How music composers use samples when developing a score


Illustration: Simone Noronha

Composing for picture — film, TV, trailers, ads, video games — provides musicians with an opportunity for creative exploration that looks different from their typical workflow.

Tight turnarounds and imaginative creative briefs require innovative thinking and a toolbox you can trust (not to mention, excellent communication skills). We knew that using samples has become common practice in film scoring, and we wanted the details. So, we spoke with three composers about how they use samples in their creative process.

Cornel Wilczek is based in Melbourne, Australia, where he founded and runs Electric Dreams Studio. He’s also a composer who often creates scores for TV and some films. He got his start creating sonic installations in art galleries, processing electronics, and creating his own sounds and patches. Composing for moving picture was a natural evolution for his career.

Jamie Shield, who works under the name MNKN in the UK, is a composer and music producer. He has connected with artists like Timbaland and made tracks for Kevin Gates, Thouxanbanfauni, K Koke, and others. He also composes scores for ads, as well as some film and TV. He’s worked with brands like Adidas, IAMS, Braun, and Sage.

Lastly, based in New York, NY, Dani DiCiaccio produces and performs music under the name KYOSi, and has composed scores for short films, trailers, podcasts, and ads. She’s also the Head of Merchandising here at Splice.

Below, each artist walks us through how they use samples in their compositions. Then, we zoom out to learn about how they collaborate with their clients, the overall process of composing a score, and more.

Samples are a composer’s Swiss Army knife

There are so many ways for a composer to use samples in their creative process – as inspiration, song-starters, placeholders, instruments, and beyond. The artists we spoke to touch on all of them.

Finding the centerpiece and building around it

Dani has a full-time job leading a team at Splice; this restriction on available time creates limitations for her to be creative within. She’s all about using the tools at her disposal that allow her to maximize the time she does have. For her, that means using samples early in the creative process along with her analog instruments.

“Early on, I’ll review the footage and think, ‘Oh my gosh, that needs to have this sound.’ I can either go out and record that sound myself or I can find an existing sample. I’m pretty busy and not a purist when it comes to recording my own sounds. If I know a piece needs a deep breath, I’ll go out and find one and build the rest of the composition around that,” she told us.

Working within a budget and making samples your own

Cornel was initially resistant to using other people’s samples. He said, “In the past, I spent a lot of time with hardware and samplers, recording all of my own stuff and making elaborate patches. I did the same thing with software. At the time, I was so concerned about sounding like someone else or using sounds other people used that I spent my spare time making samples.”

As budgets changed, so did Cornel’s approach. Today, directors may want a woodwind or string section, but may not have the budget for it. So, he came around to using samples. He was surprised by the high quality and felt ignorant for being resistant to using them, he shared.

However, his concern of sounding like everyone else remained. “So, I’d perform samples and then start processing and changing them. Even if producers wanted a traditional-sounding string section or orchestra, I still apply some level of processing that shifts it a bit, making it my own. Samples became an important part of my job because that’s what everyone was after. I’ve been using samples a lot for this TV show I’m working on [Clickbait on Netflix], but I’ll be replacing them all with recordings next week.”

He continued, “After I’ve effected and resampled the samples to create strained, wobbly articulations that bring the sound into more of an electronic realm, I end up liking the combination of the original and the effected samples together. That’s becoming a big part of my process, where the two can coexist very well.”

When it comes to processing his samples, Cornell’s tools vary from project to project. He might use Max MSP or outboard processing with pedals and analog effects, or hardware patching. Sometimes he’ll use plugins. Or, he’ll use plugins, and then put those through outboard equipment or pedals. “I’ll have a sound in my head and sometimes it can require a bit of everything, but it’s never one thing. I love that aspect of it – that it’s always really different,” he reflected.

Jamie also resamples often. He shared, “If you have the opportunity, make something your own. Take a sample and chop it, move it, and reorganize it to create a new part. I might halftime it or chop it up to play across pads on an MPC or Push. By that time, you sort of know where you’re at with something. You can do all sorts of stuff like apply a little reverb, pitch it differently, change the speed of it a bit, and then resample it. All of a sudden, the sonics change and it becomes a more lo-fi, quiet, and pleasant digital sort of thing. There are certain textures that would have been seen as bad quality before that are now almost part of an audible aesthetic, I guess.”

Using samples to create a smooth and speedy workflow

Jamie uses samples in a variety of ways. He says, “Drum loops and one-shots are a pretty standard foundation, but I’ll manipulate them to make them my own. I might use a tambourine sample or something because it’s so much more efficient than micing it up, making sure the levels are right, etc. Recording 20 seconds of a live instrument can break your workflow and stunt your creativity. All these micro-moments add up. It’s like grabbing for spices while cooking. You can go a bit too far with it, and sometimes you don’t do enough. It’s all about experimenting.”

Finding inspiration when you’re stuck

Jamie has a unique approach to finding inspiration on Splice. He said, “Sometimes in my search bar, I’ll type two letters that correspond — like G and R — because that can be green or gray or grow or all different words. That’ll throw me a whole list of random things to have in my library. So then, I’ll get little pieces from different packs I wasn’t looking for – I was just looking for something. That’s a good way to randomize.”

Setting your collaboration up for success

The world of briefs is a funny one, no matter which category you’re working in. So often, directors have something in mind for audio but don’t know how to articulate it yet. It’s a composer’s job (or your music supervisor or producer) to help them paint that picture in words.

When beginning to work with someone or being considered for a project, there are certain questions you can ask to better understand what they want and determine if the project is a good fit.

Dani asks questions like:

  • What do you want this score or piece to say?
  • Is there anything specific you’re hoping to hear in the music?
  • Is there anything you don’t want in here?
  • Do you want vocals in a particular language?
  • Are there campaigns / films / TV episodes you’ve heard that you love?
  • Do you have a sonic mood board you can share with me?

She added, “At the end of the day, as a composer, you’re pleasing the director. I need to know what they love and hate to triangulate a sound from.”

All of that said, having example or inspiration music can also muddy the creative waters. Dani continued, “I’ve had a client give me a piece with popular music underneath it and say they wanted something like that. That helps me understand where they’re going, but it’s also hard to un-hear those things when trying to compose an original and unique piece. If I really have creative freedom on a project, I prefer to see the footage without any sound first.”

Creating an effective feedback process

Every client and collaborator will work differently, so it’s a good idea to establish your own process for managing feedback. Dani shares her initial sonic sketches early on in the process to get feedback and additional direction as soon as possible.

She shared, “Once there’s a definitive feeling coming from the image and the sound together, it’s time to share. Usually, I’m working from a brief, so our visions shouldn’t be totally misaligned, but you never know. That’s why I like to share what I have as early in the process as possible.”

Jamie typically gets a brief when he’s being considered for a project. He’ll often sketch out a composition for review before getting the gig. But, if he doesn’t get the job, that’s more experience experimenting or getting comfortable with an instrument, and it leaves him with material for a different project.

“I’ll get a brief along with some references, sometimes lyrical ideas – directors will paint a picture. Then, I’ll try to extract what they’re seeing and match my vision with theirs. You know, sometimes they’ll say something like, ‘I want it to be fluffier or sound like Lil Wayne in jello,’ and you have to navigate your way through that,” he explained. “There’s an art and skill to figuring out what they want; you have to lean on your musical sensibility. It’s a lot of playing around with tempos, samples, and effects until you find a direction that feels right that you can run with.”

Scoring in action

Dani and Cornel walked us through their detailed approach to working on specific projects. Here’s what that looked like for each.

Setting the rhythm to an existing dance sequence and narrative

Dani composed the score for a short film directed by Patricia Gloum featuring two dancers interpreting a narrative. She didn’t know what the dancers were listening to when they filmed the piece at 3:00 am on the G train.

“We had to retroactively go in and say, ‘Here’s what they’re dancing to,’ and find their BPM and rhythm, decide which hits we were going to hit, etc. It changed everything. There’s a world where this went completely off the rails and it looks like they can’t dance at all,” she reflected.

When it came to using samples in this particular piece, Dani started out using a lot of loops to audition different feelings. She had an idea of what she wanted, so her searches were targeted.

She shared, “There was a moment early on where we were like, ‘Maybe this should be more drum & bass. Maybe it should be more techno or industrial-sounding.’ A lot of loops were used to audition against the feeling of the film. I hadn’t done that before, but it was an efficient way to come to the conclusion that we wanted this bassy, ballroom vibe versus those others.”

“I replaced a lot of the drum loops I auditioned, but many of the one-shots stayed in there, heavily distorted. There’s a moment in the film where the guy takes a deep breath, deciding if he’ll dance back. I thought, ‘This is such a deep breath moment,’ but I want it to have rhythm. I ended up keeping a Capsun ProAudio sample of a water pipe inhale. It has a more mid-range feel and you can hear the water bubbling. That was one loop we kept,” she continued.

Going from a holistic view to experimenting with sketches

Though his approach is generally different with each project, Cornell shared the initial steps that set him up for success.

“I’ll read and react to a script, taking a bunch of notes. Then, I create a massive global spreadsheet. It’s not about queues, but about finding links in the narrative. I’ll explore the story and realize there are certain elements making up 50% of a show. Maybe a show seems like it’s all about suspense, but once you start putting ideas down and categorizing them, you might realize the suspense is only a small part of the show. It’s actually spending more time on character drama. It helps me weigh things up and learn more about the characters.”

“I create a web of different plot points, which provides a more holistic narrative. You want to have a global view of what’s happening throughout the whole story. Maybe I can create hints of what’s to come. After that, I have enough ammunition to think about the palette, and then I refine that. That’s where I like to experiment. With each new project, I like to find one instrument — electronic or acoustic — I’ve never played before and learn to play it. I’ll always find a link between that instrument and the story, even if it’s abstract. I’ll develop musical ideas from that and start writing sketches. This is where samples come into play, whether I’m using someone else’s or creating my own. Once those sketches are there, I put them against the picture and see what sticks. Then, as I receive more and more cuts of the film, things start moving very fast.”

Getting started with composing for media

We’ll be publishing a companion follow up to this article detailing how these artists got their start composing for picture. For now, they shared some anecdotes and advice for kicking off your creative process.

Find time to experiment and self-teach

As a musician and visual person, Dani wanted to combine her two interests but didn’t have time to be overly precious or methodical about it. She shared, “I wanted to just dive in and figure out how to do it. As with many things, you can start noodling and watch it come together. It’s this cycle of learning a few tricks, improving, learning a few more tricks, and improving some more. Then, all of a sudden, you’ve got a handful of techniques that really work for you.”

She continued, “I wanted to learn how to make my music work against something – for it to be in service of another media. I wanted to learn a greater storytelling technique. Sometimes, I’ll take videos from my phone and throw them into Ableton, my go-to DAW. Or, I’ll use a stock video I’ve downloaded. There are so many sources for free video footage today. I like to take a random video and ask myself, ‘What does this sound like?’ Maybe I’ll put a simple rhythmic analog pad under it or perhaps a more produced sound. The process helps me discover tools and tricks I might use for future video work.”

She suggested, “If you want to score for picture, just start making stuff. It’s going to be hard for directors to hand over their precious projects to you. Get yourself familiar with the tools and practices and start building a portfolio of the types of projects you want to work on.”

Here’s an Ableton pro tip from Dani: “If you’re working in Ableton or something that warps media once you import it, make sure your video is unwarped before you start marking it up. Warped video auto-adjusts to the tempo and can make a huge mess.”

Collaborate with your peers to find your sound

Cornel says that if he could visit his younger self, he wouldn’t give him any advice. He says you have to navigate the industry’s politics to dig deep and find your sound. “Protecting yourself from the real world is dangerous to any kind of development. Sure, I could tell myself how to fast-track certain components, but that would ruin the sense of resilience I’ve built that keeps me going.”

He added, “To find your sound, explore your music as much as possible. Share it with your peers who are making films at a similar level to you as a creator. Try not to aim too high when finding your first collaborators. Peer relationships can be beautiful. University was great for that. Relationships are everything. Other people are everything.”

Listen to other people’s work

When it comes to advertising work, Jamie suggests watching and listening to adverts. He says to pay attention to references. For example, Kanye’s “Black Skinhead” is all over the advertising world – both the original and sound-alikes.

He said, “I like analyzing music and the library and production side of things. I research and listen through people’s catalogs for the quality standards and where things need to be – the structures of how they lay out the tracks, how they end on a downbeat, how much vocals they use, and things like that.”

He continued, “Leave your ego at the door. When you’re doing the work, you’re fulfilling someone else’s idea. You can bring something to the table and use your creative initiative to do things, but if you stray too far or if you ignore certain specifics that they want because you don’t like it… You’ve got to try and make what they want as well.”

Final thoughts

Samples are only one spice in your experimental pie. Let them inspire you, hold space for a live recording, or take on a new life after being twisted, chopped, and reimagined. Get your hands dirty and start making sounds.

Do you have a scoring project you’ve been working on (for an existing or dream job)? We’d love to hear it – drop it in the comments below.

Incorporate one-shots, cinematic effects, and other samples into your own scores:

January 22, 2021

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.