Work process

Nick’s work process

In the pop domain, my job is normally to add conventional instrumentsa pop track, although sometimes it may be that I construct the whole track from the ground up. Whatever the plan, my first contact is nearly always with the producer of the track. At this stage, the track in question could be in one of many states of readiness: everything from early demo stage to a completed track. My first job is to establish where the client thinks he is in this process – pop music, by definition, is an inexact science, often reliant on energy and performance, rather than precision. My job has to be very precise – the notes played by classically trained musicians are either right or wrong.

My other problem is to take on board the changes that the track may be going through between the time I first hear it, to the time I walk into the studio to record my bit. Again, in the pop domain, endless tinkering with a song is the creative process that often produces great records, so I have to be prepared to roll with those changes. Today most clients in the pop world will want to hear demos of what I am being hired to do. Demos are a two edged sword, however. As good as samples are today, they are never as good as the real thing (not yet anyway – when they are, I and many others will be out of a job!)

I might receive a basic audio track, often sent by MP3, and, if I am lucky, some sort of MIDI file, whether basic MIDI, or a Logic File (which is the software I use). Along with a brief, on the phone, or face to face, I then create my “masterpiece.” As I write, I am constantly walking in two directions at once – one direction is driven by my instinct and creativity, and the other, which is driven by the expected, the tried and tested. The eventual outcome is likely to be an amalgam of the two.

Writing by pencil on paper, (it’s still faster!), I then proceed to record my arrangement into the computer and lay that over the audio track, so that the client will have a mock up of the finished article. The final score and parts are prepared by my invaluable copyist, Ron Shillingford, who can spot a wrong note a mile away and makes everything look very stylish.

Once I send the demo, which is basically the finished score, I then await the client’s verdict. Mostly, I am glad to say, the reactions are favourable and the changes minor. Sometimes, I will have to go through a lengthy re-writing process, and very infrequently, I lose the job altogether. When this happens, I try to be analytical about it, and sometimes, I believe it is because the original brief from the client was either confused or just plain wrong!

On the film side, things are not that much different. The main difference, however, is in volume and time, and as an orchestrator, I may be dealing with up to five minutes of raw material a day from the composer, which I have to turn into fully orchestrated score. Again the brief is important, although, by definition, the musical aspects tend to be more precise because the musical medium, which is often orchestral, is itself more exact. However, the level of information varies. Some composers are extremely precise, and the electronic short score that I am given leaves very little room for error. Others, more normally, will give me a rough audio (that has been approved by the director of the film) and possibly some MIDI, and in some cases, the movie itself.

As a conductor, my job is quite different. I have often used the analogy of traffic cop to describe film music conducting – a man standing in the middle of a busy crossing directing the chaotic traffic as best he can. If information is short on the ground as an arranger or orchestrator, then too much information is the problem on the studio floor. There is information coming from the composer, the director, the engineer, the music editor, the Pro Tools/click operator  all in the control room, and that has to be turned into simple, short, sound bytes that the 80 or so people in front of me will be able to assimilate. The musicians too have information to give me, mostly in the form of questions, which need to be answered.

And then the conducting itself, which can either be straightforward or tricky, depending on the complexity of the music, or the use of click tracks. Either way, I certainly know when I have spent a day in the studio on a film!

Whatever, the project, we are blessed in London with the finest musicians in the world, bar none, and working them is to work with the very best.