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Michael Errington: Composing For Film Scores & Soundtracks

Interview | Composer By Paul White
Published July 1995

Michael Errington started his career selling pianos, but now he's living in LA and writing scores for Hollywood movies. Paul White discovers what happened in between...

Michael Errington started playing piano when he was almost 15 years old and describes himself as "a late starter". However, he soon realised that he had an aptitude for the instrument and quickly developed into a very proficient player. Within three years he had passed his Grade Eight music exam, followed by a diploma, but rather than try to make a living playing pianos, he went on to work for Chappells of Bond Street, selling keyboard instruments and demonstrating hi‑tech MIDI gear.

His next move was to join Yamaha‑Kemble UK, at Milton Keynes, as a piano product specialist, but he soon became more involved in the hi‑tech aspect of music‑making. All this time, Michael was continuing to develop his skills as a player, and in the evenings he'd compose using sequencers and synths. I asked him to explain how his interest in film music composition came about.

What Katie Did...

"Something at the back of my mind told me that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life performing other people's music. Whenever I wasn't working, I was writing, and I set up a home studio based around a TAC 24‑channel desk and several Yamaha synths. I was very much influenced by Kate Bush's music and met her for the first time backstage at a Peter Gabriel concert. A couple of weeks later she invited me to her studio and she gave me a great deal of encouragement. I was invited back several times, and there's no doubt that Kate opened several doors for me — she's been a major influence.

"I still felt that the opportunities for composers were limited, and taking into account the style of music I was writing, I came to realise that writing film music is what I really should be aiming for. A major break came when I met Toto, the band, and David Paitch, their musical director, heard me play. As a result, he invited me to Los Angeles and persuaded me to audition for a place at the University of Southern California (USC), where they have a programme called 'Advanced Studies For Scoring Motion Pictures And Television'. In six years, they'd had nobody from the UK, but out of 230 applicants that year they accepted 12, and I was one of them. Film scoring is very much an American dominated bastion, and though there are major British film composers, such as John Barry, he's been living in the USA for 30 years now.

"But the problems didn't end there... I had to explain to Buddy Baker (former musical director at Disney and director of the University's film programme) that, although I appreciated the offer, I hadn't got the capital to pay for the course, and because I wasn't an American citizen, I wasn't eligible for a scholarship. Buddy still wanted to find a way for me to attend, and in the end I was allowed to sit in on the classes which enabled me to study alongside some of the finest film composers working today — including the likes of Jerry Goldsmith."

What was the most important thing you learned on the course?

"It was already taken for granted that you could handle orchestration, harmony and so on, and what we learned was the hands‑on aspect of working to picture. We were also taught how to deal with the politics of the business and how to deal with budgets. The marvellous thing was that, unlike the Academy and Royal College over here, the people teaching me were the actual composers who write for the major motion pictures. If Basil Poledouris came in to host an afternoon forum, he may well have spent that very morning working at 20th Century Fox."

Did you find it difficult to make the transition from writing music that works as a stand‑alone art form to creating music that is just one element of a film?

"Well, I did get to see how the other composers work, and the Americans have a wonderful composing style, but I felt that, coming from a very European background, I could offer something a little bit different. Because the University is well funded, the facilities are excellent; they have their own symphony orchestra, and their own SSL‑equipped studio. So you can go through the course programme, and at the end of it you have an orchestral show‑reel to add to your portfolio."

What was the first film scoring job you got?

"You don't get given your own film to do right off. What usually happens is that you get to work on commercials and do 'ghost‑writing'. Ghost‑writing means that you assist an established composer who has been commissioned to do a film, so although you do some of the work, the composer still gets most of the credit. I was very lucky — within three months of leaving USC, I was offered my first feature film based on the show‑reel that I'd made there."

Strings And Things

Were you given the budget to use a full orchestra?

"The film was called Unconditional Love, written and directed by Arthur Bjorn Egeli. It had a total budget of just under two million dollars, but a lot of that went on the location shooting which was done at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The music budget wasn't sufficient to enable me to work with an orchestra, but I've found that Roland samplers, especially with their excellent sound library, get closer to the real thing than anything else I've tried. I mainly used a Roland S770 for the project, and though I've used a lot of other things, the Roland strings and brass library is streets ahead of anything else I've ever worked with. I also found some extremely good samples on the Roland format Club 50 Foundations CD.

"When you go to see a film at a cinema, everything is so grand up there on the screen that we've come to expect to hear a rich, orchestral score, and even though I didn't have the budget, I wanted to get as close to that as I could."

Scoring For Picture

Can you explain the process of writing to picture?

"It really helps if you can get a copy of the script before you start work. I was given something like six weeks to write and record all the music for the film, and I was fortunate enough to have my own team, including music editor Carl Zittrer, who's worked on Moonstruck and other films. I sequenced everything on my Mac SE30 using Performer v4.3, which I find is an excellent sequencer for this kind of work.

"The edited film was transferred to 35mm stock, and from there onto D2 digital video; from that were produced five timecoded U‑Matic tapes with two reels (around 10 minutes per reel) on each tape.

"The first job is to 'spot' the picture, to identify where the music cues should go, based on the director's instructions. However, I've learnt that this accounts for only 70% or so of the work, because directors invariably change things at the very last minute. Because of the time constraints and the sheer amount of music that has to be produced, writing for film is very demanding — it's rather like writing, recording, and mixing three albums in a six‑week period! The Americans work very efficiently, and I feel that working with them has smartened me up — they'll do their best to give you a chance, but if you blow it, you won't get another try.

"Although I had got the contract for the film, I was still asked to write a couple of musical cues, which the film backers had to approve before I could continue with the rest of the score. I took a romantic scene set on a beach, and another big dramatic scene, then wrote the music — which was subsequently played over the telephone for their approval! Fortunately, they loved it, so I went on to complete the rest of the film."


What equipment did you use to create and record your film music?

"The majority of the sounds came from my Roland S770, running the orchestral sounds from the Roland sample library, though I also used an Emu Proteus for additional orchestral sounds and an Emu Proformance for the piano parts. We mixed everything on a Mackie CR1604, using both Yamaha NS10 and Tannoy monitors, and finished about two cues a day. At the end of it all, I had produced around one hour and forty three minutes of music, of which around an hour was eventually used.

"One of the things requested by my music editor was that the cues should have long, sustained endings, so that the actually length could be set at the dubbing stage. Similarly, things tend to be mixed with very little reverb, so that if any more is required, again it can be added during the dubbing process.

"There was no need to use a multitrack as I didn't run out of polyphony, but because I only had 16Mb of RAM in the S770, one of the big pieces had to be recorded and mixed in two sections and then put together in Pro Tools. The sampler couldn't hold all the sounds I needed in one go and the instrumentation changed radically in the middle of the piece. The final cues were actually mixed to non‑timecode DAT and marked with their SMPTE start time. This didn't present a problem, as the music editor positioned the cues using Pro Tools — when you're working with film, there are inevitably last minute changes to the editing and Digidesign's Pro Tools helped us make changes very quickly. However, we were careful to ensure that everything was backed up, often several times. And after a day's work, I'd take a DAT clone straight over to the music editor, who'd transfer it to hard disk.

"Once out of the Mackie, everything remained digital right up until the final film dub, and the only effects we really used in the studio were a Lexicon reverb and an Alesis Midiverb III on some occasions."

Illusions In Sound

How did you get that sense of orchestral realism? I've seen clips from the film, and unless you listen very critically, it's not at all apparent that you're not listening to a real orchestra?

"The score comprised a lot of strings, and one thing I've learned is not to use the sustain pedal — that's always a dead giveaway that you're using synths. Instead I'd play things as legato as I could, and record all the string parts individually instead of playing chords — which is quite hard work. For example, I'd never just bring up a string patch and play — instead I'd create and record separate parts for the double bass, cellos, violas and violins. It takes longer but the marvellous thing is that you do recreate the interaction between the string parts. You have to map it all out on paper first, but the effort is well worth it.

Because of the time constraints and the sheer amount of music that has to be produced, writing for film is very demanding — it's rather like writing, recording, and mixing three albums in a six‑week period!

"I also tend to work with very little EQ, because that leaves plenty of flexibility at the dubbing stage. If your samples are clean, and if everything is recorded well, you don't really need to use much EQ. However, if I could see from the film that there would be sound effects going on, such as one scene which took place in the rain, I would orchestrate the music to work with it. At the same time, you have to make sure that the music doesn't get in the way of the dialogue. The video you get to work to is already edited (though changes to the picture may still be made later), and the dialogue is all there, but at this point there are no sound effects, so you have to try to second‑guess what will be added later."

As more work comes in, do you envisage having to set up a bigger studio, or do you prefer to hire facilities when you need them?

"It's interesting you should ask that, because having been around a lot of equipment for a number of years as a product specialist [with Yamaha], I've found that the less equipment I have, the more work I seem to get! I used to have a 24‑track studio with every imaginable product in it, but now I'm spending more time as a composer attending film festivals and meeting directors. Because I'm writing to picture and have to have everything locked up [synchronised to picture], what I really need is a musical sketchpad for home, and later this year I'm planning to buy a Kurzweil PC88."


On current big budget pictures, there are overtly electronic scores, some full orchestral scores, and compositions that mix both orchestral and electronic sound. Is this an area of composition you'd like to explore?

"I have been offered a fairly big budget picture this year for the same director, called Fear Of Drowning, and I'm hoping to use both the Roland sampler and real strings — possibly the Utah Symphony Orchestra. There have been numerous scores done in the past, such as James Horner's soundtrack for Willow, that used both orchestras and synthesizers, and Jerry Goldsmith's been known to work that way too. What style you choose depends on the picture, and in the case of Unconditional Love, a traditional orchestral score was called for and I did my best to realise that using the best samples available.

"In the case of a more futuristic film, I would tend to use more synthetic sounds, but a lot depends on whether you are writing for TV or film. Film audiences still seem to expect orchestral scores, whereas on American TV at least, synthesized scores are commonly used and seemingly accepted.

I would imagine that it's a common occurrence for the film director to ask for radical musical changes right at the last minute? Can Pro Tools always dig you out of that situation, or do you sometimes have to go back and compose something from scratch?

"Unusually, on this film I was allowed to sit in at the dubbing stage, so I got to work alongside dubbing mixer Robert Glass for a week. Quite often composers are excluded from the dubbing stage, because dubbing mixers frequently want to do something to a music cue that the composer wouldn't approve of! The mix was handled by a Mitsubishi Quad 8, a very large console, and at times a Lexicon 224 was added to provide the final touches. I was fortunate because I had a chance to work closely with the director, but we did have some last minute changes. Systems like Pro Tools are limited in such situations, because you can't always solve a problem by cutting a bar or two out of the middle of a piece of music.

"Right at the last minute, I got a tap on my shoulder and was told that the length of the closing credits had been increased and that the music was now too short. I dashed across town and literally rewrote and recorded the final cue. It was so close that I was still transferring the cue onto 35mm while the Dolby engineers were approving the first 10 completed reels! Interestingly, even though the recording and editing was all digital, I found that transferring the final product to 35mm with Dolby SR noise reduxtion warmed the sound up noticeably."

What difference does it make if the film you are working on is going to be mixed into Dolby Surround?

"You really need to mix the music through a Dolby five‑speaker setup, using the encoding and decoding boxes that Dolby provide. I have a friend currently working on a Dolby Surround soundtrack, and he made the mistake of mixing to stereo. When it came to the dubbing stage, there were horror stories, and now he's had to redesign his studio. Because my last job didn't require Surround, straight stereo mixing was fine, but for future work, I may well have to install my own five‑speaker monitoring system. It's all a question of budget, because the music normally has to be done on about 4% of the total budget."

A Star Is Born?

I would imagine that in this business, you're only as good as your track record. How was the film received?

"At the Boston film festival, it was the highest attended new release. And based on the response the film got there and at its screening in New York, we got accepted into the Hamptons international film festival at New York, which is amongst the biggest in the United States. There are numerous major actors and directors on the advisory board, including Steven Spielberg. The competition is very stiff — you're up against around 48 other films, many of which are made on large budgets and feature very well known actors. Just to be accepted was wonderful, but we actually won the Golden Starfish award, which has the largest financial prize attached to it; that provided us with $110,000 dollars worth of goods and services towards our next film, Fear Of Drowning.

"We also got a great deal of exposure at the festival and had the opportunity to meet a lot of the 'right people'. I was introduced to Quincy Jones by the festival's directors, and as a result of that I've been able to put in a tender for one of the four or five projects he has going at the moment. I also got to do a few TV interviews while we were there. Of course, all this publicity and politics is essential if you're to get onto movies with larger and larger budgets. I have two films to do this year, a TV movie for Showtime and Fear Of Drowning, but I'm also conscious that I've only just got my foot in the door and there's a long way to go yet."

Is there anything specific that you'd really like to do?

"I'd actually like to do some scoring for the BBC."

I would imagine that Hollywood pays rather better than the BBC?

"No Comment!"

Unconditional Love Credits

  • Arthur Bjorn Egeli Writer/Producer
  • Hans Gans Associate Producer
  • Barbara Boguski Film Editor
  • Carl Zittrer Music Editor / Supervisor
  • Tony Humecke Engineer / Producer
  • Robert Glass Head Music Mixer
  • Jessica Brytn Flannery Actress
  • Buddy Baker Programme Director, USC
  • Mary Ann Garger Feature Animation, Disney

Michael Errington's Gear

  • Apple Macintosh SE30 with extended keyboard (running QuickKeys to handle macros).
  • MOTU Performer v4.3 sequencing software.
  • Roland S770 sampler (16Mb plus CD‑ROM).
  • Club 50 Foundations CD‑ROM.
  • Roland LC702 Orchestral String/Brass library CD‑ROM.
  • Emu Systems Proteus Orchestral module.
  • Emu Systems Proformance piano module.
  • Yamaha DX7 II FD synthesizer.
  • Korg M1R synth module.
  • Roland Super Jupiter synth.
  • Sequential Circuits T8 (acting as master keyboard).
  • Lexicon LXP1 multi‑effects.
  • Alesis Midiverb III multi‑effects.
  • Mackie CR1604 mixer.
  • Tascam 8‑channel mixer.
  • Sharp DAT recorder.

Go West Young Man!

Can you offer any advice for readers who feel that they might like to get into the music‑for‑picture market?

"I was very fortunate to have the encouragement I did, and although writing for film is quite different to writing songs, I believe that there are still lots of opportunities in the United States. I really would recommend studying at the University of Southern California if at all possible, and although it takes up eight months of your life, it really is worth it because you learn how the Americans go about doing things.

UK bands can be successful in the States because they have a finished product, and when they tour there, they perform and then they return. The thing about the film industry is that you have to get very involved in the American way of doing things and you really need to live there, because everything is a team effort."