Helping hand: Ben Prunty’s top 30 tips for aspiring composers

I often find myself mulling over lots of little pieces of advice that aren’t quite big or complex enough to warrant a whole article. So, instead of writing a...
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I often find myself mulling over lots of little pieces of advice that aren’t quite big or complex enough to warrant a whole article. So, instead of writing a piece on each of them, I decided to round up thirty of the best.

See if you can make it to the end.

1. Use filters to shape your sound before resorting to EQ.

2. Velocity is the key to natural-sounding MIDI notes. Listen carefully to drum parts and melodies that you enjoy, and try to recreate their velocities in your own work. Eventually you’ll start to notice similarities and patterns shared by all of them.

3. New game composers: don’t worry about having a fancy logo or a fancy website. Spend that time and money going to events and meeting game developers in person.

4. I’ve listened to a lot of amateur electronic music and a common factor among almost all of them is a complete lack of reverb. Learn to use reverb!

5. Consider putting a big, smiling picture of yourself on your business card. After an event, I come home with a hundred business cards and I can’t remember who gave me which card. If they had photos on ’em, I might remember better.

6. So you’ve talked to a game developer – hopefully in person – and given them a demo or pointed them to your music site. Wait two weeks. Then send a follow up email kindly asking if they’ve listened to your music. Don’t pester them after that.

7. A light, tempo-synced stutter effect can turn any synth pad into an exciting rhythm part.

8. If you have an iPad, get Polychord. It’s great for getting chord progression ideas.

9. Get a Twitter account and follow lots of game developers. They’ll share interesting industry articles. This is a good way to keep up with what’s happening in games.

10. Learning guitar or piano are good bets for a composer, since there are a lot of resources out there for learning each. Each instrument will make you approach composing and music-making in a different way. Consider learning both.

Polychord

11. Take lots of breaks, and don’t feel guilty about doing so. I take breaks all the time.

12. When you’re working for yourself as a contractor, take 36% from every bit of money you earn and put it in a separate account. This is your tax-paying money. Do this before doing anything else with your income. No exceptions.

13. Working a low-end job while you teach yourself your art or craft is a totally legitimate life choice. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s nothing shameful about making an honest living.

14. Pay for a premium Spotify subscription if you can, and use Spotify’s curated lists to expose yourself to new music.

15. You don’t need to use authentic hardware to get a chiptune sound. A simple synthesizer will do the trick most of the time. For more authenticity, you can get Plogue’s chipsounds.

16. Learn about and embrace the concept of having multiple, redundant income streams. One of the factors of my success was that I insisted on keeping ownership of my music, so I could sell it on as many music platforms (Steam, iTunes, bandcamp, etc.) as possible. I get income from all of these, in addition to profits from sales of each game I worked on. If one income stream dies, I make less money but it doesn’t cripple me. Unlike, say, an employee, my income will never suddenly stop altogether. This is pretty close to true financial security.

17. Eat well and eat regularly. You’d be amazed at how many of your personal problems come from either skipping meals or eating unhealthy food.

18. Writing music is not necessarily a process of translating exactly what’s in your head to reality. If you approach it like that, especially early on, you’ll be disappointed. More often, I find writing music to be more scientific: a thoughtful combination of theory and experimentation, followed by refinement and editing. Your creativity essentially acts as director during this process.

19. Be sure to ask yourself, “what would happen if I added rock drums to this piece?”. The result will almost always be awesome.

20. When you’re nearly finished with a track, make a quick mixdown and listen to it on as many speaker setups as you can: your car, your home stereo, your laptop speakers – anything you can get a hold of. You’ll easily spot a ton of issues with your mix, and over time you’ll learn how to catch those issues early.

SONY DSC

21. Having a college degree in a particular field and having a body of useful skills in that field are two different things. Understand the difference before you go to college, or decide you need to go back to college.

22. Do some research and find the best community orchestra in your area, then attend their concerts. Tickets will be cheap, you’ll hear lots of cool music, and you’ll be supporting oft-neglected, hardworking musicians.

23. Remember Ben’s Five Percent Rule: if you try to engage a group of people (i.e. a twitter post saying “check out my album!” followed by a link), only about 5% or fewer of those people will respond favourably. This is a gross generalisation but it’s a sobering reminder of how difficult marketing really is. It also means that if you’re addressing a small enough group, you may get zero engagement. If you ever break out of that 5% with something, study it and figure out why.

24. Read this article.

25. Spending a bit more money to get better tools is usually worth it. If your creative work is frustrating and time consuming because you’re constantly fighting your own equipment or free software, there’s a good chance you’ll simply give up much of the time. You want as few obstacles between you and your work as possible.

26. You don’t have to focus on orchestral music to become a respected soundtrack composer. You do, however, need to understand why orchestral music so useful in soundtracks.

27. If you’re working on a new piece and it’s not coming together, just ditch it and start a new thing. You can always come back later.

28. If you have multiple misspellings or grammatical errors in your email to a game developer or any professional, it’s likely that they won’t take you seriously at all.

29. To get a more objective view of your track at any time, listen to it with your workstation screen off. When you’re unable to edit anything, you’re forced to listen to the piece as a finished work.

30. Remember, everyone has impostor syndrome. Everyone feels like they’re just winging it. Embrace the fact that winging it and stumbling a lot through life is simply part of the human experience. Just focus on practicing and doing cool stuff.


This article is a blog post re-published on Side One with the permission of the author, Ben Prunty. Don’t forget to follow Ben on Twitter and check out his other work by clicking right here