The fine art of working alone: tips from composer Chris O'Neill and producer Anna Laverty

Wednesday, 29 Apr 2020

Has isolation given you the chance to work in the quiet solitude you’ve been yearning for? Perhaps, it’s delivered the scenario you have always dreaded, right to your doorstep.

For others, working alone is old hat. We’re looking at you, screen composers, music producers and studio wizzes, too.

Screen and games composer Chris O’Neill (Metal Gear Solid V: Vocal Tracks, BBC's Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel) and producer/sound engineer Anna Laverty (Something For Kate, Amanda Palmer, Tina Arena) often toil away on their own, so we asked them for their tips on how music creators can get set up with the basics and for insight on how approach these out-of-the-ordinary days in a practical way.

TIP: Set up a separate workspace (which is not your bedroom)

“The notion of self-isolation describes my career of the last 10 years,” says Chris, a Melbourne-based screen composer who does work in film, TV, games, virtual reality and advertising. Up until a few years ago, Chris was working from home but now he has a small studio space he goes to Monday-Friday, keeping regular business hours.

“If you’re going to be working from home, it’s good if you can do so in a room that can be a dedicated work room that is not your bedroom,” he says.

Ideally, you’re able to walk into a room do the work, walk out and close the door afterwards.

“Obviously, not everyone can do that at the moment, but having a dedicated space is really conducive to a break between work and life.”

TIP: Plot out your day and stick to it (and eat lunch)

Start easy. “Start with something really small and low brain power and pick up from there, so you’re getting past that point of inertia.”

Chris breaks his day into segments:

  • Admin
  • Creative time
  • Lunch. Map your day around lunch.

“I try to get a bunch of things ticked off – boring admin or exciting creative stuff, so that when I walk away from my setup, I can have a little moment and I can be refreshed. I come back and my ears aren’t fatigued, and I can check over the things I've done.”

  • Resume creative - chop and change, finish
  • Get out and walk around

Chris breaks the day into components and then writes a list of the small and big things that comprise each component.

“If you have too many different things, too many phone calls and then in the meantime you’re trying to do something that requires creative output, you’re switching your brainpower out of different things over and over again,” which can really take away from the creative activity.

TIP: Set your tempo (and eat lunch)

 “The hardest thing I find is getting started when there are so many distractions,” says Anna.

Her approach:

  • Just turn off the TV, shut down your internet and phone and tell yourself you aren’t allowed to do anything but spend the day or night working on music.
  • Set the goal of coming up with at least the bare bones of a song.
  • Choose a tempo of what kind of mood you’re in - faster than 120BPM for more energetic/happy and slower than 120BPM if you’re feeling slightly mellow or down.
  • Hit record and start layering!
  • Reward yourself with a nice lunch at lunch time and a treat (I have a wine) at knock off time.
  • Try not to keep taking little breaks otherwise you’ll never go into that deep creative state.

TIP: The basic recording set-up

Anna:

“Basically all you need to get started is a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) on your computer, an interface to convert the microphone signal to a digital signal, a microphone (ANYTHING with an XLR output will do) and something to listen on - headphones is probably better if you’re going to be recording yourself."

Anna’s own set-up:

  • Protools on my Macbook Pro
  • Universal Audio Twin interface
  • Neumann TLM 103 (Condenser microphone)
  • Shure SM57 (Dynamic microphone)
  • A pair of Beyer Dynamic DT770 headphones.
  • Speakers - a pair of Genelec 1081As, because I am currently mixing from home. 

Chris:

“When I have had to work remotely, my basics are a laptop/computer. You can look into anything like Ableton, Logic, Cubase, and Pro Tools is good to know but not great for creation, more for audio recording.”

Suggested basics:

  • Midi Keyboard – doesn’t matter what size. A 25 key will do.
  • Interface – if you’re doing more than midi stuff, and want to record voice or acoustic guitar. Two-channel interface you can buy for about $100-120.
  • Microphone - standard SM-58 for experimenting. For a nicer one you’ll need a condenser microphone and that’s where you’re more likely to spend the most money.
  • Cables for the mic and a mic stand
  • Headphones
  • For proper listening back, you’ll want studio monitors, but headphones are a good starting point.
  • Acoustic padding – if you want to do DIY recording, get acoustic paneling. You can get materials from Bunnings or suppliers of fiberglass batts. Blankets are hugely helpful to deadening a room.

TIP: Stay connected (but not too connected)

Chris' tips:

  • Stay connected, try not go too deep into your bubble
  • Avoid Facebook during the day
  • Put the phone facedown, it will keep pulling you out of the creative flow

“If you’ve been fixating on something for a really long time, everyone else has finished work for the day, and you’re finding your progress slowing down enough to it becoming a slog, you’re no longer working in a way that’s conducive to efficient, productive outcomes - you’re not putting your best creative ideas out there at this time.”

This is when a phone call is good. Ask for feedback or someone’s professional opinion.

“It’s a huge thing to reach out to someone else. Reach out when you’re stuck musically. Make it less about a really isolating experience, and more about ‘I really need your help on this’ – and you’ll get into conversations about other projects and work.”

Anna uses a self-imposed deadline.

During this pandemic I have made myself tell some friends/collaborators that I was sending something over the next day before I had even started the song, so I knew I had that pressure to get something down.

“I don’t ever let people down or miss a deadline, so by the next morning I always have something to send.”

Creative thought starters?

Anna: “If I’m really struggling to come up with a vibe to start with I will imagine I’m someone else - someone in a movie, painting, story and write about how I think they would be feeling, usually leads me down a path and I find some common ground with myself.”

TIP: How to upskill (if you feel so compelled)

Have you been wanting to try making music for the screen or games?

As someone who has made a move from being a singer-songwriter, Chris suggests it’s a smoother transition to move to screen composing than games if you’re looking to learn remotely or teach yourself for the most part.

While films move in a linear fashion, games don’t.

“Get started on your own with screen music by taking a trailer or some footage and then replace the whole thing. It’s a good way to see how the process works and using your critical listening.”

To get into games and the fundamental understanding of scoring for them, there’s lots of online training like Udemy or different game engines like Unity and Unreal. Unity and Unreal come with different templates that can be used for ready-made games – you can tinker with them and replace the sound and music.

“If you want to skill up into either of these areas the capacity to do is mostly for free with online training resources and then it’s about putting it into practice,” says Chris, who also recommends the Masterclass courses.

If you want to start recording and producing, Anna comes back to the DAW.

“There’s lots of different styles of production and certain DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) are better than others at different things but I find if you stick to one DAW and learn it inside out you will be able to get where you want to go eventually.

“Mic technique, mixing, technical stuff is learnt gradually, by doing it over and over again and encountering different scenarios...so don’t worry too much about getting it perfect every time. Rule #1: if it sounds good it sounds good!”

Anna's suggested resources:

How to do cool music stuff YouTube channel

Help running your small business [VMDO] 

How to stay safe [Headspace] 

Go easy on yourself (or keep going if you’re in the zone)

As a screen composer, often working to a brief and a deadline, Chris says, “My approach to this is from a ‘marathon’ approach.  It’s about pacing yourself to meet whatever expectations you have, and if working to a brief, whatever the client has as well.  

"Most of my day is condensed into short sprints for a 40 hour weekly marathon, which depending on the project, might end up being a small component of a 6 month ultramarathon, if you will.”

If you find yourself working on a song and you’re 12 hours in and loving it, that doesn’t mean you have to stop, just remember that switching off has its merits.

“…also, creativity is a bit of a weird beast,” says Chris.


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