Technology turns composers into one-stop music shops

Composers wear assorted hats for low-cost scores

Composers for film and TV music today must do more than write the score.

Advancements in digital audio technology have turned composers into producers, arrangers, engineers and mixers at desktop workstations, capable of delivering a final end product: from a five-second network bumper to an orchestral score.

These days, film and TV producers expect music fees to include creative and production costs. Increasingly, composers work out of one-stop-shop production music houses.

Under one roof

Hot House is Hans Zimmer and producing partner Jay Rifkin’s U.K. expansion of their Santa Monica, Calif.-based Media Ventures. Jonathan Wolff fulfills his episodic TV commitments at his Burbank-based Music Consultants Group. At SandBlast Prods. in Gotham, a trio of composers works out of Broadway Sound, creating production cues. And in L.A.’s posh Brentwood neighborhood, composer Norman Arnold of AMI Music Group works in his poolside studio.

As more production duties have fallen to the composer, they have adapted by becoming self-contained and utilizing more efficient methods of creating music. Wolff, known for his work on hit comedies such as “Seinfeld” and “Will & Grace,” notes that there are fewer orchestras; on television, electronic music dominates.

“Technology facilitates it and budgets demand it,” says Wolff. Often “embarrassingly simple” cues, such as “Seinfeld’s” memorable bass line for scene transitions, work best.

Wolff prefers to control all variables involved in music production by keeping everything under one roof, his staff operating as a team. Ten networked workstations are used for music editing and production.

“Clients hire me because we take care of everything,” says Wolff, from creating original source music to “Will & Grace’s” distinctive piano themes, typically completed “at lighting speed.”

Original music cues are delivered to a mix in a sharable format: a software file that can be altered. Because of music sampling, drum machines and other tech breakthroughs, a composer can now complete an entire project inhouse (or in his pool house), from recording to uploading to the Internet for approvals to burning CDs for an audio mix. This democratization of the creative process means that composers don’t need a million-dollar recording studio to realize quality musical ideas.

“I’ve become a composer and producer (in the music sense) all in one,” says AMI Music Group’s Arnold. Sampling also enables him to deliver complex sounds without a studio session.

Arnold has found that TV music supervisors don’t usually require face time for music production. He posts his cues for approval on a Web file transfer protocol site. In contrast, during scoring sessions for indie film “Shutter,” the director camped out at Arnold’s studio.

Increasing flexibility

The improved portability also gives film and show producers the opportunity to make adjustments on the fly. Gotham-based music company, SandBlast is located within Broadway Sound. The company’s three principals, Loren Toolajian, Mike Ungar and Ralph Kelsey, are musicians first; Ungar and Kelsey are also audio post pros.

Toolajian, SandBlast prexy, says the company benefits from a synergistic working relationship with Broadway Sound. “We’re not just sending music to an audio post place, there’s a connectedness on all levels.”

Clients appreciate the cohesive sound, the convenience and cost-effectiveness of having all elements in one location. Recent projects include the score and sound design for Walter Foote’s indie feature “The Tavern”; music and sound design for “Play With Me Sesame”; and music and sound design for the Signature Theatre Co.’s Gotham production of Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” co-starring Ed Norton and Catherine Keener.

Mike Ungar, veep of Broadway Sound, says the collaboration between composer, producer and tech is facilitated by the physical tie in between SandBlast and Broadway Sound’s studios. “We’re not just a music company dropping off tape. We’re very aware of how music plays a part in the whole process,” he adds.

Joining in a trend toward an all-in-one film music production facility is Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures in Santa Monica. Flexibility is essential when under the gun for high-profile projects. Media Ventures’ music-editing suites even serve as picture-editing suites when deadlines demand it (“Gladiator” was one such pic).

To comply with international film-financing stipulations, the company has opened a satellite operation in London serves as the company’s hub for coordinating and managing multi-national and multicontinental film projects, always finished in compressed time frames.

Currently working on the “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” for New Line, Jay Rifkin, Media Ventures’ CEO, explains the workday across time zones:

Music written in Los Angeles is sent to the U.K. for recording. The produced work is sent digitally to New Zealand for approval, notes are made, and the process starts again. Time zones become an advantage.

“We’ve taken a global approach to talent,” says Rifkin, noting that producers benefit from a wider talent pool.

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