On The Track, Part III

The epic conclusion of my multi-part discussion of the enormous book “On The Track.” Here are the earlier parts for convenience:

Part I

Part II



This section was very interesting. It even offers some pearls from masters at mixing, such as Dennis Sands:

With the orchestra less is more, always, with recording. To me, if you can capture the room, diffuse the amount of mics and adjust the dynamic in the room acoustically it’s the best mix possible. If it sounds good in the room you should be able to make it sound good on tape. Guys coming out of the record world, their experience base is to mic everything.

An interesting perspective, and certainly one that makes sense. An authentic sound is something to strive for.

There’s a discussion about conducting on the scoring stage, and how generally a composer must choose that or being in the sound booth (each having its own set of advantages). It’d be no contest for me. I’d want to be on the podium, because it would allow me to be in control of the performance while simultaneously being able to hear the mix from the headphones. This, to me, is the best of both worlds. Why would I want to hire someone to come in and conduct my own music? Though here’s the other perspective from James Newton Howard:

I let [the conductor] be the bad guy. That’s just such an exhausting job. It’s a job I don’t enjoy. I’m extremely well prepared…we get together and go through every score: check the clicks, check the tempos, take the clicks out, warning clicks, we’re going to do this here, so by the time he gets there everything’s completely marked and ready to go. So generally speaking by the time I get to the scoring stage I’ve already won. It’s already kind of a done deal.

While I can understand this perspective, I cannot share it. If I am ever to score a film, television show or video game, I would want to make it as musical and non-technically-grounded as I possibly can. John Williams, for example, doesn’t even use clicks much of the time! Most of his cues are free time with a few hits marked with 4-second streamers. This, to me, is the ideal. But each composer has his own way of doing things. Whatever works for them is right for them.

The bit on click leakage was amusing, and I’m no stranger to it. A few years ago, I created my own little score for a small project that never made it off the ground. I had no studio to work with, so I recorded all of the parts myself. I was able to do this by creating a click track for myself, putting it on my iPod and listening to it as I performed for my Zoom H2. And that’s when I discovered the phenomenon of click leakage. I ended up having to re-do an excellent take simply because you could hear the click track in the final recording.  I suppose it surprised me that it was a threat in a professional scoring stage, but then again those rooms are designed to be acoustically vibrant.

The section on rehearsal protocol was cute. With my dad being an accomplished conductor, I was quite familiar with the ins and outs of rehearsal etiquette. Yeah, he used to get pretty blustery at times when people weren’t focusing, but he certainly knew that “musicians don’t respond well to being told that they’re out of tune or not together.” Respect for the musicians must be demonstrated.

Apparently, losing a score is a more common occurrence than I thought. The only example of this I had known about was 2001: A Space Odessy and Alex North’s score. But there were several examples cited in this section, which worries me a great deal. How a score can be so deep in production and then suddenly be thrown out is beyond me. I would hope that the director would have more input along the way so as to avoid this unfortunate turn of events altogether, or at least get there earlier in the process.



There was a fascinating discussion on the role that electronics and synthesizers play in film music. Many greats such as Goldsmith and Elfman consider it just another section of the ensemble, while for low-budget pictures it’s more like an attempt at re-creating acoustic performances. Of course, even those composers who tend to have an emphasis on electronic music stress suprising things. Take Hans Zimmer:

There’s nothing that can replace the human soul in a score.

In other words, it really doesn’t matter the tools you use to get there, as long as there is some spark…some musicality to it. I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to argue that there isn’t any soul in Gladiator…


It was, of course, also very interesting to see how composers like Howard Shore work the concept of electronic sounds into their sketches. A popular technique is simply to write “+synths” over the staff of an acoustic instrument. At times, even that isn’t needed if there is a more effect-based sound to be utilized.

One of the other small, miscellaneous chapters deals with the use of “contemporary” music. Really, the most fascinating part of this was how many composers mentioned the collaborative nature of these instances. Newman states,

It’s fraternal. It’s friendly and kind, as opposed to ‘Here I am on the podium and I’ve got to do my thing and I’ve got to know when it should be a B-flat instead of an A.’ [snip] I like that I don’t know things and that we can come in together and experiment and get to frontiers of color and gesture that you never could sit in a room and conceive. That’s really inspiring to me.

This is ALWAYS the way I have preferred to approach even my own solitary composition technique, as odd as that sounds. Instead of sticking to rigid rules, I find it much more liberating to experiment. As such, I think I would welcome the same sort of mindset from collaborators.

And of course, there is a section on writing for television. It’s pretty much universally agreed that the deadlines for such an endeavor are onerous. Most of the insights provided by composers in this section seemed to revolve around being more efficient rather than more musical. Which is why I have such respect for composers who manage to churn out excellent soundtracks for television shows, like Bear McCreary:

Human Target

Of course, the great advantage of scoring for television is that despite the awful deadlines you find yourself trying to meet, you do have the opportunity to develop your musical ideas to a much, much greater extent than you would be able to in a movie. Character themes and the like tend to be developed and used as variations throughout the run.



Mostly dealing with single songs with lyrics that are either licensed from pre-existing albums or written specifically for the feature. However, there was also a section in here involving pre-recording and post-recording for musicals. A fascinating chapter, although it has little to do with where I have set my sights.



Perhaps one of the most useful sections, it goes into some detail about everything from where to be to preparing targeted demos, demonstrating diversity, agents, back-end deals, music budgets, licencing companies, logistics and pretty much everything else that wasn’t covered in the other sections. While it didn’t go into quite as much detail and example as the previous sections, it is indeed a decent overview. There are other books that cover the business side of being a composer.

This was a fantastic read. The real strengths of this book are its scope and its specific examples of sketches paired with DVD times for audio/visual study. And of course, it’s chalk-full of great quotes and perspectives from fantastic composers. I’ll close with one of my favorites from David Shire..

With really great writers, you can take away cues and play them, and they hold up as music. There’s musical content as well as dramatic content.

This will forever be my goal should I ever find myself in the position of being a professional film composer, as it should be for anyone in the industry.

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