Starting out as a composer, I soon realized how much I didn't know. From music production value to orchestration to using virtual instrument plugins, it was all very overwhelming. Coming from a teaching background for middle/high school, I became a student again in the basics of music technology and production. There were many things learned along the way that I'd like to share with you now. All ten suggestions may not be new to you but I hope what I offer will be beneficial to your career in composing.
1. Restrict Yourself to What You Already Have
We've all been there...it's easy to get caught up in the hype and splendor of all of the technology that we sometimes forget what is most important: writing music. With a decent computer, a music instrument, and a pair of speakers or headphones, anyone can write a piece of music. Even without technology, you can write down music the old fashioned way with some manuscript paper in front of the piano. If you want to be a great composer, a good starting point is to understand music theory, orchestration, voice-leading, and standard repertoire knowledge. Most DAW's have stock libraries that are decent enough to make a track if you know how to mix it down. If you have the bare essentials, then there are no excuses to start writing your next masterpiece!
Another way to look at it is, composing can be like a role-playing game. The more experience points we have, the higher our levels are. Before we purchase that expensive audio interface or new orchestral library, ask yourself, "am I ready for it?" "Do I have enough experience points for that?" It may be time to upgrade and invest, but invest so out of necessity. Perhaps it is time to "wield" a better pair of monitors because you now have a strong grasp of mixing and you realize that the old pair isn't giving an accurate image which in turn is not satisfying your client's ear. It comes down to being honest with yourself and asking if the new purchase is a true need and not a want.
Part two of restricting or limiting yourself has to do with creativity. We can be very creative with less. Sometimes less is more. When we only have five instruments to use as our palette, we'll do everything to exploit them to their fullest potential. It reminds of the days of chiptune music. Composers like Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu made do with 5 audio channels for the Nintendo console and 8 channels for the Super Nintendo. However, no gamer knew or cared about the limitations. They only cared that it sounded good and how it elevated the experience of the game. (And we thank them for the great melodies that inspired us to be composers.)
2. Building a Template & Optimizing Routing
This may not apply to all of you, but for me as an orchestral writer, I needed a way to be efficient with VST load times and switching back and forth to different sessions. The best solution I found was to get Vienna Ensemble Pro and load the instruments outside of the DAW. That way you can load the virtual instruments once which takes about 10 minutes and use those same instruments for every session in your DAW.
When building your template you should have at least one short, one long, & one fx patch for each orchestral instrument. If you're an EDM producer, perhaps you don't need Vienna Ensemble Pro but it would still be helpful to build a template inside your DAW with folders of your favorite synth pads, synth leads, plucks, bass and drums. After you have chosen your patches, then make sure each instrument behaves similarly and matches in volume. Also, don't forget to route your instruments into stems for easy exporting! Below is a glimpse into my orchestral template.
3. Dedicate Time to Transcribing & Reproduction
We all listen to music, but sometimes that is not enough to really understand the genre or style. Listening to music is a good start, but you won’t know the intricate details until you reproduce it. This was an invaluable suggestion that James Guymon gave me when I took a composition lesson with him. He said that the recording has all of the information you need to pick it out. So I picked out some of my favorite tracks from Hollywood films such as Pearl Harbor or Lord of the Rings and used only ears to transcribe the notes played. I will have to say, this was by far the biggest game changer because after remaking a few of these, my production value improved by leaps and bounds! You don't always have to transcribe the entire track. Maybe you want to get better writing for drumset. Then transcribe some of your favorite drum licks or grooves.
There are two aspects of learning here:
4. Shortcuts with MIDI Controllers & Macros
This is a given... we all use shortcuts in our day to day composing. Here is a good mantra to live by, "work smarter, not harder." So just to brush over this topic, shortcuts can be triggered on the keyboard, MIDI controller, or even with tablets using apps such as "Touch OSC" or "Lemur." (Picture below is Junkie XL's setup with a massive tablet programmed with various commands).
What about voice recognition? I have an established composer friend who implemented voice recognition to do his bidding and it's amazing what you can program as a macro nowadays. So let's make the most of that. Here are some of my favorites in the video below:
5. Practice Virtual Instrument like a Real Instrument (or better yet, hire a live player!)
I was in awe when I would see my mentors record on their MIDI controllers, whether that was a horn line with beautiful CC11 expression curves or a groovy drum beat. It may sound silly, but turn on that metronome and practice a line from a method book with the instrument you want to record better with. Then graduate on and learn an excerpt from the classical realm or Hollywood:
Below is a video of a real-time performance with a virtual solo violin instrument. Note: You don't have to go to these extremes to record your MIDI track, but imagine how much time you can save by preserving the rhythms, dynamics, and keyswitching already captured in the take.
6. Take or Schedule Breaks!
We've all had marathon sessions where we sit by the computer and can't feel our butts. Besides getting blood flowing back to the lower extremities, we need to give our ears and brain a break when composing. Give yourself a fresh perspective by stepping away from the office. Take a nap or go for a quiet walk. Silence is golden!
7. Learn about Form and Devices
Familiarize and educate yourself with different music forms. I highly recommend the book “What to Listen for in Music” by Aaron Copland (yes, THE Aaron Copland). He writes eloquently and explains how music is formed through devices, forms, and techniques. Here are a few examples:
8. Proper Gain Structuring
Digital clipping is our enemy. We need to understand how dbFS works. Once the meter hits to 0, it's game over. In the past, studios with analog boards referred to going over the 0 mark in dbVU, but that wasn't the same db unit that "in the box" metering refers to. Digital metering refers to decibel full-scale or dbFS. When we produce in 16 bits, there is a theoretical range of 96 dbFS while 24 bits is 144 dbFS. That's why 24 bits is preferable when producing because we can capture sound at lower levels and in more detail. So while in at least 24 bits (nowadays we have up to 64 bits!), compose with the stereo (master) bus level to about -12 to -6 dbFS range so that when you mix and master the track, you have plenty of head room. Also, you can go to the preferences of DAW to change the warning threshold so that your levels are always at a healthy zone.
9. Logging and Checklists
There are two aspects to this... one is logging your project hours and the other is checklists. Giving yourself a check and balance is important for consistent output and delivery. I suggest always logging your time on a project that you're working on so that you have an idea of how long similar, future projects will take. Also, it is good to know your pace so that you can accurately charge what you deserve and to set realistic deadlines.
For the other half, I think having a checklist for music delivery is very important. Especially when you're at your last minutes before the deadline and in a rush, referring to the checklist will avoid any costly mistakes. That way, I don't export in the wrong sample rate (44.1khz instead of 48khz) or forget to disable an automation track that I scrapped last minute. I also follow a checklist for sheet music publishing that helps me to stay consistent when printing music for musicals or concert arrangements.
10. Listen to the Music in Context of the Medium.
If you compose music for the medium of film, games, commercials, or jingles, then study the music in context of that medium. Meaning... rather than listening to the soundtrack recording, watch the scene of the movie where the cue is being played. That way you can see it in context and learn why the composer made the choices he or she did to score the scene. If it's a game, play the game to experience the full effect of the music. It can be tricky if you don't have the resources to go and buy an X-Box but there are ways around that. Youtube and Twitch are great resources where you can find almost any game being played or streamed. On there, you can watch others play the game to do some research. In any case, dive into the product that the music is intended for!