Occasionally we all get assigned a brief that seems impossible. A client in the training industry needed to mock up a series of TV programmes, and my job was to provide 3 different broadcast quality title sequences, complete with music, with a budget that would barely pay for lunch at a big production company. I’ll blog about the video content later, once I’ve cleared it with the client, but for now I’ll go through the process of how I wrote, performed, produced and mixed a whole TV theme, with alternates, beds and underscores, all in under 2 hours.
Given the tight deadline, it was tempting to simply reach for a commercial music library, but in the interests of giving the client a bespoke solution (and keeping the profit in-house), I took a stab at this one myself…. The brief was that this would be the BBC’s flagship European news programme. This immediately brought to mind David Lowe’s hugely successful theme music for BBC news. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting David, who is a really nice guy, and keen to share his expertise, so it was clear to me that the brief would have to be treated carefully so as not to shamelessly copy (or worse, badly parody) his work. As for the ‘european’ element the music needed, going down the path of combining French accordion, Celtic pipes, Spanish guitar and other ‘european’ sound textures would clearly be a recipe for disaster, but a nice solution presented itself. The European Union, arguably having ambitions of statehood, has it’s own anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Since Beethoven conveniently died well over 70 years ago, this is out of copyright, and ripe for plundering… of course this doesn’t mean there are any recordings of it that are out of copyright, so I would have to go back to the sheet music, or in this case, find a MIDI file to work with, but I would have a dramatic, recognisable musical hook that implies europeanism, ready to use and free of charge. Best of all, the speed of the music (moderato according to the score) is around 120 bpm, which is perfect for the inclusion of the perfect sound to indicate that this is supposed to be both a BBC programme and a news programme – the ‘pips’, used as a time signal around the world since 1924, and by David Lowe in his BBC news theme. Incorporating them in my work would be a fitting tribute to David, but not close enough to give my client copyright concerns.
So, how to turn a MIDI file and the ‘pips’ into a finished piece of music in about an hour? Well, given a huge timescale and big budget, I would explore the possibilities of clever sound design and arrangements, but the timescale meant reaching straight for clichés. News themes are traditionally bombastic, and couple orchestral stabs with bold tympani and a driving beat, so my first move was to trim the MIDI file of everything except the ‘hook’, and throw it into Propellerhead’s “Reason”. This piece of software isn’t as fully featured as say Apple’s “Logic”, but it’s a quick, self-contained app that gets results fast. String sounds from the orchestral library in Reason were layered up with a glockenspiel, and treaded to a bit of eq and reverb. A tympani on every beat started to give a ‘news’ feel, diving into Reason’s library of drum loops quickly gave me a slightly funky overlay that would stop everything from sounding purely orchestral. Playing in the ‘pips’ by hand is about the limit of my piano keyboard skills, but with a bit of pitching and a slightly old-fashioned 2 oscillator synth sound from Reason’s analogue emulator they worked well and cut through the mix. Getting the ‘pip’ sound, which it slightly less tonal than you would normally find on a synth preset, and has no amplitude envelope way the only actual sound design that this project needed. Playing things back, it was clear the arrangement would need some work. The hook lasts only a few seconds, and simply repeating it would get very dull, even in the 20-30 seconds of a title sequence. Luckily, simply muting different parts would give me all the development that the music needed, once I added a bass line. Beethoven himself didn’t much go for funky club bass lines, so here’s where I would actually have to be musically creative. In situations like this, where I don’t have a tune in my head that I’m trying to write down, but need some inspiration, I reach for Reason’s randomise button. Hey, presto, instant (if rather atonal) acid house! Deleting all the out of tune notes, extending the in tune ones, and moving the timings about until everything ‘works’ musically gave me a nice bass figure that was in tune with Beethoven’s contribution to the score, and once I found the right sound it was time to mix. Again, this was a quick and dirty process, some rather heavy-handed stereo panning, harsh eqs, compression all round, reduce the decay of the drum loop sounds to make the mix cleaner, and it’s time to press the ‘save as wav’ button!