05 August 2013

Q&A With Composer Randin Graves

Written By Thom Robson

Q&A With Composer Randin Graves

Randin Graves, composer of over sixty short films and an award winning feature film composer, talked with FutureComposer.com about his workflow, his opinions on the industry and advice for aspiring composers. 

What tools do you use to create music? 

"The main tools I use to create music are my own background & creativity. I just have to sneak that in there first. The physical tools don't matter as much as how you use them.

Since I'm mostly working on low budget productions, I'm usually playing everything, so I have to admit that I don't often write music these days. If I do, it's usually Finale or sometimes by hand, if for instance, I'm recording a live soloist in my home studio. On bigger projects it's into Finale and then off to a copyist. On one project I sent MIDI and project files to a translator/copyist but I didn't enjoy the experience. I prefer to get hands on with the notation if there's time, so I'm handling all the expressive notation personally. I hope I can hang onto that as I move into bigger projects.

But onto the technical details for the fellow geeks - I record in Digital Performer on a Mac Pro and run the omnipresent Omnisphere and Play on there. I recently have a Windows 7 12-core XEON machine running as a slave via VE Pro, and I run almost all of my orchestral sounds on there, all Vienna Symphonic Library. I greatly prefer their expressivity and user interface, and VI Pro 2's streaming of samples from SSDs is spectacular. It's incredible to be able to load as large a template as I want in to time at all. I'm now launching a massive orchestra template for just about every project, and it's totally painless. VSL doesn't go for the modern 'Hollywood sound' of some of the newer libraries, but I personally am quite fine with that. I feel like VSL has more flexibility and it's easier not to sound like everyone else. Their MIR Pro reverb/mixing environment is of course a game changer. I love it.

I also still use some of my old GigaSampler material on the slave via GVI in VE Pro. Apart from my own creations, I particularly use the old Larry Seyer acoustic drums. They're still some of the best out there, and I was so glad to find that with a minor registry tweak, the old GVI installer worked on my new Windows 7 machine.

Of course, I try not to go 100% electronic/virtual if at all possible. I like to do the old trick of one or two live instrumentalists along with virtual orchestra when there's a budget for other musicians, but when it's just me, I have a variety of non-classical instruments to pull from. I'm a guitarist - for the guitar geeks out there, it's a strat with EMG pickups and electronics a la David Gilmour, a fretless strat I made with Warmoth, Moses and EMG parts, a Steinberger GM7T and GR4, Steinberger XM2 bass, Epiphone DOT, and several Taylors 610ce, 556ce Baritone6ce and NS34ce (it pays to have a friend in the company!). I also sing and play a variety of 'ethnic' instruments, as I was dedicated to world fusion music for many years. In the very small niche of didgeridoo players, I'm well known around the world, and I also play mandolin, Japanese koto, Thai khaen, Javanese suling and miscellaneous percussion and other odds and ends. These things have all been very helpful in adding unusual live flavor to electronic music."

In the last ten years especially, the industry has changed drastically with new technology. How has this affected you as a working composer?

"It's absolutely made it possible for me to become a working composer. While as a trained composer, I sometimes get grumpy about how technology now allows everybody and their mother to call themselves composers, I do have to admit that I benefit just as much.

As I mentioned before, I am a well known didgeridoo player, which partly stems from the fact that I spent most of the 00's as an advocate for the Aboriginal People at the origin of the instrument, and in fact lived with them in a remote corner of Australia from early 2004 to early 2009. Towards the end of my time there I launched and managed a multimedia training centre and scored some short films, which brought me back to the film music that had been my passion before the didgeridoo and its culture took over my life. Then I had to suddenly move back to the USA due to a family medical crisis, so I had to reinvent myself with a new career and a new life in the USA, in the unlikely location of Salt Lake City, Utah. I was soon to be surprised by the opportunities here, including a full scoring stage a mere 3 miles from my house and a bit of local film culture inspired by the Sundance Film Festival in town, but if it wasn't for the possibility of creating great sounding music from a home studio like we can today, there's no way I would have been able to convince anyone that I was a talented and worthwhile composer, after literally spending the last 5 years of my life living at the edge of nowhere with Aborigines.

Of course the internet is invaluable for networking. I owe just about every job I've done to the internet if I trace it back. If it wasn't for the web, I wouldn't be able to do most of the projects I do. I've scored features from New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Texas and DENMARK without meeting anyone involved in person. Yet we had great working relationships and great results. I done shorts from the U.K., Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and the United Arab Emirates."

What advice would you give to aspiring composers looking to break into the industry?

"Study study study. Work work work. And to quote some of the best advice one of my favorite music professors, Dr Edwin Harkins, 'don't do crap'. Challenge yourself to do your best work all the time, and to make it better all the time."

A lot of newer composers don’t necessarily have extensive musical training and rely far more on the computer generated sounds to compose - how important do you feel music theory/knowledge is?

"Everybody's got their own path to follow, but for me, I couldn't imagine not wanting to know everything there is to know about music, and I can't imagine limiting myself and the tools at my disposal. In high school I played music and acted, so when I went to university, I looked at writing my own multidisciplinary degree to do both, but in the end, I decided, wow, there's so much to know about music and I want to know it all! I'm so glad, because even though I don't regularly use a lot of the things I learned in school, I know I'm a better, more intelligent, more capable musician because of it.

Maybe you're great at one or two styles of music, and you'll find some films that want exactly what you do. That's great. But in the long run, the example of the great film composers of the past that I hope will continue into the future is that to be a great film composer and to continue working as trends come and go, you have to be able to do ANYTHING. For me, that's why I love doing film music and why it's so rewarding. I love doing a tango one day and a Marvin Gaye impersonation the next. It takes real musical knowledge and practice to be able to convincingly jump around different styles like that.

I don't have any problem with a film score being totally electronic if that's what fits the film, but I do think and hope that the orchestra will continue to be a big part of film music for a long time. And to really write well for the orchestra, there's just so much to know. Just because you have orchestral samples in your computer doesn't make you an orchestral composer. You need to study to do it well, whether it's going to go on to be recorded by real musicians or not. I'd better leave out any of my judgment of the level of orchestral knowledge of many of the working A-list composers of today."

What’s the latest project you’ve been working on?

"I've just done a couple shorts, but the latest big project that's almost finished, pending final credits, is the feature 'Everything's Gonna Be Pink' from director Roni Ezra. It's a great indie drama that I think will do well. First time writer-producer Christina Pastor tells the story of three women of different ages dealing with relationship issues over the course of one night in New York City. It's very hip and urban. The score is pretty minimal and electronic, with synth, effected piano and electric guitars. Here's a favorite cue.

Or, for something unusual, here's a draft of the score for environmental artist David C. Bryant's short film 'Astral' which consists of unusual pairings from nature. Snails wander around in milk, a melon sinks in honey, a snake makes his way through blackberries, etc. It's odd but beautiful and mesmerizing. The score is an electronic loop, didgeridoo, suling, ocarina, clapsticks, shakers, thumb piano and khaen." 

Any current projects you'd like to promote?

"Since we last talked, several of my feature scores have gone up on iTunes, Amazon and the like. Links and an mp3 store are here. I recently revamped my didgeridoo music website.

I love a feature documentary I scored early last year, 'Children of the Stars', about a UFO/ reincarnation/self-help cult in San Diego, California. It was great fun to do. Most of it was new-agey synth leaning heavily on Omnisphere, but along the way I got to do a lot more - 1930's operetta, a Star Trek spoof, a Star Wars Imperial March spoof, a Dragnet spoof, some country rock, some folk. This was my first feature length doc, and I loved it. There was an overall narrative to support and dramatic moments to hit just like in narrative films, plus the excuses to dabble in different styles of music, including specific tributes to great film music of the past along the way. The film is available to watch online on and distributed by some of the big retailers like Amazon

The comedy feature 'Rockin' Reverend' about a foul-mouthed agnostic preacher just went up on iTunes and Amazon.

I'd love to promote all the features I've done, but most are still tinkering around in post, so you can't see them. The drama 'Saturnalia' that I did in 2011 is finally hitting the festival circuit now and the psychological thriller/horror film 'Jake's Dead' shouldn't be too far off.

I also regularly do work for the children's education website Starfall.com. If anyone out there who's reading happens to have kids aged 4-6 or so, that's an invaluable website."

For more info about Randin Graves visit his website at RandinGraves.com

Thom Robson is UK based Composer for Film, Television & Media. Visit his site at www.thomrobson.com