Composer Interview – Russell Bell

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you come from and what do you do?

My name is Russell Bell and I’m a British born composer hailing from Essex. I have been writing for as nearly as long as I have been playing which is around 23 years now. I’m signed to CouldB Entertainment writing cues for a wide variety of TV shows they take care of for several networks like Warner bros, MTV, Discovery, and Bravo among many others.

I also write trailer promotional music and I’m looking at some collaborations and opportunities that are breaking through this year. I spent many years in working bands playing keyboards and bass, and decided in more recent years to turn all my attention to composing, which leads us to where I am right now.

When and how did you make the move to being a full time composer?

Despite being involved with music for the last 2 decades, I was still working a full time job and fitting the music in around it. Barely a couple of years back, I answered a request I saw on a library website asking for a bunch of high tension/action cues for a bravo show in production.

I figured it was at least worth a shot, and within a few minutes, I had a reply and a beginning. It all became a little whirlwind like for the following 6 months with lots of calls for a great number of genres for lots of shows. So the overall volume was becoming an issue with my available writing hours as working 40+ hours elsewhere, wasn’t leaving me a lot of creative time!

So as the amount of work I was being asked to do rose, I made the decision to split from the full time job and enter the world of freelance composing. With the help and guidance of a good accountant and lots of support from friends and family, I made that move and have never looked back.

Work continues to grow and even in such a short period, things are moving in a really positive direction for me.

What does your studio currently consist of hardware/software wise?

To describe my current workspace and setup as humble, would be quite an understatement! I don’t have a lavish studio, but I have exactly what I need to do the job. I have my trusty Axiom 61 keyboard mapped to Cubase 6.5 which is run on a Win7 64bit i7 system, 16gb ram, several big HDD’s full of samples and projects,backups etc. I have a truly massive collection of sample libraries which come in handy every day with all the random genres you are asked to take on. I’m trying to stick with as much Kontakt based librariess as possible as they have proven to have the lightest foot print on your resources and due to the sheer development hours everyone is putting in, its a completely known quantity and on its current version, largely bug free.

Aside from this, I reference all my work through a pair of AKG K702 headphones which haven’t let me down yet and I’m good to go. Would I like a big dedicated room with all the toys and gadgets, iPads everywhere and all kinds of cutting edge controllers? Yeah I guess, but would it make the music sound any better?

Whats your favorite software right now and what software are you looking forward to most in the future?

I have to say, and I’m more than a little biased having worked on this, but Eduardo Tarilonte’s ERA library is still charming the pants off me right now. I love all those libraries where its an instantly playable and emotive connection you make without the need for a degree in science to trigger the articulations etc. I’m not a big software tech whore – I never have been. You have a problem, you find the solution and ways to enhance your workflow up to a point to which it doesn’t unpin your ‘character’. Sometimes that eclectic way you work has a lot going for it. What I do use, I do like to know more about. I’m lucky in that a couple of my good friends, are Cubase genius’s so this comes in handy quite often!

You’ve written cues for a number of library developers. How did you get into this?

I know this path is quite different for everyone, but I started off by sending a couple of cues that featured a couple of products by a developer and they had also aired. They then asked me if id like to beta test and demo write for there upcoming product. So this got the ball rolling.

Its like anything really in that once you begin to get a name for yourself doing this work, that others will want you to join there team as they know you have that understanding about what is involved and what is required of you. So from the initial success on one, several more of these companies took me on board. I still test and write for several sample developers although in recent months, I have had to cut back the amount of work I do here purely as a means of managing my working hours effectively and making sure my TV projects don’t suffer as a result.

The best advice I would give in regards to getting into this line of work is, own at least one of there products, try not to sound ‘grabby’ in that your all about having stuff for free. Its an incredibly big turn off for these guys.

Put in the work when you get your shot and give them as much communication you can reporting back what you have found whilst working with the new software. I also find its quite a good move to promote this product during its release and after as to be fair, if you are genuinely getting a lot from this, you should be honest and tell your colleagues about it. Plus all the promotional stuff you put into this as an aside, only goes to help push ‘you’ and your brand too. Its a duality and it solidifies your contribution in many ways.

What was your favorite project to have worked on so far?

This is a hard one to call! So very tough. I have made good friends with all of the people I work with, whether its for TV placement or product development, but I would have to say that developing ERA medieval legends with Eduardo Tarilonte, was a delight from start to finish.

When you do work with people who become your friends, it all feels like playtime lol. I have forged some friendships with music supervisors and show producers too – utterly essential if you do want to expand and get your work out there.

Tell us about Bells and Wizards. Where did the idea come from, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

This was an idea that myself and Ryo Ishido came up with a good 18 months back now. To be honest, we didn’t have a master plan when we set out. It was a case of too strong willed creatives wanting to make something special. To try and forge our relative strengths and become a promotional outlet. But as time went by, this has evolved several times and the ideas as to what we could lend this too, have just grown exponentially. Dirk Ehlert joined the team very early on, so this ultimately gave us 3 strong composer and 2 of which are highly capable graphically. We are currently working on a joint project to launch Bells & Wizards and we hope to do this with a fresh sounding body of work later this year.

Talk us through “Mining Titan”. What was your writing process, how did you mix it etc.?

This is my ‘current’ favourite cue. Its hard enough choosing one good strong cue as a typical composer is indecisive at the best of times, but this is a cue I’m really happy with right now.

I tend to mix as I write – I find the two go hand in hand and I absolutely could not approach it in any other way. I hate trying to fix things in the mix later, and while your shaping those sounds and finding the place, position they need to be in the track, you’re writing and mixing in a symbiotic way. Probably due to the amount of electronic background I have, I am always drawn to shaping things as much as possible as all these small niche sounds become the bigger picture at the end. But during this whole process, I simply could not imagine trying to manufacture a mix after the fact.

I wanted to create a hybrid like track, but as much as I hate that label, it does describe the cue, styling etc. Like a lot of composers, I spend time with the sounds creating moods, landscapes, small movements, motifs etc and then I make the decision or rather, the theme comes to mind from those starting points pretty quickly. When you hear of composers themeing and naming cues after they have finished, I can never relate to this. I find that a lot of the time, I can see a simple story or a short scene and then the title and the overall atmosphere for this is mostly in your head ready to go. So with a big bunch of classic sci-fi novels rolling around my head, images of Asimov stories abound, this gave me the concept idea for this cue, trying to describe an alien landscape being literally mined for its off-world bounty. The main bold thematic sections of this, I had images of the cargo transporters taking the precious loads out of the system but encountering hostility as they attempt to do so. Bearing in mind its just a concept idea and not scored to image etc, it was indulgent to say the least!

What is your process for mastering a track?

I find there is a lot you can do very early on when you write, as I mentioned above. It is for me, a unified sound shaping experience so to some degree I try to bring in the mastering quite early too.

Admittedly its not something you can accomplish with any accurate level of detail until you know what all the sounds are in place etc, but I do try and shape and hone all those elements. Some are more obvious than others in regards to tempering there dynamics – percussion being the obvious one – and removing and handling all the additional and unwanted bass that gathers and bloats the mix.

I have a couple of settings I use in the Cubase spatial surround plugin that I adore. It adds a nice width and opens up the image really nicely. I tend to go back to this later and get that width sitting just right with the cue. For a lot of big bold trailer style cues, the mastering is a big factor in the finished article. You’re shaping, handling and controlling all those big dynamics. I love Nomad tools for compressing and limiting.

I have yet to try the Slate tools of which I’ve heard great things, but I still lean on Ozone for a lot of mastering tools. I know its very unpopular to use presets in tools like this but I for one, find them a great starting point with a lot of cues like this. You can at least get a flash image in your mind of what levels of sound, colour you can locate in that mix and then remove the preset and hone in. For a lot of the TV placement cues, I do not not to over colour and saturate the mix. Unless its a main theme tune etc, the typical working cue for me just has to be balanced,clean across the board.

I’m not a sound engineer or mastering expert, so bearing in mind these guys spend all there lives perfecting this dark art, I’m just happy to be able to achieve something I know is solid and fit for broadcast. When it comes down to very special projects, I still farm out this to the guys who know how.

Lets talk productivity. How on earth do you remain so productive? I see from your Facebook updates that you’re constantly pumping out loads of cues a week. Tell us how you do it!

I don’t think there is any big secret to it other than I look at writing as a form of exercise, its the exact same thing as spending hours per day practicing an instrument, except in this case, you are researching the playing styles, scales and modality of every sound you can think of.

Its like gathering a lifetimes worth of ‘chops’ and adapting these to suit a mood and in that process, capture your theme or motif. When a lot of us have discussed composing and arrived at the classic declaration that music is finite, I believe this to be completely untrue. For every sound, genre, expression etc, there are limitless ways to say those things, to tell those stories and invoke those images.

I spent all of my time these last 20 years just writing constantly. During the 80’s, I had filled up dozens of tapes of short ideas. Through the 90’s much the same but on a larger scale. I still spent time learning and listening and taking everything in. So all those years of noodling away feels like its paid off when I need it to. Some guys spend all there time sound designing, mastering completely new sound sets and creating new worlds, some of those best programmers are filling your synths and workstations with endless amounts of new sounds. So for each creative department doing there thing, you reap the end result.

You get the best starting platform to do your job. So when I grab a sound and start playing with ideas, I know it has been loved and laboured over. Its brimming with possibilities. The key for me when I write, is to create regardless of what mood I’m in, what time of day it is and even when you feel you have a block. I keep working and I write past that block. There is always a solution to the problem, there is always a way to tell the story. I also think a lot of us massively over think our work.

Some of your best moments that you listen to retrospectively, have been when you do let the guard down, when you take some of that pressure of yourself and enjoy the moment. If everything you attempt to do is shrouded in ‘its not good enough,some else said it better’ then you will never become productive. Looking over your shoulder and being overly critical is a stone around your neck .You are as good as the next guy, and your always learning and adding skills to your tool kit.

What do you do in between projects when you don’t currently have something to work on?

At the moment I can say I don’t know! There doesn’t seem to be a lot of in-between time right now, which I should be thankful for, but when I do get the chance, I try to return musically back to my roots of programming. I had over the many years, a large collection of synths and I would spend hundreds of hours creating myself. I listen to a lot of very random music. Its especially productive to avoid all those big markets your hitting for if you have surplus time to explore. I would tend to listen to some world music, something avant garde. Absorb something radical and new among all those big bold classic cues you love so much. If I get a couple of days straight where the work load is a lot less, then I do try to become very investigative. Ill try outright silly things that musically I believe I cannot do. After a dozen attempts at very lofty ideas way above my station, I get glimpses of things I can now do and use in my daily work.

How do you use social media as a musician to get work/promote yourself?

I mainly hit the big 3 – Twitter, Facebook and Soundcloud – and to great effect. Using these 3 in tandem creates a powerful bigger platform than just an artist main site alone. I’m a firm believer than attaching these platforms into one super construct, has more effective results than just honing in on one alone. For all those childish reasons, I picture the 80’s transformers that used like half a dozen smaller ones to create the big machine lol.

The best way to utilise these sites is to be honest and consistent – with your work, your attitude and your ability to give back. When you just post constant noise about your new music and all the wonderful things you do, eventually you just bore the socks off the average Joe and totally alienate your colleagues. So with anything like this, its just as much about the give, than the take.

I spend time enjoying a lot of other composers work, so I tell them! Encourage these creatives,support them during hard times, help them solve problems. Being part of the big social networking world is about tapping into all of its abilities and facets. I use twitter to promote new music, I comment and promote others work via Soundcloud through Twitter and Facebook. In recent weeks, a few things I have done on Facebook have now gained me new work. Purely by being genuine,active and productive and its now paying me back.

I have had a lot of times when I’ve had issues and my friends have come to the rescue. Even to the point of your colleagues pushing your name for gigs. This was unheard of years ago. Other composers simply did not assist anyone but themselves, but thankfully over the last few years, this has changed radically. A lot of people now realise we all need each other to survive in this saturated market place.

What does your daily routine consist of?

There is nothing very set and routine about it as I find any routine that is cast in stone just takes me back to the daily grind. Its exactly what I sought to escape from so I don’t impose anything that makes me feel like I’m clocking in. I have built up a pattern of day work mostly – I’ll work from 9am roughly till midday and tackle the second part of the day as something else. I might still have a lot of audio admin to get through, mix downs etc. Or accounting, making new connections etc. And on occasion depending on how creative you feel that day or week, Ill reverse the ‘routine’ if you can call it that, and write mostly at night when the urge is there.

Not all of your work allows you to adapt so freely, some weeks you’re hitting it early until dinner – tea, inhale dinner, swig some coffee, smoke a bunch and then move into the evening.

What are your favorite musician/composer websites?

You know what? I’m probably the least active composer you will meet when it comes to forums and composer sites! Ive had my fill of forums and despite the knowledge that is limitless on such places, they are by there very nature , a breeding ground for virtual warriors, the disgruntled and perhaps over opinionated. Those that clearly state rude statement after next under the banner “its just my opinion”, well….I prefer those conversations in person!

I will bookmark various industry sites. I use IMDB pro a lot to hawk out work currently in production and pre-production shows, films etc to see opportunities others might have missed. I have a jaunt with Linked in to some extent and anything that looks like it may be useful for new work, but as for actual music and composer forums and such, i usually head for Skype or Google+ for a video call with someone who can solve my problem or offer some help and when I’m feeling especially personable, the trusty telephone and meeting in person is always preferable.

What useful tools do you use daily as a composer?

Unlike 99% of composers, I actually try and steer away from too many templates. I have some very basic mix/master templates for certain show types and genres. I work up a lot of drama and tension cues, so I have a basic head start with those but I try not to impose too much suggestion with templates other wise my daily creativity would dry up pretty fast – I prefer to make a lot of accidental discoveries.

I’m very pen and paper with my daily notes. I dont know why, but I just like the old school hands on note pad approach to jotting down ideas, edit notes etc. Despite it being an eclectic and disorganized affair, it makes me feel a little less at one with the machine all day and connects you to the humble reality. The coffee machine constitutes as a ‘tool’ in my book so that takes a beating daily !

What’s your definition of success?

Well we all have our goals and they change very often, daily sometimes. So how you calibrate yourself for success is indeed a biblically sized variable lol. Years ago I would say all I wanted was to be the next big movie composer, but today I can say I adore the TV work I do.

I truly treasure it. So success is about where you are, where you want to be and how happy you are every step of the way. I’m happy in myself, so I feel successful – the terms of success are mostly judged by outsiders. You truly must be successful with your house in the hills, 2 Ferrari’s, an Aston and a big bank balance blah blah blah, but for me success is getting those jobs nailed.

Someone asks me for some music, and I hit it point blank and both sides are happy, I get paid, I provide for my family = success. Scale it up or down anyway you like, if it provides you with no sense of being on any level, no Ferrari in the garage will fix that.

How do you stay fresh as a composer?

One of the best ways to stay fresh is to not always use those safe options. As much as I do applaud having a wide vocab and an army of accumulated chops, sometimes you do need to challenge your perception of what would be the right way to tackle a cue. I find it useful sometimes to reference something in a similar genre and listen to some other interpretations of this. It doesn’t mean you go and ape the next guys work, but sometimes you hear really cool uses of those familiar devices you use daily.

Working through some challenging time signatures and pairing up instruments you would never chose from the box. Taking the ‘Thomas Newman’ approach to music where over the years, he ventured further into much richer instrumentation that ultimately made those cues so fresh and sparse.

Just once in a while, dare to be different. Whats the worst that can happen?

Where do you see the scoring (film/game/tv) industry in 5-10 years time?

It was tough 20 years ago and its tougher now, so I can see it evolving into a bit of a playground where a whole new collective of very young composers straight from school or the bedroom, are absorbing more and more of the work out there, especially the gaming sector.

I don’t see the big movie market being harmed by any upstart just yet, but its overall trajectory is becoming more diluted by sound design score than a rich body of work. Not to suggest some of these big sound design like scores aren’t all singing and dancing, its just that those examples of “How to train your Dragon” will be less and less over the years to come. I love the exploratory world of these type of score, I do appreciate the mood and the feel you can create with sound design and more simplistic work, but the whole lineage of film score is changing and not all for the better.

TV is a big market again but there is always work out there and more than enough to go around many times over, the big issues is those budgets. They are getting smaller, your deal is getting tighter. I imagine in 10 years time those rates will be lower still and everyone will be fighting to get a decent cut of the deal.

Where do you see the music library industry in 5-10 years time?

Largely automated and quite cold. This is what I can see coming. A lot of networks in the UK and the US, have contracts to use certain library sites to pool there cues for a show. Its becoming a very detached industry and massively over saturated with competition.

Because this modern world is fully web driven, it means the front door blew clean off under the weight of a trillion extra composers who didn’t have the means or the direction to show there wares. So in the decline of the CD audition and the trusty postal service, everything is virtual, so your relationship will become very sterile and virtual in 10 years time. The library industry certainly feels to me that its trying to streamline to go this way. Less personal and more function and immediacy.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were originally starting off?

Why did you quit for so many years you fool?!! lol. I did retain most of my passion for music as a hobby for way too many years. I buckled when real life shoved its sized 9’s in my face and alas, those bills needed paying.

But what you know nobody tells you – don’t give up. There is a way. No matter how tough it is to make it happen, its totally possible. I would have spent even more time getting to know the people in this industry than I do currently. You really do have to get out there. No one comes knocking if they cant see what your doing, what you’re about etc. I would also have taken some studies in the music business. I have a self confessed lack of detailed knowledge of the workings of the deal and I am now spending that time learning the particulars a lot more. It has harmed me not knowing this business like I should, so appreciate the fact that 50% of this ride is down to you knowing your market, your agreements and all the legalities.

Your studio is on fire and you only have time to grab one thing – what do you take?

Just the PC!!! Its the hub of everything.It is the center of my creative universe and you already know of my rather humble setup, so there wouldn’t be a fight for anything else lol. Put it this way, if I did own a genuine Jupiter 8 or a CS80, I could be stuck there with the flames licking me for a bit longer than id like.

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

  • http://www.oakwoodmusic.ie/ Ciaran Birch

    Very interesting interview. Thanks for posting this. :)

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