Wednesday, July 1, 2015

From the Mind to the Page: A Composers Tips for Optimizing Your Creative Process: Part 1

By Lukas Stanley 

The creative process is a tricky beast to tame. A lot of the time, it seems as if creativity is intangible and difficult to even conceptualize. Bursts of inspiration strike at random and sometimes inconvenient times. Here is a question I have asked myself many times: why are there days when I can sit down and write quality music and the next day not a single good idea comes to mind? While there isn’t a single, ubiquitous answer, I can offer you some advice from my own experiences on how I have made the creative process less elusive and something I can use as a tool to optimize my compositional output. 

I am writing this to be geared towards music composition, but many of the concepts can be applied to any sort of creative endeavor.

1.     Know What Works for You

It might sound like I’m leading off with a cop out, but knowing how to play to your own personal strengths and weaknesses is the number one piece of advice I could give any composer. For starters, people have different peaks of creativity throughout the day. I usually experience the best creative concentrations in the early afternoon and between midnight and 2:00am. If you are a morning person, maybe you like to sit down with a cup of coffee at 6:00am and start putting notes on the page. Every person is slightly different in this regard, so try different things and figure out what works for you.

Try writing music in different ways. If you have never written notation by hand with a pencil and paper, try that for a change. If you have never used a digital audio workstation, try using one. There are a lot of tools out there to use, and knowing which ones you are most compatible with is the first and easiest step to success.

2.     Create a Schedule

Knowing what kind of time structure gels best with your creativity is sure to give a boost to your productivity. I have encountered two main camps of composers with this regard: some compose in short (less than one hour) sessions throughout the day while others compose in large (1.5+ hours), pre-determined blocks of time. Experiment with these as you are able to and figure out what works for you. Here are some advantages and disadvantages I have found in each:

  • Pros of working in short time blocks: Smaller goals are more easily attained. If you have 20 minutes to write music, you could make your goal to write two or three measures. Then when you achieve that small goal, the feeling of accomplishment and motivation carries you into the next session.

  • Cons of working in small time blocks: It might be difficult to quickly shift in and out of a composing mindset throughout the day. If shifting gears quickly is not your thing, this option might not be for you.

  • Pros of working in long time blocks: Getting a lot done all at once. With this method you can sit down and write a substantial amount of work, all within the same train of thought. Ideas have room to breathe and be experimented with. If use this method, make sure to set goals for each session that are realistic. It can be more difficult to anticipate what you are actually capable of accomplishing over a longer period of time.

  • Cons of working in long time blocks: Burning out and losing focus. If it is difficult for you to focus on a detailed project for a long period of time without losing focus or becoming frustrated, working in long time blocks might not be for you.

I like to plan out my week hour by hour to make sure everything important gets accomplished. I try to work the rest of my schedule around the composing times that I know work best for my creativity. Usually my blocks for composing are 2-3 hours and I have at least one per day. Some weeks I will get lucky and have a totally empty Saturday that I can fill with an eight hour composition binge (often followed by an eight hour Netflix binge).

There isn’t a right or wrong when it comes to scheduling your composition time as long as it is productive, consistent, and works for you. In fact, sometimes I use a mix of the two methods depending on what my schedule looks like on a particular day. Having a regular routine is the important part – you can’t just wait for inspiration to strike. If you have found that what you are currently doing isn’t working very well, change it up and try the other way.

3.     Structure Your Composing Time

Whether you are entering MIDI sequences into the DAW of your choice, notating music into an engraving program like Finale or Sibelius, or even handwriting sheet music, structuring your composition time with goals is another way to optimize your creativity for maximum production. The famous Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite models of this. Every day he followed this schedule:

7:00 Wake up, read/study, drink tea
9:00 Go for a walk to gather inspiration / take notes of compositional ideas
9:30 Compose sketches at the piano
1:00 Lunch
After lunch Go for another walk
4:00 Afternoon tea, read the paper, meet visitors
5:00 Compose and orchestrate the sketches from the morning
7:00 Walk, play piano, supper, write letters, play cards
11:00 Bedtime

Take note of how he used his two blocks of composing time during the day: in the morning session he would write sketches at the piano; in his evening session he would orchestrate these sketches. It’s a very simple structure and while I’m sure that he probably had more specific daily goals, incorporating a broad system of goals like this into your routine will give you a place to start. He didn’t just sit down with a blank sheet of paper in front of him and wait for the ideas to emerge. If you don’t already, I would highly recommend writing out a detailed schedule like this. Set goals in your schedule. For example, write “on Monday from 10:00-12:00 I will write 20 measures of music for [name] project.”

4.     Secure the Fundamentals

Now that we have talked about when you will be composing, let’s dig into the how. Creativity in itself is nothing without some basic tools for effective execution. Even when you are inspired and you feel on the precipice of a masterpiece, you must first decide on some fundamentals of the music.

Instrumentation: This will depend on what the nature of the project is. If you are writing a sentimental film cue, maybe you just want some delicate solo piano playing. If you are writing a chiptune for a video game, knowing what synthesized sounds you will be working with should be one of the first things you do to get the project rolling. Immersing yourself with other music in the genre you are writing will give you a good sense of what an appropriate instrumentation is. It might be that you are working on music for a film or video game project, in which case some parameters might be predetermined by a director, but if you have free reign over this aspect of the music, make deliberate and informed choices. Instrumentation might also be determined by what resources you have access to. If you have limited resources, don’t be afraid to get creative. An entire film score could be written with a piano or a string quartet on a budget and still be very effective.


Key center: There are 11 standardized major and minor keys, as well as seven modes for each of those key centers. So how do you know which key to use? Does the music modulate at any point and why? These are good questions to answer before starting a project. Knowing what you want your harmonic language to feel like is a good way to start getting that great idea from your head into real music that other people can enjoy. Here’s what not to do: pick your favorite key and write the music in that key. Every key has slightly different colors and connotations. Familiarize yourself with what keys other pieces of the same style are written in, because people hearing your music will create associations with existing music. For example, if you are writing a cue for a game that takes place in the medieval era, you might write in a Dorian mode. If you are writing something uplifting and positive you will probably want to write in a major key (Ionian). If you are already a very experienced composer, or you are just a theory buff, you might also take into consideration when using atonality, bitonality, micro-tonality, non-pitched materials, and other 20th century ideas about harmony and extended techniques are appropriate. These concepts can create very distinct and effective sounds for the stage and for multimedia collaborations. Here are a few considerations for picking which key center to use:

o   Instrumentation: If you are working with live instruments, pick a key that works with your melodic and harmonic content to create the most idiomatic music for these instruments.

o   Difficulty of the key for performance: Accomplished musicians will be able to perform in any key, but there are tonalities that resonate better with certain instruments. For example, the keys of C, G, D, and A are really good for string instruments because of the strong sympathetic vibrations that the instruments produce on their open strings.

o   Range of the music: If the music goes too high or too low in a certain key, consider moving it chromatically to accommodate the range. While you might not discover this is the case until you start sketching melodic and harmonic ideas, it is good to keep in mind early on. This is especially pertinent when writing music for acoustic instruments. Typically, you will want to maximize an instruments full range potential. This means structuring the piece in a way that both the lowest range and highest range are taken advantage of. Using a key center that effectively accommodates your use of the instrument’s range is a staple of idiomatic instrumental writing.

o   Historic connotations: If you are writing a piece that is supposed to sound inspired by a particular piece or composer, consider using the same key center that they used in a related work. For example, if you are writing a piece that is supposed to mimic the drama of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, consider writing your piece in C minor.

Style (or genre): Putting yourself in the shoes of your listeners and figuring out what style of music creates the right mood to achieve your artistic goals is a key item to not just identify, but to fully conceptualize before you begin to write. The style is created by carefully combining instrumentation, orchestration, harmonic language, texture, timbre, articulation, and dynamics. Each of these elements is vastly complex, and the ways in which they can be combined are infinite.

Now that we have a solid foundation for setting a schedule and securing the basics of your composition, there is music to be made! In part two of this article, I will further discuss how to optimize your creative process. The topics covered will include strategies for an effective pre-compositional process, and how to overcome writer’s block as a composer.

Until next time, happy composing!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Royalty-Free music tracks like the "Kung Fury" soundtrack

I don't know about you, but here at we got pretty excited about the "Kung Fury" independent film release at YouTube:

I guess we were just the "right generation" to enjoy this over-the-top, cheesy and cool, 1980's action films parody. If you grew up watching Bruce Lee, David Hasselhoff as The Knight Rider, Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley in "48 Hours", Miami Vice, Street Hawk and more, you're bound to love the hilarious story, effects, acting and - not least - the wonderful 1980's music composed for "Kung Fury" by Mitch Murder.

We predict a demand for this type of 1980's music for use in commercials, indie films, TV, video games and more, so we had one of our best producers, Felipe Vassao, get to work, blow the dust off his old synths (Prophet 5 etc) and he came up with some awesome "Kung Fury"-like music tracks that are now available for immediate licensing as stock music / production music! Here are some of them:

These great tracks can be licensed individually, or as a 10-track downloadable CD-collection with all of them together for a heavily discounted price; with the title: The 1980's, Vol. 2.
Royalty-Free Music collection "The 1980's, Vol. 2" featuring
music like "Kung Fu" soundtrack.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Production music tracks that sound like the Harlem Shake

The internet was recently hit by a craze known as the Harlem Shake - we all know it. A somewhat cheesy rap / hip-hop / electro beat with retro Roland 808 drum machine sound, building up to a massive "drop", with a suitably crazed dance group.

The actual track "Harlem Shake" is obviously under copyright, but there are royalty-free, library music options here at Shockwave-Sound. Thanks to some particularly clever music producers, we have some tracks that will do the job nicely as a replacement track for the famous Harlem Shake track.

The actual music style is referred to as TRAP, or Hot Trap. Here are some TRAP tracks you may want to check out:

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Come with us and explore the Music of France!

We've had so much fun over the past several months, composing, recording and producing not one, but two full albums of French and France / Paris inspired music. With "The Music of France, Vol. 1" featuring 13 original music tracks and "The Music of France, Vol. 2" featuring no less than 22 tracks of various French folk / traditional French music as well as some original compositions in a very cheeky French style, these music collections can only be described as "goldmines" for anybody working on a media project that needs that "sound of France".

For "The Music of France, Vol. 1" we got in touch with Aleksander Grochocki and Patryk Walczak, or just Pat & Olo, who went to work and between them composed and delivered 13 delightful French tracks, ranging from the classical "musette" style, to passionate waltzes and foot-tapping Hot Club of France style gypsy jazz tracks. All original compositions, all recorded live in studio with Pat on accordeon, and with Aleksander on guitars, bass, percussion and "various". It's safe to say that we are très satisfaits with the results. Just take a listen to that album and you'll be whisked off to Paris in a heartbeat.

For "The Music of France, Vol. 2" there was no better guy to go to, than Jerome Lamasset. Already a collaborator and contributor here at Shockwave-Sound since all the way back in 2000, Jerome is an experienced composer, arranger and eager student of French music. He took a slightly different approach to the project, opting instead to go for more traditional, well known French melodies. Perhaps more than most countries, France has a wonderful culture of traditional music, French nursery rhymes and folk songs for which the original composer is unknown. These famous pieces of French musical culture have been passed down from generation to generation, including such timeless tunes as Alouette, Le Temps de Cerises and many others. Jerome rearranged and re-recorded these tracks in creative ways and created sometimes cheeky, humorous or just lighthearted versions.

Jerome also composed additional tracks himself, his own original compositions with a very quintessentially French sound. Again, these are quite tongue-in-cheek. The track Allongèe Pres de Toi was actually composed as a replacement for the very famous French track Frou Frou, which is under copyright and cannot be used as stock music. So Jerome went with his own composition instead, which we happen to think is much better.

All in all, on these two albums, we have published 35 tracks of French music tracks this week, and we can't help but be proud of these releases. Here are just some ideas for projects in which this music will work wonders:

  • Travel videos and travel shows with France / Paris destinations.
  • Historical and cultural TV programs, websites or YouTube films.
  • Apps and games that seek either a French, or a cheeky / humorous sound.
  • Comedies and candid camera type productions.
  • Retro 1960's and 1970's productions, perhaps with a "French cinema" approach.
  • Fairground / Fun Fair, and Circus productions.
And more!

Remember -- as with all our CD-collections / albums, all tracks are also available individually. You don't need to license the whole album if you only need one track. If you just want one track, simply search for the track title in the "Quick search" box on our site, and the track will come up in search results.

Enjoy... Et bonne journée!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Independent review of Logitech H800 headphones

I bought this Logitech H800 headset / headphones primarily for use in Skype conversations, but they have actually become my favorite all-round headphones, whether I work, walk, chill out, Skype, or talk on the phone.


I was pretty happy with the headphones I already had (A pair of Bose QuietComfort 15 and a pair of Koss PortaPro's), but I needed something with a microphone, for the purpose of taking support telephone calls via phone and Skype. My first purchase was actually the very cheapest headset with a mic that they had in the store. I wasn't planning to use it for anything other than to speak with people, so I didn't care about sound quality.

However, my experience with the really cheap headset was a bad one, as the connectors didn't fit in my laptop, and also, it was not possible to connect it to my cellphone, so I couldn't really use it. I decided to go back to the store and this time, I opted for the more expensive option, the Logitech H800. Boy, am I happy that I did. These have turned out to be really great, not only for Skype / telephone conversations, but actually as a general, all-round set of headphones that sound great, are super comfortable, and fill all my requirements for connectivity, with both Bluetooth and USB.

Build / Comfort / Fit

The first thing you'll notice about these headphones is how comfortable they are to wear. They feel super soft, with large pads that fit over your entire ear, and with a pressure towards the head and ears that feels soft and comfortable, but is just strong enough to keep the headphones in place during a moderate amount of movement. The grip is strong enough to keep the headphones in place during a brisk walk, but not strong enough for running. If you run with these, they'll come out of position and fall off. That is something I'm willing to accept, as what you get in return is that they feel so soft and comfortable on your ears.

The actual microphone arm can be folded in so it lies hidden behind the frame of the headphone. If you just want to use them as a pair of headphones for listening to the music, you simply push the microphone arm up, it stays behind the frame, and what you have is a pair of normal headphones, seemingly without any microphone part sticking out. I like this feature a lot, because who needs a microphone sticking out in front of your mouth, when you're just taking your headphones for a walk, or you're just listening to music on your couch.

For taking calls or Skype conversations,
the microphone arm is in position

When just listening to music, the microphone arm
is simply pushed up so it hides inside the "frame".

Another great feature is the H800's ability to fold together for easy packing. You can fold them as shown in the image below, and in this position they are small enough to fit in your coat pocket, or in the small side compartment of, say, a rucksack.

The H800 folds together like this, so they fit in your
coat pocket or other small space.

Sound quality

When I bought these, I wasn't really thinking much about sound quality, as my intended use was speech / conversation. However, I was very surprised to hear the warm, full, natural and rich sound when I tried them with music. I have had many good headphones in the past, from Bose, Sennheiser, AMG, Koss, Sony and many others, so I have some experience with the sound quality I can expect from headphones of various price levels, and I have to say that these sound wonderful for the price. I can listen to music in these all day, and I listen to plenty of progressive rock, jazz, ambient and electronica. To me, the sound is rich, yet natural. Powerful, yet neutral. Great!

Connectivity / features

This is my favorite aspect of this product. The H800 is equipped both with a small USB dongle that fits in the USB port of your computer, so you can use them wireless with Windows / Mac, and also with standard Bluetooth connection, so you can use them wireless with your cellphone or any other Bluetooth enabled device. 

The tiny USB dongle is of a similar type as those you can find with a wireless mouse or keyboard. It is "thumbnail size" and will sit on the side of your laptop, or in the front or back of your desktop computer, and you won't even notice it (apart from the fact that it takes up one of your USB ports, of course). This USB "dongle" transmits the audio to the headphones. I have to mention this other little touch of genius too. One of the ear pads has a little lid that can be twisted off, and inside is a tiny slot where the USB dongle fits snugly - so that you can keep the dongle inside the headphones when it's not in use - a really clever solution that makes it easy to keep the dongle together with the actual headset, to make sure they are not separated. A great idea - and well carried out.

There is a slot for storing the micro USB dongle
inside the left headphone. Smart!

You can also switch the headphones over to Bluetooth mode and pair them with any Bluetooth advice, such as your cellphone. When in standard Bluetooth mode, the USB dongle is not required, and can be kept in its little place inside the headphone itself.

I use my cellphone as a music player when I'm out and about, e.g. taking a walk or riding on the bus. The phone transmits the music to the headphones via Bluetooth and the sound is crystal clear. 

Controls / buttons

The right ear pad is fitted with various controls: 
  • Mode: Off / Bluetooth / USB dongle
  • Next/Previous Track selector.
  • Volume + / Volume -
  • Mute microphone
  • A combined Pick up / Hang up / Pause / Play button.
Once you get familiar with these over a few days of use, you learn to use them without looking, so you simply put your finger on the right button and press it, while the headphone is sitting on your head. Works perfectly for me.

This image shows all the controls described above.
The USB dongle, to the right on the picture.

Power / charging

The H800 is entirely wireless. It needs power to generate the sound that you hear, and for this it is  fitted with a rechargeable battery (not replaceable). It also has a Micro USB connection, identical to the one found on most modern cellphones. You can charge the headphones by connecting this with a USB charging cable (included) that you simply connect to any USB port on your PC and leave the headset charging for a few hours. When charged, the headphones will last all day and you can enjoy many hours of listening to music or speaking with somebody over phone/Skype.

The only time you connect a wire to the
H800 is when you charge them


In summary, I love these headphones and I actually ended up using them much more than I had intended to when I purchased them. I use them for:

  • Skype conversations
  • Answering Support telephone calls in connection with my job
  • Listening to music while taking walks in the nature
  • Listening to music while doing moderate workout / exercise at home. (Light weight lifting, general light gymnastics).
  • Watching movies on my PC.
  • I even use them now as my "main" headphones when editing audio, mixing audio files and so on, using audio editing tools such as Vegas Pro, Soundforge, Sonar and others.
The only thing I don't use them for is running. The fit is too "soft" and with the type of vigorous  body movement that comes with running, they will come off. For running I use a pair of Koss Portapro.

Bottom line, I love the Logitech H800 and I don't hesitate at all to recommend them to anybody needing a headset with a huge range of uses, with great sound quality, great connectivity and are super comfortable to wear.