Nainita Desai talks plug-ins, samples vs musicians & composing for media

Nainita Desai talks plug-ins, samples vs musicians & composing for media

Nainita Desai is one of many established composers that we are very proud to have as a longstanding customer of Time+Space. With a career that spans over twenty years, Nainita has written the scores to hundreds of award winning films as well as TV documentaries and dramas for the likes of the BBC, Channel 4, ITV, HBO, Discovery, National Geographic and many more.

A self-confessed ‘musical sponge’, Nainita’s soundtracks span numerous styles from orchestral music to a fusion of ethnic, sound design and contemporary music.

We got in touch with Nainita to find out how it all began, her studio set-up and her views on the use of samples versus live musicians…

Let´s start right from the beginning, did you have a musical childhood?

Well I attended a CoE primary school so I sang in the Church choir, learnt the violin at primary school (but hated the sound I made!) and played in the school orchestra. At secondary school, I immersed myself in every type of musical group going from Latin choirs to various bands and was self taught on the classical guitar.

At home I was forced to learn the sitar which made my fingers bleed so I gave it up, but took up the Tablas instead – I was always playing ‘percussion’ on furniture and the radiators growing up! When I was 10 my secret dream was to become a singer like Barbara Streisand, but when I heard those now ‘classic’ TV Theme tunes from the 60s and 70s and John Barry’s film scores I was hooked for life.

You completed a university degree in mathematics and programming and a postgraduate diploma in Music Technology, were the two linked?

I really wanted to find a way of integrating my passion for music and sound, into my degree, so my thesis involved creating a rudimentary wave modelling synth using the wave equation. My postgrad diploma project focused on digital audio post production within the film industry – it was the pre-Pro Tools era of the Synclavier, AMS Audiofile, DAR Soundstation.
I loved technology, film and sound, so I tried to combine the three using my research project to make contacts within the industry and talked my way into a job at De Lane Lea post facility once I graduated.

The way I approached mathematics is also linked to how I write music - I love the logic and beauty of numbers, and as a result, finding balance and equilibrium form a subconscious role in the way I approach writing music.

Your first paid job was as a sound designer creating a database of sound effects for a top studio, do you still do much foley work?

No - almost all of my work is pure music composition now. I started off having various roles ranging from sound designer, dialogue editor, foley artist, and foley editor at various film studios like Shepperton, Pinewood & Twickenham. I then started getting projects creating sound effects as well as music for computer games for Empire Interactive and their developers, but I gradually focused more and more on the composition side, so these days I only do ´creative sound design´, ‘hyper realistic’ sound effects on commercials and promos which is much more fused into the music score which I find very satisfying.

 It´s often the case that foley sounds are created from the unlikeliest of sources - what´s the strangest recording ´activity´ you´ve had to do to create the sound you need?

You have to think laterally when creating sounds. When I worked in Munich, I used to record the foleys for a cult US series called ‘Ironside’ about a detective in a wheelchair. His wheelchair had a distinct squeaky sound so we found an old leather suitcase with a squeaky handle. While watching the film on screen I used to swing the squeaky suitcase in time to the movement of his wheelchair and then record, edit and mix it into the soundtrack using SSL Screensound – a touch screen sensitive DAW.

I also once worked on a World War Two flight simulator computer game where I got to record Spitfires at very close quarters at Duxford airfield - recording every moving part of the plane from the engine sounds to the canopy release. An aviation enthusiast´s dream!

So how did you make the jump from sound designer to score writing?

The turning point came when I remember receiving a phone call offering me the Cate Blanchett feature film "Elizabeth" and deciding to turn it down in order to become a composer. I sent out endless showreels to everyone from games companies to film companies. I also worked as a freelance music engineer and got a job assisting Peter Gabriel at the Real World Recording Week sessions.

That was a life changing experience – working with artists and producers such as Daniel Lanois, Dave Bottrill, Papa Wemba, Sinead O’Connor, Billy Cobham, Hossam Ramzy, Nigel Kennedy and Peter Gabriel. It really expanded my love of music from other genres and ethnic cultures. I met a music supervisor there, who offered me a job to score an episode of the Lonely Planet Channel 4 travel series. That was one ‘break’, a baptism by fire, learning on the job. Luckily, the music went down well and I got offered more work. After a year of composing I decided I needed an agent and got taken on by Maggie Rodford of Air-Edel who was Hans Zimmer’s agent at the time, another great ‘break’.

Which project/s are you most proud of?

It may be a cliché but whatever I am currently working on is what I am most proud of. I have recently finished scoring Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble (BBC2), The Day That Kennedy Died for ITV1, and Who Were the Greeks (BBC2) which are all very different stylistically, each with a different set of musical briefs ranging from epic orchestral to subtle cinematic beats with jazz and sound design undertones, to organic world music fusion styles so I love the variety.

New challenges, be it writing in unfamiliar musical styles successfully, developing new orchestration and production techniques, or overcoming the pressures of keeping seven execs happy, meeting an overnight deadline or winning a pitch against 20 other composers - they are all things I am proud of on a daily basis.

Is there a particular style of music that you enjoy producing the most?

With the wide variety of styles I get asked to write in, I am a musical sponge, and so I love the creative challenge of writing in styles unfamiliar to me. Even if I am out of my comfort zone writing in a style I wouldn´t really listen to for pleasure, I find some kind of affinity and connection with it.

I guess I’m most at home writing with an orchestral palette, fusing world music and sound design / electronic elements - a ´global cinematic sound´. That being said, I am currently writing a Bernard Hermann style score for one project, another film for Channel 4 with quirky guitars, vibes, accordions and zithers, a minimalist orchestral score and a contemporary electronic, rock hybrid score for an adventure series for Channel 5. As a jobbing composer, I have to be versatile. I love all styles of music.

Do you play any instruments, other than those mentioned earlier?

I like to use instruments in unconventional ways. Also a new project often means I get to search out and find new instruments and musicians. I have just bought the new Roli Seaboard, a revolutionary new instrument that is incredibly expressive. I have a custom built guitarviol - a kind of medieval bowed electric guitar/cello plus a variety of unusual ethnic stringed instruments such as the Charango, Oud, and Cavaquinho and various other guitars.

I also have unusual sound sources such as the Omnichord, and a custom made set of Jews Harps tuned to every note of the scale to inject a bit of life into the music and supplement the sample libraries that can sometimes become a little too recognizable. I love the challenge of learning to play a new instrument - it helps when writing with samples for the instrument as well, but I do have a good network of musicians I bring in - as they inject life into the music with fresh interpretations of my guide melodies.

Moving on to your set-up, what are the key pieces of hardware in your studio?

I have just got the new Roli Seaboard as a new controller which I´m very excited about integrating into the studio. It makes you re-think your total approach to playing a keyboard and is a fantastic way of injecting expression and dynamics in a very fluid, natural way in the same way a string player would. For me, it will help to overcome the limitations of a ´fixed´ keyboard. Individually controllable polyphonic aftertouch and ´vibrato movement´s of your fingers on the soft silicone keys make it incredibly tactile - a true ´analogue / digital´ hybrid instrument!

I have the UA Audio Apollo, Line 6 D25 Amp alongside various guitar pedals. I had various synths but the only ones I’ve still kept are the Roland D70, XV5080 and Virus Access B. Now I tend to run everything ´in the box´. PIug-ins wise I use UAD, Waves, Lexicon which is lovely, alongside a Mackie Control and an iPad running Lemur which is so fluid to work with. However I do have to have total automation with the way I work, as I am often going back to projects several years back and need total recall. Therefore I have streamlined the studio as much as possible having got rid of Adats, Yamaha O2Rs, and various outboard gear over the years, solely using plugins from developers such as Audioease, Soundtoys, iZotope (Ozone, Iris, Nectar, Trash 2 and finally Vinyl (which I love !)), FXpansion etc which all come into their own depending on the project.

Which DAW are you using and have you always used the same one?

I’ve used Logic for around 14 years now. Before that, I used Opcode Vision which was big in the States and switched over when they went out of business. However, I have just bought Cubase and thinking of making the transition – though I see using it in parallel with Logic for a while yet. VSL Vienna Ensemble Pro has been a godsend though. I am currently using it in conjunction with a slave PC and about to get a 2nd slave PC to ease the CPU and RAM load on the main Mac Pro.

Toontrack Superior Drummer features in your set-up - with many virtual drum plugins out there why do you choose to use Superior?

For me the expansion capabilities make it a one stop shop. It’s incredibly flexible and easy to use on the surface, but also very deep if I choose to dive in on the editing. The midi expansions are also a great starting point for manipulation. I do use the competition NI Studio Drummer and Vir2 Studio Builder, but while useful they can’t compare to Toontrack in depth and versatility.

You have many of the Superior expansion packs - which ones do you use the most?

I use sounds according to whatever style I’m writing but I do have a soft spot for the Roots Brushes & Sticks packs – the softer mellower sounds that can blend in with say elements from Spectrasonics Liquid Grooves (RMX vrsn) – an old favourite, make for a very quick timeless subtle rhythmic bed.

Moving onto soft synths, we hear you´re also using Rob Papen synth plugins, which ones do you rely on the most and for what types of sounds?

There are some old plugins I still love like Rob’s Albino for slightly softer electronic sounds, Steinberg Virtual Guitarist dated now but great for hiding underneath real elements! I use Predator or reFx Vanguard for a bit of grunt, but U-He Zebra is fantastic for that as well and I’ve also been a long time user of NI Absynth – the organic movement within the textures and ambiences is unique.

You´re a Spectrasonics fan, which of their instruments do you use and what is it about each one that appeals to you the most?

I have all of their libraries and use them all on a daily basis. With Stylus I love the ease and flexibility in groove shifting and time signatures which can transform a preset rhythm endlessly, plus I have a large collection of 3rd party libraries I have converted into SAGE / RMX format.

Omnisphere is the unrivalled King of soft synths. Sadly I do notice its overuse and recognisable sounds on TV and films (that’s because it’s so good!) so I try to layer it subtly within tracks. For me it is unrivalled in terms of the quality of sounds and the database navigation.

Trilian is also my go to Bass library though I haven’t gone much beyond my favourite presets that I return to time and time again.

As virtual instrument technology has improved do you find you´re recording more with software orchestras than real ones?

Actually, my intention is to use live players more and more either replacing the samples totally or enhancing them with musicians. I bring in soloists whenever the budget allows.

In the hours it takes to program the expression and dynamics I am better off bringing in a good session player. Real players cannot be compared to samples, they both have their place in the sonic spectrum and I like using both side by side.

I can’t see samples being able to replace the magical interaction between the various instruments and the space in which they are recorded for a while yet. The harmonic interaction that takes place between combinations of instruments when they are playing is something of a challenge for developers in the next evolutionary step of sample library development.

The inherent problem with samples is that using the ensembles phrases and combinations you get in some libraries is simply not an option if you want total control over individual instruments and parts, though for a very quick fix they can be very useful such as some of the Sonokinetic libraries like Vivace or NI Action Strings, but I do feel I am rather cheating if I have used them though!

I have to make endless changes and re-edits to the music, which can become a logistical problem. So, sometimes I bring players in right at the beginning of a project and record them on early ‘beds’ / sketches shaping and editing their playing in Logic when I re-structure the tracks to picture, almost like creating a custom library of flexible phrases in various tempos and keys.

I did this on the BBC series Arctic with Bruce Parry and it’s become a part of my signature way of working now on certain types of projects where I have to bring in specialist instrumentalists.

The other technique is to bring players in right at the end, replacing the samples at the end which is a more traditional method. I am a big user of Kontakt based libraries. I regularly use all the 8Dio, Soundiron, Soniccouture, ProjectSAM, VSL libraries. Sonokinetic are also great – ‘Carousel’ saved me on a Channel 5 series about Funfairs! But I also love what’s coming out of smaller companies like Wavesfactory, and Impact Soundworks.

You must have a vast library of samples, how do you organise everything?!

Many years back, I created a core 30Gb A-Z database of sounds of mainly wav files. That core library consists of my favourite ´go to´ sounds when I’m writing under pressure and don’t have time to experiment. However, when I start a new project I will always create a new template with a fresh palette of sounds, and I have a very organised folder structure alongside notebooks keeping a manual record.

I often have to move between 3 or 4 TV projects within a day, mixing tracks for one, writing cues for another… so I have to be incredibly organised juggling deadlines. I do rely on my memory a lot though, there are sounds from various libraries that I have returned to again and again – though my brain is nearing capacity with sample library overload at the moment!

With the wide variety of affordable hardware and software available today, would you say the competition in your industry is at its highest level? What advice would you give to someone trying to get their first job writing for the media?

Yes, it has never been more competitive. Technology has made it easier for people to produce music but at the end of the day, it’s down to the creativity, hard work and talent of the individual to succeed. It’s not just a case of having a fully loaded Mac / PC with a wide range of sample libraries at your disposal. That’s taken for granted. There are many other skills required to getting work such as:

  • having a skin made of armour
  • being a team player ie. don’t be precious about your music and lose your ego
  • being able to deliver and write music of a very high standard very fast when you get your break
  • being able to network and communicate well
  • having a unique selling point and to stand out from the crowd musically
  • keep an open mind about ALL genres and styles of music and practice writing all the time
  • being easy to work with and being happy

It is a very stressful profession so it’s important to enjoy whatever point you are in your career path!

Finally, what have you got coming up for the rest of 2013 that you can tell us about?

Well Vinnie Jones: Russia´s Toughest airs from 12th Sep on National Geographic at 8pm and Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth on BBC2 is currently on Tuesday 10th Sep, The Day That Kennedy Died – a major documentary for ITV will air in November to mark the 50th Anniversary of JFK’s assassination and a daytime Series Street Patrol will air on BBC1 in the Autumn.

I´m currently working on several TV series and films for C4, C5, BBC, Smithsonian and ITV plus a couple of independent dramas, so lots coming up over the next 6 months.

Thanks Nainita, sounds like you´re very much a composer in demand!

Why not keep up to date with Nainita´s work by following her on Twitter or find out more at