When retold with historical fidelity, the Christmas Story is the sound of the Middle East, with the air tinged to our Western ears with exotic percussion, winds and strings, along with the brass cornu played by the “bugler” of the 10th Roman Legion. So, while I’m working my way through the Vienna Ensemble and the Vienna Special Edition, I decided to interrupt things with an interview with Dirk Campbell, creator of Origins, a sample library that needs to be in every composer’s collection.
Dirk Campbell is a composer who has used such sounds to help craft out musical compositions for 12 film scores, 14 different television programs for the BBC, and numerous commercials including Bailey’s Irish Cream, Land Rover, and Hyundai. As a performer, he has participated in numerous concerts and stage presentations, and for movie lovers, he performed in the recordings of The 13th Warrior and Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.
But Dirk Campbell is also a composer whose creativity extends beyond notes to creating sample libraries, not of orchestral instruments, but ancient instruments.
Film Music Weekly – 1950 to 1961, 1962, you grew up in Egypt, and then Kenya. What was that like?
Dirk Campbell – Although I don’t remember anything of Egypt where I was born, Kenya during the colonial period was in some ways like the American Wild West: perceived as dangerous to white people, quite understandably because we had moved in on other people’s territory without being invited. In fact that was mostly paranoia. Africans (those who had not been corrupted by white culture) were trusting, generous and loyal. My parents were on the naive rather than the paranoid side, with a love of native culture that few whites had in those days. We lived near Nairobi, the capital of the recently-created colony, and I was educated in all-white schools, but I nevertheless got to experience a good deal of tribal music at e.g. the wedding of a local Kikuyu chief’s daughter, at a ferry crossing or just a guy playing xylophone on the street. The choral music of the Samburu and the Nandi impacted on me profoundly, and I still feel it as among the deepest expressions of the human spirit.
FMW – When did your love for music begin, and when did this fascination, or passion, for ancient instruments and ethnic instruments begin? Did one come before the other, or was there some dove tailing?
DC –My grandfather was a professional composer with a fascination for folksong and Gergorian plainchant, so my interest in the ethnic and the ancient comes through that I suppose, and was always there to some degree in my childhood. I got interested in the distinction between ‘drawing room folk music’ and genuine folk music while I was in my 20s as I began to hear the difference between the rather manicured folk music I had grown up with and the real thing. My early exposure to non-western music also enabled me to hear and appreciate the different ‘languages’ of musical tradition; the enthusiasm to put a lot of effort into learning many traditions is in my case a desire to communicate in wider fields and extend myself into them, but it’s also falling in love with the unfamiliar for its own sake.
FMW – What were the strengths of studying at the Royal College of Music, and what were the weaknesses. By weaknesses, I mean this – when you got out on the streets and had to earn a living, what was missing or not taught enough that you discovered you needed to know? I ask that as a Berklee graduate, and as someone who has friends in Los Angeles who graduated from Julliard, who dropped out of Juilliard, who graduated from North Texas State and other schools, got to Los Angeles, and discovered that we as a group were way behind the power curve, and really had to hustle to catch up with what we hadn’t been taught.
DC – The RCM was not a great place to learn composition, because, amazingly, there was no qualification in composition, so nothing to work towards. In performance you had the diploma, but no one was preparing students there for the wider or more creative world, only for the classical concert hall or the opera house. I was no good at that, and consequently gave myself an inferiority complex. All the people I know personally who went to the RCM had the same experience as me. If they succeeded in music they did so despite the RCM, not because of it. (Which is not to say that there are not large numbers of musicians who succeeded because of it, just that I don’t know them.) That doesn’t answer your question I know, but I’m not the best person to ask.
FMW – You’ve written a number of commercials. What are Dirk Campbell’s Top 5 rules for dealing with clients and ad agencies?
DC – People always want to know this, it’s like the Holy Grail or something. Everybody you ask will probably tell you something different, but here’s what I’ve worked out. Any one of these principles can bring you success in advertising. All five will guarantee it. One: Advertising agency people are all neomaniacs, so be new on the scene. Obviously you can’t sustain this for very long – unless you reinvent yourself. Two: be able to convince them that you have a lot going for you. Winning awards helps, or being successful in other fields such as rock music. Three: don’t try to be original, leave that to the visual guys; advertising is a visual medium. It’s usually the boringly obvious music that wins the pitch. Four: Get them to put up a comp track that works and then you won’t have to interpret the brief, which you can’t because it’s written by non-musicians. Five: a friend in the business is worth more than a thousand showreels. Two friends are worth more than ten thousand.
FMW – Contrast dealing with clients and ad agencies to dealing with producers, directors and stage managers.
DC – You mean in film or theatre? I’ve never written a major release film score, only art films and documentaries. But all the above rules apply apart from the first; in film and theatre it’s the opposite: they won’t employ a composer unless he or she is established, by which time in advertising you are boring. And then they tend to be more loyal, whereas there’s no loyalty whatsoever in advertising. In theatre and dance they’ll accept whatever you do, but the money’s terrible, whereas the money’s great in advertising but you have to win pitches and go through at least ten levels of demos.
FMW – When did you decide you wanted to create a sample library?
DC – When someone suggested to me that I ought to, about ten years ago. It took me a year or so to put World Winds together. The first company I approached, ZeroG, took it and then sat on it for two years. Dave Stewart suggested I get out of the contract and offer the library to Ilio which I did, and very thankful too as Ilio believed in it wholeheartedly and marketed it very well.
FMW – Why does anyone in their right mind, want to put themselves through the torture of creating a sample library?
DC – You might ask a similar question of a Himalayan mountaineer. Some people are just hard-wired that way. I have a terrible head for heights, so I do sample libraries. I quite like the obsessive work involved actually. And the feeling that I am doing something no one else can do in quite the same way. And the anticipation of all the ecstatic reviews…
FMW – Give us the thought process that goes into planning a sample CD library.
DC – World Winds was fairly straightforward, it was just me playing my collection of wind instruments in no particular order. Origins was broader, it reflected my interest in ancient tradition and history, so I first wrote a list of the sort of sounds that I would like to have available for this purpose, and what could be useful to evoke the distant past, like choral groups and sound effects of various kinds, as well as instruments that fitted the concept. Plus some fun stuff like playing on grass blades that could be slowed down to pterodactyl noises.
FMW – After you’ve done the recorded performance, what process do you go through to turn that into a completed sampled instrument?
DC – I think of the keyboard in two ways: one as a musical instrument playing the 12-semitone octave; two, as a device for triggering a range of pre-recorded phrases. I edit the samples in Logic Audio and then import them into the EXS24 sampler where I map them using key assigns, velocity switches, pans etc. The multisamples are created with various different attacks, usually three or four types which can be alternated with velocity switching. I assign the performance phrases to a separate instrument.
FMW – Is creating a sample library a passion, a project or a kind of obsession?
DC – I wouldn’t call it a passion or obsession at the outset, though it gets like that once the momentum is up! To start with it’s a project.
FMW – As a composer and as a developer, what do you see overall are the strengths of sample libraries, and what do you see overall are their weaknesses?
DC – The gorgeous thing about sampling is it’s an open-ended technology that makes all kinds of sounds available for anyone to use in an easily accessible way. I certainly benefited from it. I would never have known as much as I do about Japanese traditional music if it had not been for the Roland W30 library. The main fallout of sample libraries is that music commissioners now expect everything to be demo’d as near as possible to the final sound. Since one can only demo using samples, the final sound is often compromised by the limitations of the samples. But it is up to the musician concerned to push the boundaries and take him/herself out of the comfort zone. Same as it ever was, really.