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Discussion: What is your workflow?

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I think it would be interesting to have an open discussion about how each of us work. I realize that this is a very loaded question where the answers depends heavily on the project, type of music being created and other circumstances. Perhaps sharing a few situations of how you handled a project (or projects) would be interesting and helpful to others. Feel free to include examples! I'll start. General writing: It seems that when writing general music for a project I'll start with harmony first. Not really sure why I tend to do this but its a pattern that I follow. The melody, which usually comes pretty easily to me, will evolve over time as the harmonies and foundation of the piece solidify. I'm usually humming while playing out the chords and percussive tracks. My primary method of input is the play it in real time with a MIDI controller. I know many fantastic composers that use the ol' point and click method but for me... that just gets in the way. It removes the performance element of the music. When I play it in directly the computer captures all of my nuances: a slight ritardando here, accented notes there, etc). There have been times where I had a full melody fleshed out before adding in the other pieces but more often than not I start with the other end of the music. I would usually work with roughly 8-16 measure increments at a time. Lay down the horns and get them solid, move on to the low strings for those same measures and so on. Cinematic writing: Here's where I actually do both melody and some basic harmonic parts from the start. While at FUNimation I was able to write music at basically one tempo and have it fit all of the visual cues needed. It wasn't until I collaborated with a few other composers working in film-TV media and I noticed all of the meter and tempo changes they would utilize. There's nothing wrong with either approach and each cut of film is different but I found it interesting that after doing nearly 90 trailers I seldom had to rely on tempo or meter changes. I know of several composers that would go through and make markers of major events and I did this at first myself but after getting slammed with some major deadlines I just bypassed that method. I would usually take mental notes like "big explosion at measure 56" and remember that while writing up to that point. Video game scoring: For me this is just an extension of general music writing but I add in a few extra factors. I always play the game while I'm writing to get an idea of the flow, mood and pace of the level I'm writing for. I also take into consideration the sound design that is present (or will be present) in the level. For example if there are huge, low sounds like deep explosions or loud, low water SFX beds then I know to avoid those frequencies in my compositions. It would just make things muddy. As I write, I'll toggle the game audio on and off to hear how the sound design and music content jive together. Editing: If possible, I spend a decent amount of time experimenting after the music is all fleshed out with changes in harmonies and/or the melody. Perhaps making a jump here in the melody instead of a step-wise motion would work best? Maybe a chordal substitution would work best right here? That sorta thing. The key is if the deadline is looming right around the corner. Which is a perfect transition into my next point. Deadlines: Of course all of this changes severely when under a tight deadline. It was quite common at FUNimation for me to have a day or two to write all of the music for a trailer, mix and master it then deliver to the video editor. Mushishi Vol1 trailer was written in one day. Glass Fleet Vol.1 and Tsubasa Vol. 1 were also one day projects where I had to crank it out fast. Currently at Netdevil I'm given some really tight deadlines. Once I had a trailer handed to me at lunch and was told "we need this by tomorrow morning." I hadn't even seen or heard about the trailer yet so I launched into speed-writing mode. Another time I was given three days to write six full in-game music cues for three levels before a major presentation. In those situations you have to allow yourself to work quickly and know what to spend time on and what to side step. This would be one of my biggest tips to newcomers to the industry. Sure you can create an amazing piece if given 2-3 weeks of serious writing. But what about 4-8 hours? Ridiculously short deadlines happen often and you need to be able to train yourself to perform well under those conditions. Working quickly also requires a good knowledge of your sample library and how to create certain sounds without a good deal of trial and error which would just take up more time. When I'm under the gun I have an arsenal of samples that I know can perform well without a great deal of tweaking or editing. Sometimes it's samples by themselves while other times I'm combining samples together to get the type of sound I need. Writer's block: Happens to everyone! If I'm getting it real bad, I'll stop writing and do something else. Sometimes a simple jog outside can be enough to really inspire me. Other times I'll cue up some score that I really enjoy or I'll take a break and watch some TV. I think the key is to listen to your body. If you know you're not going to get anything good out of a session and only end up more frustrated then stop. However it's also important to know when to push through writer's block and see how you can make it still happen. This is especially true with regards to deadlines. Your clients don't care if you have writer's block. They care about results. Back up, back up back up: I back up EVERYTHING I write. Even if it's just two measures. Every once in a while I'll go back through my catalog and open up some old music. It's amazing how you can forget about some of your older pieces. I cannot tell you how many times I'll find an old gem of a piece and remember thinking it was total crap at the time I was working on it. Well, I really should stop and get ready. I could write more... but hey it's a discussion. So it's time I stop hogging the floor and let someone else share some thoughts and ideas! Thanks, Nate [Edited by - nsmadsen on November 8, 2009 12:23:15 PM]

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Those are some great insights and suggestions! Thank you very much for starting this discussion!

Let me see if I can continue down some of the avenues that you opened up:

General Writing -

Before I start writing any music, I think about what it is that I want to do with it - what I want to express, how best I think that it can be expressed. I think that music is an art form that works heavily in conjunction with expression, and that composers that are truly successful are ones that have mastered how to express their ideas. When thinking about expression, I take into consideration the key, orchestration, atmosphere, form, texture, tempo, dynamic, and overall concept of what I am envisioning. I am old school in the fact that I like to use pencil and paper for all of my music before I put anything into a computer. Nate mentions that he likes how playing into the computer lends to a more performance-feeling aspect, which I agree with. For me, the whole process feels much more organic and personal if I start with pencil, paper, and my thoughts. I also like pencil and paper because you can't just hit "play" and hear it like you can on a computer. You constantly have to listen internally and hear how the instruments are really relating to one another.

Concert Writing -

I don't really do cinematic or video game work, but I do write concert and chamber material, which involve some unique aspects - one of them being psychology. When you are writing for people, you have to keep in mind what they're going to be thinking about while they're playing it - is it boring to play? Is it awkward to play? Do they not play enough? Too much? I also think about what the audience is thinking about the piece, and try to find an equal balance between something that is fun for the musicians to play, fun for the audience to hear, and fun for theory-junkies to analyze.

Instruments -

While writing, I also think about ranges / short-comings of the instruments. For example, on clarinet, you don't want to have a lot of noodling in the "throat register" (between F# and B) because it sounds harsh. Or on oboe, you don't want to have trills alternating between the two octave keys. Or on CC tuba, you don't want to have a lot of mid-range (for tuba) stuff in the key of Db, because it's hard on the hands. Also, the timbre of instruments changes with range, so, it is important to know which ranges are suitable for which circumstances to maximize expression. For example, trombones that play at the bottom of their register tend to "blat." Flutes may sound to shrill or thin, or clarinets sound like velvety dark chocolate in the bottom of their register.

Editing -

When I'm putting things in the computer, I use it as a time for editing. Sometimes I'll find that I wrote something that I didn't want, so I'll change it. Also when I'm writing with pencil and paper, I usually only include dynamics and articulations that I specifically hear in my head. I generally like to save those things for when I can physically hear the play back because the parts may interact in a way that I didn't expect.

Deadlines -

Deadlines for concert music aren't nearly as strenuous as they are for cinema or video games, I think partly because the deadlines are set more for the performance, and the musicians need time to be able to adequately rehearse all of the music. Even though some can be far away (currently mine are weekly,) I don't like to wait at all. I view music as a process, and so I like to be able to put as much time as I can on the process of writing so that I can fully benefit from the performance / completion of the piece.

Writer's Block -

I've noticed that for some reason, I'm more musically productive between September and April than I am the rest of the year - most of my library falls between those months. Taking a break is very important - sometimes I'll go months without writing anything. Taking non-musical breaks is great because it allows you to remember why you love doing it, and gives you a chance to re-energize before heading back into the rigors of writing. Being passionate about the music you write is pivotal to writing. Without passion, what's the point of writing music?

When taking a break, I like to watch tv, or play video games, or do physical labor (moving heavy things, etc.) It's a nice way to relieve stress and unwind. For getting passed writer's block when I don't have the luxury of taking a break, I revert to my bag of tricks - music theory to kind of get the ball rolling and put me in a new direction. For example, right now I'm working on a Waltz for a Suite for a woodwind quintet, and yesterday, I hit a road block. So I decided to use a secondary leading-tone chord (viidim7/IV) to modulate to a new key. I find that little tricks like that are good not only because they get the ball rolling creatively, but it's something new for the listener and the performer as well.

Saving / Backing Up -

I save everything to an external hard drive, so that if my computer crashed, everything that it is important is safe. It only takes 1 or 2 bad instances where entire files have been lost for you to become OCD about your saving. I remember I was once working on a movement of a symphony for an orchestra, and I lost about 80 measures because my computer tweaked out. I was so upset I think I just left the piece and never went back to it. I save after every phrase / every 2 seconds, whichever one comes first. Ok, so I don't really save every 2 seconds, but I think you get the point.

I love going back through old pieces I wrote 4 - 5 years ago and remembering what I was thinking at the time that I wrote them.

Anyway, it's time for me to stop being a faucet and give someone else a chance! Thanks for starting this thread Nate!

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I swear, the sooner the deadline, especially days before, the better I write ;-)

That said, the more visuals, the easier it is to come up with inspiration. Therefore, cinematics are a lot easier to do than, say, ambient background music.

Writer's block seems to happen when I'm too fatigued from normal work (I am not a paid musician/producer/composer) that sometimes I just have not the enegery to write. This is where deadlines come in handy, because you become mootivated beyond the 'norm', even if they are 'probono' projects.

As far as backing up goes, I should do it more. I know that everyone here SHOULD do it more, regardless of how often. Even if you doit every day, I suppose you could write or find some free software that does it twice a day! lol. A few years back I wrote what I called "Symphony No. 1" and upon expanding my personal software and library/studio to have the ability to try and sequence it, I found out that I lost my latest edition. Even though I found it on a CD from a year back, because it was a Sibelius file I don't use frequently, in a folder I neglected. Take pride in your work, because pride is what will keep the data intact, even if you think it's crap.

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Great thread - these are the things I wish more people spoke about.

Personally my compositions start with experimentation on the guitar, usually coming up with a 2-part harmony and recording that. (I do much the same if I'm writing on the keyboard, but my keyboard playing is rather poor and only lends itself to slow parts, typically string sections.) I have a Sonar template set up with guitar/bass/drum tracks ready to go, so I typically set a tempo and time signature, turn on the metronome (or drag in some random MIDI drum loops), and then hit record.

I typically come up with 8 or 16 bars at a time, but sometimes I'll instantly find a way to segue into another 16 bars fluidly so I record the lot. I'll often copy and paste the chord sequence to attempt a different melody over the top, or swap drum parts in and out where they don't match the accents of the chords or lead line.

Often the initial harmony is pleasant but boring, and I might add in extra passing notes or suspensions later to add interest. They tend to emerge naturally from performing the part several times and seeing what sounds right and adds flavour where I feel it needs it. One thing I'm trying to force myself to do is to stop trying to get a perfect melody, harmony, or rhythm from the start, and instead just get down the skeleton of the section I'm working on, even if it starts off a bit bland. The extras can come in later and almost always do, and with so many things to tweak (melody, harmony, instrumentation, timbre, dynamics, etc) it's rare that any part is beyond all hope of being polished into something worth keeping.

Eventually I will have enough improvisations in a similar key and tempo to start aggregating them into one song, making adjustments here and there to smooth out the edges. I will often also try taking one part and morphing it significantly to create a new part that is similar enough to show a consistent theme. It's not uncommon for me to end up with 20 or 30 minutes of recorded music for a song that will end up between 5 and 10 minutes long. Much of the rest will go unused, but some of it will be pulled into future songs of a similar style. (I can imagine this source of motifs being very useful if I ever did this commercially and had to hit deadlines.)

Although I don't do any contracted or professional music work, I still like to set myself some distinct goals or aims for each piece. These help keep me focused and stop me getting paralysed with the sheer number of possibilities available. Such goals might include deciding on a form or structure, aiming for a dissonant key change half way through, starting a melody on the subtonic note, trying to incorporate a syncopated rhythm I've never used before, writing a passage in the style of a certain other artist (or blending two techniques from 2 artists in one section), etc.

If I'm really stuck for ideas, I find that listening to other music helps, but it is also great to change the effects I'm using on the guitar, or to pull up a random synth patch on a VST instrument. Different timbres tend to push you in new and interesting directions.

A question for you Nate: you talk about the necessity of knowing your sample library. Ideally I'd be familiar with all the presets and samples available to me, but in practice I can't use them all enough to maintain that sort of knowledge. It's ok with orchestral sounds as I am quite familiar with what they are and can quickly find what I want - but with other sounds it is a bit more challenging. Are there any hints for making this more manageable?

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Original post by Kylotan
A question for you Nate: you talk about the necessity of knowing your sample library. Ideally I'd be familiar with all the presets and samples available to me, but in practice I can't use them all enough to maintain that sort of knowledge. It's ok with orchestral sounds as I am quite familiar with what they are and can quickly find what I want - but with other sounds it is a bit more challenging. Are there any hints for making this more manageable?

One thing that has really helped me grow in my understanding of my sample library is emulating other pieces and trying to recreate that composer's sound as closely as possible. For me this forces me to really focus on the production techniques used in this piece (and less on the musical aspects) and because of that I find myself trying new combinations of samples and/or new production techniques. After doing that for several months I had a new bag of tricks that I could use and a deeper understand of the samples at my disposal.

I'm glad you liked the thread! I've enjoyed this discussion as well.



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