Ever since the first movie with sound was released in the 1920s, music has been a crucial part of film production. As director George Lucas once put it: “the music and sound are 50% of the entertainment in a movie”—and some modern movie productions show that it sometimes might be even more than that. Composing music for film and TV is an art and craft, as it not only requires a creative vision but also a comprehensive musical and technical knowledge.
Especially in today’s world of modern movie production, film composers are oftentimes responsible for the entire music production process, from developing a musical concept to delivering a finished master of the original score. A soundtrack needs to enhance the mood, emotion, and story of a movie, and if done well, it has the power to elevate the audience's cinematic experience.
In this article, we will explore the typical workflows, gear, and software of film composers and also showcase some of the best learning opportunities for aspiring film composers.
The scope of tasks and responsibilities of a film composer can vary greatly depending on the production size, budget and the artistic preferences of the director. Whether you are a Hans Zimmer with a complete staff and multi-recording studio facility or a bedroom composer scoring a student film, there are some common steps most modern film composers follow along the way.
Understanding the Story and Vision of the Movie
The first and probably most important step of film composing is to fully understand the movie’s story, characters, and the director’s vision. This involves reading the script and taking notes, discussing the plot with the director and the rest of the production team, as well as understanding the emotional tone the music should convey. Depending on where in the production process you as a composer are brought in, you may also be able to attend spotting sessions with the director and team to watch and discuss rough cuts or individual scenes of the movie.
Coming Up with a Musical Concept
Once you have a good understanding of what the project needs, you can start creating a musical concept. This can involve the creation of musical themes for certain characters or general motifs that reflect the atmosphere and emotion of the movie. Depending on how much time you are given for the production of the score, you could also experiment with different musical styles, collaborate with other artists, or do some field recording and custom sound design to spark inspiration. At the end of this process, you should have a general musical concept that includes a certain style, instrumentation, and mood for the film score.
Composing, Arranging, and Recording the Score
The process of composing and recording a film soundtrack is very different from composer to composer and can be dependent on the composer’s musical and technical background. Some film composers (and their teams) take care of every aspect of the production from idea to finished recording. This can include composition, sound design, arrangement, recording and mixing of the music.
A good example for such a multi-discipline composer would be Hollywood film composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL (pictured above—composer of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Mad Max: Fury Road, 300: Rise of an Empire). On the other end of the spectrum there are the more classically trained composers like John Williams (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park) or Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit trilogy), who are known to compose their soundtracks on the piano, arrange them on traditional score sheets, and even conduct the live orchestra themselves during the recording sessions.
In a more regular, off-Hollywood film production environment, you will probably be composing and producing your music using a computer and a DAW (digital audio workstation). Most modern film and TV composers use a combination of virtual instruments, (orchestral) sample libraries, synthesizers, and live recordings to create a film score. Depending on the production budget, you may be able to also book live musicians or even an orchestral ensemble to enhance your production. The composition process is usually divided into different cues that correspond to specific scenes or moments in the movie.
Throughout the composition process, there will be a constant back and forth with the director, music editor or other members of the movie production team. Composers usually share drafts or mockups of their cues and receive feedback so they can make revisions according to the project’s needs. Responding well to constructive criticism and being able to quickly adapt to changes are important traits to bring to the table as a film composer.
For movies that require an orchestral scoring approach, the film composer usually creates orchestral mockups using a variety of sample libraries. This way, the production team can get a good picture of the final score early on and react with meaningful feedback. For smaller budget productions, the orchestral mockup may often be the final result, while in bigger productions, the production process may include the booking of a scoring stage and recording with a live orchestra. If the music is going to be recorded with a live orchestra, it needs to be transcribed to score sheets for the musicians first. While some composers are capable of transcribing their music themselves, this part of the production is oftentimes taken care of by a professional orchestrator.
Editing and Mixing
After the composition is done and potential live performances are recorded, the music needs to be edited and mixed. This step of the production includes cleaning up any mistakes or unwanted noise, balancing and processing the different elements of the score, and adding effects. The main goal is to create a polished and cohesive soundtrack that complements the pictures and enhances the storytelling of the movie. Depending on the size and budget of the production, the film composer may be tasked with editing and mixing the score themselves or working with a music editor and/or mixing engineer. It’s worth noting that mixing music for cinema poses a different set of challenges and requirements than mixing music for radio, especially since the music is often competing with dialog and sound effects. Therefore it’s very useful to have the opportunity of working with a professional mixing and mastering engineer who knows the specialties of cinema and TV. In some productions, the film composer is also part of the post production process or will attend the final dubbing and mixing sessions.
Delivering the Score
After all the cues are recorded, mixed and mastered, the film composer usually delivers the final versions of the soundtrack to the post production team. They will then put music, sound design and dialog together and synchronize it all with the visuals. The final delivery could be as simple as providing the post-production team with high-quality stereo files of your cues. In larger productions, it may also involve exporting stems or individual tracks of each cue. Some film projects require the music to be delivered in a surround sound format, so make sure to set up your projects accordingly from the very beginning.
Since the amount of deliverables may add up quite quickly, it’s very helpful to thoroughly document your work, keeping good track of cue sheets, version numbers, and stems. Sometimes, even after delivering the final versions, last-minute changes to the film may require the composer to quickly make adjustments or re-record certain parts of the score. Keeping a clean file and project structure can be a true life saver in these situations.
Gear and Software
As we see, composing music for film can be a very multifaceted combination of tasks and a film composer may need to be able to quickly switch hats on a regular basis. Modern film composers draw on a wide range of technical tools to accomplish the various tasks given to them. Although the quantity and quality of these tools may vary greatly from composer to composer, there are some pieces of equipment almost every film composer will have at their disposal. Let’s talk about some of the most important ones and what they can do for you.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)
A digital audio workstation is the centerpiece of most modern music productions and it’s the same for film scoring, too. A DAW allows you to record, edit, mix and sequence audio. There are different ones available that all have their strengths and weaknesses. For film scoring, Steinberg’s Cubase Pro, Apple’s Logic Pro X, and MOTU’s Digital Performer are very commonly seen, especially due to their well-rounded MIDI editing functions. Avid’s Pro Tools is also pretty much standard, although it’s getting way more use for audio recording and editing than for its MIDI capabilities.
A MIDI controller is a device that allows you to input musical notes into your DAW using a keyboard or drum pads, for example. Some controllers also feature additional knobs, faders, and sliders that can be assigned to shape and manipulate your input data in real-time.
MIDI controllers are an essential tool for film composers as they allow them to play and perform different instruments and sample libraries organically and change their parameters even after the recording. Industry standard brands for MIDI controllers include Akai Professional, Arturia, Novation, and Native Instruments.
Sample Libraries and Virtual Instruments
Virtual instruments and sample libraries are software-based instruments that allow you to create authentic orchestral, electronic, and other types of music within your DAW. These instruments come with a wide range of sounds, including orchestral strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, synthesizers, and sound effects. Some popular virtual instruments and sample libraries for film composers include EastWest Hollywood Orchestra, the Spitfire Audio Albion product range, or the Berlin Orchestra range by Orchestral Tools. Most of these sample libraries are housed in software samplers like Native Instruments Kontakt and Vienna Symphonic Library. Some more recent libraries come with their own, free VST plugins though.
Sample libraries and virtual instruments allow film composers to create realistic-sounding orchestral arrangements and to add rich and dynamic textures to their compositions. Although there still is and always will be a need for live orchestras in film music, the latest technical advancements in sampling and programming have made that Hollywood sound accessible even to film projects with a smaller budget.
An audio interface connects your microphones, instruments and other audio signals to your computer and DAW. It is also the bridge between your computer and your loudspeakers. Together with a digital audio workstation, a high-quality audio interface is an essential piece of gear for every recording studio, as it allows vocals, instruments and sounds to be recorded at a high quality and low latency. Some popular audio interfaces for film composers include the Focusrite Scarlett range and Universal Audio Apollo series, as well as the Fireface interfaces by RME and the Apogee Symphony I/O.
[Editor's note: if you're looking for a suitable audio interface, we'd recommend checking out two of our buying guides: Studio Audio Interfaces, and for those operating on a tighter budget, Best Audio Interfaces Under $500.]
Studio Monitors and Headphones
Studio monitors and headphones are critical for accurate audio monitoring during the composition, recording, and mixing process. To get a consistent and predictable sound that translates well on most other systems, getting a high-quality set of speakers with a flat frequency response is usually most preferable.
Some popular studio monitor brands include Genelec, Focal, Dynaudio, and Adam. Headphones are also essential, particularly for listening to the details of your music, spotting unwanted noises or when working in a shared space or late at night. Some popular studio headphone brands include AKG, Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, and Audio-Technica.
Music Notation Software
Music notation software allows you to translate your MIDI data to sheet music that can be printed and shared. This can be helpful when working with live musicians and orchestrators, or if your music is going to be published as score sheets. Some film composers even use their music notation software for creating entire mock-ups of their compositions, although a modern DAW provides much more artistic freedom. Some popular music notation software includes Sibelius, Finale, and Dorico.
Audio Effects Plugins
Audio effects plugins are software-based tools that allow you to process and manipulate audio within your DAW. These can include EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays, and other tools that help shape the sound of your compositions. There are numerous audio effects plugins available from various developers, and some popular ones include Universal Audio, FabFilter, Waves, and Plugin Alliance.
Most DAWs ship with a comprehensive collection of quality stock plugins, so purchasing third-party products really isn’t necessary to get started.
Outboard Gear, Hardware Synthesizers and FX Pedals
While some film composers work strictly in the box using software, sample libraries and effects plugins to create their scores, others like to integrate hardware gear into their creative and technical workflow. A full overview of all the different types of equipment used in film scoring is probably material for a whole other article. However, there are certain tools that have gained huge popularity among the film composer community in recent years.
First and foremost are (analog and digital) hardware synthesizers, as well as modular synths and drum machines. Film composers use these synthesizers to create atmospheric pads, powerful bass lines, drum tracks, and unique sound effects. While there is a huge selection of great-sounding virtual synthesizer plugins available today, some film composers prefer the analog imperfections of analog gear and the, haptics and immediacy of physically turning knobs. Some popular brands for hardware synths include Sequential, Moog, Roland, and Korg, just to name a few.
Other pieces of gear that can be found in many film composer studios are hardware channel strips, EQs, dynamics processors and all sorts of coloration boxes. Again, while there are countless digital emulations of classic studio gear available today, it can be beneficial to add some analog color to your tracks by routing them through outboard equipment. High-quality hardware equalizers, compressors and modulation units tend to shape signals a bit more musically than their plugin counterparts. Instead of recording directly through the audio interface, many composers also send their recordings through preamplifiers and tube-driven gear that colors the incoming signal in an ear-pleasing way. A few examples of sought-after outboard gear include the Manley Massive Passive stereo tube EQ, the API 2500+ stereo bus compressor, and the Thermionic Culture Vulture stereo valve enhancer.
Another category of hardware gear that has become increasingly popular with film composers are effects pedals and desktop effects. No longer reserved for guitarists and bassists only, modern-day film composers like to use all sorts of effects boxes to process their tracks and create unique sounds and atmospheres. Some very popular, high-quality boxes are made by brands like Strymon, Hologram, and OTO Machines.
Cloud Storage and Backup
As a film composer, it's essential to have a reliable system for storing and backing up your music files. Cloud storage services, such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud, provide a convenient and secure way to store your music files, access them from different devices, and share them with collaborators. Additionally, regular backups of your music files on external hard drives or other physical storage devices are crucial to prevent data loss and ensure the safety of your work.
Aspiring film composers can benefit from various resources to enhance their skills and knowledge in film scoring. If you are willing to invest some time and effort to research, there are plenty of free educational videos about film scoring on Youtube. One of the most comprehensive and hands-on formats is Tom Holkenborg’s amazing Studio Time with Junkie XL series on Youtube, which has four seasons and several one-off specials to date.
If you want to dig a bit deeper or consolidate your knowledge, music theory and composition courses can provide a solid foundation in principles like harmony, melody, rhythm, and form. There are many courses available online through platforms such as Udemy, Thinkspace Education, Mix With The Masters, and Berklee Online. Film scoring workshops and masterclasses, offered by renowned organizations like ASCAP, BMI, and SCL, allow composers to learn from experienced professionals, gaining insights into the creative process and techniques used in composing for film.
Software and virtual instruments are essential tools for film composers, and online courses and tutorials on platforms like Lynda, Groove3, and Udemy can help composers learn how to effectively use them for recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. Analyzing film scores can also be a valuable learning opportunity, as you can study and dissect existing film scores to gain insights into different compositional techniques, orchestration, and sound design.
Collaboration is crucial in the film composing process, and working with filmmakers, directors, producers, and other musicians can provide real-world experience and expand networks. Participating in student film projects, local film festivals, or collaborating with musicians online can help composers gain practical experience and learn new techniques and approaches to composition. Additionally, attending film music conferences and events, such as the Sundance Artist Programs, Berlinale Talents, and the World Soundtrack Awards, can provide opportunities to learn from established composers, attend masterclasses, and network with like-minded individuals in the film music industry.
In conclusion, composing for film is a challenging yet rewarding field that requires a combination of artistic creativity, technical skills, and collaborative mindset. Understanding the typical workflows involved in film scoring, having the right gear and software, and continuously learning and improving your skills are crucial aspects of becoming a successful film composer. With dedication, perseverance, and a commitment to lifelong learning, you can pursue a fulfilling career in film music and contribute to the magic of storytelling through the power of music. So, keep learning, keep creating, and keep pursuing your passion for composing music for film!