Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Ace Wonder: Sketches and Ideas

Posted on September 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm, by Ben

Artwork by Matt Sample Ace Wonder Sketches by BenBotkin

Every musical project requires a certain amount of preliminary experimentation and ground work before you can begin on the final thing. For Ace Wonder, I spent a long time working up an assortment of little musical ideas and sketches based on the adjectives and vision the director (John Moore) articulated for me. (At this point in the process, I had also read the script and was getting little clips of the film to wet my musical appetite, but did not have an edit of the film.)

I immediately started versing myself in the pieces of music that possessed the flavor and feeling that John particularly liked– I also had a number of ideas of what existing pieces of music would capture the essence of his verbal descriptions. Wading through a lot of existing music first can really help the composer understand the musical tastes of the director. This is crucial. John’s understanding of what “Crazy- madcap-science-steampunk- action-adventure-detective-noir-mystery-music ” sounds like may differ greatly from my own, or may not be fully formed yet.

The pool of inspirational material we dove through was pretty wide and ran quite deep. John Williams, John Powell, Danny Elfman, Michael Giacchino, Randy Newman, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Michael Kamen and more– all these composers and their scores were frequently referenced in our dialogue as we tried to mold and define that Ace Wonder “sound.” If someone asked me what my main source of inspiration for this project was, I would have to hand them half of my music library.

At least that’s what it felt like.

I wrote of dozens of these short, rough musical sketches, experimenting with everything from instrumentation to rhythm, melody, and meter. It took anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple hours to sketch one of these up, so every couple days I would send John a new batch of samples for him to peruse and pass judgment on–every piece of feedback I received told me a little bit more about the way John’s mind ticks in regard to music.

After a while of this, we ended up having a pretty good sense of the feel and flavor for the music and had worked through melodic ideas and the use of themes throughout the film. I was ready to begin scoring to picture, which at that point was nearing the “locked edit” stage.

New Brass Library

Posted on June 10, 2011 at 1:18 pm, by Ben


CineSamples just released their long-awaited and eagerly-anticipated (by me, at least) CineBrass. I payed the very reasonable $399 price tag yesterday and downloaded the 8GB of content which installed easily and runs in Kontakt 4 (4.2.3 required) as smooth as butter. This musical sketch below is the first thing I played around with after loading up some patches, and though it’s still quite sloppy, you can get a sense of the playability and credibility of these brass instruments.

CineBrass Adventure by BenBotkin

The interface is really simple and intuitive–there are many articulations but few patches to hassle with, and of course, it runs in Kontakt which just makes everything nicer. The first-play experience is incredible. The velocity-sensitive key-mapping in the “articulations patches” is brilliant. I’ve long wanted to carry a staccato trumpet or horn line and end the phrase with a marcato note, but having to load another patch and sync the two so it sounds like part of the same performance is always a headache and often a waste of time. In Cinebrass, you can control the length of your staccato articulations by the velocity of your hit, which is awesome.

This is by far the best brass library I have played or heard to date. We’ll see what East West’s Hollywood Brass has to offer when it is released next month, and though it will probably sound great, I somehow doubt that it will match the playability or deadline-friendly conveniency of CineBrass. Maybe I’ll be eating my words in a month, but kudos to the CineSamples team for producing an exceptional product that not only does better what other current libraries do decently, but one that expands the horizon of what is possible with sample technology.

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– (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…

The Music of Up

Posted on July 7, 2009 at 10:58 pm, by Ben

“That’s what I love about Pixar. It’s always about the story. That’s where every project begins, with the story — not the marketing.” — Michael Giacchino

I’m generally not that excited about filmscores that come out these days, but I know that every summer I can expect at least one that’s a refreshing break from the monotonous norm. This is because of Pixar. The studio that consistently produces the highest-caliber films today also parents many of the best scores because their emphasis on story over spectacle carries over into the production of the music.

Pete Docter chose Michael Giacchino to compose the score for Up, Pixar’s latest film, because Michael had not only cultivated a good working relationship with Pixar during his work on The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but also because he understands his role as a composer to be in subjection to the film’s story and not independent of it.

“It all starts really with just watching the movie and talking to the directors about the emotional arcs of the movie and the character development in the movie.

It [Up] is essentially a love story about Carl and his wife, so it was just about going there and finding out [what] that means. What I ended up doing was doing this very simple waltz that grows and twists and turns through the whole course of the film. As Carl goes on this adventure, everything just changes, [and] the music changes with him and his character as he develops and he grows.” – Michael Giacchino

Where most composers would have taken one look at Up’s beautiful and exotic scenery and hastily plunged into the composition of fanfares and exiting adventure music, Giacchino’s story-based approach to composition allowed him to step back and see what the film is really about. The visual setting for Up is incredibly lush and beautiful, but Giacchino didn’t let that dictate the direction of the music.

As Giacchino stated earlier, the film is really a love story between Carl and Ellie, so the two primary melodies in Up, Ellie’s Theme and Muntz’s Theme, were portrayed in the film as being representative of Carl’s foremost affections and the real life conflict he experienced between the two. Ellie’s theme depicts the simple joys of married and family life, contrasted with the reckless glorification of adventurism for its own sake that Muntz’s theme signifies. Watch how the two play off each other over the course of the film as Carl is emotionally buffeted, torn between childhood affections and the call of duty.

On a stylistic level, a much smaller instrumental sound was utilized than is common today. Whumpin’, thumpin’ percussion was replaced with small string ensembles and woodwinds. How often do you hear a muted trumpet, piano and solo violin in the same scene today? The uniqueness factor alone made the music striking and evocative.

“It’s a very small ensemble for the most part. Stand-up bass, guitar, violin, clarinet — those are the main pieces. We wanted that intimate kind of feel. There’s a tendency in animation to go huge, this idea that just because it’s an animated film it needs overbearing music to convey any emotion. And I’ve always hated that. If it’s a good story, you just need something simple to make it work.” – Michael Giacchino

The lightness and simplicity of the music really adds to the appeal of the film. The fact that you are not hearing an unrealistically large and exaggerated musical construct actually makes it easier to relate to Carl’s character and his struggles.

“Simple melodies are the best” is a statement you have probably heard time and time again. This is generally true, but what most composers don’t tell you is that they’re also the hardest to write. A good composer can write an appealing, unique and memorable melodic idea with the restriction 5-10 notes in a set key provides and come up with a powerful and emotional end product. A bad one has to find “originality” by rejecting every structural element of traditional composition that could potentially let two waveforms sound alike.

Giacchino’s ability to write a simple, catchy melody with appeal is yet another testament to musical proficiency that leads some to tout him as the next John Williams. Though I wouldn’t go quite that far (at least not yet), his focus on story does remind one of Williams more than any of his colleagues or contemporaries. And it’s this focus that’s looking to solidify the working relationship between Giacchino and Pixar as one the most memorable and successful ones in film history. Here’s a quote by another of Giacchino’s close work associates:

“Michael is not only an exceptional composer, he also has an amazing, acute sense of story. He is someone who I talk through story with, who I show early scenes to, who I will show a script at a very early stage to. He is as valuable as a producer as he is a musician and composer.” –J.J. Abrams

The score for Up is fantastic and the best I have heard in a good while. Though popularity is not necessarily the mark of excellence, this film is a favorite with virtually everyone who sees it, and has accomplished a rare feat in making big bucks at the domestic box office while getting high marks from the critics.

Though the film is excellent on its own, I can’t help but wonder how it would have fared without the score that I anticipate being the strongest of the year.