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The quick guide to creating a soundtrack

Compose your own blockbuster score

Composing for film or TV used to be pretty much a no-no if you were a bedroom producer, but new technology means that it’s now possible to create a decent soundtrack using just a computer and some software. If you want to start writing music for moving pictures – even if it’s just your home videos – MusicRadar has some must-read advice…

1. Learn music theory
There’s no greater requirement for writing full orchestral scores than a sound knowledge of music theory. If you play an instrument to a high level, start writing music for that instrument and learn about transcription, key and time signatures… the lot. It’s important to learn about the different articulations each instrument can play, so that these can become part of your creative armoury. Listen to as many soundtracks and orchestral pieces as you can and build up a mental library.

2. Invest in an orchestral library
Synthesis is great for many things, but if you want authentic orchestral sounds, the only thing that comes close to the real thing is a dedicated orchestral ROMpler. Garritan’s Personal Orchestra will get you started, while more still can be done with IK Multimedia’s Miroslav Philharmonik, which even includes a choir!

3. Find your hook or melody
If you want something big and lush, you’re going to end up writing for lots of instruments. Remember to start with something concise, though, so that you can build from that foundation.

4. Think about rhythm
For a blockbuster sound, a strong sense of rhythm will be required. But remember: rhythm doesn’t just mean drums – you should also think about the articulations you put into other instruments. Short, staccato notes will help you keep things rhythmic.

5. Work on your harmonies
Pop music harmony tends to lean towards triadic chords and fairly conventional chord progressions. Orchestral harmony has much greater scope, but you’ll drown in a sea of dissonance if you just throw any old notes down. Try something basic first and then complicate your harmony with inner parts that move.

“If you want authentic orchestral sounds, the only thing that comes close to the real thing is a dedicated orchestral ROMpler.”

6. Use variation
If you’re a dance music enthusiast who’s looking to get into movie scoring, forget where your Cycle or Loop button is! Although film music uses repetitive material, it tends to change each time a theme plays. Either a new instrument joins the melody, or the harmony or orchestration changes more dramatically.

7. Leave some space
Don’t overload the upper mid-range or treble during passages in the film that feature dialogue. Pop music convention states that space is left for the lead vocal, but this is three times as true for film soundtracks with dialogue content. Whilst it’s important that everyone gets to hear your masterpiece, remember that you’re employed in an accompanying role, and that music will always play second fiddle to onscreen dialogue. We musicians know how important sound is in shaping and driving the action, but you’ll never convince a director that it’s more important than actors talking. Show him that you know this with a voice-sensitive score.

8. Add FX
Become a master of making sounds from scratch using synths, samples and recorded sounds and you’ll go far. Patches such as Noise Kit from Battery 3 should get you started.

9. Work on the mix
Be aware of the balance of your sounds. With different performance articulations and lots of instruments, you can easily end up with tens of separate tracks in your sequencer, so try to mix a bit as you go. Let the lead instruments come through in the final mix.

If you’re looking for further inspiration, check out our blog on the best film scores ever.

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