Composing and Recording Music for Film

Film MusicIn an earlier post, I talked about the challenge and fun of “Composing Music to Poetry“, but recently I had the chance to take that experience to an entirely new level, when I was asked to write and play some music for a pivotal scene in an upcoming, full length movie.

A Remarkable Life” is Vohn Regensberger’s second film.  We’ve been friends for around twenty years, yet I first only knew Vohn as a talented acoustic guitarist and composer, working primarily with Brazilian music.  However, as we got to know each other better during our periodic discussions about music, I learned about his passion for filmmaking.

Vohn had been hard at work on this most recent work for awhile, so we had been out of touch.  When he called earlier this summer, I assumed the film was finished, and had asked how it came out.  It was then I learned that he was still in the work’s final stages, and that he wanted me to be a part of one of its last steps.

akinmusireAlthough most of the soundtrack had already been recorded, Vohn did not have music for the end of the movie’s second act, where the male and female leads were transitioning from an evening of bliss, to an emotional breakup.  Vohn had been searching for what kind of music would work in support of this pivotal scene, until one night he went to hear rising young jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire at Denver’s top jazz club, Dazzle.  Hearing a beautiful ballad with muted trumpet and piano gave Vohn the inspiration he was looking for, and thankfully he thought of me as the one who could help bring his new vision to light.

I, on the other hand, was not so sure that I was up to the task.  I felt very rusty after being away from my career for the last few years while caring for my elderly parents.  With the recent passing of my dear father, I was then currently caught up in the vortex of demands for settling the family business, selling a house, and moving to a new place.  I was already in overload mode.

This is where the reassurances of a good friend who knew me came into play…a friend with a known sense of musical integrity that I trusted.   While we had never actually worked together in the past, enough can’t be said about the value of time spent with a kindred spirit, bouncing off ideas about music and Life.  I trusted Vohn because he trusted me, and accepted the work.

Vohn was still writing the scene’s theme at the time, and when he felt he had a piece that would not only work for the particular scene, but also related to the music and structure of the rest of the film, he sent me a PDF of the basic leadsheet.  What I found was a beautiful little AABA tune, much like you would find in the Real Book.  Of course, that triggered my creative love of reharmonization, so I immediately began to work with the tune, adding my own ideas.  When I had finished, I requested that Vohn and I get together before going into the studio.  Before spending any time or money there, I wanted him to not only hear what I had done, but to see what degree of rust had been accumulating in my horn playing.

431069_308746602591608_1423491309_nWe had a great meeting, for not only did he like what I had done, he was also able to show me (using his laptop) the scene the music was to accompany.  I was very impressed with the two actors (Marie Avgeropoulos and Chris Bruno, both seen at left), and could see the challenge of coming up with something that supported their scene, while still working within the form of the musical themes.  The darker chords and voicings I had used seemed appropriate, but I could see that more tweaking would be in order to match the elements of the scene more exactly.

181291_306269529505982_1821992511_nI learned that the scene was done near the end of a long day of shooting at other locations, which had put everything behind schedule.  The two actors were tired, and there had been only a small amount of time left that the room would be available to the cast and crew.  Because the crew was rushed, the sound was not right, with too much ambient noise in the background (another reason the music was so essential, for without it, the actors would have to overdub their speaking parts to clean up the sound…something they never like to do, and for good reason).  The cameras only framed the two actors together at the very beginning and very end of their scene, with everything in between alternating between individual shots.  The camera perspectives did not always change with the dialogue…for often one actor would be speaking, while you watched the way the other was processing what they were hearing.  This increased the intimacy of the moment,  drawing you in more closely to what each person was experiencing at the moment.

With his laptop sitting on top of my piano, I tried playing in real time with the scene, as Vohn and I discussed specific places in the music that would work well with key points in the dialogue, action, and even facial expressions.  The scene was all over the emotional map, as the two characters struggled with a new, sensitive part of their young (and fragile) relationship.  Vohn talked about me recording the music without the visuals, and coordinating the two mediums by the basic timing alone, but I saw too many important cues that needed a more accurate placement, and was not confident in my ability to synchronize with them as precisely as needed without simultaneously tracking the video.

Once Vohn had left,  I copied a rough version of the movie on to my computer, and began tweaking the harmony and rhythm even more, to dial the music in with what was happening onscreen.  However, once he was able to get me a file of the scene alone (a much smaller file than the rough cut of the entire movie), I loaded it into Digital Performer (my sequencing software, shown below with a frame from the actual scene), which allowed whatever I did with the music to be replayed perfectly in sync with the visuals every time.  This is a far cry from the older days (in the not too distant past), where a separate track of SMPTE time code had to be recorded on tape (remember tape recorders?), often needing to leave an open buffer track to keep the hardware from accidentally being influenced by an adjacent track’s recorded music.  In my love-hate relationship with computers, that day was definitely a lovefest.Film in DP8

Lenny's Lament 2Vohn’s original lead sheet (partially seen on the left) also had a simple intro, showing two arpeggios with an interesting relationship to an underlying G pedal point…the G11 A Remarkable Life- Blog Exerpt 1could be also thought of as an FMaj7/G, and the G7b9 could be thought of a an FminMaj7/G.  Of course I had to put my own mark on things, but still wanted to use his idea to begin with.  Stripping things down, I at first eliminated the G pedal, and then played only the Maj7 interval between the outside voices of the first arpeggio (F and E), and then resolved that dissonance to the inner voices, A and C.  The concept of creating dyads in this way became not only the scene’s beginning, but also a recurring cell that could be varied later on according to the harmonic needs of the moment.  Note: for copyright reasons, I’m only showing small fragments of the music.

When Vohn and I had worked together at the piano, he knew exactly when the theme (the pickups C# and D to Letter A) was to begin, and there were a few other key places in the scene that worked extremely well with very specific points of the music.  However, as I really began my work in earnest, it started to become obvious that the musical form needed to be stretched or condensed, in order for those key points to coordinate exactly.  And as I became more familiar with the scene, other visual and dialogue cues also demanded appropriate musical support, and so the piece began to take on a much more definite form.

So the introduction did not feel rushed (which would have played against the tender moments of the scene’s beginning), I found an earlier entry point for the music to begin. The pace of the music improved, and also seemed to work quite well with the film during that part of the scene.  Via email, the director instantly agreed with my ideas, and gave me the green light to proceed in that direction.  Vohn is a very good director, and knows when to assert his will (like the exact moment the theme was to be introduced), or when to be open to new ideas from the actors (or in this case, with me).

The new, longer intro then needed more music, and the motivic cell of dyads I mentioned earlier was easy to develop in a way that suited each moment.  Also, many of the timing cues Vohn and I had worked out at the piano were arriving far too early in the theme’s second “A” section, so I presented Vohn with the idea of inserting more of the Introduction’s motifs between the first two A sections.  Once again Vohn instantly agreed with the choice, and I was able to continue the work without missing a step.  With the added music, the cues we had had worked out for the second A section now dropped into place much more easily, just as we had originally planned.

A Remarkable Life- Blog-1I love dyads!  They’re so opened ended, meaning they can suggest so many harmonic possibilities without really committing to any of them.  Example A  (above) shows the same opening motif, with the pedal G entering a little late…to delay the truer sense of Vohn’s Gsus11 (FMaj7/G), followed by…what would you call it?  Any chord that would have those three pitches in it would sound quite different if you filled in the remaining notes.  That’s why I like dyads…simple, yet complex…nebulous, yet distinctive.  After that a CMa7#5 that first only appears to be another Maj7 interval.  Example B develops the opening cell a little further, still with only three voices.  Example C’s melody begins with another descending 3rd, but for variety, the lower voice of the dyad always moves in parallel 7ths.

A Remarkable Life- Blog- 2Example D (above) begins with a Maj7th interval, but this time resolves in a darker fashion.  What is that…an Ab major chord with a b9, or a CminMaj7#5 chord?…followed by a minor 6th dyad in the second measure which changes color as the bass line ascends to the Eb.  After that, Vohn’s FminMaj7 chord is heard in its dyadic form. Example E has all of the notes of Example C, arranged slightly differently.

These examples could initially sound dissonant to your ears, but if played tenderly, with a bell-like tone on the piano, that effect is softened to…maybe bittersweet?

By the time the B section (the tune’s bridge) arrived, things were beginning to get pretty agitated between the two actors.  Here the new, darker harmonies came into play perfectly, although now the pace of the music had to accelerate, and turn on a dime to keep up with the action.

I should say that all during this time I tried to be aware of not stepping on the dialogue.  The Sound Editor could adjust the overall level of the music to the speaking parts, but still, the music should support, not compete with what is happening on screen.  I had to look for my openings, and jump in without the flow of the music being destroyed in the process.  None the less, I found meters and tempos needing to be be altered…but that often happens with music that stands alone, doesn’t it?  In this case, all of the complexities that needed to be incorporated did not happen consciously (as if I was saying to myself, “I need to change to 7/8 time at this point”), but occurred more spontaneously as I played the piano while watching the scene.  It was only after the fact that I realized what the music had done structurally to serve the scene.

Marie A.By the time the music reached the third and final A section, the actress was in full flight, drawing from her own life experience, and as a result, began improvising her own lines.  Director Vohn let her soar.  The music needed to reflect that anguish, and so the returning melodic theme received it’s third reharmonization, even darker than before.

I should say that throughout this scene, I had also been using piano voicings that stressed clusters…intervals of a major or minor 2nd (which are inversions of the interval of a 7th), sourced from one of the applied scales of the moment.  Rules of harmony still applied, but these types of voicings, combined with more exotic scale choices, worked well with the moods of the actors.

Chris B.Having said that, when the scene reached its meltdown, traditional harmony was abandoned in favor of an even more chromatic approach.  The melody began to be at first comprised of either descending half steps, or very wide intervals in the opposite direction.  When thematic material returned, it was presented with dyads a perfect 5th apart, while the bass became more melodic and thematic based itself, also doubled at the interval of a perfect 5th above.  The intervals between those two (actual four now) voices became more dissonant (minor 9ths, tritones, etc., which injected a lot more heaviness and testosterone into the scene).  As the scene reached its surprising conclusion, it was punctuated by a very dense cluster of several notes at the bottom of the piano.

A Remarkable Life- Blog- 3Because the Perfect 5th is found near the bottom of the overtone series, it strongly states a key center with its bottom note.  In Example F on the right, the two dyads (from the bottom up, Bb-F and E-B) suggest the keys of Bb and E…a dissonant tritone apart.  The same relationship exists in the second measure (Ab-Eb and D-E), although the two original dyads moved in contrary motion to get to the new voicing.  Example E  shows the top dyad of B-F# over three different dyads.  When heard over the C#-G#, a more consonant C#sus7 is suggested.  More dissonance returns with the underlying Eb-Bb (akin to an Ebmin with an added b6), and then C-G (a Cmaj7b5).  Although those chords have the same pitches as the example’s written notes, the Perfect 5th interval dyads bring to mind something different, and assert a much stronger and consistent mood than conventional voicings for those chords would.

logicsession2_090413Once in the studio, it was great to have the piano part already recorded as MIDI information in the sequencer.  The engineer, Tad Wheeler, had only asked for a MIDI data file from me, which he then opened in his sequencer of choice, Apple Logic Pro X  (I have been hearing good things about this sequencer, and seeing it’s editing capabilities in action now has me thinking of converting).

pianoteq-260639-1247623640Tad also wanted to use Pianotek 5 Pro sounds , which is a software based plugin instrument he prefers.  Pianotek models (rather than samples) the sound of several piano makes (Steinway, Bluthner, Yamaha, Bechstein, etc.), offering a huge number of variations (string length, hammer harness, detune, grands, uprights, vintage, to name just a few parameters) that do not tax the computer’s CPU.  I had played all of my parts on the new Yamaha CP4, so although I was impressed with Pianotek’s capabilities, from previous experience of a similar situation, I feared that the touch and sustain information of my performance on the CP4 would would not be interpreted by Pianotek in the same way it was played.  Sure enough, some of the notes were clipped, instead of being allowed to sustain, but luckily there were not too many notes so affected, and they were relatively easy to fix in Logic.

akgc4142.lFor recording the trumpet, Tad had chosen the AKG 414, a classic, large diameter condenser mic.  I had never used this mic on harmon muted trumpet, and was a little leery of the kind of sound we would get.  This had nothing to do with Tad or the AKG though, but was based more on the last studio experience I had, where I let the engineer have full reign on mic choice and placement.  On that day, he had chosen a ribbon mic (which I normally like), but the mic (the make and model I cannot remember) was placed too far away to achieve the intimate, resonant sound associated with this mute, and made iconic by the late Miles Davis (seen below).

Miles MutesToday, trumpet players also have the option of using a bubble mute (seen on the right, below), instead of the older Harmon design (seen with Miles, and on the left, below), which usually offers a bigger sound and improved intonation.  I still have my older Harmon mute though, just in case it could someday be the better choice.  Both mutes have an optional stem which is usually abandoned (because of the different sound it produces). Bubble mutes are made with different kinds of metals, and that day I chose to use one made of copper (rather than aluminum).

There is something called the bass proximity effect with microphones, where the sound becomes deeper  and more resonant as the source gets closer to the mic.  Add to that the fact that the harmon mute’s hollow shell actually is a resonant body with a different sound at the exit point of its small hole, and you have good reason to place a mic in tight for solo work.  Heard from a much greater distance, the sound the trumpet makes with this mute is entirely different, and has it’s place in the context of orchestrating for a larger ensemble…most notably when a section of harmon muted trumpets can be heard adding a nice bit of metallic sparkle to a big band.  We experimented with the distance between the mute and the mic, and eventually found the “sweet spot,” which drew smiles from both Vohn and Tad, and let me breathe a sigh of relief.  Near the end of the scene, where I had described the increased use of chromaticism and parallel 5ths, the trumpet’s harmon mute was discarded in favor of the open horn, to add more even more drama to the music.

As I had mentioned at the beginning of this post, as a trumpet player, I was out of shape.  There were some pitch problems in a few places, which were compounded by the tendency of the high resistance bubble mute to play sharp.  Although this was fixed by pulling out the tuning slide, I would have preferred a week’s worth of dedicated practice to center the sound and pitch.  In an ideal world that could have happened, but in real life you must do the best you can under the circumstances.

During the final playback in the control room, I heard one place where I had played a different note than what was supposed to be doubled by the piano (at that point I had been going by sound, rather than reading the music).  Neither instrument was playing a “wrong note”…they were just a half step apart (the major 3rd of the chord and the b9 an octave lower).  One quick adjustment of the piano part in Apple Logic, and the two instruments were perfectly together.  This was a case where the computer saved us some time, which is a invaluable commodity in the studio.  However, if this solution would not have worked musically, we would have gone back and recorded the trumpet part in that section again.

Sound Editing TheaterWith the recording done, it was then scheduled to be sent via the internet directly to the sound editing engineer in Los Angeles, where he predicted a three week turnaround for his work on the entire film.  He works in a very different kind of control room, for here the room and speakers are an actual movie theater, in order to get a truer sense of the venue the film will be shown in.  From there Vohn hoped to get the film submitted to the Sundance Film Festival before their August 29th deadline.  Besides a nice call from Vohn, thanking me for my work, I have not heard any more news about the film, although he hoped to find a theater in Denver to schedule its home town premiere.  I’ll post an announcement of that date and location as I learn more.

There’s a Facebook page for the film too: (, so based on my history of usage with that social media, maybe you’ll know about the premiere before I do!

Just as I was finishing this post, Vohn texted me, saying that “A Remarkable Life” will have a limited showing (for those who helped make the film) on October 2nd, at the Landmark Theater near I-25 and Bellview.  That will be a very special night at the movies for all of us!

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5 Responses to Composing and Recording Music for Film

  1. Bob, Thanks for sharing your experience, every bit of this is worth taking more time to consider. I especially liked the part about Maire’s improvising and how you worked to make your arrangement work with her. Truly using two creative moments to come together.
    I’ve just recently become familiar with Maire as an actress and believe she will be someone we will see in many features to come.
    What a great take on exploring one’s talents and integrating it into the entertainment world touching on everything from composition, performance, instruments, technology, and collaboration. Thoroughly enjoyed hearing about your experience.

    • bobgillis says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Brad…and that it coincidentally happened to mention an actress you’re familiar with. The project truly was a wonderful opportunity to use what I’ve learned over the years.

  2. Pingback: A Music for Film Voyage Revealed

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