Finding a unique sound for your film or documentary
My name is Robert Hicks, I'm a Bristol based Composer. As creators, we are all searching for ways to stand out, to be different. And yet there’s a tendency to walk well trodden ground when it comes to using music in Natural History & Science productions.
Over the last decade or so there have been some wonderful musical statements which have, over time, solidified into a pretty predictable format. That wide, lush orchestral sound, romantically transporting us to the Sahara Desert has become ubiquitous.
Do we dare to consider a different approach?
When it comes to the music in your film or documentary, there are two principal pathways to being unique.
The first is to have the composer write in a completely different and unexpected style or genre. This of course might be a gamble, no one will be expecting thrash metal music on that 7pm Sunday night slot on BBC One!
The second approach is to change the instrumentation. Gently move away from that symphonic string or brass section and use something else, something new.
A sympathetic combination of both pathways (style and instrumentation) will have the same emotional impact we’ve come to expect, without sounding just the same as every other production.
So how do we get unique sounds that feel as lovely as a lush string section? Sampling could be the answer.
What Is Sampling?
Sampling is the process of taking an audio clip and manipulating it into a useable, musical format that can be played and recorded via a keyboard. You are effectively creating a unique musical ‘instrument’ that can be stored and reused again and again. This is called a ‘Sample Instrument’.
Not every audio clip will be suitable for use. Some sonic characteristics just don’t lend themselves to be magically turned into an instrument, and it’s hard to know exactly whether one audio clip or another will work in a musical context. That said, there’s joy in discovering a unique sound that’s inspiring all on it’s own. That’s the backbone of writing original music.
Sampling isn’t anything new, it’s been used in music and film circles for decades. So why is sampling particularly exciting for Natural History & Science productions?
Made Of The Landscape
The natural world is already awash with wondrous sounds. Wolves howling, waterfalls crashing, birds singing, the list is endless.
I have recently started to ask film makers I’m working with to capture audio on their smart phones when they are in the field. The field team record short audio clips of the animals or landscape they are filming. Then, I take that audio clip, clean it up and throw it into a sampler.
The audio now resides in the digital domain and can be manipulated with audio effects to make the very most of the tonal characteristics captured. What this means is that that long panoramic drone sequence that would have used an orchestral string section, is now a huge wide synth pad that is literally made of the landscape.
It doesn’t stop there. Imagine the sound of elephant footfall, again captured and manipulated into a variety of hard hitting percussion sounds. You’ll never need to hear a Japanese Taiko drum play over an African savannah hunt sequence ever again!
Step 1: Original Audio Clip
This audio clip is a BBC original stereo field recording of howling wolves.
Step 2: Audio Clip Manipulated in a Sampler
Using the same clip, the audio has been cleaned up using iZotope RX and then transferred into Apple’s Logic Pro Sampler where a host of effects and EQ have been applied to maximise the tonal characteristics whilst maintaining the identity of the original source material.
This audio is pitched and mapped to a keyboard enabling the composer to play the instrument like a piano. Further effects such as reverb and delay have been applied to taste.
Step 3: Audio within an original composition
The same manipulated audio from step 2, now nestled within an original composition. The instrument made from the audio sample has been used as a wide synth pad at the beginning and end of this cue.
Benefits Of Sampling The Natural World
The benefits of capturing field audio and handing them over to your composer are potentially game changing:
Whatever the composer creates from the captured audio will not exist anywhere else
Artistic integrity, the music composition will be made of the subject matter
Reduced need to hire an orchestra and expensive studio time
Sample instruments might provide unexpected steer in a different, more effective musical direction
The uniqueness might be something to shout about with opportunities to document how and why the music was made
No expensive kit needed to record audio. A dedicated handheld field audio recorder or even a smart phone is all that’s required. For example, the Zoom H1N costs less than £100 and offers surprisingly good quality stereo field recordings directly to a SD card.
Using unique sample instruments is a low risk, cheaper production alternative and can form the key inspiration for a cue. Subtly and sympathetically blend that with an alternative approach on the style and genre of the music and you’ve got something truly unique.
A willingness to experiment with audio is required, but it doesn’t need to be at the cost of time. But, as composers, we effectively have a music laboratory already at our disposal, so why not use it?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the wonderful orchestral music being used in Natural History and Science films. Indeed, orchestral music transcends fashion, it’s timeless. But why not tap into the resources you’re already filming and make something entirely new.
Interested In Exploring This Further?
My name is Robert Hicks and I’m a Bristol based composer.
+44 (0)7921 836304