Acoustic instruments tied to American folk traditions can be effective tools for film scoring— whether the project is traditional or completely original
Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas is an ideal case study of a score that sounds both authentic and timeless.
Think about the phrase “music for film” and it’s likely that the sounds coming to mind are either symphonic or electronic. Your imagination may conjure up sustained strings, cymbal washes, timpani, majestic horns, and their electronic equivalents: synth pads, stabs, kick drums with enough rumble to give a subwoofer a hernia, and—my personal favorite—the throbbing synth bass. Thanks to sample libraries, digital composers (most of whom seem to be keyboardists) have easy access to thousands of such sounds.
But playing non-keyboard instruments—and more important, knowing how to write for them—can lead to plenty of scoring opportunities. Even better, your ability as a player (or the ability of good session players you hire) can make a much stronger emotional connection than any sampled sound.
Because they’re so strongly rooted in our collective frame of reference, instruments from our acoustic traditions can bring the audience into a story with an immediacy that orchestras and electronica can’t match. They work well in foreground and background, solo and as part of an ensemble, and in both traditional and non-traditional settings.
So where are they best used in film? The obvious answer might seem to be a setting that calls for folksy instruments: a western or other American period piece, for example, or something set in the country. That may be true on the surface, but it doesn’t describe their full potential.
While many of the ideas I’m about to discuss apply to any instrument and idiom, I’m going to illustrate this concept by using acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, and bass as the main members of our scoring orchestra. You could include flute (or a folk equivalent like tin whistle), hammer dulcimer, ukulele, Jew’s harp, and yes, even some keyboards. Because these instruments have all been used in various forms of American roots music, I like to think of this approach as “scoring Americana.” But as you’ll see, specific genre matters less than the relationship between the sounds, parts, and the onscreen action.
What Does That Sound Mean? When you’re being considered for a film score, one of the first things you should ask the director and producer is what they want the music to evoke. Are they looking to convey the internal feelings of one character, set an overall mood of the scene as it relates to the complete story, or tell the audience that they’re looking at a specific historical time and place? The answer should lead to two practical follow-up questions: How “authentic” does each cue need to sound? And what does “authentic” even mean?
Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas makes a good case study. (See “Hear It” to learn where to listen to much of the music discussed here.) Check out the piece “Brothers,” which starts with a spacious fingerstyle guitar part followed by a strong slide guitar theme. As the piece evolves, Cooder’s guitar gets some support from droning strings and percussion. But it’s the slide that stands out—and that’s also the voice that carries over to the even simpler piece, “Nothing Out There.”
Made in 1984, Paris, Texas isn’t a Western or a period piece. It’s not set in the woods. It’s a contemporary look at themes of dislocation and loneliness. The action moves from the desert to big cities like Los Angeles and Houston. Yet the score sounds both authentic and timeless—it works as well today as it did nearly 30 years go. (Compare that to Vangelis’ synth-y score to Blade Runner—it’s cool, but sounds oh-so early ’80s.)
Cooder’s approach influenced my score for James Spione’s American Farm (2003), a feature-length documentary about changing times at a family farm in upstate New York. The documentary includes contemporary scenes of the farm and interviews with the farmer and family members discussing times past and present. For the contemporary scenes, we used mostly solo guitar playing single-note melodies to underscore the beauty and emptiness of the land. The film used more structured music to recall the farm’s earlier, happier history. Here, the guitar moved to the background to support a fiddle melody. When we returned to the present, the guitar was sparse again: It was like a link to the past music that was down to a small remnant. (You can hear examples on the film’s trailer at youtu.be/OOd-VyBtTLE.)
You can create something new by contrasting familiar points of reference, especially if you’re willing to study the sounds and styles of the past, as well as keep current. Cooder drew from Blind Willie Johnson’s classic “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” in Paris Texas, evoking that song’s feeling without paying too much homage to it. Had he gone too far into any particular blues style, he’d have disconnected the characters from their onscreen reality. In the same way, you might try scoring an urban character by using a solo guitar (or harmonica, or whatever instrument you choose) against, say, a prerecorded drum loop or a synthesizer bed. The guitar might represent the character’s internal thinking, the percussion might be the world around him.
Stylistic juxtapositions can also produce comic results. Carter Burwell’s use of banjo, ukulele, jaws harp, and yodeling in parts of his Raising Arizona score is a great example of how effective the “fish out of water” approach to arranging can be. The overall score itself isn’t rootsy or traditional, but those down-home instruments reinforce the absurd fantasy world that the Coen brothers created in the film.
Get Real! If, however, the setting is supposed to be more rooted to clearly defined time and place, the instrumentation and playing style should be more accurate and idiomatic. It doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly from the film’s era, but it should be close enough to convince the audience.
Tenor banjo was used to contrast 5-string banjo in “Dueling Banjos” in Deliverance.Jay Ungar’s famous score for Ken Burns’ The Civil War is based on a piece Ungar wrote in 1982 called “Ashokan Farewell.” Although it wasn’t written specifically for The Civil War, the waltz— which is based on a Scottish lament—sums up the whole period without being tied to a single point of view (the way something like “Battle Hymn of the Republic” might have been). In the best-known recording, a plaintive violin goes solo for about a minute before a guitar comes in for gentle support. It’s as simple as arranging gets, but it’s incredibly effective.
No matter what, it pays to do some research. I faced this when scoring a documentary series called Our Island Home, set in Virginia’s Barrier Islands. The producer wanted banjo. I play the guitar. No problem: Borrow a banjo and play it. Heck, even a sample could work.
But the banjo wasn’t there to be a sonic texture—it needed to remind people of the culture of those islands. My first attempts sounded like a guitarist playing the banjo. Fail!
Homework time. Should the part be played on the five-string or four-string banjo? Bluegrass style or folk style? I had to learn how to tune the instrument—five-string banjos are usually tuned to open G, and the short fifth string is the highest. I had to get used to playing with metal fingerpicks, which contribute a lot to the trademark sound. But once I got those details down, it worked. I didn’t have to play like Earl Scruggs, but it helped to sound at least like I’d heard of Earl Scruggs.
Mandolin is another instrument that found its way into Our Island Home. It’s tuned in fifths (G, D, A, E, low to high, just like a violin) using unison pairs of strings—making it a great tool for writing violin parts. It’s bright sound works well for intricate lead lines, but it’s also a great rhythm instrument thanks to its percussive attack. Most players choose a small pick using an alternating picking motion for single-note phrases and a snapping downbeat motion for rhythmic chords. Mandolins don’t have much natural sustain, so players hold long notes using a tremolo technique.
For fiddle, the most authentic sound may not come from a traditionally trained player. You (or your session player) should avoid smooth classical bowing techniques in favor of rougher attack of the folk fiddler. Slides, drones, and double stops are also really effective. You might also want to minimize vibrato, saving it up to add drama to the longer notes.
Breaking the Mold If you plan to use acoustic instruments (or their electric counterparts, for that matter), it also pays to experiment some non-standard techniques—in other words, to break all the established rules. I’ve played the guitar with pencil erasers, used banjo to play a blues, created beds by scratching a violin bow between the bridge and tailpiece, used a cello to fake upright bass (and a bowed bass to play cello parts)—and they’ve all worked.
Alternate tunings can be especially effective. On guitar, open tunings evoke folk styles and can be used for both slide and standard playing. Modal tunings like DADGAD evoke more exotic sounds. Tuning a step or two below concert or using a capo way up the neck can change the character and tonality of the instrument in a range of interesting ways. And did you know that banjo players will tune the B string down to B-flat for minor chords?
Finally, it’s always fun to get your hands on the less-common members of an instrumental family. Viola play many of the same parts as violin yet can sometimes lend a richer timbre; 12-string and baritone guitar can be nice alternatives to the standard six-string. Grab a string and a broomstick to make a washtub bass. (You can fix the pitches with your DAW!) Tenor banjo offers a good contrast to the 5-string banjo—something used to great effect in “Dueling Banjos,” which appeared in the soundtrack for Deliverance.
Play it Up How good do you have to be to play these acoustic parts yourself? That depends on context. I reserve featured parts for the instrument I play best: guitar. I’ll play banjo, harmonica, and mandolin in an ensemble setting, but only after I bone up on the correct techniques (and consult with friends who can tell the difference). Simple piano or accordion parts are no problem, but more complex ones get farmed out to session players. I played the viola and violin as a kid and can still find my way around. I’ve used them to help write better idiomatic parts for session players, but I’ve also recorded them with the help of Melodyne, which can at least help with pitch accuracy. (Which leads me to an aside: Grab that instrument you played in school and practice it a little. You may never get really good again, but you’d be surprised at how useful it can be.)
A pitch-to-MIDI program like Melodyne can also be a lifesaver if you don’t have access to a lot of acoustic instruments. Try improvising a violin part using an instrument like guitar—just try to be conscious of the violin’s natural range and tuning. Record (or import) it into Melodyne and export the results as a MIDI file. Use the MIDI file to trigger a sampler. It may take some editing, but you’d be surprised at how well that works.
Recording quality is just as critical in film scoring as it is in any kind of session. There’s no one correct approach here; it’s up to you and—even more important—the director, producer, or music editor who’ll have to incorporate your music into the film’s overall soundtrack.
When you’re asking a solo instrument to support a stretch of onscreen action, the more faithfully you can capture all the subtle characteristics of that instrument, the better.
Sending a pickup through a DI and directly to disk works—you can hear that all over TV music—but if you want to draw upon the instrument’s full emotional power, good microphones are more effective. Consistency is important, especially if you’re recording a series of similar cues for a film score. Any one instrument’s tone shouldn’t change radically from cue to cue unless it’s in a completely different mix. So take note of mic positions and preamp settings and be disciplined about returning to them for every session.
On an instrument with a broad frequency spectrum like the guitar, it pays to capture the lows and low midrange of the body, especially when you’re recording a sparse part. When it comes to melody, finger-style parts seem to blend better than flat-picked parts. While others may prefer small-diaphragm condensers and/or ribbon mics, I find large-diaphragm condensers very effective, especially on solo melody parts. Try a brighter mic like the AKG 414 (cardioid) pointed toward the neck and use a warmer mic like the Audio-Technica AT4047 to capture the body.
Strummed chords can benefit from a brighter sound. You can change the tone without moving mics by simply switching to a lighter pick. You might also mix in some DI sound from the pickup. (But if you do, record it on its own track and only add as needed.)
Unfortunately, even if you’ve got a lot of experience with guitar, it may take some experimenting to get good sounds on other acoustic strings. Banjo can be especially hard because it can sound harsh, especially when close-miked. Some people use condensers, but you might instead start with a dynamic like the Shure SM57, 12 inches or more from the instrument, pointing between the player’s right hand and the neck.
On mandolin, small-diaphragm condensers capture the attack nicely, but you can also get pretty good results with a large-diaphragm condenser, positioned about a foot away, or a combination of mic and pickup. Ukulele can be recorded in pretty much the same way, though you might move the mics a little closer to capture the instrument’s intimate character.
Fiddle can sound really scratchy and nasal when it’s miked too closely, but that might be just what you want for a folksier sound. For more bow attack and a bright tone, try a condenser 8–12 inches away, above and pointing at the bridge. For a warmer, richer sound, move the mic two or more feet from the instrument.
Assuming you’re not going for an electric Chicago blues sound, harmonica should be recorded with the mic on a stand, and the player standing at least a few inches away. Don’t eat the mic: You might get a little more breath than you want (though this is easily edited with a DAW).
Finally, there’s no reason you can’t use your acoustic instruments with digital tools. Years ago, I read something in Jeff Rona’s “Reel World” Keyboard magazine column that has really come in handy a few times. When working with samples, Rona recommended layering one track of a real instrument to give the part more life. I’ve tried this with bowed strings a few times to great effect; just one track of real violin on top of a bed of string samples makes the whole thing seem more realistic.
The Heart of the Matter Overall, scoring with acoustic instruments adds one very important factor—the emotion of performance. Cooder explained it well in a 1986 Los Angeles Times interview about his Paris, Texas score. “You have to find the ‘sound’ that fits the film and you’ve got to agree on that sound,” he told Robert Hilburn. “I can only do the film if his musical vision fits mine. If a director called and said, ‘I expect to hear 100 accordions here,’ I’d say, ‘Skip it, I can’t do it.’”
This rings true whether you’re writing for picture or composing for a sound library. If you’re doing what you think will be “stock” Americana—competent blues, country, folk, or whatever—it’s probably going to fall flat. The music has to connect to you, and you have to believe that it connects to the action onscreen. When it does, the audience will feel it.
To take full advantage of your acoustic soundtrack, it’s important that the players produce great tone, and that you deliver a mix the client can really use.
1) If you’re recording session players, start by asking them how they’ve recorded in the past. This is especially important if you’ve never (or rarely) recorded the instrument in question, but even if you have recorded a particular kind of instrument many times, it’s a good idea to at least try it the player’s way. Remember, with acoustic instruments, the sound is a combination of the instrument itself and the player’s technique. Two people might sound completely different on the same model of guitar or fiddle.
2) Control dynamics—but don’t overdo it. Almost everything we hear these days seems to be compressed flatter than week-old beer. Big dynamic peaks don’t work well in soundtracks—they always seem to cut through at the wrong time—but a pumping compressor may be worse. So unless you’re instructed otherwise, go light on the limiting, knowing that the music editor will probably apply more dynamic control in post.
3) Print with and without effects. That “cathedral of doom” effect may actually sound really good on your guitar, but too much echo can tie the filmmakers’ hands. Remember, the film scene itself may have some ambience. So avoid using time-based effects on track inserts and apply them using sends and returns. Print a version with the mix you like, but then use your DAW’s buses to print stems—separate audio files with the dry mix and for each effects return. As long as these files have the same start time and length, the music editor will be able to load them and create his or her own blend.
4) Offer to print individual tracks. Speaking of stems: If you’re mixing multiple instruments, ask if the filmmakers want separate audio files for each one—in addition to the entire mix. This way, they can adjust the balance as needed without making you go back and remix.
5) And incidentally . . . Because a film’s theme music and underscore are part of a larger artistic statement, they don’t necessarily have to reflect the same era and setting of the film’s story. That’s not the case with incidental music, which is designed to sound like music the characters onscreen are either hearing or playing.
Incidental music is really about believability. The instrumentation and sound should reflect the scene as accurately as possible. So if a character is listening to country radio in the 1940s, the guitar shouldn’t be recorded direct. (Acoustic pickups were decades away.) You should never hear an electric bass. (It was invented in the 1950s.) And the mix should be mono! But period accuracy should be within reason—in other words, I don’t think you’re going to get away with using 30 seconds of incidental music as an excuse to go buy some tube mics and an old reel-to-reel machine. But, nice try!
Spotify users can check out a playlist I’ve created called “Scoring Americana” at tinyurl.com/scoring-americana to hear some examples from wellknown film scores. Links to other music examples will be listed in the text, as well.
Emile Menasché recently scored the documentary Incident in New Baghdad, which was nominated for a 2012 Academy Award.