Composer Dick Walter on his role behind the nation's TV classics...
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Television commercials and programs can produce some of the nation’s most recognised soundtracks and themes and yet it’s often the case that little is known about the person behind the music. Dick Walter is one of the UK’s most talented arrangers and composers having been responsible for some of television’s most well known soundtracks with credits that include several classic advertising campaigns, most notably Yellow Pages ‘JR Hartley’ ad, Hovis and Wall’s Cornetto.
Dick uses products from brands distributed by Time+Space so, for the latest of our online features, we got in touch with him to find out how he works and why he chooses to use virtual instruments from ProjectSAM, Synthogy, Spectrasonics, to name a few.
Hi Dick, for those of our customers who are looking to compose for media productions, can you tell us how you got into writing for television?
When I started writing professionally there was much more of a sense of a coherent business. At the centre of it all were the recording studios, often working three sessions a day, full of musicians working flat-out for the record industry, TV programmes, movies and commercials. (It was the tail end of the recording boom.) And then there was the BBC, which was a huge user of live music, with in-house orchestras, bands and a lot of freelance activity. The result was that writers got to know each other – and of course each other’s work, because unlike now, everything could be heard, often on the studio floor, by everyone else. And each TV Company had a ‘Head of Music’, or something similar, which meant you didn’t have to send out five hundred CDs hoping to get one job. If you were any good, word got around. I started working for BBC TV after they used a piece of library music of mine and needed some episodes more closely scored, and I was introduced to Granada by [composer] Chris Gunning who needed some help on a series he was working on. And you start to build – hopefully fruitful - relationships with directors and producers.
You arranged the music for several classic TV shows including The Two Ronnies, Morecombe & Wise, Tommy Cooper and The Generation Game. How differently would you work on those arrangements today compared to back then?
Working methods have changed out of all recognition in the last few years – now we’re all members of the ‘home-alone’ club, doing the jobs of several people: composer, arranger, orchestrator, and often copyist. But with those shows you mention, the musical items were routined by the Musical Associate or rehearsal pianist, the arranger was then called in; he picked up a sketch, was briefed, went home, stayed up all night and then turned up at the studio a day or two later with a hand-written score and parts to match. When original music was needed the producer simply briefed you for a few minutes and you went away and wrote it. Now I think the Light Entertainment production offices tend to rely much more on pre-recorded tracks, which are then simply transcribed and reproduced, so the opportunity for any creativity at all seems remarkably small.
You’ve also produced the music for some of the UK’s most memorable and classic advertising campaigns including Hovis, which was voted the UK’s favourite TV advert of all time. One of your other most famous compositions was the music for the Yellow Pages TV campaign, in particular the first film ‘JR Hartley’, can you remember how you were briefed on that score and how you went about arranging the track?
A relatively new agency, (Abbott, Mead, Vickers), was pitching for the Yellow Pages account, and [writer] David Abbott had written and story-boarded the first script, (J R Hartley), of what they hoped would be a series, (if they got the account…) The music brief was simple enough – ‘Oh, I don’t know - I think something whimsical… By the end of the week?’ (The best briefs are always the simplest.) So I did a rather crude piano demo of the tune, played it to them – probably on a cassette - he liked it and we recorded a couple of versions: solo piano, and clarinet and piano. They presented to client and landed the account. The whole process was pretty swift and very civilised.
Your portfolio also includes over 20 albums for the KPM Recorded Music Library – are production music libraries a good starting point for people who want to gain experience?
Well – I’m not sure if it always goes in that order. My BBC TV drama work, as I said earlier, originated from the use of a library track, and I don’t think I would have got to do any of those albums in the first place if I hadn’t had at least some experience. There’s a huge amount of rubbish out there on some libraries, but the best companies have a very clear idea of what they’re doing. Library is as specialised – and competitive – as any other area. And if you understand the end users’ requirements it can often be one of the areas where creativity really still can count.
You use a number of virtual instruments including ProjectSAM’s Symphobia, Sample Logic’s Morphestra, Synthogy’s Ivory Pianos and Vienna Symphonic Library titles. Could you explain what it is about these products that appeals to you the most and which projects you have used them for?
Given that most of the time we all have to work on computers, whether for demos or final masters, you need top-end samples. The titles you list are, currently, about as good as it gets. I’ve had reservations about all the sample libraries, but they all have their strong points. You have to get used to writing for what you’ve got – just like you write for the musicians you’ve got, rather than an anonymous bunch of players. That’s a pretty powerful array of stuff and I use all of them on just about every project. Initially I liked using just the ‘fx’ in Symphobia – they’re unique and are the initial reason everyone buys it – but more recently I’ve started using the conventional, orchestral samples as well. Maybe just for sketching out ideas, but the more I’ve got into that library, and Kontakt 4, the more I find myself using it alongside VSL for final masters.
What other software and plug-ins do you use?
I use Digital Performer. I’ve got some of the EastWest stuff, the VSL Imperial Pianos, Ivory Uprights as well as Galaxy 2. And I like the Spectrasonics plug-ins.
I use a Mac with MOTU hardware and Dynaudio monitors, as well as some Bowers & Wilkins.
How have virtual instruments changed the way you work over the years, if at all?
It’s a double-edged sword; it’s great to be in total command of what’s happening, and to be able to realise a huge variety of sounds with a couple of clicks, but you can’t achieve the performance of a world-class player, no matter how long you spend tweaking things. And all this stuff has increased the workload – let alone overheads - for writers out of all recognition. The suits have no idea. No change there then.
How do you deal with writer’s/musician’s block, particularly if you’re working to a very tight deadline?
I remember years ago watching, in the company of a lot of distinguished UK composers and arrangers, a short film about Hollywood writers at work. One of my heroes could be seen, bent over the piano, head in hands, apparently feeling dried out. One of the assembled audience – I think it was Ron Hazlehurst – called out, “F7”. That about sums it up. Of course, you can go for a walk, have a drink, clear the loft, make lots of phone calls, but eventually you simply have to get on with it.
Looking back at your portfolio of projects so far, what do you think are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your time spent on scoring for tv?
Probably – I’m not sure I’ve fully learnt this - maybe never will - but you have to believe in what you do. Especially your first ideas. Write them down, record them, anything so you don’t forget them, because very often that initial spark is what turns into a great idea.
What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment I’m finishing a commission for a Modern Dance Company, which is always really stimulating as they are so open-minded. When I need a break from that I’m trying to finish the score for a Musical Theatre piece, both music and lyrics. As they say: shows aren’t written, they’re re-written, so if you ask me in a couple of years time that might well still feature in my reply. And on top of that I’m putting together some ideas for a second JazzCraft Ensemble album.
What’s been the proudest moment of your career to date?
There have been lots of moments which have been a real kick, but overall I think I’ve been hugely fortunate to have been able – and am continuing - to earn a living doing the thing I wanted to do since I was in my teens.
Find out more about Dick Walter´s work at dickwalter.com