Meteo Xavier

Things I've Learned In My Years Of Music

13 posts in this topic

Would anyone believe I've actually become a composer who's managed to grab a series of worthwhile gigs and absorbed enough commissions to kinda be sick of working on music? I know I don't. A decade and a half of putting in tens of thousands of hours behind a DAW has been yielding some returns and I've reached heights no one should take for granted.

From my vantage point, I thought I would like to share some of the less-talked-about things I see from this elevation that could be useful advice to newer composers or even some older ones. In no particular order, here we go:

1. There is no recipe or gimmick for success. If there was, we'd all know it and use it by now. It's all pretty much random. All you can do is get creative with your ideas and execute them with the best audio quality you can.

2. Only upgrade your sound and studio if you can't produce quality work with what you've got anymore. You don't need 18 orchestral symphony libraries to make a quality orchestral track or soundtrack, you don't need the latest version of this or that for everything, you don't need loads of hardware just to pretend you're staying current. Master what you have before you start thinking you need to spend $$$ on more shit.

3. Synth nerds are the worst people to get hardware advice from. Sorry, but it's true. Nothing is ever as good as the best there was from the 1970s or 1980s, and therefore nothing is ever worthwhile enough. If you have your eye on a keyboard or hardware item, listen to it, think on it for a while, think on it, think on it for a long time and decide if it's really for you or not. No one else can decide that for you, you have to decide that for yourself.

4. Doing a bunch of songs at the same time and in stages is better than trying to knock out one song at a time. This is because you need a break from audio both to give your ears a rest and also to let your judgment become less biased. While doing a song, there are the stages of beginning it, working on it and finalizing it. You get into these stages naturally, and it is surprisingly easier to do these stages with multiple songs than just one.

5. To expand on #4, after a few years of experience in finishing and finalizing tracks, you start learning a skill for a music ear that can hear where your songs are supposed to go, rather than where they go now. It's almost a 6th sense in a way - you start hearing and expecting it to go this way when where you actually have it going is wrong. You can also hear what ISN'T there and what needs to be there. It's kinda freaky, really.

6. Some people try to write and arrange a track starting with the melody and designing everything around it. This is dumb. Building a song is like building a house - you start from the ground up (drums and bass), then the walls and body of the house (chords and arps and accompaniment), and then the roof (usually the melody). Doing it with the melody first is like putting the furniture in a field in a certain way and designing the house around all that.

7. Rely on as few people for your songs and projects at any given time as possible. Other people have lives and crises, too, and you would be better off doing or learning to do things you need yourself than hope their timeframes work out for you.

8. All business success requires risk to fuel it, however not all risk is the same. Being smart and meticulously deciding where your money is best to go and getting clever and resourceful with your situation could still create the concoction that provides success without putting you in danger.

9. "Value" or "reward" for your audio work is not always money. This is a VERY controversial and unpopular opinion, and there are good reasons for that, but the fact remains those who only consider value and reward to be coin or cash will find it much harder to navigate throguh business success here.

10. Even if you hate loops products, many are worth getting anyway for a variety of reasons. One of the best is that they often come with MIDI files that can be an excellent teacher for how to humanize notes in a DAW.

11. No one doing indie games has $300.00 per audio minute. Success from the indie game sector comes more by showcasing artistic achievement through its humble roots, not trying to do what AAA game studios are already doing. Know this, accept this, and use it to your advantage while builsing up a career in game audio.

12. The more artistic a person is, the less skill they have for conventional thinking ideas in audio like how business really works, humility, common sense and even at times common decency to others. This is not a guaranteed exclusion, but the "artist's brain" phenomenon really does seem to be true.

13. You can work on next to no music for years and years and suddenly be chosen for a big project seeming for no reason. Don't question it too much, just give thanks to the god or powers you believe in and do it.

14. Don't count on tempo-sync'd loops and samples to work correctly. Many do, but many also do not for whatever reasons. It's better to just get a BPM that works innately for the samples' speed you want to use.

15. Every composer, sooner or later, does work for free, undercuts a friend/competitor for a job. If they say they don't, they are most likely lying. Also, every composer eventually pirates stuff as well.

16. It doesn't matter what tricks you need to do to get a track done (just don't use illegal samples!), just get it done somehow. Arranging and recording music is supposed to be that difficult.

17. Have a Plan B and Plan C for all music you're working on, as it's incredibly easy for that music to not go used or be cout out somewhere else.

18. Don't worry if you use a loop or phrase or sound that's been used ad nauseum or something. It turns out the niche for LIKING recognizable sounds is bigger than we though.

19. Uploading MIDIs from Valkyrie Profile, Secret of Mana, Star Ocean 2, Final Fantasy VI, Super Mario 64, Final Fantasy Tactics and some of Tim Follin's work to your DAW and studying them will teach you pretty much everything you need to know about doing game audio.

20. When approaching someone for possible music work, be bright and cheery, but don't be desperate. Act like a seasoned professional, even if you aren't, and use a tone that says "I can do this work, but I don't need this work." Talk in length about the fine details of how you do things and how this works whether they might understand it or not, as it creates for you an air that the client thinks "Hmm, this guy knows his business." and helps keep it so the client respects you enough not to take advantage of you. If they leave soon after you establish this light bit of dominance in the conversation, then it wasn't meant to be.

These things are obviously not objective, and they are subject to much scrutiny and debate themselves, but potentially useful stuff I'd like to impart all the same.

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19 (though, I'd say different games personally, 20, 15, 13, 9, and 10.

Good stuff.

edit: lemme add one. Buying an expensive instrument is more about ease of playing than it is about making something sound better, in most instances I've noticed and dealt with (playing Sax, Vocals, and Guitar). That's okay. Recognize whether, a t first and foremost, it's actually being a pain on you before upgrading your instrument.

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6 hours ago, Meteo Xavier said:

6. Some people try to write and arrange a track starting with the melody and designing everything around it. This is dumb. Building a song is like building a house - you start from the ground up (drums and bass), then the walls and body of the house (chords and arps and accompaniment), and then the roof (usually the melody). Doing it with the melody first is like putting the furniture in a field in a certain way and designing the house around all that.

This is the one point I will disagree with you on.

Maybe in certain genres starting with something else works, but most music is composed melody first. Actually, starting with a chord is still technically melody first.

Great example being that the very basis of part-writing, and how harmony came to be understood today, is by playing multiple melodies at the same time. That's all a chord really is: Different melody lines moving homorhythmically. Pretty much everyone from Bach to John Williams started with a great theme or motif, and harmonized it from there.

Not to plug my own shit, but I literally just posted a track for critique over in the Original Music forum before reading this. I started with all the melodies, and built from there. To my ears, it turned out cohesive.

So I'd agree that building a piece of music is like building a house, but I'd disagree that the melody shouldn't be the foundation.  

EDIT: Points 7, 8, 12, and 20 are very, very good points.

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6 hours ago, Meteo Xavier said:

11. No one doing indie games has $300.00 per audio minute. Success from the indie game sector comes more by showcasing artistic achievement through its humble roots, not trying to do what AAA game studios are already doing. Know this, accept this, and use it to your advantage while builsing up a career in game audio.

Sorry for the double post, but there is a goldmine of good discussion that can create a thread just from this point alone. You and I discussed a similar topic last year via PM.

I've gotten in a number of fights now, with bigwig composers drilling this shit into the heads of n00bs (and I was at one time among them) that charging anything less than a 3-digit figure per minute is "devaluing the industry" even though Danny Elfman — Danny fucking Elfman — lowers his prices to $1 USD in exchange for keeping the rights to his music at least once per year on an indie film. Yet, they expect everyone to believe that a kid scoring a crappy college film or indie game for nothing is undercutting the business. Despite that it's business as usual considering Danny Elfman's tradition.

It's like everyone working on this game is doing it out of a labour of love and to get experience. The artists, the programmers, etc. But not the composer! No, the composer is special! On that note, I have actually had one composer, quite successful and used to be married to a famous actress, tell me that composers are "criminally underpaid" even if their paycheck amounts to millions because "actors make more". It's like, holy shit dude...Tom Cruise risks certain death to promote his films as do stunt people (who get no recognition from the industry btw) and you expect me to agree that the composer deserves the same pay rate?

Most of these composers don't understand the concept of consumer buying power. You can't expect that a bunch of college students or whatever are going to be able to pay you Hollywood rates. And guess what? It isn't you who gets to decide you're worth the big bucks; it's the people with the big bucks who do.

It's actually the hardest pill to swallow in this life: That we don't get to decide our value to other people.

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On 4/16/2018 at 6:31 PM, AngelCityOutlaw said:

So I'd agree that building a piece of music is like building a house, but I'd disagree that the melody shouldn't be the foundation. 

This may be more of a semantics thing, but I guess I mean it as more of a full arrangement with bass, drums, accompaniment, changes, etc. As there's several different ways to refer to that which is music as composition I thought that was enough, but obviously it's different if we're referring to a composition as just the melody and chords (like something you come up with and save as a leitmotif to be arranged many different times) and not something invented only by starting out a musical entity with full arrangement.

I'd still argue that, in a full arrangement at least, the melody should be among the last to put in. Reason for this is it's easier to move some notes around there than it is to move around all the chords and accompaniment to fit the melody (although it's inevitable that you'd likely have to end up doing that in a track at some point anyway).

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On 4/16/2018 at 7:34 PM, Meteo Xavier said:

6. Some people try to write and arrange a track starting with the melody and designing everything around it. This is dumb. Building a song is like building a house - you start from the ground up (drums and bass), then the walls and body of the house (chords and arps and accompaniment), and then the roof (usually the melody). Doing it with the melody first is like putting the furniture in a field in a certain way and designing the house around all that.

This seems totally counterintuitive and -dare I say- wrong to me. Melody is the main attraction, the thing that gets people hooked. It's the vision of what the song (or in your analogy, house) should look like. All the rest is just there to support it. No use in building walls and foundations just to figure out you need to tear it down again because it doesn't work with the final vision (in your analogy, you built a too short foundation, the walls are all lopsided and the body of the house looks like a nightmare out of H.R. Giger's brain). Doesn't make any sense for buildings, doesn't make sense for music - ask any architect or composer worth their salt.

Your argument that it's easier to move around a few notes in the melody rather than in all the chords and accompaniment sounds as if you feel melody is there support the chords and accompaniment rather than the other way around. That sounds very strange to me, but meh, it's your music, you can do what your want. Just don't present it as univeral truth.

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10 hours ago, Jorito said:

This seems totally counterintuitive and -dare I say- wrong to me. Melody is the main attraction, the thing that gets people hooked. It's the vision of what the song (or in your analogy, house) should look like. All the rest is just there to support it. No use in building walls and foundations just to figure out you need to tear it down again because it doesn't work with the final vision (in your analogy, you built a too short foundation, the walls are all lopsided and the body of the house looks like a nightmare out of H.R. Giger's brain). Doesn't make any sense for buildings, doesn't make sense for music - ask any architect or composer worth their salt.

Your argument that it's easier to move around a few notes in the melody rather than in all the chords and accompaniment sounds as if you feel melody is there support the chords and accompaniment rather than the other way around. That sounds very strange to me, but meh, it's your music, you can do what your want. Just don't present it as univeral truth.

To be fair, he didn't present it as universal truth — he said this was his experience and subject to scrutiny.

 

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That and the aforementioned post on "semantics" and acknowledging the range that "composition" can refer to as a music creation.

I'll probably have some more items posted here later as they come to me.

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14 hours ago, AngelCityOutlaw said:

To be fair, he didn't present it as universal truth — he said this was his experience and subject to scrutiny.

 

Fair point; the opening post was clear about that, but the tone of his follow-up felt was stated less subjective to me. Guess that’s what triggered me.

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To move on, something else I found interesting was point 7. Because, as a composer I've found myself to be very dependent on other people since I'm mostly unable to perform and play my music myself. Not just because I don't know how to play the trombone and the violin and the vibraphone and the clarinet and the contra-bassbasoon and the whatever but also because I'm literally physically unable to play all those instruments at the same time. I know how they work, and I do play quite some instruments, but some music is just written to be played life. I mean, I'm a jazz composer, which means that I always deal with living, breathing people, and I can imagine that being a completely different thing from writing music completely on a laptop. I definitely know the mess of having to organize rehearsals for 10+ people with completely different schedules, and I wish I would be able to do it all by myself, but would that imply that writing music that is to be performed live and that also includes more then 2 or 3 musicians is an invalid business tactic? That would contradict about 300 years of music composition, including the crazy late romantic era where composers would write for giant 200+ musician seated symphony orchestras with two choirs and their neighbors.

So while I understand your notion of advising composers to stay as self-sufficient as possible, I also think that it's very much centered around a way of making music that is designed for self-sufficient composers that are able to do everything by themselves, and that it doesn't mean that all ways of composing are like that. That's kind of an awkward sentence, but I hope my point is clear haha. Of course I'm not saying that you don't have a point. I usually write my music for ensembles that I know I can make myself and I'm always connecting and making friends in order to make my netwerk as big as possible. And, more importantly, I write simple and effective and I prepare everything as perfect as I can. So rather than saying that you should rely on as few people as possible, I would say that you should be smart with the people you work with, that you should always have 3 back up plans and that you have to be very very realistic in the way you write. Which nicely connects to point 12, because that statement is just soooo true. Being a decent human being should be everyone's priority because no one likes people that aren't likable. 

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Yeah, well, if I round up all the time I've spent waiting on other people for things I've needed, even some of the most basic things, just with the stuff I can think up on top of my head, it would amount to 3 years of time being wasted waiting for other peoples' schedules, motivations, budgets and memories to get around to what they agreed to do for me. After a while, you're like, "Man, I am too old for this shit." and quit bothering.

Granted I'm rather on the south side of the bell curve when it comes to social skills and charisma that might suggest "fuck other people entirely" is not an objective wisdom tip when it comes to this stuff, but it's backed with a lot of experience that is definitely regretted. :)

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9 hours ago, Bowlerhat said:

To move on, something else I found interesting was point 7. Because, as a composer I've found myself to be very dependent on other people since I'm mostly unable to perform and play my music myself. Not just because I don't know how to play the trombone and the violin and the vibraphone and the clarinet and the contra-bassbasoon and the whatever but also because I'm literally physically unable to play all those instruments at the same time. I know how they work, and I do play quite some instruments, but some music is just written to be played life. I mean, I'm a jazz composer, which means that I always deal with living, breathing people, and I can imagine that being a completely different thing from writing music completely on a laptop. I definitely know the mess of having to organize rehearsals for 10+ people with completely different schedules, and I wish I would be able to do it all by myself, but would that imply that writing music that is to be performed live and that also includes more then 2 or 3 musicians is an invalid business tactic? That would contradict about 300 years of music composition, including the crazy late romantic era where composers would write for giant 200+ musician seated symphony orchestras with two choirs and their neighbors.

So while I understand your notion of advising composers to stay as self-sufficient as possible, I also think that it's very much centered around a way of making music that is designed for self-sufficient composers that are able to do everything by themselves, and that it doesn't mean that all ways of composing are like that. That's kind of an awkward sentence, but I hope my point is clear haha. Of course I'm not saying that you don't have a point. I usually write my music for ensembles that I know I can make myself and I'm always connecting and making friends in order to make my netwerk as big as possible. And, more importantly, I write simple and effective and I prepare everything as perfect as I can. So rather than saying that you should rely on as few people as possible, I would say that you should be smart with the people you work with, that you should always have 3 back up plans and that you have to be very very realistic in the way you write. Which nicely connects to point 12, because that statement is just soooo true. Being a decent human being should be everyone's priority because no one likes people that aren't likable. 

Generally speaking, 99% of film, game, and especially TV composers don't have the luxury of composing for real players and they're under very tight deadlines.

Being able to produce a full piece, in sometimes a matter of hours, all by yourself, with virtual instruments is pretty much a mandatory skill. I don't personally know anyone in the business who can't.

Even I have had indie gigs that needed me to have a brand new tune conceived and finished in a couple days because they had a new level finished and they decided to include it at the last moment in the build of the game they're showing at some trade show or whatever at the end of the week. Not really enough time to get even one live musician on it, let alone a full ensemble, and definitely not when there is no budget to hire them and the gig doesn't pay nearly enough to justify paying them out of pocket and trying to deduct it on your taxes.

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In my experience, working with other people does indeed involve waiting, and sometimes that can get a bit frustrating. But there’s another side to it to, or at least for me: being able to work with other people does make it more enjoyable, social and educational. Depending on your individual needs and desires that may or may not be something that interests everybody, but I’ve learned bits and bobs from everybody I worked with, and that is totally worth it for me. But YMMV of course; just wanted to mention another side of it.

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