’s perspective. Don’t whack them 😉
– If things don’t work out on a project, it’s no one’s fault. Keep finding new and interesting ways to make better music. As long as you’re constantly growing, learning and evolving, ‘Everything is in it’s right place’. 😉
– Send in your comments.
– If you don’t agree with me, that’s cool, I may not in a year either, haha.
– If there are specific instructional videos required, I will be happy to help make them.
Watch the entire #tutoREal video here (S07 E24)
Music Composer and Producer (film: Tumhari Sulu).