4 tips on composing for film from Tori Letzler

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Tori Letzler is one of the most sought-after musicians in the film and television industry.

Known for her talents as both a vocal soloist and composer / producer, Tori Letzler has contributed music to numerous world-class projects (Captain Marvel, American Horror Story) and worked alongside many of today’s most celebrated composers, including the likes of Hans Zimmer and Brian Tyler.

In celebration of the recent release of her cinematic vocal sample pack, we had the opportunity to sit down with Letzler to hear about the experiences and lessons she’s gathered across the span of her career—read on for highlights.

1. Lean into what makes you unique

Reflecting on how she first broke into the world of composition, Letzler tells us, “I’ve been a singer my entire life—touring with Cirque du Soleil as a teenager, among other things—but as I got older, I realized writing music and being behind the scenes was more where I saw myself. I went to Berklee College of Music to study film scoring for three years, and then ended up getting an internship at Remote Control, Hans Zimmer’s studio in LA. I worked my way up from intern to general studio assistant, and word got out about my background during my time there, and I quickly started singing on many of the scores being produced under that roof.”

For Letzler, the unique talents and perspectives that she brought as a vocalist helped open up doors in her journey as a composer. “It was definitely a right-place-and-time kind of thing, combined with having the skills to be ready in that moment,” she says. “Remote Control is where I met Jimmy Levine, who scored American Horror Story at the time. That was my first major TV gig, and features the vocals I’m probably most known for. Singing on so many incredible scores opened me up to the scoring opportunities I’m finding now, and I am incredibly grateful.”

Whether you’re an instrumentalist, former engineer, or modular synthesist, perhaps there’s some sort of secondary talent that you can also leverage to help you define your unique voice as a film composer.

2. Explore the vast world of sound design

Composition isn’t just about the sheet music or MIDI sequences; the timbres that voice your parts also play a key role in your sonic storytelling. In respect to this endeavor, Letzler encourages us to keep an open mind and dive into the limitless world of sound design. “So much of my vocals on projects are heavily processed, chopped up, and distorted—all kinds of fun things that can be used as a tool, in the same way I would utilize a synth,” she explains. “To me, the voice is an instrument that’s both beautiful in its organic form, but also leaves room for endless experimentation. I’ve even run my vocals through my Eurorack before.”

Like any producer, Letzler has some go-to plugins she likes to reach towards for crafting interesting sounds. “With my pack in particular, I heavily utilized Output’s Portal,” she tells us. “Running vocals through anything granular just leads to such unexpected, weird sounds, especially for layering and stretching into pads and ambiences. I also love using VocalSynth 2 from iZotope.”

3. Don’t let expensive gear be a barrier to your creativity

That said, Letzler emphasizes that owning every third-party plugin under the sun or the fanciest gear on the market is in no way a requirement to start composing great music. “You do not need $50,000 worth of gear to get started,” she says. “So many incredible producers make music just from their laptops in their bedrooms. When I first moved to LA, I was singing on major blockbuster films by recording myself in my hallway, using a $100 mic I bought off of Craigslist.”

Her sample pack is one of many resources out there that lets budding creators incorporate top-notch sounds into their music, even if they don’t have immediate access to professional studios or world-class session musicians. “My main goal with this pack was to just help other creators feel inspired,” Letzler tells us. “I know for me, Splice can be such a major jumping off point when working on new tracks or cues, because you find interesting things you can play with that might not be what you normally have access to. I want bedroom producers and big composers alike to feel excited by the tools I’m providing them.”

4. Allow yourself to take a step back

Writer’s block and burnout may be some of the few universal experiences encountered across all creatives. Letzler acknowledges, “The reality is, as a composer you’re most likely writing music seven days a week—and sometimes, you get burned out! In these moments, I remind myself how incredibly lucky I am to create and play with toys for a living, but rest is also important (even though it’s hard to do sometimes). The best advice I can give is to take a walk and breathe in some fresh air. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck, sometimes the fastest route to unblocking your mind is actually just stepping back for a moment.”

What’s next for Tori Letzler

Looking ahead, Letzler has some exciting projects on the horizon. “I’m almost done scoring an amazing new scripted series for Netflix called In From The Cold,” she shares. “I can’t say much about the show itself, but the score is a cool combination of analog synths and vocals. It’s very industrial and raw sounding, but with this feminine edge of vocals that play a very important role. It’s been an incredible journey, and I can’t wait for everyone to see and hear it!”

In the meantime, creators can engage with musical flavors from the project via her sample pack. “This pack challenged me to go outside my comfort zone as a vocalist—to try new things and not be afraid of getting weird,” Lasker reflects. “It also gave me a real opportunity to experiment with post-processing, and I later ended up applying many of the techniques I figured out throughout this process to the music for In From The Cold.”

What lesson from Tori Letzler resonated with you most? Do you have any tips for film composers of your own? Let us know in the comments below.

Incorporate Tori Letzler’s cinematic vocals into your own music:

September 2, 2021

Harrison Shimazu

Harrison Shimazu is a composer, content strategist, and writer who’s passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog and produces vocaloid music as Namaboku.