The Music Behind Vaaka Media Podcasts — Part 1.
Erwick D’Souza is an independent music composer, producer and content creator based in Bangalore. He likes to create sound all the time, be it verbal or musical. You can find more of his work on YouTube and Instagram.
I need some sunlight
When I was a kid, growing up in Doha, Qatar, listening to film scores from the likes of John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Steve Jablonsky, Hans Zimmer, Ramin Djawadi, and Michael Giacchino was what got me going through the massive drag that was high school. I remember plugging my cheap stock earphones into my Nokia 5800 Xpressmusic and wondering what kind of high I would experience if I had the opportunity to write music like that.
Twelve years, eight piano grades, one engineering degree and two music diplomas later, I now know that writing said music can sometimes be a drag.
Don’t get me wrong, writing music has always been awesome, but doing it because you’re compelled to sometimes feels a bit much. Maybe it was meant to be a hobby. Maybe not, But I can honestly say that once done, once the music comes together with the story, the high is most definitely present and I can remind myself that it was all worth it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I have always struggled to write strong melodies or hooks (catchy repeating melodies), but when given such material, I can create strong supporting arrangements. When writing music as supporting media, one could say that the story (whether visual or aural) is analogous to melody.
When I was a child my older brother (who was musically trained from an incredibly young age) would point out the different instruments in a song and identify them to me. This skill gave me the ability to dissect songs in my head, understand what every single instrument did in a song and how they all came together. Consequently, I still NEVER listen to the lyrics in a song unless they jump out at me. One could also say that this is why I struggle to write ‘songs’ but I have zero issues writing ‘scores’. Similarly, when ideas come to me, they come as scores, not as melodies.
Scoring for Podcasts
Even when scoring podcasts, however, it still is a learning experience. The music has to deliver more of a mood than an emotion, unlike film scores which may try to coax emotions out of you (Try watching Star Wars without the music and you’ll understand what I mean). Good examples that come to mind are Dolly Parton’s America by WNYC and Sound Matters by Bang & Olufsen. As a person who strongly emotes with music, I find scoring podcasts to be quite hard. Subtlety is everything. Samyuktha, one of our resident podcasters, is very particular about it and the two of us have discussed music at length. While there is definitely an overlap, every podcast episode will have at least one unique piece of music.
Each different podcast has a different workflow with respect to how they are scored. Sometimes different layers from the theme music are used separately, analogous to using the same Lego blocks to build different things.
At other times, entirely new motifs are ironed out. However, the instruments used are always limited to what is used in the theme music or sounds that fit into its general vicinity, in order to preserve coherence and to maintain the sonic signature of that podcast.
Tools of the Trade
I primarily use FL Studio 20 by Image-Line to compose and arrange my music. It is fast, smooth and extremely efficient, often requiring little more than a decent computer, a mouse and a keyboard to punch in notes, play with different music arrangements or blend the different sounds together. I mostly use Native Instruments virtual instruments like Kontakt and Reaktor for 90% of the sounds that go into my music. These sounds can be anything from pianos and strings to lush reverberating synths. I sometimes incorporate physical analog synthesizers like the Behringer Model D (A spectacular clone of the legendary Minimoog) for its timeless sound, a Yamaha Reface CP for its warm analog-sounding Electric Pianos and a smattering of Eurorack Modules (built by Analog Fever here in India) for vibrant, rich and/or organic synth soundscapes. Sometimes even mechanical sounds require a human touch.
The Theme Music and all the scores of the Ex Machina Podcast. The Theme music is where most of the clips are located, on the left. The rest are all the other scores used in the show.
Wrapping it up
Once all the tracks have been composed, they’re each exported as multiple stems from FL Studio and reassembled in our primary editing software, Adobe Audition, like the Lego Blocks they seem to be like.
A typical session in Adobe Audition: The VOs are at the top, the interviewees populate the middle while the bottom contains the music and other sounds. Yes, not all tracks have been labelled. Yes, I get lazy sometimes.
This allows me to balance the mixes out in the final project itself and fade individual elements in and out on the actual podcast project itself. Sure it’s more tedious, slow and a bit of a chore to do than exporting all the tracks as mixdowns, but this allows me to fine tune each composition and rearrange them with elements and sounds of previous compositions, creating new compositions altogether while still preserving that cohesive sound. I spend more time in one part of the workflow to save time in another. I believe this saves me more time overall.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post, about mixing and corrective editing of the music for all Vaaka Media’s podcasts.