You are here

Barry Adamson: Composing For Film

Interview | Composer By Nigel Humberstone
Published May 1994

Composing for film is an ambition shared by innumerable musicians, only a tiny percentage of whom will ever land a soundtrack job. But it can be done.Nigel Humberstone recounts his own experience of scoring a low‑budget independent Hollywood movie and talks to Barry Adamson, one of a new breed of soundtrack composers, about his career to date.

It's often said that if a soundtrack is doing its job it shouldn't be noticed. But great film soundtracks are masterpieces in themselves and the emergence of more positive marketing has resulted in more appreciation for tremendous scores like Ennio Morricone's masterful The Mission, Ry Cooder's haunting Paris Texas and the strident Mishima by Philip Glass.

I have always had a special interest in soundtracks and, as a musician and regular contributor to Sound on Sound, a burning personal ambition to write music for film; I suspect that there are many others with similar aspirations. Unfortunately the serious and extremely lucrative circle of soundtrack composers is a very 'closed‑shop' affair; once you're there you're laughing, but getting that first break is frustratingly elusive.

Breaking In

My twin brother and myself are the writing nucleus for the band In The Nursery. Signed to a London‑based independent record label (Third Mind), we have been able to regularly release our own material, which now has a small fan base and market in Europe and America. Our music has always been influenced by both classical and soundtrack sources, and many reviewers have commented that the music is like "a soundtrack in search of a film." Such was our determination that we even released a 'soundtrack' album for which there was no film. It was intended that the film should be an imaginary one pieced together in the mind of the individual as they listened to the music. But whatever the reasoning, the release of that 'soundtrack' (entitled Stormhorse) helped to make people aware that we were serious about the field of music composition. Another way of promoting yourself would be to take a section of a film on video (or an edited version, if you have the facilities) and compose your own music over the original score — a showreel of sorts to show people. With this kind of product, or even with cassettes alone, you could then begin to target film companies, producers, directors and even your local film school or college.

When attempting to break into the world of film scoring, we mailed out countless sampler tapes of our music to potential recipients, whose addresses we obtained from sources like the White Book, Kemps directory, and so on. While I don't want to put anyone off this approach, the procedure was both fruitless and disheartening — we didn't even receive a single acknowledgement. Often that elusive break and a chance to show what you are capable of will come unexpectedly with a stroke of luck, but you have to perservere. Fortunately copies of our last two albums were put forward by a film producer when he was asked to supply suitable material for a film being completed at the end of 1992. The film, An Ambush Of Ghosts, was a low‑budget independent Hollywood production directed by up‑and‑coming cult director Everett Lewis. After we heard of the possibility of our music being used, we spent an anxious couple of weeks waiting to hear whether the commission would fall our way. Luckily it did, and the director decided that he not only wanted to use some of our previous tracks but that new material was required for specific scenes throughout the entire film.

A small music budget was available, of which the majority would be swallowed up by studio fees, an engineer/producer, equipment rental (synchroniser) and various other fees. Out of the budget, we also had to allow for a short trip to Los Angeles to meet the film's director, producers, musical co‑ordinator and some of the cast, and to visit some of the locations. It was a great experience and we soon realised that the producers were taking a big risk in employing largely unknown musicians (in film soundtracks at least) who would also be working thousands of miles away from the usually close surveillance and interaction of the director. We had a lot on our plate and were determined to make the best of it.

The Hard Work

On our return it was straight down to collecting and developing ideas based on our meeting with the director. We had seen the film with him and had gone through important key scenes; during our meetings, we had put together a music cue sheet (sometimes refered to as 'music/song spotting notes') of specific points where music was needed, and had discussed what type of music was needed to complement and, at times, reinforce the visuals. Much of the story took place in an old Victorian home and the garden shed: what was required was sparse, yet moody theme music to match the dark and weird interiors.

Shortly after our return we received two video copies of the final version of the film: a PAL VHS version, complete with a 25 fps SMPTE code on one audio channel, dialogue (no sound effects at this stage) on the other and a visual display of the timecode burnt into the video; and a copy in low‑band U‑matic format. These tapes, containing reels 1‑5 and 6‑10 respectively, were to be the master controllers from which we would synchronise all our music.

At our home studio, it was simply a case of running the SMPTE code from the video (a JVC NICAM player) into the trusty Hybrid Arts (now Barefoot Software) sync box with which we run our SMPTE Track Platinum sequencer (this would work equally well with sync boxes and sequencers from other manufacturers — C‑Lab's Unitor and Creator/Notator, for example). Nothing could have been simpler, and the experience of being able to lock up sound and vision was great.

Unfortunately, when it came to track‑laying in the studio (FON in Sheffield) and synchronising to an Otari MTR90 2‑inch machine, the ease with which we'd worked at home was instantly replaced with frustration. We needed to have the video player (we were using the low‑band U‑Matic tape copy with a professional SONY VCR) as the master machine from which we could then control both the multitrack and sequencer. The sequencer was no problem, because that could locate and chase to SMPTE from the Sony machine, but the Otari was another ball game. In order to get that working properly, we needed to hire a synchroniser (not a cheap piece of gear) and purchase a suitable interface cable to connect it with the multitrack. After much ringing around a cheap but adequate synchroniser (an Audio Kinetics Pacer) was acquired — but because these machines are capable of working with a multitude of different devices, we were to spend some costly studio hours figuring out why the damn system didn't work. After more phone calls it all came down to the configuration of DIP switches on the back of the synchroniser!

FON studios is well equipped, with an Amek Mozart console, but had never been required to operate in an audio‑visual capacity. Video monitors were needed, along with an expensive Sony U‑matic player that was capable of transmitting constant VITC (Vertical Interval Timecode) information, essential to keep the Pacer synchroniser aware of where the master video tape was. In order to keep costs to a minimum, we managed to persuade the local film co‑operative (Sheffield Independent Film) to lend a number of professional TV monitors and playback machine. Without their help, advice and co‑operation I really don't know what we would have done. Being based within the same building complex as FON (Sheffield's Audio Visual and Enterprise Centre, which is part of the city's developing Cultural Industries Quarter), they obviously felt that a local mixed‑media project like this was the sort of venture the centre should be actively encouraging.

Before we began work in the studio, the director in LA requested that a rough demo of the musical pieces be recorded onto cassette and sent over to him, along with the relevant updated musical cues and timings, so that he could roughly sync up the two and check that we were going in the right direction. His response was an eight‑page fax containg his detailed thoughts, which arrived just two days before we were to begin track laying! Although the fax was largely encouraging, it did put forward new proposals and contained the major decision that music for the opening reel should be totally rewritten.

Following Everett's earlier suggestions, we had originally adapted and arranged around a rough piano motif played by the key actor, Stephen Dorff; now this was to be totally disregarded and we were to compose a fresh piece. I'm including an extract from the director's notes in order to highlight the important responsibility that was being placed on our shoulders. He wrote:

"This is a huge assignment, I know. But it is the most important piece of music in the film, really, and without the right music there really is no movie. The music in this reel is the movie for this reel, is the missing emotional glue holding it all together, and it must bond a lot of feeling."

With his fax the director also sent what he called "a chart, with graphic representations of the three key elements that the music must contain." To be honest, the chart — which showed the emotional high and low points — was largely ignored, as we chose to compose by instinct and feel rather than by any precise and structured method. As it turned out, the 'Opening Prelude' runs for just under 10 minutes and, complete with a live oboe, is one of the film's most emotional pieces and perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the story.

Music Adviser

We also had to be prepared for rewrites in the studio with the presence of Leonard Marcel, an experienced soundtrack composer who flew over from LA to act as the film's musical adviser. His contribution was essential. One early suggestion was that we purchase a sound level meter (cheaply available from stores like Tandy) and set our monitoring level so that it registered around 68dB. Our engineer/producer Steve Harris, with whom we have worked exclusively for many years, preferred the lower listening level and the use of the meter allowed for consistent monitoring. This 'set' monitoring level also related to the lower level that the music would adopt within the film, and reminded us that mixing for film is a separate art to mixing for an album (even though the soundtrack was also for CD release).

At an early stage in recording, Marcel also suggested that we bring in live musicians for certian parts. Whilst reluctant at first to waste time recreating what we considered to be adequate sounds, we finally succumbed to using live cello (to add a sense of 'realness' to the strings) and oboe for key solo parts. The parts were already written, and it was a simple enough process (despite the fact that our sequencer does not have a notation facility) to offload the parts as MIDI files and print them out for the musicians. The result was amazing and, as musicians who rely heavily on sampled orchestral sounds, really made us appreciate the full effect of combining 'real' and 'sampled' sounds. The effect is such that it tricks the ears into believing that all the sounds are real, and it is a process that we will continue to use in future recordings.

Despite a number of screenings at selected film festivals, An Ambush Of Ghosts has yet to be released and distributed properly. As a 'dark' and 'moody' film it will inevitably get shown in the so‑called 'arthouse' circuit of cinemas, and so at the moment the CD soundtrack (released on the Third Mind's Eye label) is our only way of exhibiting our achievement.

In The Nursery are releasing a single, 'Hallucinations?' on Third Mind Records, in May.

In The Nursery Equipment List

  • Akai S3000 sampler (10Mb memory).
  • AKG C3000 microphone.
  • AKG C408 Micromic.
  • Alesis ADAT & BRC
  • Allen & Heath GS3 desk
  • Atari 1040ST computer running Barefoot SMPTEtrack Platinum software with syncbox and MIDIplexer.
  • Casio DA2 portable DAT machine.
  • DAC R4000 II removable disk drive.
  • Emu Emax I HD sampling keyboard.
  • Emu Proteus 1 (with Invision Protologic upgrade).
  • Emu Proteus 2XR sound module.
  • Emu Proteus 3 'world' sound module.
  • Roland S10 sampler.
  • Tascam MM1 keyboard mixer.
  • Yamaha WX11 wind synth.


  • Alesis Quadraverb effects processor.
  • Behringer Ultrafex effects processor.
  • Behringer 'Composer' compressor.
  • Drawmer DS201 dual gate.
  • Powertran digital delay line.
  • Yamaha SPX90 effects processor.


  • Sony Trinitron TV.
  • JVC HR‑D860EK Nicam video player.
  • Tannoy Mercury MkII monitors.
  • Acoustic Research AR18 monitors.
  • Harman‑Kardon power amplifier.
  • Premier HTS200 marching snare drum.
  • Premier 25‑inch (x2) and 28‑inch orchestral tympani.
  • 2 x 28‑inch bass drums.

An Ambush Of Ghosts

An Ambush Of Ghosts is an intense psychological drama starring the Canadian‑born actress Genevieve Bujold, famous for her appearances in Alan Rudolph's The Moderns and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. The film also features Stephen Dorff, the up‑and‑coming LA star seen in The Power of One, Judgement Night and, more recently, Backbeat.

The film was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Utah in 1993 where it won the Kodak award for best Cinematography. It opens with an extract of a poem from Emily Dickinson:

One Need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted.

One Need not be a House, The Brain has Corridors — surpassing Material Place.

Characteristic Effects

A key element in the preparation of the film's music was the use of unique sounds that would relate to an individual actor's state of mind. When the character George (played by Stephen Dorff) hallucinates, the vision of an LA cop appears. These points in the film are highlighted by a distinct camera movements, either circular or panning, and so we devised the use of a twisted and tortured metallic sound (an edited Proteus 3 preset of a waterphone) to accompany these moments when George was slipping into insanity.

As Lewis, the director, stated: "We need some notation of his character shift (into insanity, unsettledness, extreme action, etc.)"

Owing much to the actress' own distinctive form of acting, Genevieve Bujold's character of Irene (George's mother) speaks very rarely so, to reinforce the brooding undercurrent of her presence and to suggest a general sense of uneasiness, we often coupled her appearance with deep sub‑harmonic drones.

Barry Adamson's Programming Suite

  • Akai S1000 sampler (10Meg).
  • Akai S900 sampler.
  • Alesis Midiverb effects processor.
  • C‑Lab Notator software.
  • Emu Proteus 2 and 3 sound modules.
  • Fatar weighted mother keyboard.
  • Korg T2 workstation.
  • Mackie 16‑channel desk.
  • Roland GTR synthesizer module.
  • Yamaha SPX1000 effects processor.

Barry Adamson — Composer

Barry Adamson could well be viewed as one of the new breed of alternative film composers, working with often independent and odd‑ball movies on the fringes of the commercial film industry. He will more than likely be familiar to most for his bass playing with Magazine and The Birthday Party, and was also one of the founder members of The Bad Seeds, with whom he spent four years before deciding that rock music was too restricting a format for his ideas. Picking up a deal with Mute Records, he released his first solo single 'The Man With The Golden Arm' in 1987, following it the next year with an album entitled Moss Side Story, the soundtrack for a film that never was.

Adamson is currently putting together a new album, during which he is taking a break to attend film school at the New York Film Academy, in order to gain some hands‑on experience of film making. This all ties in with his plans to realise an original screenplay, Dead Heat, which will see him co‑direct with Jonathan Hillcoat, whose previous work includes Ghosts of the Civil Dead.

I asked Barry when he had achieved his first break into film music.

"I'd written an album called Moss Side Story, which was meant to be like a 'calling card' saying 'this is where I'm coming from, this is the sort of areas I'd like to see visualised.' It sounds a bit arrogant but it's not meant to be at all! At the end of the day I just wanted it to be an album that people could listen to or a 'calling card' for directors, because I wasn't involved in film and I didn't know how to get involved. A break came about 18 months later, after I'd given up on it, really, when I got a script from America that eventually became Delusion [a thriller directed by Carl Colpaert and starring Kyle Secore and Jennifer Ruben].

"That was the break, really, and meant that the doors were open — I went to America and did this kind of 'kitchen sink' soundtrack; it was quite nerve racking — I learnt from that experience that there's more of a craft to soundtrack work than to other music.

"I came back and worked from U‑Matic tapes over here. The producer would fly in during the middle of it or I'd send tapes over of what I'd done and then we'd all get together. From that, people got to hear about me, and somebody else from the same film company was making a film, Gas Food Lodging. Allison Anders (the Director) had already signed J. Mascis (Dinosaur Junior) because she wanted a 'rock' orientated soundtrack, but also realised that there were certain scenes that required some form of orchestration in a different vein — and so I was drafted in to do that.

"I suppose my very first break came when I was doing some demos for Mute whilst preparing Moss Side Story, and the music adviser for Derek Jarman's Last Of England heard some of this early demo work and I was given a 5‑minute scene to do. Following that it's all been a lot of 'word‑of‑mouth', whereby I've known a friend of a friend.

"I've also done some student films — I'm probably the most happy with those — and various bits and bobs including commercials. There was an interesting one for McEwans Lager, which really suited me, but also things like baby food commercials."

How does Barry go about his pre‑production work?

"I have a small programming suite; I try to do as much of the programming as possible here, and have anyone else who's going to work on the music come along so that we can compile stuff together. This is where the ideas take shape for me rather than sitting around in a studio. I use C‑Lab Notator, which allows me to sketch out things and quickly get at notation if I need to, because I'll be writing out string parts sometimes. The room's a small workshop that I come to every day, with audio equipment at one end and a writing desk at the other — because I'm venturing into writing screenplays. So when I'm not working on the music I switch to the other end of the room."

Do you not find it hard switching between the two?

"No, I quite like it, because I can recharge the batteries on both things, so that if I haven't been working on the music for a couple of weeks it feels fresh again. It enables me to see ways around things that I couldn't before, and I welcome the distraction really. Ideally what I'd like to do is make movies and write the scores as well, or at least be in the position where I can pick and choose what to do with the scores. I'm just trying to open the film world up a bit more to me."

Do you sometimes feel a bit frustrated about the way that film makers approach the use of music in films?

"I did at first, but then I thought it must be quite a hard thing to get at; if a director has an emotion in a scene and an idea about it, but isn't sure in musical terms how that emotion should sit and is relying on the input of a composer to pull that together for him, it's equally frustrating for the director. I worked for a director once who — and a lot of people do this — put temporary music on so that at least they are connected with the emotions; then it's down to the composer to re‑write and get the result. At times it can work well, but at other times it can be a hindrance because the original musical idea becomes fixed."

Have you had any musical training?

"No, no training at all, though I have spent time asking people, getting books, listening, asking questions like 'how was that done?', 'why was that done?' and 'what's the effect of doing that?' But I seem to be at a point in my life where it would be nice to get some training, or be in that environment where you're actually being taught a craft or being given a glimpse as to how a craft is teachable."

How do you personally approach the blending of music and visuals?

"What I tend to do when I write is look at the scene and try to get an emotional flavour for the theme, and then write the theme without looking at the picture. When you put the two together, sometimes beautiful accidents happen. With Delusion I was trying to watch the picture and write to the screen all the time, and it began to get like a cartoon. So I learned that it was better to get into the emotions, becuase that's what the job is about — bringing in another dimension. Get the idea thematically of what you want to do and then just flow with it."