Moving Forward, and NAMM Thoughts by Jay Asher

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It used to be so much easier conceptually to be a film composer. Until the iconic synth scores of the70’s, like “Chariots of Fire” and “Midnight Run”, film scores were orchestral primarily with a palette of sounds well known that if you spent enough time and effort learning traditional harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation and orchestration, your skill set was in place and really would not require that much new, other than keeping up with the latest Ligeti or Reich-type introducing new trends in the concert hall world that would eventually find its way into film scores.

The advent of the computer, DAWs, MIDI keyboards and tone modules, sample libraries and virtual instruments plus digital fx plug-ins has now changed that equation, presumably forever. Unless you are a John Williams, and he is eighty years old, you most likely will need to know or employ people who know this stuff to be a working film composer. Until you become successful and can employ engineers to help you, you also will have to become reasonably skilled at making all this stuff sound good together.

So you can argue that up and coming wannabees would be better of spending their study time developing skills with the technology rather than traditional compositional study as it is true that you can become a successful working film composer without a great deal of those traditional skills.

I have spent a good deal of time on forums that I now regret debating the importance of the traditional skills vs the technological skills so I am not going to revisit that here, other than to say that most composers not only want to be successful, they want to be “good” and the best ones working today mostly are skilled at BOTH, which means the great film composers of the future will have to work twice as hard as those in the past.

The good news is that the technology can help them learn more quickly and since young people grow up now with computers rom a very early age, they progress with them much more quickly than someone already an adult just starting to learn about them, as I did. The other good news is that the stuff gets better sounding, more versatile and powerful, and more affordable every year, so that it becomes much more feasible to realize both traditional orchestral sounds and other sounds that you imagine with the technology. The bad news, if you think it is bad news, is that it gives producers and directors less and less incentive to shell out the necessary coin to pay for live musicians playing traditional orchestral instruments.

Those considerations aside (other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?) as a guy whose career unexpectedly evolved into my making part of my living writing books on Logic Pro and helping others to learn it, and subsequently other technology, like this column and my articles for MacPro Video’s Hub, I have found it to have a couple of side benefits:

1)Because there is so much new to always be learning, it keeps your mind more agile. You literally build new neural pathways when learning something very new. As a result, although I am no genius, I do believe that I AM smarter than I otherwise would be.

2)If you have been traditionally trained, you don’t have to either throw that out the window or be imprisoned by it by slavishly adhering to it. You can use it to inform your choices or discard it when appropriate.

3)If you have not been traditionally trained, you can either acquire or not acquire more of that knowledge and techniques as your career progresses, which will have similar side benefits for you.

All it takes is hard work, a big investment of time, and a lot of patience. Which is what it always has taken.

So, Mr. or Ms. Aspiring Film Composer, take the plunge. The future will most likely be brightest for the hybrid composer who is comfortable with both the “real guys” and the technology.

If you are adept with traditional musical training, go forth boldly and embrace the technology, because their will be few opportunities to follow the John Williams model. If you are adept with technology, go forth boldly and embrace the traditional disciplines of harmony, counterpoint instrumentation and orchestration, because your ability to create the music you imagine will be quicker and more artistically satisfying, and who knows, might lead you to greater success.

Not to mention, it will create those new neural pathways!

Mac or PC or both? One computer or more? Hollywood Strings or LASS? Hollywood Brass or CineBrass? Albion or Symphobia? Or all of the above and max out those credit cards.:) Whatever choices you make, you will be on a learning curve that will be alternately frustrating and exhilarating and frequently both.

Adler or Kennan? Persichetti or Piston? Online or offline? Or all of the above? Whatever choices you make, you will be on a learning curve that will be alternately frustrating and exhilarating and frequently both.


I wish all of you could have all come to National Association of Music Merchants show, as that is what the acronym for NAMM means, 10-20 years ago. If you were lucky enough to secure a pass (it is not open to the general public) because you worked for a store, beta tested or had simply had a relationship with an exhibitor, it was so exciting, filled with new products that you did not already see on YouTube around every corner and ALL the major companies had great booths. I used to say that for me it was like Disneyland and I would spend 2daysthere, where now I spend only about 6 hours.

Nowadays we see announcements of new products not tied to NAMM, with walk though videos and discussions about the product. So there are many major players in the marketplace, like Apple, EastWest, etc. that simply do not have booths there anymore and I go more to see people I do not see during the year than products. Somehow, no matter which day I attend, I always seem to run into Stevie Wonder and Sinbad :)


  • February 14, 2013 @ 6:58 pm

    Great article Jay!
    I love the sentence “…Whatever choices you make, you will be on a learning curve that will be alternately frustrating and exhilarating and frequently both…” It’s really been helpful for me – there’s so many options, each one so different, that transitioning over to the music tech world (from acoustic piano) can seem overwhelming. Your concept made me realize that it’s good to do a fair amount of research, get some feedback for those VI’s that one has shortlisted, buy them and then enjoy the process of learning, failing, getting to know them & make it all a fun experience. And if they don’t turn out to be the best match, move on to the next as soon as time or money allow. Very simple but effective advice! Thanks! :)

  • February 27, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

    Glad you found it helpful, Christian.

    As I said many times, I am the LAST guy that is supposed to be what I have become. it is only due to patience and perseverance that I am.

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