Making Music for a Film in 5 Days

A producer from a Denver-based film company reached out to me at the beginning of January showing interest in hiring me to be the composer of an original soundtrack for his new short documentary film. He was still at the stage of shopping around for composers and fairly asked me to develop a one-minute sample based off a portion of the rough-cut footage. My deadline for this was 3 days, which wasn’t ideal, but better than anything less. Recently I had voiced my need for tough deadlines to the world, and here was the answer to match.

3 days later I submitted my sample and was successful in being hired. Our production deadline was by the end of the month, but I had to wait until there was a fair edit of the film before I could get started on completing the rest of the score. That didn’t land in my inbox until 5 days before the editor had requested all of the material to make any final changes. Yikes! Fortunately, the director/producer had given me free reign to decide on what I thought would work best musically.

Day 1

First, I had to break the film into sections (duh) to see how each piece of music would flow into the next thematically. I began by choosing my instrumentation for each arrangement and cataloging what mood I wanted to capture for each scene. Most of the film took place in the backcountry of Wyoming and inspired awe with a sense of adventure. This made me think of a warm acoustic guitar and long but powerful string arrangements. There are also recurring characters, I had to decide if each character would have their own theme or if the themes would be based on setting. I ended up doing a little of both.

Day 3

The second stage of this process was to actually record each of the instruments and their themes. As much as I’d like to not admit it, I’m terrible at this stage. I get fixated on every little detail (a fret buzzing, a certain note coming in late, the ambience of the room sounds off) and end up recording the same part a million times. I know that there is something to say for human error and that some of the best pieces have blatant or subtle mistakes that make that piece all the more rich, but when I’m in the thick of it, I can never let that go. That is, unless I have 2 days left and absolutely need to finish before my deadline.

Another obstacle that I faced during this stage was testing out how each key would flow into the next. I wanted to be intentional about all of my key and modulation choices. If I jump to the subdominant in the next piece, do I modulate completely to that new key or do I play in that original tonic’s respective mode? Is that a powerful or seamless transition? Am I building or releasing tension by doing this? Making each of these choices required a ton of testing and listening-back to see the fluidity over the span of the entire film. I had to work for 2 days straight with no rest before finally having a version that I was happy with.

Day 5

All of the parts were recorded and arranged exactly the way that I had intended and now it came time for mixing and mastering. I had done something days prior that would have been received by a great deal of finger-wagging by other musicians, which was that I did some mixing (EQing, effects, and automation) along the recording process. The reason this is seen as a faux pas is that you want to enter the mixing stages of your production process with a clean set of ears so that you can see your arrangement as a whole. Being pressed for time, I didn’t have much of a choice.

With only an hour before everything was due, I submitted my score! Now of course everything wasn’t set in stone. Edits needed to be made to match the simultaneous flux of visual and audio content, but the difficult portion of the work had been done. 


As of January 30th, this film has been submitted to an array of film festivals around the country to be paired with other works, who no doubt, consisted of teams who put in their blood, sweat, and tears with days leading up to their deadlines. I can’t reveal anything about the film other than it’s a documentary that takes place in Wyoming, but am incredibly excited to share more once I have the all clear. Thanks for reading!

A Word of Advice From Victor Wooten

A few months ago me and a few fortunate folks had the chance to interact and learn from Victor Wooten in conclusion to our 10-week music “Workout” at the Music District in Fort Collins. Victor is a Grammy-winning artist and educator with prolific knowledge in music and its applications on the electric bass. Most of the topics that he focuses on in music education are channeled through his own book, The Music Lesson:  A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. We spent 2 days of our “Workout” jamming and having a series of discussions around what music means to us as artists, creators, and performers. Here are few take-aways that stuck with me and have begun to taken hold in my refreshed approach to music:

  1. The Powers of Space

As musicians, we feel the need to amaze and overwhelm those that listen with whatever tools and skills we can muster. And while this is not an attempt to discourage that, there are other tools, ones that leave us exposed and vulnerable, that can capture that same outcome. What if during your solo, you simply didn’t play? What if your build to your chorus involved you and everyone else dropping out completely before coming back as an impenetrable wall of sound? My impulse response to this thought for the majority of my musical career has been “No f#*%ing way”. For the longest time, I would have rather packed that space for a solo with every note imaginable until my fingers bled, healed, and bled again. But why? What does that really say about my playing? It says that I’m scared and insecure. It says that I can only think of one way to build excitement and draw people closer.

The use of silence is just as powerful of a tool. It heightens the excitement by building the anticipation of what you will do next. It allows for each note ring out for you to feel its silky resonance. When used appropriately, it can speak louder than any of your shredding and bashing will ever be.

  1. Reaching out to One Person With Your Playing

As performers, there is so much going on in your environment during a performance that influences your playing. People come and go, there is side-chatter, your guitar strap breaks, lights are blinding you, and you can’t even hear yourself. One of the many reasons that we enjoy live performances so much is that we instantly feel a connection to the music and the relationship between the music and the audience. Amidst everything happening at once, Victor’s advice was to seek out one person in the crowd and only play to them. Imagine that they are the only person there and let your music speak through you to them. Not only are you making a direct connection, but you’ve successfully let go of all other distractions around you  to truly be present in that moment.

  1. No One Knows Your Sound Better Than You

This is something that every artist strives for when pursuing their craft. Most of us want nothing more than to be recognized for our authenticity, but often times pursue the sounds of other artists that inspire us to get there. We go so far along this path that we lose ourselves and become even further from reaching our goal. Victor says to think of your instrument as you would your own voice in a conversation. You grow up your entire life learning a vocabulary and grammar structure that allows you to communicate your thoughts and interact with others in conversation. You don’t even think about it, you just do it. So how does this transmute to music? When playing with others, don’t listen for the key, instead listen to what the other instruments are asking of you. There is no such thing as the wrong note. If someone plays you a question, then it is up to you to play the answer as you see fit.

So you want to hire a producer?

You’re an artist that is looking to take it to the next level by bringing someone from the outside into your recording/production process. Congrats! Perhaps you’ve already found that person or are still looking for the right fit. Regardless, it is my hope that each of these questions that we’re about to address will provide insight as to how you want this whole rodeo to go down. This experience is really what you make of it.

1. What is a music producer? 

The world of music has many pieces on the board. Each piece has its own specialty and ability, that if played right, can play a vital role in your musical experience. A producer is just one of those many pieces. They are a master illusionist, there to advise you and your band on how to show the world your art as exactly as you wish it to be heard. They are meant to see everything from a high-altitude perspective to help you, as the artist, navigate each obstacle along the production process. They are the ones that oversee everything from the pre-production to post-production stages. Before you even step foot in the studio, they have already consulted your band on every minute detail from composition and arrangement to tone choices and what time of day is best for you to perform your best. It is your choice as the artist to decide how involved you wish this outside person to be in your process.

2. What roles do producers play in the production process?

Ultimately, a producer’s role can be defined by their involvement in any of the 3 stages of production; Pre-production, Production, and Post-Production. You want each stage to be as intentional as you can make it. No stone left unturned! When meeting with clients and friends, I like for all topics of conversation during these 3 stages to be put in 2 categories.

  1. What parts and pieces have already been tried and tested before that don’t require a re-inventive attitude?
  2. Which parts and pieces can be manipulated/altered to make your sound as creative/original/authentic as you wish them to be?

Okay, so now we know which baskets to throw our intention into, let’s see how they fit in each stage.

Pre-production: where all aspects of intention for your art are addressed and accommodated before you ever step into the studio. Questions to ask but not limited to: Why are you making this Album? Who do you want to listen to your art? Who are similar artists that want to be in the ranks with? Does the bpm for this song need to be adjusted to reach the level of groove that you were going for? Is the length of the song the amount that you want it to be? Are you hitting your chorus fast enough? This section would be stronger if there was more space in it, which instruments/ parts of the arrangement need to be stripped to get there?

The list goes on! Again, making sure that you and everyone involved is aware and aligned on the purpose on every piece of your art is imperative to getting the result that you wish to get out of the whole process. Your producer can then communicate all of these wants and needs to the recording engineer/studio so that everything is as ready as it can be for your actual recording date.

Production: Where the performance of each piece to your art is captured through recording. Everything should go as planned, but sometimes curveballs are thrown. That’s where the producer steps in, to help you maneuver the unexpected. For instance, perhaps your acoustic guitar isn’t coming through the way you had originally thought it would. Maybe the mics need to be exchanged with another, or their angle needs to change, or maybe you need to play a completely different guitar. The point is that you want your raw recording of your performance to be as close to the way you want to hear it on the record as possible. Your producer is there to help make suggestions to get you close to what that performance sounds like.

Post-production: Where raw-recordings are refined through mixing and mastering. Mixing is applying any adjustments to individual tracks in a song (bass, keys, snare drum etc.) so that the whole song is a cohesive masterpiece. Mastering is making final changes to the entire song as a whole. Much like baking a cake, mixing is literally mixing all of your ingredients together and mastering is putting that cake in the oven. Often times mixing and mastering work in conjunction with one another. You can have all the added effects, fade ins and outs, EQing that make your mix sound great, but don’t allow for the powers of mastering to take any beneficial effect. Your producer is there with your mixing and mastering engineers to make sure that your mission of intent in the initial stages of production carries over to the final product.

  1. Why should you have a producer?

The whole production process, as described above, is a massive undertaking. It’s so easy to become narrow-focused and not be able to step back and see the big picture of what you’re attempting to accomplish. Your producer is simply there to keep you on track and help you, as the artist, remain true to your vision. It’s up to you and your collaborators to decide if that task is something you wish to take on or to delegate to someone that you trust.