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Nainita Desai

Building A Career In Music For Picture By Tom Flint
Published September 2005

Building A Career In Music For PicturePhoto: Richard Ecclestone

For over a decade, Nainita Desai has earned her living designing sounds and composing for film and television. She speaks about her experiences in the industry, and explains what opportunities there are for newcomers who want to get their foot in the door.

What aspiring scorewriter wouldn't want to have written a cinema classic like Lalo Schifrin's super-slick theme for Bullitt, John Williams' poignant Deer Hunter score or one of John Barry's perennial Bond numbers? In truth, few of us have a hope of emulating the success of the people mentioned above, but that doesn't mean to say there aren't other more realistic industry opportunities waiting for those who are prepared to fight for them. Every year, thousands of small independent film and TV programmes are being made, each one requiring a soundtrack of some sort. There are other important sound jobs too: every production requires a team of people to record and edit the sound, create effects, and then mix the whole lot together.

Foot In The Door

These days, Nainita Desai is known primarily as a composer for film and television, nevertheless, she wouldn't have got to the enviable position she enjoys today if she hadn't been prepared to take on a variety of interesting sound production jobs along the way.

After completing a university degree in mathematics and programming, and a postgraduate diploma in Music Technology, Nainita could conceivably have found employment with a music software company. Instead, she used her thesis research for her diploma (written on the subject of DAWs and the latest film and television post-production techniques) to open a few doors. "I contacted all the big London film studios and also De Lane Lea Studio, and interviewed sound editors and dubbing mixers," she explains. "I got to sit in on the dubs for various big films at Pinewood and soaked up everything that was going on. After the course I used my contacts and talked the people at De Lane Lea into giving me a paid job: I offered to build them a sound effects database so that the editors working in the studios would have a custom library of sounds to call upon." Nainita's sound-designing skills didn't go unnoticed at the studio, and before long her name was passed on to a sound editor who was looking for an assistant to join him on a six-month contract at Touchdown Studios near Munich.

"Sound editing for film is split into dialogue, ADR, sound effects and foleys, and I was doing foleys," says Nainita. "They're things like doors being open and shut, cups being put down on tables, punches, footsteps and so on. In this country there are four or five top foley artists who turn up with their own bag of tricks containing everything they need to create sounds."

Nainita's Equipment

  • 2.7GHz Apple Power Mac G5 (x2).
  • Carillon PC running Tascam Gigastudio.
  • Mackie Control Universal control surface.
  • MOTU 2408 Mk2 and 24 I/O audio interfaces.
  • Drawmer M-Clock master clock.
  • RME ADI 4DD converter running digital connections to Fostex DAT recorder.
  • Roland XV5080 sound module with Orchestral and Asia expansion boards.
  • Presonus Central Station monitor controller.
  • Apple Logic 7.1 sequencer, plus various soft synths and samplers.
  • Dynaudio BM6A monitors and BX30 subwoofer.
  • Miglia Director's Cut video conversion box.
  • M Audio Keystation Pro 88 master keyboard.

One of Nainita's first sound editing jobs was working on the US TV series Ironside, which the studio was re-dubbing in German. "The Americans would supply us with the music and effects tracks, called M&Es, and they'd always do a very good job of the US dub, but for foreign countries they'd slap it together a bit so it needed redoing. The main character, Ironside, was in a wheelchair, so I was creating the sound of his chair as he wheeled about. I actually used the squeaky handle of a little brown suitcase to create the wheelchair sound!

"There's a lot of creativity and lateral thinking involved in foley work because the most convincing sounds are often created by the unlikeliest of activities. For example, I had to design the sound of a roses growing rapidly from the ground for the film Little Buddha, and for that I used the combined sound of a sweet paper being unwrapped and a piece of silk being ruffled. I layered the two in the DAW and tweaked the EQ parameters to form a composite sound. Finding the right combination takes a lot of experimentation and it's often a matter of using the attack of one thing, and combining it with the body of another."

While foley work gave Nainita the opportunity to develop her skills in sound creation and manipulation, her stint as a dialogue editor, notably on the film August, proved to be a great exercise in audio editing. "When sound is recorded on location, there is a great deal of detailed work involved in cleaning and editing the multitracked dialogue and location sound so it flows smoothly," she explains. "Also, if an aeroplane is going overhead while an actor is speaking, or if the director doesn't like the delivery of a line, the actor has to overdub their lines in the studio. Then, in the DAW, you have to cut the words and syllables to match the lips precisely. After that the dubbing editor beds the dubs in with the rest of the dialogue and all the other sound effects."

Trailer Tracks

One of Nainita Desai's specialities is writing the music for film trailers, particularly those belonging to big blockbuster movies produced in Asian countries such as Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. She explains what is involved. "My job is to capture the essence of the feature in 90 seconds, and to make the films appeal to a European audience. Unlike most Hollywood films, a single Asian film often covers several genres. For instance, a serious thriller can contain slapstick humor and romance. Nevertheless, so as not to confuse the audience the music has to be composed in the style of the main genre. Trailers tend to get broken up into three main sections, starting with a 20-second introduction that builds into the main action sequence. The body of the piece is usually an epic orchestral track lasting about one minute, which is finished off by a 15-second outro.

"I usually get sent a copy of the film before having a meeting with the editor and producer to discuss the overall musical direction. Sometimes, I play them guide tracks or refer to other visual sources to give an indication of the ideas I have in mind. After that, I'll go away and write the first 30 seconds or so, submit it for approval, and modify the work according to any feedback. Sometimes I'm given a rough cut of the trailer with guide music already laid on for me to interpret in my own style. For inspiration I've built a library of trailers from the Apple Quicktime web site. You learn the tricks of the trade very quickly by looking at other examples.

"When a film is released on DVD, it usually needs additional music for the motion menus, documentaries and cast and crew interviews. If it's a score to go along with an interview it may be playing from anything from three to 10 minutes. In these instances I have to work very closely with the picture editor who designs the graphics and does all the editing.

"Creating customised showreels is vital to getting the job. I submit a DVD showreel containing excerpts from a variety of my work along with an audio CD of edited tracks I think is suitable to the project. Producers have very little time to devote to choosing a composer and have to be spoon-fed. If I have a day or so, I'll write something specific to help to clinch the deal, and sometimes I obtain a piece of relevant film footage and write something to picture. It is not uncommon for over 100 composers to submit reels for a job mentioned in the industry press so you have to become thick-skinned to cope with rejection, and you have to be ingenious at coming up with ways to make an impact once through to the relevant executive. Then, once you've clinched the job, you have to be flexible and give the client what they want."

Opening The Scoring

Nainita eventually made the leap to score writing by working on low-budget films offering what is known as 'deferred payment'. The payment method could more accurately be described as non-payment, used when there is little up-front capital available to the film makers. In practice, the crew work for nothing on the understanding that they'll get a share of the profits if the film is a success. "You know that in reality you're never going to get your money back or earn a penny, so you do it for love," admits Nainita, "and you hope that the film goes on to do well on the festival circuit. There are several festivals for every week of the year; most specialising in different subject areas like wildlife, animation or short films."

Pitching for deferred payment commissions is one way to get a foot on the ladder, and the odds of landing a job are reasonable, as very few established composers will be competing for unpaid work. Nainita suggests that anyone interested in independent film work should try contacting some of the nation's film schools. "They all need composers so it's not a bad idea to offer your skills. The London Film School, Surrey Institute of Art and Design, and Ravensbourne College all spring to mind, and the National Film School is also a good one. They have a music department with a few students but more films are made than that they can cope with, so they do look for outside composers. I got a lot of my film work by taking a scholarship in sound at the National Film School. The training was based on practical experience, so I was working on student films doing location sound, boom operating, sound editing and dubbing. From that I got to work on Little Buddha, and that led to me doing sound editing work on Interview With The Vampire, Backbeat, Fatherland, Great Expectations and August.

"The best web sites to look at to find independent film makers who are casting and crewing are, and Shootingpeople has a free membership but if you pay to join you get information quicker. They have lots of ads for composers but there are about 6,500 members around the country so it's still pretty competitive. I spoke to one filmmaker who'd had 200 responses from people interested in composing the music to their film and there wasn't a single penny involved! Some music students think that it is easier to get into writing music for film and TV than it is for a rock or pop band to get a record deal, but that is an illusion — there are thousands of people out there who dream of becoming a film score composer.

"In a Hollywood production you're looking at 20 or more people working in sound and post production, and everyone has an assistant, but Britain's film industry is much smaller; you typically have six or less people in the sound department. On an independent low-budget short film you are often doing everything yourself, and in some ways that's easier because you are in charge of everything."

Big Deals

Television adverts are much more lucrative form of score work, although getting the work in the first place is even harder. "Anyone wanting to work on TV commercials should get themselves an agent," advises Nainita. "Many ad companies only deal with music production houses which consist of either an agent, who represent a number of composers, or a group of composers who cover different styles between them. I have an agent who represents about 20 composers. For each job she picks the composer she considers most suitable to pitch for the job.

"Ad agencies tend to be quite specific about the style they want, be it orchestral or a piece of hip-hop, and they'll often quote artists that they want copied. I do my research by downloading the reference tracks from iTunes. I work out what I need to do by breaking a track into its basic elements and then reconstructing it. It's all about understanding the essence of a track and then creating a new piece of music in that style.

"I sketch out my ideas very quickly, then embellish them later. You still have to allow time for experimentation, so I often throw in a lot of ideas at the start, although the strongest one is what I play to the client. If the ad company is very specific I'll provide one idea, otherwise I give them three approaches even if they've asked for one. The more variations, the more likely they are to pick one.The Miglia Director's Cut conversion box is used to integrate VHS video with Nainita's computer recording system.The Miglia Director's Cut conversion box is used to integrate VHS video with Nainita's computer recording system.Photo: Richard Ecclestone

"Ad agencies negotiate a fee with the composer based on the number of territories the ad is supposed to be shown in. Then the publishing royalties and the fee are split between the agent/publishing house and composer. Agents can take a huge chunk of the royalties because the income can be quite high. For example, I've been offered a 55/45 percentage deal in my favour.

"Times are changing, though, because ad agencies want a slice of the pie and are doing 50/50 publishing deals directly with composers to cut out the music agencies altogether. They might, for example, offer the composer a flat fee of £5000 and then split the royalties 50/50. You can find contact details for ad agencies in directories like The Knowledge, and even the Yellow Pages, and they all have web sites. They also do poster campaigns, so you have to specifically contact the TV departments and ask for the account managers, the head of television, or the producer. They do get bombarded by stuff, though, so you're still best off getting an agent."

These days, the majority of Nainita's income comes from score work for television films and series. She reveals the sort of fees one can expect to earn. "For a one-hour film the fee usually varies from £2000 to £10,000. I just got a job to write wall-to-wall music for a one-hour film where the budget is £4000 and the product has to be delivered in three-and-a-half weeks. Everything has to come out of that budget including session musicians, hire equipment and studios. Recently the BBC commissioned me to write an orchestral score for a series called Cathedral, but the budget wasn't nearly big enough to hire a real orchestra, so I had no choice other than to use sample libraries. You don't get additional fees if the film is sold to other territories, but you do get royalties. Publishing royalty amounts depend on who you are working for and the deal you've struck. Some film companies, like Granada, for example, automatically take 50 percent of the publishing, whereas the BBC give me 100 percent.

"The time you get to do the work varies considerably. I had to do a one-hour film for Channel Four in three days because they'd sacked the composer. It was very tight but at least I had a final edit to work from. As a total luxury, though, someone like the BBC's Natural History Unit give you five or six weeks."

Nainita inevitably has to re-edit her work at a moment's notice every time she receives new rushes, so she sometimes ends up with a number of projects on the go at the same time. "In most cases, editing is being done right up to the last minute, and I'm having to write music that's frame-accurate, very closely to the visuals, so I have to juggle lots of commitments, and I can't really have an off day," she says. "I have to write a certain amount of music every day otherwise it won't get done, and computer breakdowns are not an option. I back up constantly, but I've been very lucky to have only lost about half a day's work in the last 10 years. I've chosen my gear very carefully and the only major problems I've had is with the power supplies in the Emu Proteus modules. I don't use synth modules any more other than the Roland XV5080 and Access Virus B out of faithfulness. Everything else is done using soft synths."

Nainita Desai's studio is based around two Apple G5 Power Macs running Logic, with a Mackie Control controller and M Audio Keystation Pro 88 master keyboard.Nainita Desai's studio is based around two Apple G5 Power Macs running Logic, with a Mackie Control controller and M Audio Keystation Pro 88 master keyboard.Photo: Richard Ecclestone

The Composer's Studio

These days, thanks to modern technology, Nainita finds that she can successfully tackle most film and TV score commissions using nothing other than her own studio, situated in her old dining room. "Nowadays, virtually every composer I know uses soft synths and sound libraries, which means they no longer need proper isolated recording areas," Nainita remarks. "I have done a certain amount of acoustic treatment: I've lowered the ceilings and installed a couple of huge bass traps. I hired Max Hodges of Maxtech Audio to sort it out, and he also laid out all my digital connections via lightpipe and has everything sync'ed using word clock. There are no analogue connections apart from the one to my vocal booth, and I have just one microphone preamp.The main outboard rack in Nainita Desai's studio. From top: Roland XV5080 sound module, Presonus Central Station monitor controller, Emu Morpheus and Yamaha TG77 sound modules, Alesis Quadraverb effects, Emu Proteus 2/XR Orchestral sound module, RME ADI4 converter, Joemeek VC3Q preamp, Emagic Unitor8 and AMT8 MIDI interfaces, MOTU 24 I/O and 2408 Mk2 audio interfaces, Drawmer M-Clock master clock and Carillon custom PC.The main outboard rack in Nainita Desai's studio. From top: Roland XV5080 sound module, Presonus Central Station monitor controller, Emu Morpheus and Yamaha TG77 sound modules, Alesis Quadraverb effects, Emu Proteus 2/XR Orchestral sound module, RME ADI4 converter, Joemeek VC3Q preamp, Emagic Unitor8 and AMT8 MIDI interfaces, MOTU 24 I/O and 2408 Mk2 audio interfaces, Drawmer M-Clock master clock and Carillon custom PC.Photo: Richard Ecclestone

"My setup is very straightforward and I've honed it down to the bare minimum. I'm usually working to tight deadlines so I don't have time to mess around with analogue synths. I might be writing electronic music in the style of Kraftwerk one day, and an orchestral score for a battle scene the next, so the most important thing is having a huge library of sounds that can cater for every eventuality. I have everything stored in a database labelled from 'A' to 'Z'. I sub-label things in categories such as Accordion, African effects, Ambiences, and each one of those is divided further.

"Most composers have sounds they turn to time and again. I can even tell which composer has written a film or television score from the sounds they've used. I recently bought the East West Quantum Leap String Orchestra, and found it to have a richer, fuller sound than the Vienna String Orchestra, which has a more European feel. The QLSO sound is also quite popular with clients who have described the scores I've used it on as sounding more 'Hollywood' or 'commercial'. The Vienna library is amazing but its strength is also its weakness because the possibilities are endless in terms of things like playing techniques. The QLSO is easier to use and that saves time: you simply have the same sound three times with different ambiences, each one providing a bigger and bigger sound. I mix and match sound libraries to get the right sound but you do go through phases, and at the moment I am putting the QLSO on everything!"

The Epilogue

Although dedication and determination have played a major part in Nainita's continued success in the audiovisual sector of the music industry, technology has also played its part. Nainita readily admits that without sequencing software such as Logic Audio and the excellent sound libraries that are now available she would never have been able to become a composer, having had no formal orchestration training. She also reckons that the great efforts she's made to avoid being pigeonholed have been vital to her career. "I didn't want to just get Asian commissions because I'm Indian," she reflects. "Once people put you in a box your market shrinks and it's harder for you to get work. But with the facilities I have I can write any style of music and mix it down to CD without leaving my home studio. Being able to do that is fantastic for creative people today."

Educating Nainita

It goes without saying that having a good musical education is a massive advantage for anyone trying to break into the industry. Nainita got off to a good start by joining every band, orchestra, and choir she could during her school days, and studied both violin and sitar from an early age. When it came to going to university, however, music had to take a back seat. "Asian people tend to become doctors or accountants," says Nainita, "so I kept my parents happy by doing a maths and computing degree, but I had the ulterior ambition of using it in a more creative way, so I did my thesis on the maths and physics of sound. I tried to incorporate music whenever I could. The course included computer programming so I wrote a little program in an attempt to create a new form of synthesis. It involved manipulating the wave equation to output values that were triggered by a graphical shape such as a skin, wind or stringed instrument to create unimaginable sounds. In a way it was like the basics of physical modelling and sampling."

By the end of her degree, Nainita's exploration into sound design had convinced her that there existed career opportunities which were quite promising for someone with her qualifications. Realising she would benefit from some extra training using the latest state-of-the-art equipment, she enrolled on a diploma course in Music Technology. "Sound design for film was a growing industry in the early '90s, and digital audio workstations were starting to make sound manipulation much easier to do, so it seemed to me that there was huge scope in that area. We now take it for granted, but in the past, apart from things like the Theremin, you didn't have many satisfactory sound-mangling tools.

"On the course we were using Apple Macs running Opcode and Hypercard and I got into MIDI programming. I've always been interest in Indian classical rhythms so I created a bit of software using Hypercard that enabled you to type in complicated time signatures and have the computer play back the rhythm. In Indian music you are often doing things like speaking a rhythm in 7/4, but actually playing in 5/4. It's all based on a very strict foundation of raagas, or scales, and my software allowed you to program that sort of thing."