Composers have one of the coolest jobs in the industry. In a world where music can be just as memorable as the visuals, it’s essential that every spot has the right soundtrack for the job. And being the person to provide that? It’s a task in equal parts critical and rewarding.
But with that said, what does it take to create good music? Often, the process of finding the right sound for a campaign is not highlighted. Agencies and brands contact music and sound studios, and then suddenly the campaign goes from having no sound to being completely scored. It’s for this reason that LBB spoke to some of the industry’s best composers, to learn more about what it takes to compose some of the industry’s best soundtracks
LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Sonic Union’s Kevin J. Simon, Mophonics’ Shea Duncan, A-MNEMONIC’s Toby Jarvis, Machine’s head of music Brice Cagan, Clearcut Sound Studios’ sound designer Ed de Lacy and Two AM Music Global’s Prisca Leong, with the hopes of learning more.
Kevin J. Simon
Composer at Sonic Union
I strive to understand the role of music for each spot and hone in on the story that is being told. I check out all the creative materials the agency provided, and once I have identified the essential elements, I start mapping the tempo. Identifying the right tempo is the key to capturing the energy and essence of the track, as well as nailing the scoring. I find inspiration most commonly in things I have heard or felt, but I can be equally inspired by art and nature. No matter the source, I try to inject the spirit of those experiences into my music in ways that are relevant to a project (whether a collab with an artist or brand).
I also focus on writing a piece of music that stands on its own. It’s really important to me that I compose something I truly enjoy. Once the client has digested the track and offers up feedback, the real work begins. I always want the client to feel like they are receiving a wide range of diverse and thoughtful variations.
Composer at Mophonics
An old maxim that rings true in our industry states that ‘talking about music is like dancing about architecture’. So, when it comes to discussing a brief, instead of speaking in musical terms or about specific references, I much prefer to centre conservations on what the core of the creative is. In short, the story we’re trying to tell.
I’ll typically start by fleshing out the score’s key melodic and harmonic ideas at my piano. I’m a firm believer that the simplest expression of a musical idea has to move you, so until that’s happening (it doesn’t always come quickly!), I tend to not worry about the orchestration, production or arrangement.
Once the themes are down, I’ll start thinking about the sound world I’m playing in. This varies widely from project to project. Sometimes it can be a clear orchestration exercise, but for others, I’ll take a more conceptual approach to the instruments I’m using, and why. I find limitations very helpful with creativity, so I’ll limit the number of instruments and plugins I’m using on any given project.
I recently heard an anecdote about Cliff Martinez that I love. Apparently, he has a rule for himself where he buys an instrument whenever he travels and forces himself to use it in his next score, regardless of the movie. Now those steel drums in Solaris make sense…
Lastly, I’ll focus on tightening the arrangement. Whether I’m working to a script, a rough animatic or a locked cut, there will inevitably be several key moments that need to be hit. If it’s a particularly tricky spot, I sometimes like to print stems and switch to music editor mode. It can be quite liberating to get off the grid and find solutions that way.
When it comes to revisions, one piece of advice I’d pass on is to resist the urge to respond immediately. The truth is, we need to put our hearts into our work for it to be any good. In the same breath, it’s worth remembering that you can write the best cue in the world, but if it’s not serving the story, it’s not doing its job. With perspective, I find most feedback to be on the money. So instead of throwing haymakers, it’s best to go for a pint and wait for it to all blow over. A good idea is a good idea, and you’ll be surprised how many of them can be recycled.
Composer at A-MNEMONIC
There’s no hard and fast process for breaking down a music brief. Our clients are so varied. Some clients find conceptualising a music brief very difficult, and some find it a pleasure. Personally, I love this initial part of the process. Good communication is key. And getting a feel for how the clients work. Our basic starting points would be:
Understand the ask
What are the emotions and attributes we want the listener/audience/consumer to feel? For me, this is the most important question. Music is incredibly efficient at telling us how to ‘feel’. Our responses to sound are involuntary. We can’t help ‘feeling’ the way we do when we listen to music. It’s worth getting this right at the beginning!
What’s the strategy - is there a big idea?
Music works on multiple levels. Music in advertising needs to work on at least two - what is the music telling us, and why. Equally important is determining how hard the music needs to work. It’s important to ask yourself, ‘what is the narrative, and is there a story to tell?’.
Mapping brand attributes
We use various audience insight tools which can map brand attributes, to benchmarked
music examples. This is helpful for onboarding stakeholders and getting everyone on the same page!
Formulating a final music brief for our composers
Some initial research can be really helpful, and sometimes it’s essential. However, we always seem to be fighting for time to do this! We’re big collaborators and brainstormers here. We generally start with this first. Solo experimentation tends to come later, once we’ve cracked the initial idea or strategy.
In terms of tools and platforms we enjoy, our lug holes are the best tools! Platforms don’t matter - there are so many and all equally great. It’s down to your imagination and craft (and ears and brain!). If you listen to commercial radio, it’s clear to see that hit recordings can be recorded on any platform - from basic laptops to multi-million pound studios. It’s the skill of the music maker, producer and engineer that connects with the listener.
Personally, I’ve always loved having clients in the studio with us. Making music is the most fun part of the process! That enthusiasm is infectious, and clients quickly see how easy it is to make changes/address feedback etc. - most of which we can do then and there, in front of them.
It’s also surely much better to work face-to-face than to deal with days of emails. Currently, we stream hi res audio directly from the mixing desk to anyone with a browser. Combined with Zoom, clients - and indeed singers or voice artists - can be anywhere. In many ways, this has major advantages. We had 20 people listening in and watching our last sound session. Attendees ranged from Brazil to Germany, with our voice artist in Buenos Aires and backing singers in Glasgow. Creatives, producers, brand managers - and the founder - all took part remotely. It was like performing a live cooking show! Overall, it was great fun, and everyone was 100% invested. Using email alone, it would have taken days and days to get to the same creative conclusion. Long live the future!
Head of Music at Machine
Over the past decade or so, so much has changed and so much has stayed the same - both professionally and culturally. In terms of composition for advertising, I’ve always thought about the phrase, ‘hooks, not bars’. I have to give credit to Duddy Brown
in LA for that phrase. At this point, I might as well have it tattooed on my forehead. It basically means get to the point. You have a limited amount of seconds to impress the creative team, the client and fit the brief. Because there’s not enough time to tell the full story musically, we try to highlight a memorable hook and build that into one unique idea.
I like to start with a genre search. There's so much we can say about the sound we have in mind, but putting it into words doesn't always do it justice. You really need to hear a few ideas to try to combine the sounds in your mind to get the full picture. Usually, the editor or agency will have an animatic that we can pull about 10-15 tracks against. Once we find a handful, we can brief our composers about what works and doesn't for each track, so they can build a sound palette. This ultimately saves a ton of time and money; we won't need to do revision after revision trying to find the right sound, since we've already had the conversation beforehand.
Once we get started on demos, we have our team of composers work on theirs individually. They usually work on these solo, to get a group of versatile tracks that all fit within the same brief. However, we also love to collaborate with certain musicians or composers on certain projects. These can be re-records or vocal-specific. This is usually approved by the client beforehand, and gives us a licence to do more songwriting than composing.
The final stages are revisions. This is where we tailor the track to fit the client's vision perfectly. It can be one of the most difficult parts of the process, because the edit may change or the tone may be off in certain parts. We have to adapt the material without changing the bones of the music.
Composition and sound are usually the last stages in the process of making an ad. We have the luxury of seeing the final product while we work. Whether the clients are amped up to finish the films or are completely worn out, the music and sound are what they're most excited about. We get to ride that high while we record, so it gives us the opportunity to create some great relationships while we revise.
Nothing will beat the thrill and excitement of that moment when a fresh music brief plops onto your proverbial doormat. My first thought is always whether I can bring something from my own musical background and interests into what I’m going to write - whatever the style. A misspent youth making drum and bass - and a love of all things skateboarding and cycling - can be surprisingly useful for sparking ideas.
My next thought is how can I link what I’m seeing to the music I’m writing. This might be done using clever timing, recognisable and identifiable instrumentation, or even some carefully deployed silence to let the rest of the soundscape shine.
When it gets to the writing, collaboration is fundamental. Whether that’s actually sitting down with another musician, or getting someone not involved in the project to offer their opinion, external input is really important - as it’s all too easy to get lost in your own head. Being completely objective about one’s own work is nigh impossible.
Finally, I’d love to give a little shout out to the most useful, commonly deployed and purist of tools at our disposal. We are not sponsored by them (honest), but the virtual instruments from Native Instruments are awesome. In particular, I personally love the stock pianos. Keys are the best tool for initial sketches, and in lieu of an actual baby grand in our central London studios, the ones available in Kontakt are brilliant.
‘What’s the story here?’, ‘Are there moments I can highlight or enhance musically?’, and ‘What does this mood sound like?’. These are some questions that come to mind when I approach a commercial brief.
Every brief tells a unique story, and understanding this narrative arc allows me to find a supportive musical structure. After setting the structure in place, I begin thinking about the harmonic elements - laying down chords and sounds that resonate with the picture's tone. With storytelling in the forefront of my mind, I intentionally look out for little bits and moments in the picture that I can enhance through a combination of rhythm, harmony, and sounds. I also love exploring different textures of chords and melodies to set my track apart, albeit while still maintaining the initial tone and mood I have in mind.
Finally, It’s important to me that I approach briefs with the perspective that my primary role is to serve the story. I often find that adopting this angle makes it easier and more exciting, because it challenges me to think outside of the box and to tap into the limitless potential of music.