Archive for the ‘Instructional’ Category

Ten Ways to Avoid Plateauing

Posted on May 12, 2011 at 10:25 pm, by Ben

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I used to draw a lot when I was younger, and dad, being an exceptional artist, was my primary instructor. Occasionally he would take a look at my work and ask me if I thought I was “plateauing.” What he meant by this is “have you reached a position in your skill where you always make the same errors and are not getting any better?” This question usually made me uncomfortable because I knew it meant something in my art habits had to be shaken up– I’d need to leave my comfort zone of cartoon characters to climb above that plateau. At the time, I didn’t mind dwelling on the rolling hills of sub-mediocrity (which is where I was), I just wanted to draw for fun and nothing else.

Looking back, I wish I had relished my father’s input more… maybe I wouldn’t have let my artistic abilities coast and eventually slide like they did when I hit my teens. Now that I’m working as a professional composer in the field of music, I’ve come to view his reminder as something to heed and treasure.

I wanted to encourage some of you younger musicians (I’m pretty young, so that’s a narrow field) to not grow weary nor fainthearted in your quest for excellence, so I thought I’d play you an excerpt of something I wrote when I was sixteen compared with a clip of something I wrote last month for the Navigating History series. If this doesn’t make you feel better about your music, I don’t know what will. : )

5 Years of Change by BenBotkin

By God’s grace, I believe I’ve grown in my musical ability and skill a lot over the last five years–far beyond what I can take credit for. I see areas where I’ve slacked and ways I could have invested the years in a more disciplined fashion, but thankfully God has brought in a lot of influences and trials over that time to bring me to where I am today. To continue that growth over the next 5 years, here is a list of 10 pointers I need to follow better. (By the way, whenever I say “you” in the following list, I actually mean “me”.)

TEN WAYS TO AVOID PLATEAUING

1 – Acknowledge the Creator

Having an honest perspective on your lowly state and God’s exalted one is the best remedy for blind arrogance, closed-minded professionalism, and selfish ambition. Realize that (a) you’re not actually that great, and (b) If you are (you’re not), it’s due to God’s blessings on you–not your own merit.

Pray without ceasing. If God is the Creator of music, and if he will not give His son a stone when he asks for a fish, then beseech God for specific talents and skills… only make sure you ask with the right motives.

2 – Love correction and input

In a multitude of counselors there is victory–this means getting input from a lot of people is good. I know, you think you know way more about music than the plethora of people with musical opinions, but people with fresh ears and different tastes can often see your blind sides when you can’t. I guess that’s why they’re called blind sides.

3 – Identify and acknowledge your weaknesses

You always have them. If you can’t see what they are, that shows you’re gauging personal success with a broken barometer, and it’s probably pride.

4 – Never compare yourself to your peers

This will only produce, at best, a product percentage points above the accepted, and often, mediocre norm. Don’t ever think “I’m pretty good for my age” or “I’m pretty good considering my circumstances,” think… “How can I be better than the best?” Compare yourself to the greats, and you will always see something to improve on. If you don’t reach for the stars, you’ll never get past the clouds. (I should note that if your peers are actually your superiors, you would do well to acknowledge that fact.)

5 – Learn to imitate

Intentionally study and copy great composers’ music as an exercise (I don’t recommend trying to pass this music off as your own). Put yourself in the shoes of the greats and maybe you can learn how they walked. The more music you are familiar with, the more you can understand what creativity is.

6 – Get out of your comfort zone

Stretch your ear, your musical retention skills, your musical tastes, your technique, your knowledge–whatever you can think of. If you always play or write by ear, use sheet music. If you always compose at the piano, compose away from the piano. If you only ever write pop ballads, write a string quartet. If you only ever write symphonies, write something for big-band ensemble. Increase your knowledge in whatever ways you’re lacking.

7 – Study and learn things outside your chosen “field”

This sounds counter-intuitive at first, but a greater knowledge of theology, history, science, mathematics, biology, culinary arts, architecture or like disciplines can give you insights and perspective on your area of expertise you would never have realized being entrenched in that field alone.

8 – Write with clear objectives in mind

Don’t be a perpetual improviser or a wandering romantic. Have both long term goals with your music and short-term, piece-specific goals. “What mood do I need to communicate? What should the audience leave the theater feeling?”

(By the way, just blindly following that fuzzy “feeling” you get when you’re composing usually means you’re reverting to the things that automatically touch you in some way, i.e the things you’ve already decided you enjoy, i.e. the content of your ipod’s “most played” category.)

9 – Write music to please people other than yourself.

Isn’t this one of the goals, anyway? The opinions of people besides you are a much better barometer of how good you actually are. Musicians who exist merely to “express themselves” or “discover themselves” in music end up being the most unoriginal and unreasonable individuals.

10 – Do the work

Now that you know what you need to do to improve, do it… realizing that worthy goals aren’t reached without a boatload of effort. Self-improvement is an exercise and a discipline not devoid of enjoyment, but it’s hardly a bed of roses. Well, maybe if you include the thorns.

Instruments of Navigating History: Egypt – Part 2

Posted on February 14, 2011 at 10:42 pm, by Ben

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I bought East West/Quantum Leap’s RA some time ago, a sample library including a wide range of instruments from around the globe, from Australian Didgeridoo licks to Sitar to Highland Bagpipes. I have been so happy with it over the years that I jumped at the opportunity to buy another East West ethnic library, SILK.

While SILK offers a smaller spread of ethnic instruments than RA, featuring only Chinese, Indian, and Persian sounds, SILK focuses on making the instruments from those regions extra special… the sampling process was much more in-depth and the instruments are more playable in a greater number of articulations and styles–there are also more instruments per each region than in RA. For Navigating History: Egypt, I primarily pulled from SILK’s Persian palette, which offers a range of bowed, plucked, wind, and percussive instruments from the middle east–ideal for this project. Every SILK instrument also comes with great-sounding and mix-friendly phrases and articulations that were recorded by expert musicians at East West Studios and Capitol Studios.

The Indian instruments sounded good too, which I was expecting… but the Chinese winds and strings blew me away. I mean, they’re really great. Buying SILK has led me to half-hope that the next destination of the Navigating History team will be China, if for no other reason than having an excuse to splurge on arrangements saturated with these expressive and evocative sounds.

While we’re speaking about EW/QL, I should mention that there is a Valentine’s Day sale running currently offering 3 instruments for 60% off… there’s good stuff here and it ships on a 1TB HDD. This is a pretty good deal, but don’t cry if you miss it–soundsonline.com (the site that carries EW/QL instruments) has similar deals every couple months. Unless forced by a pressing project, never buy any of their instruments (newer libraries excluded) for less than 40-50% off. Waiting is usually worth it.

Back to the review… In sum, Silk is awesome. All the ethnic instruments you hear in the above demos that are bowed, plucked, or blown came from SILK. You can also hear some electronic sounds from KOMPLETE 7, a dash of ProjectSAM’s Symphobia, and a healthy helping of my favorite EW/QL library, Hollywood Strings.

And in keeping with the law of this site (EVERY POST MUST MENTION AUDRI BOTKIN AT LEAST ONCE), I’m including a little medley of cello music Audri recorded for me.

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Here’s how this sort of thing goes:

BEN: “Hey Audri, Can you play this for me?” (*plays little melody on keyboard)

AUDRI: (*plays little melody on cello) “Want me to add some grace notes?”

BEN: “YES… lemme get the recorder. Play around with that idea for a minute until I find it.”

Can you blame me? It’s Valentine’s Day! <3

Instruments of Navigating History: Egypt – Part 1

Posted on February 3, 2011 at 4:28 pm, by Ben

I will be putting up a couple posts on the instruments I used in the Navigating History: Egypt series, with clips from the score that feature the instrument in review. Look out for an upcoming Navigating History: Egypt DVD release.

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The human voice offers something no instrument does. Authenticity, life, passion… something the music for Navigating History needed.

I looked around for a while and found exactly what I was looking for. Sonokinetic offered a series of vocal packages that focused on quality vocal phrases and performed by vocal professionals from Middle-Eastern/African regions. For Navigating History, I used their Desert Voice, Tigris and Euphrates, and Voices of Israel packages. These are offered as a digital download, so if you have a decent internet connection, you don’t have to wait for shipping and handling when you purchase them.

I know you’re wondering: “Does having access to pre-recorded phrases and performances (rarely more than a couple notes long) take the composing out of composition?” Not really…having access to pre-recorded phrases and performances like those found in these libraries are not a replacement for creativity, because, at the end of the day, you still have to figure out how their inclusion in your mix meets your goals as the composer. Instead of sapping creativity, sounds like these can inspire it.

The only problem (if you call it a problem) is that there are so MANY performances in these three libraries it can take you a while to find exactly what you are looking for… but that is a price worth paying. Sometimes when writing an instrumental passage I’ll throw a short vocal phrase in the background because it adds an incredible sense of depth and authenticity to a mix even when the vocal is only there for a second! I think these libraries are at their best when they are used to add color and that extra %5 to your mix.

It’s good to keep in mind that this library, like most, was created to meet a very specific need in a composer’s sonic palette. Sonokinetic is a perfect model of this specialized philosophy– if you go to their site, you will see a number of other libraries that are very unique… crafted to perform one task extremely well. As composers, we tend to want every library to be the end-all-does-everything package, but libraries often float between mediocrity and un-believability when the developer tries to do everything at once.

The ethnic phrases in each of these three packages (when they’re not generic phonetic sounds) are sung in the language of their native culture, which can open up some humorous musical possibilities when you have more than one library going at the same time. At one point in the score, I actually had a woman singing snatches of an Israeli song layered on top of a man chanting the Quran. Ironic, but it sounded great.

To sum up, Sonokinetic’s libraries saved this project’s musical bacon. (Mmmm… musical bacon…)

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Another package I purchased was Native Instrument’s KOMPLETE 7, a very complete (hence the name, I guess) collection of sounds, audio tools, and effects, including the KORE 2 and KONTAKT 4 sample players. Over the last five or so years, KONTAKT has become the industry standard interface for sample libraries. Some of the bigger sample library players, like East West Quantum Leap and VSL, still use proprietary interfaces, but most of the other developers have jumped aboard the KONTAKT bandwagon because (a): everyone owns and knows how to use KONTAKT, and (b): it saves a developer a ton of time/money/energy to use a tried-and-true solution instead of developing his own bug-free, user-friendly and cross-platform-compatible interface.

Most places offer KOMPLETE 7 for around $500, which I think is pretty good bang-for-your-buck. Once you own KONTAKT, the door opens to a number of smaller or more specialized libraries from developers like Sonokinetic, Tonehammer, and others.

I also purchased Heavyocity’s Evolve Mutations Bundle from the Native Instruments online store. These sounds are split into four categories: Rhythmic Suites, Percussive Kits, Stings and Transitions, and Tonality and FX, which can add a very Zimmer/Bourne quality to your mix, as these are mostly electronic and processed sounds. Very cool.

Aside from the Evolve Mutaions Bundle, most of the ethnic drum loops, electronic sounds and drones I used in Navigating History came from KOMPLETE 7’s 90GB+ of sample content, which means it will be a while before I even understand everything I’ve got here and know my way around properly.

WARNING: Many of the 24 instruments and effects included in KOMPLETE 7 run inside the KORE 2 Player, which is 32-bit only at the moment. This means that if you are running a 64-bit OS you will need to make sure you have a solid way to run 32-bit plug-ins in a 64-bit sequencer environment. There are pieces of third-party software like jbridge which apparently bridge (ho ho) this gap pretty well if your sequencer doesn’t have a good way of doing this.

To be continued…

Would I Write the Music For…

Posted on January 21, 2011 at 9:23 pm, by Ben

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Here is an excerpt of a letter I recently received from a young composer. As it turns out, I am a young composer as well, but I digress.

Dear Ben,

Would you score a “non-Christian” film? Would you score How to Train Your Dragon? How about Inception? The Dark Knight? Star Wars? Why or why not?

I think you see where I’m going with my questions. I don’t want to compromise on principle, but at the same time I don’t want to go further than God would have me to, and myopically pursue my own standard of holiness.

Just as a Christian mechanic would fix a non-believer’s car, would I as a Christian composer grant the gravity and power that good music gives to a film to a non-Christian filmmaker?

Dear _______,

I understand where you’re coming from, as these are questions I have had to (and still do) ask myself.

Would I fix an unbeliever’s car? Assuming I knew anything about fixing cars, needed the money to support my family, or thought it was a good opportunity to minister to someone, then yeah. Sure I would.

But would I fix an unbeliever’s TANK that’s threatening Christian homes?

No way! But in reality that is what many Hollywood films are built to do. They’re spiritually deadly, often directed toward taking down Christian families, and are generally effective in that goal.

If I was a mechanic I should instead work to build a bigger, better tank to defeat Hollywood’s and defend what is right and true. This is what a “replacement” film industry would mean.

Would you score a “non-Christian” film? Would you score How to Train Your Dragon? How about Inception? The Dark Knight? Star Wars? Why or why not?

It is tempting to just accept the culturally defined labels “Christian” and “Secular” and let them decide for us what our involvement in film is going to be, but we really need to test both definitions against the standard of the Word to see where they stack up. Thus, every project will need to be examined on a case-by-case basis.

I would not score Inception, Dark Knight, or Star Wars because the messages of these films are not ones I could promote or advance through my involvement–at least not in good conscience. Not only do I think that these particular movies are destructive, but they drive me crazy on a personal level because the messages those films promote are ones I have had to deal with or fight against in real life and now have a very biased position against.

If I was offered How To Train Your Dragon, that would be a tougher decision–the same goes for Pixar’s Up. Both of these films have some elements I really like (notably, their music, which would not be there if I was), and both of these films include messages which seem to align more closely to the messages of scripture than those of, unfortunately, many “Christian” films I have seen! This is not meant to be a “kudos” for Pixar or Dreamworks as much as it is to be a rebuke for the Christian film industry.

But there are some obvious problems with these films. For example, in HTTYD I would have to decide if the father-son and Hiccup-Astrid relationships in the film were handled in such a way that I could associate myself with them and be comfortable facing my Creator on judgment day, expecting to hear “well done, my good and faithful servant.” I mean, the director would ask me to compose this big romantic swell when the teen lead gawks at the modern, domineering, and feministic love interest. The problems with that image run several layers deep.

But even if a film project is not thoroughly putrid and heinous, that doesn’t mean I have a sworn duty to accept the job. I run into a lot of Christians who don’t seem to believe that they’ve been given the authority to say “no” to a political candidate, job offer, or just the world in general… missing a key principle of Christian ambassadorship: Christianity has never been about doing what was merely “okay” but what was RIGHTEOUS and best.

“Can I justify investing the Lord’s time in this endeavor?” is at least as important a question as “Does this movie have problematic and immoral content?” and possibly more so. Any three-year old can be taught to point out objectionable elements X,Y,and Z, but few truly cultivate the discernment to know how to maximize their time on earth.

I’m an ambassador of Christ, and I can’t afford to spend my life solely doing stuff that any non-Christian can do—even if that “stuff” is not “bad.” Let the dead bury their own dead, and let’s be about the reconciliation of the world to Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:18,19,20), and be the leaders of projects that WE have control over and an industry that WE have control over. Let’s put ourselves in situations where WE can be the ones who choose, and the world has to settle.

My suggestion for you is this: dig into the Word more and more to discover what things please the Lord and what things don’t. This will build in you the right theological and moral framework for making those life-and-death decisions that will affect your life… and death.

What on earth would compel a film composer to turn down a $400,000 composition contract from PIXAR (!) besides religious conviction? Study to show yourself approved (2Ti 2:15), and make sure your religious convictions (everyone has them, atheists included) are sound.

Recently I’ve had to re-think my time-allocation paradigm as I’ve been convicted of these very things, primarily at Vision Forum’s Independent Christian Filmmaker’s Academy. For a long time I had just kind of assumed that I was going to be a music guy for… always, but I can’t be a slave to that assumption if the Lord would have more important things for me to do elsewhere.

As a result, I’ve turned down some composition opportunities recently that, in earlier years, I would have leapt for joy at. I didn’t say “no” because those projects contained grossly unacceptable content, but so I could tackle some non-musical endeavors that I believe are a more important investment of my (the Lord’s) time.

I’m glad you’re asking these sorts of questions now in your life instead of later. The man who plans to stand before kings (the skilled in their work [Pro 22:29], something every Christian must be) should determine where his convictions lie before he’s asked to be Hollywood’s cupbearer, mechanic, or musician.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Ben

Homeschool Dropouts: The Score

Posted on November 19, 2009 at 9:41 pm, by Ben

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The Western Conservatory of the Arts and Sciences just recently completed the documentary Homeschool Dropouts: Why the second generation is headed for a spiritual wasteland, for which I was privileged to write the music. You can view the trailer above.

Here are some screenshots I took of Cubase 4 in mid-project. The screenshots couldn’t show everything in my project windows, but it will give you an idea of what the software looks like. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

You can also hear a short medley of some assorted musical cues that found their way into the film.

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One thing I have noticed is that film and documentary music (though subject to the same fundamental principles of design), can be very different in the ways that they’re applied to their respective categories of visual media.

Homeschool Dropouts is a documentary, so most of the music I wrote for it plays under constant dialogue and keeps a very subdued and submissive role– almost exaggeratedly so, as most of the music is little more than ambient or atmospheric. Though I developed a couple different melodic motifs and musical textures that I could weave throughout the film, there was never really a place for a big, developed symphonic approach to melody or movement–most of the music would be pretty uninteresting or boring if you heard it on its own.

In the style and texture department, we were looking for a sound that could effectively represent the “serious” and almost “crisis” flavor of the film. The documentary was shot in dry, barren locations in Texas and New Mexico, so the music had to match that empty, wasteland feel. In addition to this, I was also looking to find a musical sound that would be quick to write, as I only had about 5 days to write most of the 30 minutes of music that appeared in the final version of the film.

Prominent Musical Elements in Homeschool Dropouts:

Low Drones and ambient rumbles
Ethnic flute phrases
Subdued electric guitar
Thunderclaps/Explosions*
Percussive Piano
Muted string sustains

*My secret weapon on this score was the site www.freesound.org, a user-based audio community which offers a very wide of sound effects for free. The sounds on the site are uploaded by its users, so the quality of the files is kinda hit-and-miss, but it is a great resource nonetheless. I wanted a very distinct audio signature that I could use at points of emphasis throughout the film, so I used www.freesound.org to download an assortment of explosions, thunderclaps, metallic clangs, engine noise (even rattling chains), and other sounds that I thought would add that extra punch and grittiness the music was missing.