Thursday, May 01, 2008

Film Composer, Sound Maker or Music Designer?

Some musical creators will naturally identify themselves as either Top Down composers or Bottom Up constructionists –both are terms I've introduced in previous posts (Click on the links at the bottom of this entry if you require background). The latter, it seems to me, must think more like sound designers than traditional composers.

In fact, the more I think about it, the fewer differences I notice between the modern compositional process and Sound Design (or sound EFX work).

I would like to suggest that this points to an as of yet unidentified trend:

A new kind of sonic artisan has evolved among us. It's as though the lizard has sprouted wings, and its scales turned to beautiful feathers, and we have only now realized that a transformation has taken place because instead of crawling in the muck, something new soars above us along the horizon, and the thing has taken flight.

So what is this new creature, anyway?

This newly emerged commercial sound artist is neither music composer nor EFX artist, but both those things and much more.

There is but a shade of difference here, nevertheless I think important to take note of it: I do not mean that he or she simply possesses a combined skill set, or that they are adept at mixing music and noise together in mix. That in and of itself would be unremarkable.

What I mean is that this newly formed modern audio professional approaches music and noise (and speech for that matter) as equally available sound sources and viable tonal information colors for any given audio work. There is no differentiation in kinds of sound, simply a palette whose spectrum extends to ranges of human hearing.

Sure, there have been composers before, and tape manipulators, and location recordists, and sound EFX artists, and beat makers, and engineers –but we've been looking at those respective skill sets as separate from one another. Fast Forward to the present and we noticed that these unique specialties, have become combined into a more or less unified, well informed, competent, new breed of audio professional.

I call this person by the hybrid label: 'MUSIC DESIGNER'.

A cursory web search will turn up several individuals who already embrace this nomenclature. For instance: Brian Williams, Robert Rich and Dhrubajit Gogoi.

I believe the term itself, 'Music Design', must have been coined sometime in the first part of the twentieth century, and from someone within the film community. In his book 'Film Music: A Neglected Art', first published in 1972, and with a 2nd edition in 1991, Roy M. Prendergast mentions technological advances in sound production initiated by music editing company that called itself 'The Music Design Group'. And then there is, of course, Soundelux Design Music Group, founded in 1985, meaning the appellation is at the very least now a quarter century old.

But today, as of this writing, the term 'AUDIO DESIGNER' appears to be much more common, especially as a designation in the Game industry.

I understand how 'Audio' might be chosen instead of 'Music'. It suggests a neutral term which embraces both music and sound design. However, there's nothing in the label Audio Designer to suggest musicianship. A job description listed on the THQ job site even assures applicants: "Understanding of Music and composition is an advantage but is not required".

Personally I think 'Audio Designer' is a fancy name for 'engineer', and otherwise misses the evolutionary mark. That's why I prefer the Music Designer designation over Audio Designer, given the context which I use it: My intent is to define a multifaceted musician who composes musical experiences using all sound, not describe an engineer who assembles the disparate sonic elements of a media production into a final mix.

You're welcome to come up with a niftier name, or to argue the practice is old hat in Hollywood. My point is not to create a new job title for you, but simply to identify and codify elements of an emerging trend. And this trend may be defined as the acceptance of a range of post production skills and techniques by even the conventional composer.

You already know people like this. Perhaps you are one of them. I'm inclined to think that if you read this blog with any regularity, you probably are. If you produce sound using raw code, MAX, soft synths and a Digital Audio Workstation, consider yourself enlisted. If you think of an electric guitar as less a musical instrument and more of a sound design tool, you absolutely fall into this category. Likewise, if you're one of those sound explorers who run a traditional instrument through a series of dynamic software filters –the way Robin Eubanks often does using Native Instruments Guitar Rig– in order expand tonal range well beyond the natural limitations of his trombone.

For a Music Designer, the actual instrument of tonal or sonic manipulation is considered incidental. That's because any instrument may be transformed by the addition of technology into an interface capable of sonic colors beyond its traditional or intended use, with the result being that any instrument can sound like any other instrument (and a whole lot more).

The distinction between musician and sound designer is blurring –has blurred–, while at the same time the distinction between composer and engineer, not to mention Graphic designer (which I'll discuss in a future article (MUSIC BY DESIGN)), also appears to be merging.

The final result of a Music Designer's work maybe but doesn't have to be described as audio collage or merely an interesting organization of sound. Rather, it works in such a way that it begs an informed audience to simply accept what they hear as MUSIC, whatever its components or sonic origins.

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the six-part series detailing the changing relationship between Traditional Music Composition and Modern Music Production:


Part 1: Top Down, Center Out and Bottoms Up
Part 2: Top Down Music Composition
Part 3: Bottom Up Audio Production
Part 4: Film Composer, Sound Maker or Music Designer?
Part 5: Songwriter Vs. Song Designer
Part 6: Music By Design

No comments: