Though I code by day — and often by night — music is where my real passion lies. So when an opportunity comes along to write some music for TV it’s not something to turn down. Or is it? May I share a little story…
I was asked this week to write some music for a prospective game show format that is being promoted at MIPTV 2011 in France. The show has been short listed for the Fresh Talent Pitch so it’s quite an accolade, and I was chuffed to be asked.
I’ve worked with the formats company Little Nemo before. Heck, the company I work for owns a small stake in them, I put their UK-based website together (and I largely suck at design), and I composed the music for the game show Venturi. So I kind of know the drill a little and know what to expect from the creators of the shows.
Or thought I did.
Redefining last minute
On Sunday night I received an email asking if I could put some music together to be put over a video demo of the game show My Baby’s Name. The video hadn’t been started, although it was known that the music had to be forty seconds long. I only had a vague notion of the gameplay and was told the format had changed anyway in light of the short listing. In fact, the name of the show wasn’t even finalised. The demo was to be screened a week later at MIPTV and I was given until Wednesday to complete the job since that was when the video would need to be submitted to the judges.
Nothing like preparedness and the threat of a deadline to set the mind working. But sometimes people work better under pressure.
Monday morning came, 10am — a little over 48 hours to the deadline — and I sat at a warm mixing desk, fired up my trusty Korg Triton LE synth and the computer, then sat to think: My Baby’s Name. My Baby’s Name. I checked my email and had no further communication indicating the musical direction from the format creator. I was alone on this one. My Baby’s Name…
The obvious things that sprung to mind were nursery rhymes and children’s mobiles hanging over beds, which lent themselves to tinkly bell sounds, strings, choirs, pizzicato violin; something in a major key. But the premise of the game show was that the mother hadn’t revealed the baby’s name to anyone and, during the course of the game, it would be up to the studio audience to guess the name from those on offer. The more people who voted for the correct name, the more money the mother would win for the baby’s future.
Thus it needed counterpoint. It needed a hint of secrecy. It needed a few clashes of major with minor, but to somehow retain the overall happy, bouncy, child-like tone.
A tall order.
Of course, what it really needed was a melody, but I’m invariably rubbish at those. I tinkered anyway, settled on a chord progression I liked and chose a few fabulous instruments from the Korg’s arsenal. I adore that synth.
It was 11am.
I began to assemble the song and very quickly had the basis of something I thought might have a future. I had no idea if it was going to fit with the creators’ vision but it would have to do under the circumstances so I worked it a little harder and made it to 35 seconds long.
Then I received the email.
Can anyone spell P-A-N-I-C?
With slack-jawed yokelness I read that the tune had to incorporate twelve specific children’s names — one spoken every two seconds — interspersed after every 4th name with a female singer singing the title of the game show (the name of which still hadn’t been decided). Further, the theme had to have brass in it, because most game shows do.
That was it. Eeeek.
I was a little taken aback and somewhat painted into a corner. I’d jumped too soon and put all my musical eggs in one basket in the hope that it was going to fit, and clearly it wasn’t.
Reading through the list again, I confirmed it wasn’t an early April Fools joke. One thing that is notoriously difficult to write with a synthesizer is brass. It almost always sounds fake. And fake brass just sounds awful and cheap; like you’ve tried your hardest, but not quite had the budget to do it properly.
Secondly — and perhaps more worryingly — where was I going to rustle up 12 children and a singer at midday on a Monday? I figured that trying to Google for children’s voice samples would probably land me with a one way trip to the paedophile register so that was out of the question. Further, to do it for real, I didn’t have a vocal booth, and only have a comparatively pants Shure SM-58 — those old skool silver-balled mics that Karaoke outfits favour. I could mock up a Blue Peter-style vocal booth out of sofa cushions — believe me, it works — but it’s hardly professional.
Finally, how was I going to gel all this into what I’d written already; a direction that was already looking to be flawed even though I had a gut feeling it was right?
A spot of lunch would sort it all out. Always does.
And it did.
The cunning plan
I decided to cheat and focus on what I am good it: sound manipulation. All I needed was a willing volunteer to speak the given names and some software to post process the voices to make the samples sound like children. And it worked a treat; my wife is truly wonderful.
That still left the singer part of the equation, but I had a brainwave. The baby’s name’s a secret, right? And what do people who have a secret do? They whisper it. Whispering is dead easy to do with a Shure SM-58 wrapped in a T-shirt to counter the breath noise. And, better, with a little processing, pitch correction and EQ it’d be difficult for most people to tell I hadn’t employed a session singer. So I did it myself. Ten takes later I’d nailed it.
Suddenly I was excited again. I adjusted the tempo to 120BPM to make the maths easy, laid the voices over my original track — one every 2 seconds — and it just fell into place. Yes the track was going to be short by a few seconds but we’d cross that bridge if necessary. This was a rush job, after all, and compromises have to be made.
One thing remained: the pesky brass. I noodled and noodled until eventually, by about tea time, I had something that was approaching realistic. It was rough round the edges but I wasn’t going to hone it until I knew the direction was right. For all I knew the creator could turn around and tell me it was all no good and I’d be back to square one; minus one day to make it work.
With a hefty dose of trepidation I packaged it up as an mp3 and sent it off. And waited.
Our survey says…
An hour later, the reply came back “near perfection”. Woohooooooooo! The gamble had paid off!
All it needed was some tightening of the brass and perhaps some tweaking here and there. During the course of Tuesday I bounced countless versions back and forth to France, each subtly different; some longer, some shorter, some with better brass, some with twiddly harp, but none of them captured the true spirit of the day before. Sometimes too much time spent labouring something really does spoil it. And certainly being this close to a piece of music for almost two days diminishes one’s ability to look at things objectively.
Eventually I abandoned the edits and went back to the one from the day before and just fixed the flawed edges. Et voila! We went with the shorter time and the video guy altered the video to fit the music, which is a rare — and very appreciated — occurrence in this business. I sent off a longer instrumental version too for a backing track to be used later in the video.
The result? Music done and dusted in less than two days, which is what most people in the industry will tell you is “pretty rapid”, even for a minimal-spec job. Time will tell if the format wins the contest, but for now the 4-minute video itself is available on Vimeo. Considering that the entire project went from virtually zero to completion in less than four days — including the creators somehow finding time to employ a voice-over actor to explain the game — it’s quite an achievement.
Would love to know what you think of the music — even if you think it’s not right, all constructive criticism is greatly appreciated as it helps me improve. I’m pleased with it anyway and have reaffirmed my love for my mixing desk and the gorgeous Korg: I salute their respective digital prowesses and am proud to be their master.