Tech Talk With Composer Bruce Miller

By • August 5, 2010

Note from the Editor: Film Music Magazine is excited to welcome composer and technologist Jay Asher as our new Technology columnist. Jay is a composer, songwriter, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, pianist/synthesist, and entertainer who has been based in Los Angeles since 1972. He’s a Boston Conservatory graduate, and has written scores and songs for TV series and movies such as New World Television’s “Zorro” and HBO’s “Maximum Security” and NBC’s “Fame”, NBC’s “Fugitive Nights” and films, including Lion’s Gate’s recently released hip-hop comedy “Hittin’ It”. He also works as a producer, musical director, and is a Level 2 Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro 9 and teaches about Logic Pro in Los Angeles. For more about Jay Asher, visit http://www.jayasher.com Welcome, Jay!

One of Jay’s ideas for the Technology column in FMM was to feature interviews with composers about how they use computers and technology successfully to create music for film and television. In this issue, we’re happy to present Jay’s first column, an interview with film and television composer Bruce Miller.

Jay:
I am here with Bruce Miller today to talk. Bruce, like many of us, you came up in an era of scoring TV shows where you had a certain workflow that was kind of the standard. For instance lets say, “Designing Women” or “Frasier”. If you would describe for me briefly what your basic workflow was working on shows like that.

Bruce
Well, “Designing Women”, that was before “Frasier”, that was very basic. We’d have a spotting session, with the line producer and he’d have any notes the exec’s would want, and dut, dut, da…,and then go home and write, and we’d have a session booked …. Columbia’s contractor, which was Gus Klein, I guess, at the time. He booked the orchestra, and we’d go in and record for about 3 hours.

Jay:
So in those days, you wrote it out on score paper. Did you do your own orchestrations at the time?

Bruce:
I’ve always done all my own orchestrations. I think I farmed out about 4 cues in my life.

Jay:
And then it would go to the copyist.

Bruce:
And then it would go to the copyist.

Jay:
And then it was simply a matter of getting with the orchestra, conducting it and recording it.

Bruce:
Yes, very traditional, in the best sense of the word.

Jay:
Nowadays, I’m guessing it’s a little different.

Bruce:
Uh, nowadays it’s totally different! I actually haven’t been in front of an orchestra in a few years.

Jay:
And this is the reality we’re all facing with budgets and everything being the way it is. So typically, nowadays what would be your, lets say, ratio of live players to sampled instruments? I know you still use live guitar a lot.

Bruce:
I can’t give you a number or percentage, but very, very small, it’s mainly samples. There are some occasions where like I’ll need, say a live sax , even though I’ve got the Samplemodeling’s saxophone instruments that are really good, really good. And of course, string instruments like guitars, and vocalists. Samples are mostly for everything else.

Jay:
And you pretty much do them in your home studio, which by the way, is really nice. You’ve set it up beautifully here!

Bruce:
Thank you.

Jay:
So, when is the last time you actually went into a “studio “with a ensemble of musicians?

Bruce:
I would guess that that would have to be a few years ago we did some stuff with Joss Stone for The Gap. The Gap did an album of some singers doing their favorite songs.

Jay:
Do you find that in order to get a commensurate quality result with samples that your having to work a lot harder than you did in the day when you would just write it out on score paper?

Bruce:
Oh yes, without question. As a matter of fact, I still to this day have problems really doing my best work without writing it out. I was never a sketch guy. I was always right to the big paper. If there was a sketch it was a one line sketch, it was nothing. Not like some of these guys who write multiple staff sketches. I wish I could do that, but I don’t know that the music would be as detailed as I’d like it to be.

Jay:
Have you ever seen one of John Williams’ sketches?

Bruce:
I’ve got some, yeah.

Jay:
It could easily go directly to the copyist.

Bruce:
Right, I can’t do that! My most detailed and interesting things that I write contain orchestral colors and tone that I like to manipulate and develop. I’m not a great piano player. I’m an arranging piano player, sort of a hack, but those subtleties need to be finessed. I just find that I’m just not as detailed improvisationally playing them in. And even with harmonies and such, when I’m writing one line out I can really see what ‘s happening. Here I have Logic Pro, which is great. I do my first line….open up the score. And uh, by the way, I have some questions for you. Everybody has Logic questions for Jay Asher, It doesn’t end does it? (Jay laughs in background.) I just follow along and then I use that as the guide, and then I add to that, but it’s just never as immaculate as it is when I write it out.

Jay:
The element that I miss of it is the fact that the player will bring something to it that even though I know how to write for the instrument, because I don’t have the same personal relationship that the player has and that they are going to come up with something that I’m just not going to think of, some nuances.

Bruce:
Now see that’s the thing….I’m more egocentric than you are. (Jay laughs) That’s absolutely true. You’re absolutely right. But I’m more concerned with what I’m leaving out then what they would leave out or what they would add. Because generally I have a big section and they’re pretty much playing the written notes, There’s interpretation in there and a good concertmaster really gives you more than just the printed page. But, I just find that there are just so many articulations and subtleties that I don’t think twice about when I’m writing on paper. Doing it on the keyboard, there’s always an issue, there’s always something: the samples not sounding the way I like it, the articulations, I gotta go back and add some keyswitches, or there’s something I left out, or there’s something I couldn’t play properly. It isn’t hell like I’m making it sound… it’s just nothing like writing it out, bringing it to the studio with those great players. You conduct it, and they play it and it’s immaculate, and if it’s not immaculate, it’s their fault. (Jay Laughs) That’s great.

Jay:
Let’s talk a little bit about the engineering aspect. For me, this is the part of the learning process that came the most slowly. Are you doing mostly your own engineering now or do you still frequently have an engineer come in?

Bruce:
I find that engineering is also something that I haven’t loved to do. I’ve got severe ADD, which doesn’t show itself with the score page and pencil. It shows itself profoundly when I’m trying to mix something in Logic. I just don’t enjoy it. I get nudgey, I can’t stand it. Lately I’ve been doing so much work with my son, Jason, who’s a great contemporary guitar player, and he’s not interested in doing his own mixing either. But it’s interesting that he’s just taking it more seriously. And so a lot of times, when he’ll do it like for cues for a show or something, it’s absolutely fine. If I’ve got a more demanding project I’ve got to call in a real mixer. I’ve worked with the greatest engineers in the world over the years. They’ve always made things sound unbelievable.

Jay:
Since we are so reliant now on sample libraries and software instruments, what is it that you are primarily looking for when you evaluate one that you are potentially going to use as part of your palette?

Bruce:
One of the first things is, if it starts sounding like an organ and it doesn’t say B4 or B3 in front of it, it’s probably not good. That’s the first thing, obviously. And then of course, playability. You know, some of them are just, it’s like… who ever thought of this? But some of them are very playable. Mainly, it’s just the sound. I’ve got a few “go to” libraries…. they just sound great!

Jay:
They inspire you to write.

Bruce:
They inspire me. In certain very stock libraries, like a C flute and you play it. And it sounds very nice. Flute, I think, not being a tekkie, is probably a very simple instrument to sample. But, when you hear the vibrato is exactly the same on every note and it’s just… ya, ya, ya, ya….. I need something that I can sit with the Mod Wheel, adjust the vibrato, change it up, make it the way when I used to be a player…when I played. Do what I hope, the players will do. But with these things, when the vibrato is kind of on or off, and you gotta kill yourself to change any characteristic of it, I’m out of there. I can’t stand it.

Jay:
What are some of the new ones you’ve discovered in the last or two year that you’re really enjoying writing for?

Bruce:
Well, I love the Oceanway drums, they are pretty great, as far as realistic live drums. The Trillian basses are amazing. I do have technical issues with Trilian sometimes but it’s very, very good.
Strings…Kirk Hunter. He comes to mind first.

Jay:
Have you tried the new Concert Strings II?

Bruce:
I’ve got them. There’s a feature I mentioned to you, the Legato Live where you just play along and keep the sustain pedal down. I don’t know how he thought of that or what possessed him to do that. It just adds another bit of realism.

Jay:
And, once again, the sound you find inspiring?

Bruce:
Yeah, I find the sound inspiring. Now there are guys that are more “classically” oriented than I am. I came up from records. I didn’t come up as a guy writing concert pieces and operas and all that. I came up from Motown. I came up from the Pop world. I made my living for years in the studio doing string dates, and horn dates, and ah, always with the best players in town. And so, there’s a sound to that that’s unlike what the more “legit” oriented guys get that are doing the more orchestral stuff. There’s just something about it. And Kirk’s strings, though you can be very finessed with them, there’s a certain edge to them, and aggressiveness that you can get that doesn’t go overboard.

Jay:
I believe you’re also a fan of the Samplemodeling libraries?

Bruce:
I’m the biggest fan! Far and away the biggest fan. (laughing)

Jay:
Talk to me a little bit about them, because I don’t have any of those yet.

Bruce:
OK, It’s absolutely the best, sampled trumpet and trombone that I’ve ever heard. I mean, if somebody has something better I’d like to know about it. Nothing that I’ve heard is even close and the Saxophones are excellent also. Saxes are very difficult to sample. It’s, just the way it is. But these things are really sampled as a player. And I used to play some trombone and I used to be a woodwind player also, so I really know how these things should sound. I’ve got an EWI that I use occasionally. But even using the keyboard, these guys program things like little vibrato, like little nuances at the end of a note that will end a note with a little imperfection, that’s exactly the way a perfection player would play.

Jay:
How much time do you generally spend learning a new library? Do you go into a library and kind of exhaustively live with it for a little while? Or is it a pretty much a need to know basis?

Bruce:
No, I’m a “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” kinda guy. My thing is, it’s there to be used. It’s an instrument. Chances are that when I get a new library, I’ve got a project that I need it on, and I just don’t have time to sit and think, “Oh look what you can do. Isn’t that fascinating.”

Jay:
What about for a piano? Do you have a favorite acoustic piano sample libraries these days?

Bruce:
Yeah. Don’t laugh at me because there’s other stuff out there…. the Akoustic Piano from Native Instruments. It’s still the one I use.

Jay:
Do you find that sometimes certain sample libraries and certain instruments, when you play them you think you sound great, but it’s just much harder to get them to sit well in a mix?

Bruce:
Sometimes. And I know what your saying and sometimes. But I find if it sounds good to my ear, I can find a way to make it sit well in the mix

Jay:
I know that for years you were a Digital Performer user.

Bruce:
Yes.

Jay:
And now you’re a Logic user. I don’t want to get into a thing of where we as Logic users seem to be putting down Digital Performer, because I think Performer, Cubase, Nuendo, Sonar, are all amazing tools. So what I want to discuss with you is, what do you love about Logic? And what do you maybe miss from Performer? Because there are certain things that every DAW has that is unique to it.

Bruce:
Yes, there were some very good things about the V-rack that they had, but nothing in the world is as convenient as Logic where you just open up an instrument track and record. It’s audio, it’s MIDI, it’s everything, you know, It makes breakfast for you. (Jay laughs) That one track does everything.

Jay:
Do you miss the Chunks feature in Performer? That’s the one of the things that I’ve always admired, is in Logic we pretty much find that you have to do one, you generally want one cue per project unless perhaps they’re short and close together.

Bruce:
Even if they’re short and close together I always do one cue per project.

Jay:
Where with Performer with the Chunks feature, that wasn’t so necessary.

Bruce:
That was a fantastic feature!

Jay:
Yeah, I think all we Logic users would like to see something like that.

Bruce:
There are also some things that I loved, that if I do say so myself, I came up with some ideas, and they implemented them. One of them is the split notes feature, where I had them add a little keyboard that would pop up on the screen. And either through midi or with the cursor or the mouse you could select which notes you wanted to cut or copy or you know, whatever, and it was great. Because you could have a range from such and such and such etc., or now you could have these individual notes. That was fantastic!

Jay:
We talked a little about coming up in an era, where we had some expectations that we would have at least a fair amount of live players and then we came into the whole DAW sequencing thing after that. After we’ve made our bones with the other stuff. For most people starting out today and coming up, that’s not their reality.

Bruce:
Right.

Jay:
Is there any specific advice you would give them? For instance if you’re talking to your son Jason and he comes to you and he says, “Dad, I want to do what you do. I want to score films and TV shows.” What’s your advice?

Bruce:
Well, he is already doing some of this work and is taking to it well. But my general advice is listen and learn. Listen to films. Listen to scores. Listen to music. That’s the main thing. This will give everybody a good laugh. One of my favorite things was driving in the car listening to Muzak. The orchestrations are frequently immaculate and they’re so transparent and so uncreative that it shows you orchestration. You can actually hear what’s going on, as opposed to listening to Miles Davis with Gil Evans. You can’t compare the music, from a creative standpoint but the complication in that is too much for a young musician. Listen to the Muzak. Listen to Mantovani. Listen to any of that stuff. You will learn. The Mancini, “Sounds And Scores” book was the greatest thing ever. You want to hear clarinets in thirds, here’s what it sounds like, bam. So listen to that stuff, hear what it sounds like, and then learn. Do takedowns! I worked at Motown when I was in college, sitting in a little room doing takedowns. When you’re doing takedowns, you have to hear everything. And so that’s what these guys ought to do. As far as the technical aspect of it, any idiot can learn the ranges of the instruments, etc., etc. It’s memorization.

Jay:
How important do you think understanding traditional orchestration is to using the samples, because as we know, sometimes even if you played for the samples what you would do with a real player with any given library it may not sound good, so some people take the attitude that I don’t care what the real guys would do as long as it sounds good to my ear when I’m playing this library .

Bruce:
Wrong. (laughing) It doesn’t work. You have to know a rule in order to break it. People could find semantic arguments with that, but you get what I’m saying. You have to know voicings, voice leading, and harmony. There are certain things that we know as sequencing people that don’t sound good, certain cluster effects, certain things that give the old organ thing. But in general, you have to know, what do violins in sixths sound like? In thirds it doesn’t always work, sometimes you gotta go to sixths. What does it sound like when you got 24 fiddles all playing the line in unison as opposed to in octaves? Maybe it’s just me, I’m not that creative. You and I had spoken about listening to Western music. And I said that when I got my first “Bonanza” call, I ran out and got “The Big Country” and listened to it. I could have said I’m just going to do this by my own creative genius, but you know what? I’m not that good. (Jay laughs) I’m not that good. I had to get some kind of a footing into what this was supposed to be…, a frame of reference.

Jay:
Are there some people scoring in films and TV today that you particularly admire?

Bruce:
Well, I love John Williams, obviously. Everybody does. I think he’s in a class by himself. James Newton Howard’s work is always right on the money, always creative. And it just works.

Jay:
I’m turned on by John Powell’s stuff these days. John blends orchestral elements with non-orchestral elements in a very exciting, vibrant way.

Bruce:
I actually get most excited with the days gone by as far as like Bernard Herman. You can’t explain him. I mean just as far as how he came up with what he did. Max Steiner, Al Newman. These guys are the reasons why all these other people write the way they write. They grew up listening to them. Korngold and Hank Mancini. I mean Hank Mancini was the richest as far as hitting the home run dramatically and melodically, It seems that everything he wrote just fit. It was right. And talk about a sound! Talk about a signature!

Jay:
What I find fascinating about Mancini is he won multiple Academy Awards for best song, and yet he said in his book he never thought of himself as a songwriter. He said he would write themes for characters and then a guy like Johnny Mercer would put a lyric to it and he had a hit song, but he never thought of himself as a songwriter, just a film scorer who could write nice melodic themes.

Bruce:
It’s funny cause when I write, and then hear a score of mine, when I’m recording it, I get a charge out of hearing the orchestration, not the melody that I wrote. I’m so deeply into the sound of how I orchestrated it and that’s what gets me more jazzed than anything.

Jay:
Final question. If you could wave a magic wand tomorrow and conjure up your dream project, the one kind of score that you feel you maybe you haven’t had the opportunity to do just quite the way you like to do it, what would it be?

Bruce:
I’ve always said an “On Golden Pond” kind of thing.

Jay:
Wonderful Dave Grusin score.

Bruce:
Yeah, great score. But that kind of movie, something with some humor, but something where I can get a little soapy with melodies and orchestration; just some emotional scoring. Otherwise, whatever they would call for I happily do……ha!

Jay:
Well, thanks Bruce, this has been great and a lot of fun!

Bruce:
My pleasure, Jay. You’re a good friend, and congratulations on this new gig.

Bruce Miller’s composing credits include “Designing Women,” “Frasier,” “Becker,” and has worked with recording artists including gold and platinum records for work with The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Temptations, The Commodores, Rev. James Cleveland, David Ruffin, Lenny Williams from Tower Of Power, Diahann Carroll, and Rod Stewart, among others. For more information, visit http://www.brucemillermusic.com

Comments

By Jimmy V on August 5th, 2010 at 8:03 am

Excellent.
Thank you.
Nice to see successful and talented people just sharing their POV and preferences.

Can we expect more of this…?
Maybe a quarterly interview.
I’d be happy to pay for such insightful interviews and especially if they’d share some of their ideas or modus operandi.

JV

By Jay Asher on August 5th, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I will be doing a monthly column. Some will be interviews, some articles on tech products like software instrument, fx, etc.

By Mike Lang on August 11th, 2010 at 10:56 am

Nice interview! Congratulations!

By Vivian Khor on August 12th, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Hi Jay,

Great interview and Congrats!

By Adrian Ellis on August 13th, 2010 at 10:55 am

Candid, insightful, and refreshing!

Looking forward to more!

By Jon Bjork on August 14th, 2010 at 7:31 am

Very interesting and informative interview Jay, great job!

Best regards
Jon

By Tracey & Vance Marino on September 11th, 2010 at 10:36 am

Great article, Jay! Looking forward to reading future ones. We had the pleasure of meeting Bruce Miller and his son Jason a few times over the years. Jason was also our mentor at a composer workshop. They are two of the nicest guys in the business — very generous with sharing their time, knowledge, and experiences.

By Steve OWen on May 19th, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Nice interview, Jay! Bruce, you like to hear the sound of the orchestration,
like me! Thats the best part…(assuming the compositional part is decent)

Steve-O

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