What’s the way to finding a signature sound – your musical fingerprint?
So many of us use the same tools – the same DAWs, same sample libraries, same plugins.
Yet – there are certain composers who, when you hear their music, you can immediately tell who wrote it.
If you want to develop your own musical fingerprint too, Rich has some advice for you in this podcast!
Hey guys welcome to session number 24 of the trailer music composers podcast. It’s good to have you here.
One man, with one microphone, whose cats Meg and Stu were named after characters from Family Guy. Welcome to the trailer music composers podcast.
Hey guys welcome to another episode of the trailer music composers podcast. In today’s episode I want to talk about the big cheese of trailer music. And I don’t mean the pay outs, I mean signature sounds.
This is such an important topic. Because it’s kind of like it’s your fingerprint, that’s what signature sounds are. I went into trailer music knowing nothing about trailer music. I learned all that I have done through experience. And the experience of signature sounds has been really interesting. But when I first heard about it I was like oh, so its just cool synths, is that what a signature sound is, just a cool synth. And for ages that’s what I thought it was, I just thought ok I guess I’ll just load up Omnisphere which is actually really fun. And yes signature sounds are and can be very cool synths, especially when you’re dealing with hybrid or orchestral stuff or any hybrid trailer cue.
You know what let’s look at signature sounds differently let’s look at it less like oh what can I do to this sawtooth sound and this soundwave to make it sound different, think of it like this, think of it like we’re all dealing with the same stuff, we’re all dealing with the same chords, the same keys, the same tempos, the same melodies. You know all that, the same structure, we’re all dealing with are one, two, three, (four, if you’re in that camp). We’re all dealing with the same stuff. So signature sounds just become one of those things that we’re all dealing with if you just call it signature sounds.
If you see it like this, how can I put myself into my music? That will be a huge change in the way you approach your stuff. And that’s the realisation that I’ve been having of late. Again a lot of my realisations are coming from that ability to stand on the mountain of my success and look back upon my path, I am able now to be like oh so that’s what that is, and that’s what that is. And I’m hoping that I can pass this knowledge on to you, that signature sounds and not signature sounds at all, signature sounds are the presence of the identity of the composer.
So I know I mention a lot of the same names over and over again on this podcast, but obviously I have a huge respect for Ciaran Birch and his work and you know what I can always hear his music, I hear a track and oh yeah that was Ciaran. Oh yes it is Ciaran I’ll check and it is Ciaran, great. Because he has his Ciaran Birch sound, and that’s not a bad thing. I remember I went to, gosh this was years ago, where are we 2020, so this was probably about 12 years ago, 2008 maybe, I went to one of those kind of composer meetings arranged by I think it was the PRS, or the musicians union, one of the big music thingamajiggers, that’s their technical name in case you didn’t know, the big music thingamajiggers in the UK. It was in London, I went down there one evening and it was like a, there was a panel of composers, one of them was a trailer composer at the time, I didn’t care, I was like forget about trailer music, whoa dude.
But the guy who was heading the panel was Guy Mitchellmore who runs music for media, he’s got his school that teaches people how to compose for the media. Huge respect for him as a composer and huge respect for what he does. And everyone was sort of putting their hands up and asking these questions, everyone in the room was a newbie, like me, I was like furiously scribbling notes about what they were saying. But you know I only ever remember one thing, and that one thing was something Guy Mitchellmore and all the other three guys said was stop trying to do everything, stop trying to be like other composers and just do what you do best. Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing hugely. It was probably something completely different, but over the years I’ve Chinese whispered myself into believing that’s what was said. Do what you do best.
And that’s what you hear, when you hear a track by a certain composer it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are always identifiable as themselves, but they approach a track in a certain way, which often manifests itself in the sounds. And you know you could argue with me and I like to do this because it means the podcast is longer than three minutes, but you could argue with me and say you know what they get that sound because they use the same patches and the same synths. And I go ok good idea, good point, I use the same patches as them, I know because I’ve asked. You know. And that’s the wonderful thing about what we do. And we keep coming back to this we all have the same stuff. So how do you, and this is the ultimate, this is kind of like one of those musical paradigms where I say infuse yourself into your music my child and you say how and then I disappear into a cloud of smoke. But then I reappear in a cloud of smoke and I’m coughing because where did all that smoke come from?
I will give you my tuppence shall I, I’ll give you my thoughts on this. And I’ve done a few videos on my YouTube channel, covering these topics. Now my secrets, I say secrets ion like my ‘clickbait’ my secrets to finding your signature sound are simple, they are these. And you’ve heard it before, but you need to hear it again, do what you enjoy, follow your curiosity and don’t let fear stop you from getting weird.
So for instance let’s return to me as an example, most of my trailer tracks if you listen to them don’t really stick to the three act structure they stick to I guess you would call it the more slow burn structure which is essentially just a massive build. Most of my cues are just big builds. Which I can hear you gasping, what the three act structure with step downs and all is not there, and I say no its not. Because you know what I’m a huge post rock fan, I say a huge post rock fan, I probably couldn’t name half of the post rock bands that you are thinking of, I’m a huge fan of a few post rock bands who I have to listen to over and over again, and when I think specifically I think of Godspeed You Black Emperor their sort of 25 minute epic builds. That’s the music that used to get me excited. And that’s the music that still gets me excited, powerful, slow builds. And I go you know what that’s what I like, yeah I love a Metallica style riff every so often, but that’s not necessarily my jam. And I love recording sounds and mangling them and using excessive amounts of compression. And just because it’s not the tried and tested way does not mean it is wrong.
I once read an interview with Junkie XL. I think that’s his given name about the way he writes and he said, you know, talk about his templates and stuff and he was like oh yeah I run all of my tracks hot, so he’s like very basically all clipping. And I was like what, all of his tracks are clipping. This man is a genius. And since then I’ve stopped bothering about headroom, those of you are mixes are just going this man is insane, it’s probably because I can rely on Toby to worry about the head room. And that’s Toby is listening, I hope he’s listening, he’s probably not, Toby would be listening going that’s why we have so many problems mixing your music Rich.
I don’t worry about the clipping because you know what it gives the sound I want. Yes I do put a limiter on the compressor guys it’s not, I’m not running sort of nine plus decibels on all of my tracks because personally I like my ears and want to keep them working. But the message there was he was aware of the rules, but he was also aware of the end product and actually the way he gets to the end product it doesn’t matter, it’s the end product that matters. And he oh, oh, oh, it’s not how you get there it’s where you end up. Oh this is an unusual twist of events. And I’m not saying the journey doesn’t matter because you must enjoy the journey but what I’m saying is if you finding your sound means that you ignite some of the rules and get a little bit weird get a little bit lose then maybe it will mean that you find your signature sound. You find your trailer music identity and that identity might not even be trailer music, you might realise you’re actually an advert composer in the closet. You might want to just sit there and be like I Just wanna write happy clappy ukulele songs. And if you do, do it. Because you know what it’s so much fun doing that stuff. And that’s really important to follow what you enjoy, follow what you’re curious about, and follow the weirdness.
And I’m talking about the weirdness, when I say weirdness I’m talking about, you know the stuff at school you wouldn’t want to openly admit to people because you’re worried that people pick on you, that’s the magic. Because you know what these days people are probably still picking on you but behind your back on line so you wouldn’t notice, the magic there is that those things you’re hiding are probably the gems.
And I’ve talked about this before. My fear of being judged as a musician, so i said to myself ok well how about I just in my tracks I play the stuff badly and out of tune and out of time, and I down don’t quantise it and admittedly sometimes Vic comes back to me and he’s like Rich can you quantise this. And it’s like ok. But actually what it meant is my tracks have character, and have a character and I’ve noticed now that people are coming back to me and being like Rich did you do this trailer and I‘m like I don’t know did I? And I check it and I go oh yes I did, because they go I heard the first five seconds of the trailer and I thought that sounds like Rich. amazing.
And that has come about through following what I enjoy which is just playing sounds. I just love sound and I love playing live instruments and recording them and mangling them, following the curiosity of what happens if I play a cello, getting weird, just layering tons of risers and tons of rhythms to the point where you’ve got this wonderful poly rhythmic mess going on. It’s all badly played but it sounds great and tense. And awkward. You need to do that, you need to sit down and go ok, what do I enjoy, what am I curious about and what that stuff I’m scared of that I’m scared people would call me weird for liking. Because that’s where you’re going to find your signature sounds. And if that means that your signature sound like I said is actually cinematic hip hop or that your signature sound is actually action taiko drums then that’s amazing. Because you know what you might blow everyone out of the water in that area. You know. You might find the horrible thing, you know what I don’t even like writing music any more, I want to be an accountant these days. And I’m not saying that like mocking people who are accountants at all, my accountant is a legend. I’m saying it like sometimes you have to go into those darker areas to find the magic. Where you’re going to find happiness you’re going to find better writing, you’re going to find more productivity and move energy levels. And you’re going to find your signature sound.
It’s kind of like in Zelda, you know when you walk in and you open that chest it’s kind of like da dah dah dah dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah, signature sound, there it is. So stop looking for a signature sound in a synth, ask yourself some questions first, get deep man, how can you find that signature sound by asking yourself questions about the music you make and the music you want to make?
And that might mean that actually maybe I don’t do synth stuff, maybe I do guitar, maybe I get the guitars out quite often when I’ve had my students and I’ve just said to them hey you sound like a guitarist why are you writing the orchestra, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, I mean that in a lets get you doing the thing you want to do, and they go oh my goodness thank you I was so scared to get my guitar out because it wasn’t a synth or an orchestral instrument. And then they send me these amazing rocking tunes. Because they’re like yes this is my jam this is me.
It’s kind of like when you used to load up golden axe and you’d get to choose between the hero with the sword, the dwarf with the hammer, it is probably an axe wasn’t it, I’m sorry guys it’s been a long time, not the lady who had the sword, what did the guy have that I can’t remember, even the barbarian, the lady barbarian or the dwarf and you, or even more recently lets get more recent it’s like when you load up world of warcraft. This is a dark time in my life, and you’d like to look at these special skills and you would choose the special skills, like we all have those special skills innately burned into us. And a lot of us have buried them deep inside, for fear of judgment, some of us have been sort of on the ball the whole time. But what I want you to do is what your character strength. If we were loading up world trailer composers like a huge MMO, and we could choose a trailer composer for those special skills, what would your special skull be? And how would that come across in your music. I’d be like that, Schreiber terrible on the back end, but boy does he do a good intro. Thank you. Act one here I come and that I’ve come to realise you know actually it’s not bad, act one/act two that’s 66% of trailers. That’s not a bad thing.
Or you might be like actually you know what I don’t act one and two very well, but boy do I do a big back end, hello. So you just need to think about what are your special innate skills that you can bring to your music, if its guitar great, if it’s an Armenian duduk, even better let’s hear that, there is where you’re going to find your signature sounds.
I have a student called Simon, an incredibly talented writer and he brings a lot of his magic through his saxophone, but you wouldn’t know it because he angles it to death in his door and then what he gets is these tremendous sounds because he’s got his magic there, he’s got his special skills. And that’s what you need to do, find your special skills and then you will find your coveted signature sound. There we go.
It was a bit of a mystical one today. I feel like I should have had computer game music underneath, anyway and I feel like it should culminate in some cool realisation and I really appreciate you guys listening to this and taking the time to listen to this. You guys are absolute legends . I really do hope you get something from this even if it is just like actually I should just stop listening to this podcast and I should get on with some work. That’s a gift I’m happy to give.
You guys are amazing and I will see you next week.