One of the things we love most about the type of Media music writing we do is the huge breadth of styles that we get to work on, and this has been particularly apparent in our current project “Action Cartoon” – A collaboration with composing legend and Emmy winner John Altman.
So what do we mean by Action Cartoon?
Think, Simpsons with a touch of The Jetsons meet Spiderman, or Dangermouse with a pinch of Dick Barton….
Part of the creative challenge of this type of project is getting into the mindset of how this stuff was originally conceived, written and recorded back-in-the-day, in order to faithfully recreate music that stands up against the originals.
“This is where our collaborator John Altman came into his own,” said David.
To give you a bit of background, John is a musical director, arranger, composer, conductor and saxophonist. Beginning his career in the late 60’s as an in-demand saxophonist, through the years John has performed with the likes of Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Bob Marley, Muddy Waters and Prince, as well as being Van Morrison’s musical director.
John’s arranging and conducting talents garnered many hit records such as George Michael’s “Kissing a Fool”, Rod Stewart’s “Downtown Train” and Alison Moyet’s “That Ole Devil Called Love” which John also produced. He also arranged Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life”, a song which has gained worldwide cult status. As well as having an A-List career working on commercial hits, John has an equally successful career as a busy film and TV composer and has worked on countless movies and TV shows. Big screen success has included Titanic, Shall We Dance and The Lost Empire to name a few of the long list.
“Working with John has been a wonderful learning experience,” said David “When we first discussed the project, John’s knowledge of the genre and of the process of the composers was remarkable.” We discussed in depth the original creative and recording processes, and John’s insight has added an authenticity we would never have achieved without his input.”
“For me, what’s been wonderful is the way ideas have flowed,” said Jeff Meegan. “A creative melting-pot, with everyone having input, for me, is the key to a successful collaboration.”
As always everything has to be carefully conceived. Every splodge of every note, from the conception of the scores through to the recording process. Once again at Abbey Road studio 2, with 11 hours of sessions where John will conduct and David and Jeff will jointly produce.
One of the extra things that set this project apart will be the use of comedy percussion. This will be a signature sound of the collection. We hope to create a virtual mini library of bangs, hits, squeaks and pops during a percussion session in Abbey Road studio 3 with percussionist Paul Clarvis.
“We chose not to write any of these parts in advance,” said David. “We decided it would be more fun to work on these in real time with Paul. We asked him to bring everything but the kitchen sink… and then joked that he might want to throw that in his bag too!”
“Working with Jeff and David has been a real learning curve for me,” said John Altman. “ I’m used to collaborating on movies with directors and editors, or on records with artists and producers but this is my first experience of collaboration with fellow composers and I must confess I am enjoying being able to discuss what I’m doing along the way with people who share the same experiences. The first of many albums with Jeff and David I hope!”
Once the recordings are complete, we begin the meticulous process of mixing, creating all the necessary versions and putting all final finishing touches to everything.Look out early next year for the Action Cartoon Comedy album to be released on www.audionetwork.com and we’ll be posting some snippets here very soon!
The role of the composer in modern media can be complex and challenging. What is less appreciated is the way that the music that subtly reinforces our emotions in film is often the product of equally cunning manipulation. How well the soundtrack does that job is down to the skill of the composer. The music needs to stand in its own right – but not stand in the way of the film and its message.
Music For Media
It’s all about using music to aid the story telling. During the edit, a variety of temporary soundtracks (known as temp tracks) are used to heighten the emotional impact of different parts of the film. A temp track is an existing piece of audio that acts as a guideline for the type of music that the producer wants to hear at a given point. The composer’s job is to create a new piece of music that draws inspiration from the temp track, without plagiarising it.
It’s a fine line for the composer, says David who has worked on soundtracks for film and TV programmes for more than 20 years. He explained: “In the 1940’s and early fifties, movie directors started to request that music supervisors (whose job it was to find relevant music for a specific scene or segment) placed an existing piece of music on to sections of a rough cut of a film as staff film scorers and songwriters were simply unable to work fast enough to satisfy the speed of demand for the required score in order that a film could be shown to what we’d now call a focus group. It was impossible for them to show the film without music as it had no emotional impact and so pre-existing music from other projects would be ‘temped’ into the current film as a stop-gap to the original piece being written.
“Sometimes a director and music supervisor would get so used to a temp track after living with it for a long time that they’d even ditch the composers work in the end and use the temp track on the final movie. In Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Platoon’, about half of the temp track was finally used on the actual film – that’s why Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings became the main theme of the film.”
The music on film and TV is often far more subtle than the surging strings heard on Platoon. It’s often used to set a mood or establish a period of time – maybe a few bars of something that sounds like Bing Crosby (but isn’t) played through an old radio in an adjoining room or heard through an open window.
Says Jeff: “The challenge for us is to break down the writing, recording and editing of period pieces into component parts in order that every aspect of the final work will appear as if made years ago.
“Even the chords used in songs are particular to different decades. Some progressions will ‘give the game away’ as they were not used when a piece is supposed to have been written.”
Even the instrumentation must be faithful to a time period. Sometimes Jeff and David will go a stage further, and will record on period instruments using musicians who are specialists in playing thirties jazz.
Jeff says: “We often look to emulate the performing styles of famous musicians from the period that they are recreating – for example when re-making jazz recordings purporting to be from the late 20’s and early 30’s, the drum style of Zutty Singleton will undoubtedly be heard. He performed as drummer on landmark recordings with Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five and before microphones were able to cope with the explosive sound of a snare drum being hit, he’d set up the suitcase that he famously carried with him and play the suitcase with brushes – a sound that could be heard on many early Louis Armstrong / Singleton recordings.
“It’s all about attention to detail. You might need to make a sound that evokes a particular period. Old technology has its own ‘fingerprint’ but we use the latest tech to create music that is as faithful as possible to the original. Finally, after all that, we may take our twenty-first century recording and degrade it to make it sound like it’s a shellac 78 playing out of a 1930 RCA Victor record player in a wooden cabinet.”