Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Interview: TV Music Composers Mr Miller and Mr Porter

Serving two generations of children with their unique style of music, Mr Miller and Mr Porter have written some of the most well known themes and incidental music to classic television programmes such as Sooty, Panic Station, Art Attack, Motormouth, Basils Swap Shop, Tricky TV, Big Barn Farm and much more. freeSFX.co.uk’s Alan McKinney took a trip down to their Brighton studio to meet the pair and talk about their music and career. 

AM: What are your backgrounds in music and how did you start working together composing music for TV? 

Mr P: My Dad played saxophone in dance bands so there was always music around in the house and when I was old enough, about 16 I think, I used to go out at weekends and  play in restaurants and clubs: working men’s clubs; bars and  things like that. I came to Brighton to art college to study painting, got in a band down here and tried to be a pop star  for about 15 years and failed miserably, met Pete and I haven’t looked back.  

Mr M: And me, I used to write songs when I was a kid and then I was in a couple of bands, went to college to learn how to be a music teacher, which I did for a while and not very well. Then for several years I was in something called the Brighton Bottle Orchestra, which was a kind of comedy musical act. Did several kids programmes and was asked by one of the researchers on one of them to write a song for another programme which I did with the chap I used to be in the bottle orchestra with. They didn’t use it but asked me to do it again for another programme which I did. By this time, Mr P and I had met and I said if there is anything else give us a shout. There was a programme coming up called 'Panic Station' which was a kid’s science programme. They said do you fancy having a go at that and I said yes and Mr P and I got together and that was the start of it really; we got the job and we carried on from there.  We just drifted into it by mistake and we stayed there ever since and that was 23 years ago.  

AM: So you obviously work well together, do you ever argue? 

Mr P: No not as much as we ought to.  

Mr M: [laughs] No we don’t. There’s moments of tension occasionally when one of us thinks something should be done one way and the other one doesn’t but on the whole we get on pretty well.  

AM: Do you usually agree on the direction of a track? 

Mr P: Yeah 

Mr M: Yeah 

AM: Working as TV composers 23 years ago must have been a lot different, so what are the main changes you’ve noticed? 

Mr P: Well the main thing that’s different for us is in those days everything had a union representative present so we had to travel to the studio to Maidstone or wherever it was; they’d check our electrical equipment for safety and there had to be someone logging what everyone was doing. 

Mr M: One of us has to be the musical director, so we took it in turns. The good thing was, anywhere you went you were given travel expenses. There was always someone with an envelope with £50 in it. But once we waited for about 2 hours before recording something while 3 people found an extra socket, but we weren’t allowed to touch the sockets because that was their job so it’s changed quite a bit since then.   

AM: Regarding budgets: are you given money in advance for projects or do you charge the commissioning company after the jobs completed?   

Mr M: Usually a budget is agreed before hand, I say agreed, we’re told what the budget is. That’s one thing these days, when we first started there was more room for manoeuvre... 

Mr P: Negotiation, there’s no negotiation now. 

Mr M: No you’re just told what it is. Well I’m sure David Arnold when he’s writing the latest Bond movie has a little bit more negotiating power than we do. Actually, the budgets for the kind of work we do which is mainly kid’s TV...  

Mr P: It’s less than half it was when we started... 

Mr M: In real terms yeah.  

AM: Does that affect how you make music? Do you use real instruments or do you do everything on computer? 

Mr P: We do use real instruments when they’re appropriate. Very often we’ll get either a live saxophone, trumpet or more often these days a vocalist, or a guitarist or something just to give it more of a... what’s the word I’m looking for?.. 

Mr M: A more human feel I suppose. Any instrument you want you can have on the computer but having a bit of human in there is nice. 

Mr P: I mean we’d love to be working on the budgets where we can get a string section in or a big brass band, you know, but we don’t. 

Mr M: [laughs] But there is nothing like working with the human voice, I mean it’s great having singers. We did a kids’ TV programme called Tricky TV where [we needed] lots of people shouting the word Tricky TV and we got my mother-in-law, the builder who was working on our house at the time, loads of kids, a room full of golfers, somebody said my husband’s playing golf this afternoon with all his mates so I went round there and recorded the group of lads and then the wives later on, it was great. The human voice is a wonderful thing to work with. 

AM: Can you run us through a typical project from the commission stage to it actually being approved? 

Mr M: Well normally we would get a call from somebody saying we’re thinking of doing this, would you be interested in either doing the music? Sometimes some our clients just ask us straight away, or alternatively pitching for it. 

Mr P: The phone rings, we say yes usually [laughs]. I mean we generally go off to our separate corners and come up with ideas; send them 2 or 3 rough sketches which is what we prefer to do rather than finished, polished fancy demos. They respond to those sketches and then we develop the one that they think is the most promising and work with them as closely as possible.  

Mr M: Yeah, we do tend to email people things very often, which I don’t know whether all composers do but we certainly work with producers and directors who aren’t use to that so much. Somebody gives us a brief and the first thing that pops out that’s reasonably in line with the brief we’ll send it to them. 

Mr P: And very often it’s useful because they can say no I didn’t realise but that is exactly what we don’t want so you can more easily narrow down what they do want.  

AM: How long does the process take from getting commissioned and actually finishing a project and signing it off? 

Mr P: Well that varies enormously now. It’s almost always they leave it to last when they’ve spent all the money on everything else and there’s hardly any time left to do it.  It’s usually a matter of 2 to 4 weeks, sometimes a bit longer. 

Mr M: Somebody will phone up and say are you interested in pitching for this and we’ll say yes, when do you need it by and they’ll say Friday and this is Wednesday afternoon. Very rarely do you get a long time to think about your pitch but then once you’ve got the job, as Mr P says its 2 weeks to a month.  

Mr P: And we always get it there Friday and no one listens to it until Tuesday. [Laughs] 

AM: How do you get paid? Do you get paid a commission fee or do you make your income solely from royalties?  

MR P: Always a commission fee. Sometimes half of its paid half way through the job and the rest on completion.  

Mr M: Usually you get a contract saying we will pay you half on signature and half on completion but by that time we’ve already finished it anyway so usually it’s just in one lump sum.  

MR P: It’s very rare that we get the contract before we’ve finished the job but the vast majority of it is royalties. For us it’s performance [royalties] a little bit of mechanicals but it’s mostly performance.  

Mr M: Because we’ve been going so long, there’s so much of our stuff out in the world floating around. 

Mr P: It’s a bit like doing the lottery isn’t it. When you open that envelope you’ve no idea whether you’ve won a fiver or a million. It’s usually a lot nearer a fiver. [Laughs] 

AM: Do you think if you stopped composing music now, you’d still have a relatively good income just off of royalties alone from your previous work?  

Mr P: We don’t know. Art Attack has been the most successful I suppose, the longest running and most successful. They stopped making that several years ago now.

Mr M: A lot of our royalties are from abroad as well because nowadays, companies don’t make programmes just for England. Everything has to have potential for worldwide exploitation.  

Mr P: That’s why you don’t see Sooty anymore, he’s not considered global. 

AM: What equipment do you find yourself using most regularly? 

Mr P: Logic and all it entails is the backbone of what we do; we’ve got a load of modules, Emu systems and various other bits and the old Triton gets used quite a bit. 

Mr M: But it is largely all in Logic these days; 95% of everything we do is inside Logic.  

AM: How important do you consider contacts and networking in terms of getting work? 

Mr P: Well we’re the world’s worst networkers [laughs]. If we’re at a networking function, we’ll be the ones in the corner talking to each other. We rely entirely on word of mouth really and reputation.   

Mr M: We’re very good at dealing with the clients we use and everyone enjoys working with us. We’ve never gone touting for business. We’re really lucky. Occasionally we have had no work and we think, we’ll, we must get together a new show reel and send it off to people. But I don’t think we’ve ever got a job through sending anyone a show reel so it is just satisfied customers. People work for one company and move on to another company and they phone us up. So networking is important but we’re bad at it.    

AM: How knowledgeable of different musical styles do you need to be to work as a composer for TV and film? 

Mr M: Neither of us are fantastic musicians at all, Mr P plays bass very well and I am a moderately okay keyboard player and we’re not particularly au fait with different musical styles so we tend to mash things up. A while back, Disney made a Latin version of Art Attack to be broadcast in Latin America and they wanted us to ‘Latin up’ the titles. We panicked a bit because we’re not experts on Latin Music so we bunged in a bit of this and a bit of that and crossed our fingers and then we got an email from the head honcho in Disney South America who loved the way we’d mixed this style with that style. 

Mr P: The thing is we do listen to an enormous amount of different kinds of music and what we tend to do is almost parody it. The Latin version of Art Attack wasn’t subtle. We just took the obvious part of Latin and made it our own I suppose. In that respect I think it works well with kids as well.  

Mr M: So if someone asked us to write something in the style of John Williams, we’ll have a go and it won’t be John Williams but it would turn out to be our version of John Williams. 

Mr P: We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the kick drum sound or tempo like a lot of dance music people do. If it pulls the right strings and pushes the right buttons that’s good enough for us. 

AM: What advice would you give to any aspiring composers out there? 

Mr M: Like we said at the beginning, we drifted into it. I mean we both love music and we’re musicians in our own ways but I don’t think either of us thought we’re going to write music for television when we grow up. We’ve been very lucky; we’ve been working for 23 years and we’ve never starved yet.  

Mr P: My advice would be, make your music. Take it all in but at the end of the day make your own music. In this business you have to compromise to some degree. We’ve ended up with a style we can call our own but it’s come out of constantly compromising to what other people want and sometimes it makes the music better anyway. Sometimes the music gets better because you have to chop it round to fit the new version of the pictures which might be a second and a half in the middle of a piece of music and there’s no easy way around it but you adapt the music and sometimes make it better for doing it.   

About Mr Miller and Mr Porter 

Mr Miller and Mr Porter operate from their studios in Brighton, United Kingdom. For more information, visit their website.  

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The contents of this article are subject to copyright. Reproduction in whole or part is strictly forbidden without written consent from freeSFX.co.uk 

Interview: Sound Designer JR Fountain

In just a few short years, JR Fountain went from a 17 year old 12th grade student dreaming of working in a recording studio, to an award winning sound designer with a string of major television and film sound design roles under his belt. He owns Big Room Sound, a studio providing sound recording, editing, design and mixing services for the film, television and multimedia industries. Here, freeSFX.co.uk's Alan McKinney talks to JR about life as a successful sound designer.

JR, what is your background and how did you get started in the sound design and recording industry?

I was introduced to post sound when I was 17. My high school had a co-op placement program in grade 12 and like a lot of kids who are into music I thought it'd be cool to work at a recording studio. However, after talking with my music teacher about the various local studios I could try, he shook his head at me and picked up the phone. He called a former student of his, Stephen Barden who was working with Sound Dogs Toronto as a sound editor and asked him if he'd have me on as a co-op student/intern. Thankfully he said yes, and before I knew it I was travelling into Toronto every other day to hang out at Deluxe Post Production which is where Sound Dogs had their cutting rooms at the time.

I actually hated the internship at first because Steve just sat me in front of this old Mac with a Mac bible and told me to figure out how to use it for the first week or so. They (Mac computers) didn't even have solitaire on them, just this lame jigsaw puzzle! But eventually Steve let me into his room and I would watch him cut dialogue all afternoon. We didn't really talk a lot while he was working but I sure learnt a lot watching. The cool thing about Deluxe at the time was there was so much going on. They had around 8 mix theatres, 2 Foley rooms, ADR, and I think 3 sound editing companies all under one roof. So I got exposed to all facets of post sound and the people who did it. But the thing that really turned my crank was when I tried my hand at sound effects editing. We had to do a presentation to our class about our work placement so I decided to take a scene out of this Van Damme movie called "Maximum Risk" that Sound Dogs had cut and do my own sound effects edit for it. Then I'd show the class the before and after. My classmates didn't find it half as cool as I did. I'd have to say though that that was the defining moment for me to say that I wanted to do this for a living. Steve kept me on as an assistant through the summers, and taught me so much about film sound. I eventually got my break editing there after college.

You have an impressive list of credits for films, television programmes and more. Can you give us a little insight into how you get commissioned for a job and what’s involved?

Thanks. Most of the time, it's who you know. This year I supervised and mixed a film called "Living Downstream" because the director, Chanda Chevannes is a good friend of mine from our days in film school and we've kept in touch and worked together since then. I've also gotten work through recommendations from other sound editors when they're too busy which can open a new door. I'm actually gonna start up on a new series in October because of some work I did through one of those recommendations.

A number of years ago, a friend introduced me to Tim Archer at a studio called Masters Workshop. After meeting him I got a gig cutting sound effects on a very early animatic version of Steven Oedekerk's "The Barnyard". Masters unfortunately didn't get the final gig for the film but it was a great experience for myself and I ended up meeting Brian Eimer who mixed my tracks. Later on Brian and I worked together for a couple years as he was getting his own company off the ground called Images In Sound. And even just recently I made a cold call to a studio I'd never worked with, went in and spoke with the owner and in 2-3 weeks got a call back to cut a documentary with them. That one was really great timing!

Nelson Ferreira, one of the co-founders of Sound Dogs is who I usually work with these days, but you never know who you're going to meet and where that could lead you. At this point in my career I work mainly for supervising sound editors, so my mandate has been to try to get to know as many supervisors in town as I can.

Some sounds must be very difficult to record/create. Are there any particular sound effects you have had to make that stand out as problematic and what was involved in creating them?

Sure, often times you come across various things that are challenging. I must confess though most of my challenges haven't been nearly as cool as some of the big name sound designers. One that was very bitter sweet for me was working on the film Wild Ocean 3D. It was an IMAX film that told the story of one of the last big sardine migrations that happens off the coast of South Africa. It showed how all of these different animals would converge to prey upon the sardines and the climax sequence of the film revolved around these birds called cape gannets that dive into the ocean to eat the fish. The underwater footage they shot was just breathtaking. We're talking huge schools of sardines, like tens of thousands all swarmed together in what they call a "bait ball" and then probably hundreds of cape gannets dive bombing in to eat them.

My job on the film was to cut everything that was underwater. I knew there was no way I could use stock library sounds to cut this sequence so I went out into the creek behind my parents' house in some hip-waiters and began experimenting with splashes. I needed something fast and percussive and ended up finding that an axe and a hammer were my best props. So I would throw them as hard as I could straight down into the water, micing it from above and below the water and making sure not to hit my toes! I think I recorded like 50 or 60 splashes of each the hammer and axe cause I didn't want the sequence to sound loopy. I would use these recordings along with a pitched down/subsynthed version for the bird's impacts. Then I recorded myself skimming my hand, brooms, brushes etc. across the water very quickly to use for the bubble trail the birds would create once they were in the water. Any sort of swimming whooshes and moves I then recorded in a neighbour's pool. I'd do the old trick of putting a condom over my mic and dip it into the water a couple inches and then swish my hand or various props in front of it. Once it was all said and done this sequence rocked.

The bitter part came when the directors decided to favour the music pretty heavily during the mix meaning you could barely hear any of my work…oh well. That's unfortunately one of the things you have to get used to in this line of work. Thankfully the music for that film was off the charts amazing though.

What advice would you give to any aspiring sound designers?

We are all made with purpose and while I know it's not my sole purpose, I know that being a sound designer is part of it. If you think its part of yours, then bust your chops to do it cause I want to hear your work. Lots of people will tell you that it's a hard and declining business, it is. Budgets are constantly being shrunken; you're often under-appreciated, etc. etc. etc. But if it's your deal and you love it then do it.

Some practical things that worked for me…
  • Interning
  • Keeping my mouth shut while I was interning
  • Keeping a good attitude while I was interning
  • Borrowing/buying gear to go and record sounds
  • Always trying to learn something new in all situations
  • Reading, reading, reading, then applying what I've read

What’s next for JR Fountain?

Right now I'm waiting for a busy fall to get started. I've got a drama series, a doc, an indie feature, and a series of short documentaries that are all supposed to happen between now and Christmas. Plus here in Ontario, fall is a great season to record because there's no snow and no crickets. On my list of things to get are a Ford E-350 van, shotguns and rifles with my father in-law, and hopefully some animal recordings with local zoos, but we'll see how things shape up.

About JR Fountain

JR Fountain owns Big Room Sound, a studio providing sound recording, editing, design and mixing services for the film, television and multimedia industries.

Copyright © freeSFX.co.uk
The contents of this article are subject to copyright. Reproduction in whole or part is strictly forbidden without written consent from freeSFX.co.uk

Interview: World War 2 Sound Effects Archive Tomahawk Films

Tomahawk Films has established itself as one of the leading archives of original World War 2 sound effects and Third Reich music tracks and is usually the first stop for professional documentary makers, film, television and post production suites around the world. FreeSFX.co.uk’s Alan McKinney speaks exclusively to Brian Matthews, founder and owner of the archive about why and how he has managed to build such a successful archive.

Brian, can you tell us when and why you first became interested in sound recordings from the World War 2 era?

Well, I was studying history at college, I had always been heavily involved in Third Reich military history, both from a research point of view and as an avid collector, and when I entered the film and TV industry in the early 80s I was able to convert that serious-but-amateur interest into a professional WW-II documentary production and archival career!

How did the archive come about? Was it built from necessity or was it initially just a hobby?

The archival side of things certainly wasn't planned that's for sure. From the SFX point of view I was producing a TV documentary on the German occupation of the Channel Islands and needed a Stuka sound effect so went up to a well-known London sound archive only to be presented with a cassette of somebody blowing through a comb and paper. Unbelievable! So I left the somewhat embarrassed archive employee, and without my vital effect, and resolved to try to build up my own WW-II combat sound effects archive, using all my military contacts and expertise, if I could!

The period German music, again not something ever thought of or planned, developed from my tracking down original recordings in Germany for our own work that other producers and music collectors also began to want and so over the 22 years that Tomahawk Films has been in existence, I have also been able to produce in excess of 40 albums of Third Reich marching music and 1940s German radio 'hits of the day' that we now also licence to other productions around the world and with very great success, I am proud to say!!

I have heard that you recorded some of the sound effects yourself. How did you go about this and did you employ any techniques to keep the recordings sounding faithful to that era? 

Luckily enough I was able to acquire a number of original single effects from individual military and audio enthusiasts along the way and also bought up a small audio company some years back that had a number of good, usable combat SFX in its inventory. However as a keen WW-II Warbirds enthusiast alongside my German interests, I was able to record a number of original fighter and bomber aircraft in action here in the UK and also whilst working on a series on the Luftwaffe in the US. In addition, having several military friends who were highly experienced and fully licensed armourers specialising in WW-II German weaponry, I was also able to record original period machine-guns, hand pistols and explosions in the field.

Sadly, or perhaps  happily, nothing special was used to record our effects (a combination of an old ex-BBC Radio Nagra and a domestic portable tape deck), as I wanted them to go down on tape  'as is' and exactly how they would have been recorded during WW-II,  however all effects used on our Sounds of War CD were subsequently digitally re-mastered in the studio via SADE to offer  a unique collection containing both numerous single spot-effects alongside some much longer and totally accurate scenarios that we were able to build up into highly realistic and somewhat 'energetic' battle sequences!

Can you tell us what kind of projects your sound effects archive gets used for?

Though we use them a lot in our own work, it was very helpful to us when the BBC removed their original combat SFX CD from the commercial market place some years back as it left a large number of producers and audio engineers struggling to find the correct sound effects for their documentary work. So as well as a large number of documentary production companies now using our SFX collection, many sound suites around the globe have our CD 'on tap'.  Schools and colleges also like to use them in their teaching of the Second World War, plus a number of live stage productions and military museum-diorama designers around the world have also benefitted from our SFX.

As such I'm pleased to say that, down the years we have garnered numerous credits for both our combat SFX and Third Reich military music striped across the many satellite documentary and terrestrial TV channels and now have a long and distinguished professional client list around the globe, ranging from Hollywood movie companies in the US to the BBC here in the UK and all points in between.

Will the Tomahawk sound effect archive be expanding anytime soon?

It took us many years to build up this somewhat unique collection of 75 single and multiple-scenario effects which is actually very comprehensive and happily seems to fulfil 99% of the needs of WW-II documentary producers, though of course there will always be somebody wanting something we don't have!  However I reckon that by now I must have called in all my favours from my military contacts so as we speak there is nothing new on the horizon; in addition the German music side of Tomahawk Films is more than a full time job, however if I ever lay my hands on anything new and exciting in the Combat SFX line that I feel would enhance this collection, then I'd be daft to say no!

About Tomahawk Films
Tomahawk Films World War 2 Sound Effects and Third Reich Military Music can be purchased from Tomahawk Films website.

Copyright © freeSFX.co.uk
The contents of this article are subject to copyright. Reproduction in whole or part is strictly forbidden without written consent from freeSFX.co.uk