My Creative Process: Writing a Library Track
A detailed behind-the-scenes view at how the tracks in “Impressions” came to life.
This article is the first in a series called “My Creative Process” where, through real-world examples from past projects, I try to illustrate how my music comes to life. By focusing on the various types of requirements I get from my clients, I hope I can give a holistic overview of my composition and production process, thereby answering questions I often get from students, filmmakers, and other composers alike.
The Library Track requirements
When a music library company commissions a track (or an album) to a composer, it typically comes with an outline of specific requirements like style, feel, instrumentation, length, rhythmic vs. melodic, thematic vs. underscore, etc. — sometimes even down to the form and major beats of the piece itself. It can be quite precise or it can be fairly vague: it all depends on what the music library company desires to add to its catalog.
In the case of Impressions, I originally suggested the following musical concept to Audio Network:
- a minimalist approach to the music, inspired spiritually by the painting technique know as “pointillism”;
- the tracks would be based on a building and evolving musical motor;
- the album would be thematic in nature (or at least it would heavily rely on melody);
- the instrumentation would be grand and lush and proudly feature the orchestra, yet also offer some more intimate moments (solos such as woodwinds, piano, harp, etc.);
- various small and light percussion would provide instrumental color and sustained interest.
The folks at Audio Network loved the idea, and, in turn, had the following requirements:
- the album should showcase a variety of moods;
- each track should be around 3–3 ½ minutes with a free-form structure;
- the tracks shouldn’t be too episodic, and the mood should be fairly consistent to each track.
… which, believe it or not, is a very hands-off attitude when it comes to requirements from a music library!
From that point on, it was up to me to decide how to realize that vision for each of the seven tracks I was commissioned to write.
Writing The Track
As described in this article, I use Logic X to write music. I typically start with a blank template, which I customize for the project at hand. In the case of Impressions, the template is orchestra-heavy, with lots of percussive and plucked instruments, as well as various pianos and hammered percussion.
The first goal is to find a motor which I can use to start the track with — something that would fit the mood or vibe I’m interested in exploring for that particular piece. Then, once that motor is established, I can figure out the overall tempo of the piece, which in turns gives me a meter and a grid structure.
An establishing motor can be extremely basic, played on just one instrument, or be fairly complex, involving multiple instruments—there is no right or wrong. It doesn’t even have to be playable throughout the whole piece: as long as the correct mood is introduced, it will lead the listener into discovering the piece through its natural development. Take a listen below to the seven starting motors of each track from Impressions.
Once I have figured out an establishing motor, the next step is to loop it and to start building on top of it. I do this in a quasi-improvised, instinctive manner: I simply play multiple times over what I already created until I find something that “fits,” capture it in the sequencer, and move on to the next instrument for a new musical idea. Obviously, there’s a lot of back and forth between improvising, capturing, shortening, cutting, pasting, and modifying the recorded patterns. I often realize after the fact that various layers are harmonically clashing and that they need to be fixed to bring back some sorely-lacking clarity. I might also want to try the same pattern on a different octave or instrument. Sometimes, I even purposely break the most obvious patterns: if you have to pick, interrupting the established flow is generally better than blindly following it. Alternatively, I could be at a point where adding some melodic or thematic element feels like the right thing to do. Or, I might lose faith in the establishing motor, and go back to square one. As you can see, the workflow is fluid and heavily depends on how I react to the track as I am developing it.
Talking about development, the first half of the second track from Impressions, “And The Forest Came To Life,” is, in the album, the most basic example of looping and layering motors to create a sense of build and progression. Take a look at the clip below, where I’ve marked the entrances of each new motor and melodic elements. (Evidently, the writing process took a good amount of time before I got to the end result demonstrated here).
Following the example above, as I keep building over and over, at some point it gets natural (or necessary) to bring some harmonic or melodic variation—maybe even to go into a brand new section. Here again, I improvise some ideas (typically playing along the metronome) on one instrument, until I find the skeleton for the next section (if I’m on a roll, it can be for multiple sections, sometimes even until the very end of the piece). And again, on top of that skeleton, I layer in new elements. And once more comes the back and forth of editing, cutting, removing, shortening, expanding…
From that writing approach eventually emerges the piece’s structure. Once it does, I go back to the very beginning and start an internal review process where I remove existing elements or add new ones, shorten or expand segments, move or duplicate ideas to different instruments, thin out or thicken sections, and generally improve the programming itself. I do a lot of listening, sometimes playing the same section with one or a group of instruments over and over and over again, painstakingly changing, removing, or adding notes. The editing process doesn’t end until I’m fully happy with what I’m hearing.
This all might sound very disorganized — and to a certain extent it is, because there is no “master plan” to follow along as I write—but at the end of the day, the reality is that I wouldn’t be able to write in any other way. I need to hear what I’m creating in order to react to it and to shape it. Only then do I end up finding the direction and, eventually, the piece’s map. And, as you can imagine, it’s a constant exercise of balancing my rational and emotional instincts (although I tend to get my emotional side more in check as I get more experienced—for better or worse.)
Review Process and Final Production
Once I feel the piece is complete, I submit it for review to my client.
Depending on the projet and the company I work for, getting feedback can take between one day to two weeks — sometimes more. Then, based on their input, I make adjustments to the piece, and submit it again. That back-and-forth can be short (my first version can be approved with no or minimal changes) or pretty drawn out (I’ve once submitted eight versions of the same track). It can get frustrating, but at the end of the day, your client knows better than you if the piece will work for their needs or not.
When the piece is approved, the next step is usually to replace some of the synth elements with live instruments: the fake-sounding samples, the important solos, and/or (if you’re lucky) the orchestra. Doing so implies orchestrating the music and creating conductor scores and musician parts; this process is not specific to library music and I hope to describe it in a later article.
One of the many upsides about working with Audio Network is that they put a lot of emphasis on the production quality of their catalog. For Impressions, not only was I able to hire wonderful solo artists to perform (Gina Luciani on flute, Vicente Ortiz Gimeno on clarinet, Kristin Naigus on oboe…), but I also had the great joy to work with the English Session Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios.
Hiring and recording solo musicians separately from the main orchestra saves precious time during the main sessions by allowing me to focus on the overall orchestral performance instead of trying to balance or fine-tune the various solos. This is also why it is more and more frequent to record strings separately from the brass during the sessions: that way, composers and producers get to have full separation between the orchestra and solo elements when editing and mixing. We can then pick the takes and performances that we like the most, freely touch them up if needed, clean any unwanted noises or mistakes, and independently balance them at our leisure during the final music mix. (Ideally, I would rather have the time to get a genuinely organic performance with everyone in the same room, but the realities of scheduling and economics usually prevent it.)
After all the live elements have been recorded, I like to do some quick audio editing (mainly to select recording takes and tidy things up) before I send out the Pro Tools session files to the mixing engineer.
As you can see with the below excerpt from “On The High Seas”, there is quite a difference between a synth mockup and a properly mixed track featuring live soloists and a full orchestra recorded at Abbey Road. Getting to hear that final track is the very end of a long and tiring process, but it makes it all worthwhile!
I hope you enjoyed this article and that it gave you an interesting overview of my writing process when it comes to Library Tracks. Remember to leave a comment below to let me know your thoughts, and feel free to ask any question you may have, or share suggestions of topics to discuss in later articles! I’m looking forward to hearing from you.
You can listen to Impressions on Music, Spotify, iTunes and Amazon Music. Each track from the album can also be licensed directly from Audio Network on their website.