Paul Leonard-Morgan is an Emmy nominated, BAFTA winning, and Ivor Novello nominated dynamo composer, who is revered for his distinctive hybrid of lush orchestral arrangements and pulsing electronica. Starting off as a highly sought after string arranger and producer in Glasgow, Paul morphed into the not-so-secret weapon behind an array of popular films and television series, such as Limitless, Dredd, Despicable Me 2, Errol Morris' Wormwood, The CW's reboot of Dynasty, and many more. He has been commissioned to create majestic original works for the likes of The Royal National Theatre, The US Olympic Committee, Disneyland in Shanghai, and Disneyworld in Florida. In our exuberant chat, Paul opened up about his tunnel vision approach to composition and bringing pop sensibility to the forefront of his masterpieces.
You are originally from Scotland. What impact did your upbringing and environment have on your introduction to music making?
Being in Scotland was a massive influence. You're surrounded by folk music, which has got this weird little modal scale that has a flattened 7th. I think that has subconsciously and subliminally affected the way I create melodic content. People always go "Wow, you write really strong melodies." It comes from that folk music background. I never played folk music myself, but I was surrounded by it for over 20 years, living in Glasgow where there’s a very strong Celtic vibe with Scots and Irish.
The Glasgow music scene was, and still is, absolutely thriving. Right after I graduated from The Royal Scottish Academy of Music, which is now called The Conservatoire, I spent a lot of time at a studio called Cava. It was basically the one and only studio at the time and everyone just hung out there. It had two big recording rooms. Belle and Sebastian worked on their album in Studio 1 for over a year. The Blue Nile had spent about three years in there. They just about bankrupted their record company!
In the other studio, bands like Snow Patrol, Mogwai, Isobel Campbell, and Arab Strap would record there, along with the likes of Simple Minds and Texas. All these great bands. Its was such a scene. I think a lot of people always go "Oh, you bloody name dropper.” but I just happened to be there and got to work with some of them. We all hung out together.
I rented a room in the back of Cava after graduating. I had been studying film music, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. My mum’s a music teacher and I always loved writing music. I was given the opportunity to score a couple of short films. In the room next to me was a fantastic composer called Craig Armstrong. We got chatting and he inspired me. He did films like Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. He’s just a freaking genius. He's always been a massive support to me. At the time, he was working on a film called Plunkett & Macleane, which was the kind of film I wanted to do. The score was made up of strings and beats. It wasn't traditional orchestral. I'm classically trained, so I'm used to working with 100 piece orchestras. I almost feel it's my mission in life to bring orchestral music to people who are more into dance or bands. Similarly, I love bringing beats to people that may be more classically oriented. It’s so refreshing when people enjoy the mishmash and crossover.
If I hadn't met Craig, and I hadn't met the bands, God knows what I’d be doing. Soon after, I started working on some short films and the director, oddly enough, loved Snow Patrol. I happened to be doing a remix for the band with Richard Colburn, who is the drummer for Belle and Sebastian. We called ourselves The Magic Eight after a crappy Magic Eight Ball we had lying around. He was like "Oh my God, I love Snow Patrol! Come do my film!”. Funny enough, that director was nominated for an Oscar last year for his latest feature. When you just start out at the beginning of your career, you don't know where the hell your path is going to take you. All you know is that you're passionate about what you do and go with it.
As a music producer and arranger, you have collaborated with the likes of Mogwai, Snow Patrol, Belle and Sebastian, and No Doubt. How is the creative process different for you in this role?
I originally started off doing string arrangements for bands. Isobel Campbell was the first. Bel had just left Belle and Sebastian. She just wanted to do her own thing. She really loved tracks like "These Boots Were Made for Walking,” Nancy Sinatra, and all those beautiful Ronnie Hazlehurst arrangements. We would just go and study them, thinking "Right, he uses these kind of strings. He uses this kind of brass." We would record all the instruments together to get that 60’s room sound.
I just started learning about it and people kept coming to me for string arrangements for their bands. Next was a band called Fried. There was a Scottish guy living in London named David Steele. He was in the Fine Young Cannibals. From a technical aspect, he would say "Right, I want it to be this Curtis Mayfield kind of vibe." He would take it to the extreme and research which studio it had been recorded in. It was at an old Sony studio on Whitfield Street in London. The studios were shut as they had closed down because Sony had sold them. We managed to speak to the security guard and got in there. We literally took an 12-piece string section to record in the middle of the night. It was like guerrilla recording session. It was brilliant. The passion you get when you're with a bunch of musicians is just awesome. I could be with another great Scottish band, Texas, at Abbey Road, recording my 50 piece orchestra or whatever. Every studio has a different buzz and it's awesome when you get to work with like-minded people.
The sounds of the rooms and the sounds of the ensembles really start giving you a vibe into what works and what doesn't from a pop viewpoint. I use the term “pop” from the loosest point. When you’re writing arrangements, it’s not like you’re writing your own compositions, but you are certainly bringing your ideas to the table, because you’re writing counter-melodies on top of their tunes. There was a bit of a learning curve when transitioning into film composing. You're taking those pop sensibilities from working with bands and then the film guys go "Oh my God, you work with those guys! Come and work on this film because we love that band's sensibility.” Even now, look at the crossover. You've got people like Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead doing There Will Be Blood. It is refreshing. People used to chase these certain composers but now, anything goes. People care about whatever works for their film or television production, which I think is bloody brilliant.
You are known for your hybrid sound, specifically fusing electronic music with orchestral arrangements. How did you cultivate it? What instruments do you actively play?
I play them all very badly! Everyone always laughs. My main instrument was always the recorder. I had gotten into playing my recorder and did a diploma on it, but there's only so much you can do with that. I played the Bach Brandenburg concertos in front of 1,000 people with a Baroque orchestra behind me - very cool! Piano was my other main instrument. Most of the time, it is what I start playing on when I compose. I also play most string and wind instruments, but none to a concert level!
I’ve never liked pigeon holes, which probably makes me quite tricky to place. In Los Angeles, I find that people like to be able to say "Hey, you're the animation guy," or "You're the thriller guy," or "You're the electronic guy." It makes perfect sense because maybe they are working on a thriller that they've invested $150 million dollars in. It’s understandable that they’d want to make sure that they've got the guy for that.
I was doing some short films on The Minions for Universal/Illumination about three or four years ago, which was fantastic fun. I've never really done an animated film before. The following year, I was asked to score Walking with Dinosaurs, which is a huge Fox animation with an $80 million dollar budget. I'd never tried my hand at such a large animation, but I knew that I write really strong melodies and have lots of fun in my music. It seemed like a natural progression from the Minions. My God, it's the schizophrenic, energetic stuff - it’s totally me!
Going back to that whole hybrid crossover concept, I could never see why classical music has to be classical. The word "classical" scares people off. Why does dance music have to be what people think of as rave music, or what is now EDM?
Every single genre has its strong point. In the end, music is music and people want to listen to it. Let's try something different. I go back to when I would be recording a string arrangement and the band would be in the room. I would say "Stop sitting there in the control room behind the mixing desk. Bloody come on in and just sit here. Don't say anything, because obviously, we're recording, but sit here and soak up."
I tell you, standing in front of, whether it's a 100 piece orchestra or it's a string quartet, and hearing them play your music is indescribable. The vibrations you feel while you are conducting your music is just phenomenal. Those vibrations and the harmonics of the instruments and so on, it's just impossible to describe, so I'm not even going to bother trying. The bands would be there and you could see some of them actually burst into tears. These big guys with their huge tattoos and everything. They're like "Oh my God, this is fantastic."
Similarly, you go to the classical fans who love Wagner, Mahler, or Beethoven. Then they hear some stuff that has got either dance beat or maybe it's just got real drums over it. Add on those electronic synthesizer sounds and it doesn't matter if it's a Donna Summer track from the 70's, or whether it's up to alt-J now. Let’s mix it up! You shouldn't have to try to define it or try and do what you think other people want. It's like trying to second guess a director. There's no point. You might as well just do your thing, and then you get into a discussion. That's what a collaboration is about.
Your work on the CW's reboot of 1980's soap opera smash, Dynasty, has this cavernous confidence and is incredibly contemporary in your choice of drum programming and synthesizers, which almost feel like they've been plucked from the same palette as the electronic pop songs we hear on the radio. What were the creative parameters that were presented to you? How would you describe the sound you've created?
That's the most elegant description of my work ever. Dynasty has been a tricky one because you’ve got such a classic visual property, which I used to watch in the 80’s. My parents always sent me to bed at 8:30 pm and Dynasty was on at the same time. Dynasty would be on at 8:00 pm to 8:50 pm, so I would sneak downstairs to watch the last 15 minutes through the crack in the door. What is so hilarious is that so many other people have exactly the same story!
I remember watching but didn’t remember much in detail about it. I was a huge fan in a soapy kind of way. A lot of people think of it as a guilty secret, but I'm like "No, it's not a guilty secret at all." You can work on huge budget films or smaller artistic films, but what’s special about Dynasty is you just watch it every week and say "This storyline is outrageous." This is Dynasty for the Instagram generation. It's aspirational, but it's not patronizing.
When we were trying to come up with a sound, I remember talking to Sally, the show runner, and Brad, the director of the pilot. I said "You know, I picture quite a percussive sound. I want it to be quite poppy." A lot of those sounds are directly from the pop world. I like it when you don't know whether it's a pop song, or whether it's my soundtrack. I knew it should have strong melodic content. On a lot of these TV series, you've got a lot of source music in there and a ton of pop music. I don't like it when you go "Oh! Now it's the score... Oh! Now it's the soundtrack.” It's the same in films as well. I like it to have this sense of fluidity and just started writing away.
If we're going to focus on this percussive thing, we've also got to remember the scale and the epicness of it. The original version had this humungous orchestra, but I didn't see this as being an orchestral soundtrack. It would have overwhelmed it and gotten rid of the shine and glossiness. I said "For me, I'm picturing this as an intimate quartet. You'd have that in a lot of my pop tracks. I'll do string arrangements for anything.” I suggested going in and doing a weekly or bi-weekly session to work with the quartet, then layer that over the beats. I kept the beats fresh and uptempo, as well as the synthesizers. The quartet would be giving it the edge to give it a nice shimmer over the top. They said I could have whatever I wanted, but I didn’t want tons of strings. Sometimes, people try to add on things just because they have the budget for it but I didn’t want it to be too over-the-top.
We went to record at the legendary Capitol Studios, which has been home to artists like Frank Sinatra. It’s where they record all the orchestra playing backstage for the Oscars. The sounds of those rooms are phenomenal. There is something about being there that makes you think of its history. We recorded the main theme there, which was a nice hark back because the score’s done a modern twist on the 80’s. We brought in sounds from my analog synthesizers and listened to bass lines from around then. I thought "This is going to fit perfectly because the 80's are exceedingly cool." Go ask Calvin Harris! We were bringing the 80's up to date, not going for a retro feel. You're using those Moogs, but then adding in the quartet, so it never sounds dated. Using real instruments gives it that timeless feel, but then you add the pop beats on top. It’s a real mishmash. It's got that timeless feel too because you're using real instruments and then adding pop beats on top of it.
A fantastic friend of mine, TROY NōKA, also known as T-Wiz, came in to do some beats on the main titles with me. He’s a Grammy Award-winning producer. I'd known him for a few years and I asked him "Hey, fancy coming in and doing some things?”. Whenever I want to add something out of my comfort zone, I like to bring in collaborators. I'm really cool at drum programming, but there are certain genres like hip-hop, where it makes all the difference to get someone who actually works in that style all the time. So, I brought Wiz in for the main theme with me. He made some beats and I did some synth beats as well, then we brought in the orchestra. That was a starting point. Like any other soundtrack, it started developing. The trap vibe just seemed right because it’s got this modern feeling.
It is genuinely hard when you take something so many people know about like Dynasty, but many years have gone by. It's bloody hard to come up with something original for something as well known as that without everybody going "Oh, that doesn't sound like the original." This score isn't like the original, but we’re still channeling sensibilities from the old version. Dynasty examines a very affluent, luxurious lifestyle, a tumultuous family dynamic, and the destruction that results from distrust between people. In your opinion, what is it about this narrative that is relatable and accessible to viewers? How do you illustrate those themes with your score?
There are so many ways you can develop this. We’ve had to come up with thematic material for every character in a modern context. Think about soundtracks back in the day… If you picture John Williams’ score to E.T. or Raiders Of The Lost Ark, he had such a long time to create his thematic material. Nowadays, people's attention spans are like goldfish. You have three seconds to come up with something that the Instagram generation (myself included!) is going to identify with. You have to come up with something either visually, through the content in the actual script, or musically. You have to have show off something that hooks people in.
Fallon is one of the main characters and her main theme is a finger click. You'll say "A finger click is not a theme!”, but it really is, trust me! Fallon has this swagger, this confidence that shines when she comes through. Her character is obviously pretty emotionally insecure as well, which leads to her flirting with so many people. She comes off as a go-getter business girl. For me, it all started with this finger click. She comes in at the start with a long voice-over at the opening of the pilot.. We ended up scoring this so many different ways. By the end, we stripped it right back to the finger click for the first 30 seconds of the whole thing. This part is now what we call the Dynasty dum-dum’s. It's very hard to explain because when described, it doesn't sound like it would be a very strong melodic theme.
As you watch it, you start hearing these elements. I like using these little motifs. In Limitless, it was the major minor third. It’s getting across a hook that finds its way into people’s heads quickly. By looking at what’s on the screen, you automatically know when someone’s sound is working and when it isn’t. As soon as you hear those fingers clicks, you know it’s going to lead to Fallon showing up. You just know if it’s working, I guess - you can feel it. As soon as you hear those finger clicks you know it's something doing with Fallon is going to come in. I always remember Pharrell Williams saying people should use more and more claps in pop songs. It's your route to a number one hit because everyone has a reference of gospel and church music, which is actually a pretty cool idea. The key is to have strong thematic material to support the accents like pizzicato strings played by an actual quartet and a melodic hook. We’ve got little bits for the comedy moments. It’s about gradually coming up with tunes for people, seeing how all fit together, and how they evolve with the storytelling of the whole season.
You also composed for Errol Morris' upcoming Netflix docudrama miniseries, Wormwood, which launched in December and was awarded a NYT Critic's Pick from The New York Times. He is known for high drama and showcasing idiosyncrasies in a chilling, informative manner. How did you originally become involved and what is your relationship with Errol like? What was your musical approach?
I obviously blackmailed Errol to get him to use me. HA! Errol is a freaking genius, that’s all I'll say. As is Steven Hatahway, his editor and producer. He had previously used some music of mine in some short films that he had done, which were about Nobel Prize winners. That's pretty much how it started. I got to know Steven quite well. Then Steven and Errol had phoned up about The B-Side, which was our first project together. You can watch it on Netflix and the soundtrack just got released. It was great fun, but it was slightly daunting to work with someone like Errol because he is one of the greatest filmmakers alive. He’s become synonymous for working with Philip Glass, but I felt I just needed to do my own thing. Errol and Steven were hugely supportive in that.
It was a humbling experience. I went off and began writing. I soon realized that he was just a phenomenal collaborator. They approached with “Alright, here is the subject matter” and I went off in various directions. On The B-Side, it was about analog vs. the digital world. I scored something incredibly weird and wonderful, basically using one take of everything. A lot of the time, you’re recording in the studio, cut five or six takes, then patch them all together to get the perfect sound. I used weird instruments like a Pump Organ, and it just seemed to fit instead of being a clinical digital soundtrack. For The B-Side, the subject was Elsa Dorfman, who is this fantastic photographer. She takes life-sized Polaroid pictures. You should see the camera, it's huge. Polaroid is no longer making that paper, so it basically ended her career and ultimately, her livelihood.
I wanted to create something that emphasized that limitation in the context of music. I had ProTools, but I also had the old analog vibe with the reel to reel. I did everything in one take. They were like "Uh, this is weird. Can't we fix that?”. I was like "Nope. If you don't get it the first time, that's all you get.” I wanted the score to feel like how photography works. It was a lovely mishmash of beautiful stuff. I have no idea where it came from, but it was absolutely gorgeous to write.
I got on great with Errol, so they tapped me up when Wormwood came along. It started off as a feature for Netflix, but it became so juicy that they turned it into a six-parter. Incredible subject matter, focusing on MK Ultra, mind control, and the CIA. The story follows this man whose father may or may not have committed suicide. The son has pursued his father’s story for his entire life. With Errol, your collaboration draws you into the filmmaking and it pushes you in a direction outside of your comfort zone. For some projects, you can write certain kinds of music with nice melodies until the cows come home, which is relatively easy. For Wormwood, you’ve got this classical soundtrack with piano and quartet, but you also have to convey the character of this man whose mind is getting absolutely twisted. I recorded with Yoed Nir, a fantastic electronic cellist in New York that plays with Regina Spektor. I put his work on top of some unusual guitar, which created a really druggy soundtrack that contrasts with the drama. Add on a load of weird analog synths and it’s a pretty strange one. But the music, like the series, leaves you feeling twisted and paranoid - really on edge.
Errol calls this project the "everything bagel". It’s got something in it for everybody. We worked on it for a year and I still can’t quite explain it. It’s factual. It has actors recreate actual conversations that occurred mixed with actual documentary footage of Errol interviewing the son. What’s wonderful is that you know you can’t watch an interview for six hours without losing the audience. That's the magic of Errol’s storytelling. You’re watching him and suddenly, you’re in the re-enactment and you’re seeing it from the father’s viewpoint played by Peter Sarsgaard, as opposed to the son’s point of view in present day. You go on this journey of the son telling his father’s life story and you go behind the scenes. It’s phenomenal, slightly scary, and quite harrowing.
Working with Netflix was fantastic. They tried to submit it for the Oscars, so we cut it for them and did a theatrical release at the same time. The way you’re pushed creatively with someone like Errol is unmatched. I remember him coming on the phone and saying "Okay, Who have you stolen that cue from?”. I replied, "What do you mean?”. He said "It's bloody amazing! If you carry on like this, you'll never need to work with me again." I was like “Thanks for that, Errol!”.
Come to think of it. What is it with me and drugs? I've got slow-mo drugs in Dredd, I've got the brain-pill NZT in Limitless, and now I've got LSD and the CIA...
You worked on both the feature film and the television series adaptation of Limitless. Sonically, you've mastered that futuristic and introspective soundscape of unrelenting suspense. What were the initial musical components you experimented with?
Limitless was a really fun one. It was such a long time ago now. It’s funny when you revisit and listen to things you’ve made. Randomly, you’re in another studio and you'll put on a mix just to get used to the sound of the studio if you're mixing or something. Limitless is one of the ones Rupert Coulson, my mixer in London at Air, uses time and time again. When I go in and listen back, it still sounds really fresh, which is quite unusual. You know when you get an electronic soundtrack, a lot of the time it can sound dated quite quickly. Much of the time, I like using either of my vintage synthesizers from the 80’s so it sounds nostalgic. They are all analog, as opposed to using something to sound cool and of the moment. I like to combine that with orchestral sounds. The challenge when doing something electronic is something that can be timeless. When people hear the drums, you don’t want them to automatically go "Oh, that was done in 1994, 2007 or whatever."
I remember them sending me a few visual clips. I just went away and wrote three pop tracks. One was called Happy Pills. I just sent them and said "Look, I haven't actually scored anything to your picture. Sorry. I was inspired by watching the footage and reading the script. Here you go.” I don't often find that reading the script helps that much because one person’s version is blue and someone else thinks it’s green. Your take on it can be entirely different and misleading. When you actually see what they have in mind visually, it’s more concrete. You automatically get it and go “A-ha! Okay."
Around that time, I started working with a fantastic producer, Spike. He mixes Duran Duran, Madonna, and Maroon 5. He had asked me to come and do some synth programming for No Doubts' album. I literally used some of the sounds I’d created around that time. What's fantastic about the 80's analog stuff is that you cannot replicate that sound. I've got a billion soft synths, but there is something about those original sounds. I used my Rhodes keyboard and my Mellotron, which I'm just addicted to. All those soft synth sounds can be replicated and they sound “in the box”. There’s something about the real thing.
I had things like the old Crumar Orchestrator and combined it with my mini Moog. I used Arturia, which worked really well as far as the ability to integrate them. The hard thing is when someone wants to change a cue. It used to be like "Aw, fuck. I've lost the sound because it's taken me ten hours to set up." The wonderful thing about Arturia is that it’s still there and you can record. It takes bloody ages to create your own presets. I think that’s also what makes me sound different. It's easy enough just to call up patch 101. It sounds great but you're not going to get that originality, as opposed to really delving in the box and recording, reversing, doing all of this work. For me, it's always been a case of "Look, go have some fun and don’t try to replicate other people.”
You have received a lot of love for your work on the science fiction action film, Dredd, which captured the essence of a post-apocalyptic world. How did you manufacture those industrial, haunting sounds?
Everyone always said, "Oh, how'd you get that bass sound?" A lot of people are quite precious and would say "I can't tell you. I'd have to kill you." I literally layered three bass sounds together and against each other and filtered and processed the hell out of each one. I was like "Well, I've reached 10 on the decibel scale. Let's see if I can get 20 or 30." The combination of that created this really fat, fuzzy, and sobby sound. It was all analogs.
On Dredd, it started off as a something of a band soundtrack and I just wasn’t feeling it. Then it became quite dance-y, but it quickly got a little but too dance-y. It had a lot of really nice elements, so I just went "Sod it. I'm just going to start scoring it again." I went in and just did another one with all analog synths, and Alex Garland, the director, really liked it. He really helped me shape that sound. There was a lot of mini Moog in there.
I just loved everything about that film. One of the tracks was called Mini-Guns. Aaron, who is one of my guitarists, came in and recorded a part doubling the bass. That track had guitar on it and then we had Ross Hamilton in Glasgow put on this real thick fuzz bass. We literally had a Moog bass playing a keyboard kind of part as opposed to a bass part. He just stuck on an octave and it sounded quite like Muse in the end. It really rocked it up. There was something about that cue, where it just had millions of machine gun fire coming down. Nothing was cutting through in the top end. It just felt like the only thing that would come through was that fuzzy massive bass.
What are your creative rituals? How do you prepare yourself for a new project?
Normally, I go into this despondent mood of thinking I’ll never be able to come up with anything. I was with my dad after I’d done a soundtrack called Galápagos, which was this project for BBC, a Planet Earth kind of thing. I'd actually managed to get my mum, who's this fantastic flutist to play on it at Angel Studios in London. After hearing it, my dad turns to me and goes "I don't think you'll ever write anything as good as that again." I'm like "Dad, don't say that!”, but those thoughts always stay in the back of your head. He's not musical at all and I know he meant it in a really nice way as the ultimate compliment, but it just haunts you for the rest of your life. Imagine hearing “I mean, it's good, but it's no Galápagos”!
I don't really have rituals. I watch the film a couple of times without temp music in it, then I'll just switch it off and go for a run or a walk, I love life outdoors, which you don’t get much of when you’re writing soundtracks. The only time you’re going to get it is at the very start. Doing that clears my head. I don’t keep watching the film over and over because I find it's very easy to become immune to the pictures after a while. You watch it on mute the whole time and there's no real need because you know what's going on there. The scoring to picture part you can take care of afterward, as far as the moments like he's pulled the gun, or now they're having the kiss, or now there's the chase.
Coming up with your themes, coming up with the sound, that's the hard part of any soundtrack. Once you've got the sound locked in, it's easy because you know you have things to reference. The main thing I try not to do is listen to much other music when I am beginning something new. I know some people might like to go and listen to things for inspiration, but I find it off-putting because even if it doesn't work, then you’ll automatically have that concept in mind when you’re creating the track. It's hard to get those ideas out of your head because it's suddenly married in your head with the picture.
To be honest, I try to filter out as much as possible, keep my head down, and not sleep for pretty much the first week. Some people go "My God, that's brutal." For me, it's the only way you can really just get into it all. Just cane it for a week and then you go to sleep for 12 hours and remind your kids who you are! You really get into it and then after that, it’s for better or for worse. You're going to have a listen to it and go "Okay, well this works and that doesn't." I find it very hard to do four hours, then walk off somewhere, and then come back the next day and go and do another four hours. It's definitely not a normal job.
I noticed on your Twitter that you participate in marathons. How did that discipline begin?
I’m a running novice! It started because I get out of the studio so little. I'm from Scotland and I only moved to L.A. about three years ago. I used to go on a plane practically every other week. My wife and kids were back in Glasgow, and then I'd be over here to work. It became too much and I just got to saying "I can't take anymore travel!"
When we moved to LA, it was like "Oh wow, I've got all this free time now that I'm not always on a plane." Perhaps, it’s not “free time” because I'm still working about 20 hour days, but eliminating the back and forth has given me an extra hour in the day! A mate just got me into running. It's really good for me to clear the head before getting into the studio. Now, I’ve run 4 marathons and it’s become a thing.
What are your production tips for making a track sound fuller, richer, and more dynamic? Are there any specific techniques, plug-ins, or tricks you can recommend?
The biggest tip I can give is less is more. This is ironic coming from me because if you see my track count, there are a billion of them. I remember when I was working with Wayne Wilkins, a fantastic British songwriter, who had a studio in the same place as me. He would come in and go "Man, love your music." I'd go "Wayne, what are you talking about? You've got so many number one hits, I love your music." It was the mutual appreciation society. He said "Your chord structure there, I could never do in pop music because there are certain formulas.” In pop music, you hear a lot of 1-4-5 or minors. You're not going to hear the kind of dissonance going on there in Limitless. He has to create new sounds, which pretty much everybody recognizes and add a few others, but pretty much, it's drums, one synthesizer lead line, and keyboards. That's it. If you can make your track sound good with that, you can make it sound good with anything.
For me, orchestrally, you start building it up. You'll double a horn with a violin or a flute or an oboe. You learn what works. Everyone always goes “You use so much distortion." Distortion can be beautiful. I'll take orchestras and I will put them through plug-ins. Even if it's just slightly crunched or it's massively crunched, it’s processed so it doesn't sound classical. When you are trying to do this whole crossover thing and take those elements into that pop world, you experiment to create your own sounds. I’ve recorded bird sounds and turned them into drum beats. It’s about experimenting to create those things and then adding them into contexts which people wouldn't expect. People will go, "Oh well, I haven't got an orchestra. I can't record an orchestra." You can use a synthesizer, but record the line in, and start adding some distortion. I use a PHP vintage warmer and Soundtoys loads. Sometimes, I have no idea what I am doing because I have billions of plug-ins and there is a big chain that goes on. I keep on mucking around with it.
Try doing crazy stuff down and go to a total extreme. If you think that it's starting to work, then start tweaking. When I was working on Dawn of War 3, there was patch like a whole string thing that I tied in with violins I had recorded from a real orchestra years ago. That’s two layers. After that, I put it through a distortion plug-in, which was the third thing and then doused it in reverb, the fourth thing. Then I recorded it back in and reversed it, which was the fifth thing. Then you go, how the hell is that going to make a melody? It's a pain in the ass, but I tell you, at the end of it, if you get one out of five things that work, it’s brilliant. You’ve created something completely unique to your score that no one else has.
Who are some of your most notable musical influences and why are they meaningful to you?
Ennio Morricone is the reason I got into film music. I've told this story before, but I had watched The Mission and I was just in floods of tears. It was just the most beautiful film with the most beautiful soundtrack, ever. It was melodic, but it wasn't cheesy. It had lovely orchestration, but it wasn't too classical. It was just gorgeous. When I started listening closer to his other scores I was, like, "Man, what the hell does whistling have to do with anything?” but somehow, it worked. His work was genre defining as far as Westerns go.
I completely adored Massive Attack as far as beats and strings go. That got me into the string arranging side of things. Think of Curtis Mayfield in the pop world and The Foo Fighters in the rock world. Listen to those bands. Everyone was always like, "What the hell, that is quite a mishmash." It's like, "Yes but, they do actually all blend together. It does make sense if you follow it."
A lot of trip hop music from the Bristol scene in the UK. Pretty music any orchestral music now. Of course, I love John Williams’ work. Indiana Jones and all that. I am inspired by anything and everything to be honest. I think the only thing I’ve never really understood is modern jazz. It’s not that I can’t appreciate it. It’s fantastic in a live setting and the musicianship is absolutely incredible, but as far as listening to it at home, I've never gotten it. That's about the only thing that hasn't been an influence.
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