Leading television composer Ty Unwin talks about hardware, software and staying ahead of the game

Leading television composer Ty Unwin talks about hardware, software and staying ahead of the game

UK based composer Ty Unwin has been behind the music for several high profile television shows over the last decade, including the recent ´A History of Ancient Britain´ on the BBC.

Ty´s IMDb page reads like a hall of fame for historical and science-based documentaries that have been broadcast in recent years.

We caught up with Ty to find out how he made it to the top and what enables him to stay there...

How did you get into making music for TV?

I´d been writing music since I was in my very early teens and knew that in an ideal world that was what I wanted to do career-wise.

When I was 17, I won a BBC song competition and through that met various producers, made some really good contacts and it was simply a case of being in the right place at the right time.

I went to University to study music, specialising in composition and ended up doing my first BBC commission whilst there (for one of the directors I´d met). It was kids TV and I was cheap, very cheap!

That was my first step on the ladder and I´ve never really done a proper job since. You just plug away always trying to get bigger and better commissions, and fortunately, I´ve been really lucky.

Do you play any ‘real’ instruments yourself?

Essentially I´m a pianist, I did all the grades. Stick anything with a keyboard in front of me and I´m at home!

I used to be able to play alto sax and guitar but haven´t picked up either for years. Although I´m not a drummer I´ve worked with MPC´s for 26 years so am a pretty good finger drummer, if that counts, probably not!

What’s been your favourite soundtrack to work on and why?

God, there really are so many and for completely different reasons. Musically I like what I did on ´Supervolcano´ and ´Atlantis´ even though both were nightmare projects schedule/deadline-wise.
´Space´ was great in that it was my big break.

I loved the freedom I was given on things like ´Power of the Planet´ and ´How Earth Made Us´, it´s always great when a producer just trusts you enough to do your thing. I think that is the link between all of my favourites. Basically, I like the ones that are a challenge and that I´m not asked to go over old ground, and lot of that is down to the team that you´re working with.

And your least favourite ;-)

Bearing in mind that my entire career is based on director/producer/composer relationships I´d rather not say!

Basically, the biggest problem with TV music is a lack of time. I prefer to write to picture which inevitably means that I´m last in line, once the visuals are completed, before the final dub. What this can sometimes mean is that there is an unbelievably limited amount of time to write. Most of the time it´s fine. I´ve often scored a film in a few days with no sleep obviously!

The projects that I´d consider my least favourite are the ones where you´re killing yourself to meet these impossible deadlines and somebody decides that this ´finished/locked´ film actually isn´t at all and needs changes, often not thinking to bother telling the composer until the final day of the mix. Then they wonder why the music that you´ve delivered (written to the old pictures) doesn´t fit, frustrating doesn´t even begin to describe it!

Moving on to your studio, could you run us through your current hardware set-up?

I´m a gear junkie so have a good collection of hardware as well as the obligatory software set up. Synth wise I have too much to list, some favourites include a Neuron, Oasys, Origin, Polyevolver, Voyager, Viruses, as well as vintage stuff like MKS80/MPG80, Microwave XT, SH101´s etc.

I just love gear. Everything goes into a Mackie dXb or TLA M4 mixer (depending on flavour!), loads of outboard (Lexicons etc), just lots of old school hardware. As I said I was a big MPC user and so was deliberately late in adopting a software setup, but now they live nicely together!

I´ve recently cut down my computer count as processors have become more powerful. I´m now down to a couple of Mac Pros and a couple of ram filled PC slaves, it used to be a lot more.

I run an RME MADI system with Apogee converters. Plugin-wise I´m a big UAD, Waves, Audioease and Powercore fan so have all of their plug-ins, everything is controlled from a Euphonix MC PRO and a Lemur.

Which software platform do you use?

Nuendo mainly. It´s great for its post-pro stuff, is amazingly versatile and sounds great. I really do think that all of the DAW software sounds different and without dissing other programs, I think that Nuendo sounds better.

I also use Live and Maschine for more loop-based projects. At the end of the day though they all do more or less the same thing it´s just whichever one works for you and what you get used to.

Of the virtual instruments you own, which would you rank as your top 5 and why?

A top 5? Wow, that´s asking. My virtual instrument collection is like the hardware, too much stuff and never enough time. It´s actually quite frustrating because years ago I had very little gear but knew it all like the back of my hand, now I have loads of stuff and only scratch the surface of most of it. It´s really not good.

Omnisphere is undoubtedly the king here and there is a reason that I don´t know anybody in the business that doesn´t use it. It´s just Eric Persing, he has the magic touch.

Although Sample Logic´s instruments (Evolve/Air/Synergy etc) are actually sample libraries they do feel more like VI´s to me and sound great. I really like the G-Force synths, M-Tron Pro and impOSCar 2 and the Applied Acoustics String Studio VS1. That´s not really a top 5, is it? Sorry!

Synthogy Ivory pianos are a part of your set-up, why do you choose to use these as opposed to competing virtual piano software?

Over the years I´ve had so many piano libraries. The Giga platform was amazing for that and some of which have been great, some slightly disappointing. At the moment my piano´s vary between Ivory, VSL imperial, Soundiron Emotional Piano, EW pianos and hardware wise a Roland V-Piano and a Nord Stage 2. They all sound different and all have their place.

However, this is where Ivory 2 is great. If I could only have one option, the variation and overall quality of this library is amazing. For me, with pianos, it´s all about the velocity switching and the overall feel/ambience of the sound. Synthogy have got it just right. It feels like an instrument rather than a great bit of software.

Have you ever had to resort to recording real instruments or vocals because a virtual instrument hasn’t been up to the job in terms of what you needed to accomplish?

I would never call it resorting to using real instruments! Sometimes real instruments are the only option, they can really add that extra layer of fairy dust, taking everything to that next level. Things that would take days of programming and sculpting can take minutes for a good real player/singer and even then a lot of the time would never sound as good.

At the same time, I am something of a control freak and find real orchestral sessions frustrating. I know how I want things to sound and sometimes it´s impossible to get a group of 50 people to play exactly as you want, no matter how specific your scoring.

I like to work with soloists playing over the sampled material and I´m lucky enough to work with musicians who just ´get´ what I want now and know how my head works! Even so, in a perfect world, personally I would work completely with samples, they don´t answer back and eat fewer biscuits!

Which sample libraries do you find yourself using most frequently or stand out the most to you?

I´m a big Native Instruments user and the Kontakt platform is great. It´s easier to talk about sample developers that are amazing rather than specific products. There are just some companies that you just know when they bring out a library it will be a good one.

I love all of the ProjectSAM stuff and I use it every day of the week. Best Service World Percussion is incredible it sounds huge and has a depth and weight lacking from a lot of similar libraries.

I´ve always been a big fan of Bela D Media´s libraries, there´s just something very organic about what those guys do. New on the scene are the Sonokinetic libraries, all really awesome quality and I´m using them every day.

You’re obviously now in the fortunate position where you have more money to spend on sounds and instruments, has the way in which you make your buying decisions changed since you first started out?

Of course. I had years and years where I had no money at all and the only way that I could afford new gear was to sell old stuff, it´s the same for everybody. Therefore every purchase had to be a right one. And everything had to be bought for a specific reason, for a specific job. You always had to be sure that the gear warranted how much money you spent on it.

I´m so so lucky now that this is less of a concern and that I can spend money on instruments and sounds just because I want them, gear-lust again! I´ve spent and wasted a lot of money on some real turkeys I promise you, things that promised so much and delivered so little!

At the end of the day though this is my job. For me it´s important to have the best instruments/libraries available. Lewis Hamilton wouldn´t win an F1 race in a Mini, he has to have the best car and for me I can´t expect to get commissions if I don´t have the best sound palette that I can afford.

Do you have a ‘dream’ VST that has yet to be developed?

Every time I think of something, a month later it comes out. Things like Melodyne DNA are the work of the devil, how does that work?! Instrument wise I´d love to get some of the rarer, more esoteric vintage stuff being emulated.

What would your top 3 tips be for composers wanting to write for TV?

1. Find your own sound. You will always be asked to do ´soundalikes´ but if you have your own stamp, tricks and style, you can always make things your own.

2. Just keep writing, keep sticking at it and you will always get better, you will always learn from your mistakes. Even if you have no work just keep practising writing to picture, building to moments, in TV it´s the moments that are important.

3. This is just my opinion but when you do get work, spend a percentage of your income on new sounds/gear. You have to try and stay ahead of the competition and if that means having better quality sounds then surely it´s worth it.

I know for a fact that in years gone by, I´ve got jobs on the back of my stuff sounding like a ´real´ orchestra. I´ve heard some composer´s ´sketches´ if I´ve replaced them on a job and sometimes it has honestly sounded like a early ´90s GM module. How can you expect a non-musical director or producer to get excited by that? Just my opinion.

4. Your big break is just around the corner

5. Learn to count!

Thanks Ty and we look forward to hearing your next score...