Dru Masters is the composer behind some of the UK's most successful TV shows, including Jamie's American Road Trip and BAFTA and RTS winning The Apprentice and The Restaurant. His scores can be heard on numerous documentaries, drama, films and comedies and he has also produced records for artists as diverse as Mediaeval Baebes and Bananarama. Here, Dru tells us how he evolved from wannabe popstar to one of the UK's most sought after composers and reveals the virtual instruments he uses within his scores.
Hi Dru, how did you get into scoring for TV and film?
It was something I always wanted to do, for as long as I can remember. Luckily, I had parents who indulged me, got me piano lessons and later sent me to music school. I worked in a music shop after I left school and met many successful composers – this was around the time (mid-80s) when you generally called in a programmer to do anything with synths or (very basic) sampling – and ended up doing sessions for them. I then spent far too long trying to be a pop star and, after a two year deal with EMI that resulted in no hits, returned to TV. Work was very patchy for a long time and it wasn’t until The Apprentice that people really started to notice me and the work became continuous. It was a very long process!
What do you wish you’d known back then that you know now in terms of your experience of writing scores and dealing with producers/directors?
I think my ‘skill’ has always been knowing what notes to play to make you feel a certain way – for me that’s the key to writing for TV and film – and the only things that have changed over the years are the way the technology has helped (revolutionised!) the way I work and, of course, a continuing musical development. As far as dealing with clients, though, there’s a whole world of stuff I wish I’d known! If you want to survive in the business you really need to understand the hierarchy of the production team, from Production Managers right through to Commissioners and, crucially, what their priorities are (from financial to artistic).
How and where do you start on a score after receiving the initial brief?
If the edit has started I will ask for some rough footage so I can begin writing to picture straight away. If, as is often the case, they haven’t started editing, I will write some tracks based on conversations about general style and pace, although I find this incredibly difficult with nothing to look at. I’m happy to dive straight into any scene and work out how it fits into the whole show as I go along, but I do also try to think about themes and how they will develop over the hour or series.
For a format show like The Apprentice, it’s very obvious how to deal with the various sections: last week recap, briefing, task, waiting room, boardroom, winners, losers, firing, return to house, taxi ride, next week tease, credits – so it doesn’t really matter where you start, as long as you have a concept. For a one-off doc you approach it differently, thinking about why the music is there (is it to ‘bump’ you to the next scene or is it to enhance the emotion of an interview or create a mood?). Often my job is simply replacing ‘temp’ tracks (usually amazing film music recorded by full orchestras!) that the editors have cut to, which can make life easier in terms of knowing what’s required, but can be creatively limiting.
How have virtual instruments changed the way you work over the years, if at all?
When I started in TV, I had Cubase (which was only midi back then and ran on an Atari), a Fostex 8-track 1/4 inch tape machine, a DX7 synth, an RX11 drum machine, a Roland U-220 multi-timbral synth and a Yamaha SPX90 effects unit, plus a guitar, bass and various saxes and clarinets. Most of that stuff I bought whilst working at the music shop – I would just pay my wages straight back to them! Somehow I managed to do some quite good work with that setup - you had to be really creative in those days.
Virtual instruments have changed the way I work in several ways. I now have access to almost any sound I want, often immediately, if it’s available as a download, which means I don’t have to compromise what I hear in my head. Even better is the fact that I can store everything I’m using on a song in the actual arrangement for total recall at any point. I’m always jumping between tunes and often a director will ask me to go back to a piece and do a variation, replacing, say, the piano with a celesta.
How were you initially briefed for The Apprentice soundtrack and what were your initial perceptions of the concept of the show?
I had been sent the US version, so I already had a good idea of how the show worked. For the UK version, the production team wanted to stamp it with their own style, but the sense of tension and drama was carried across. I was briefed by the Series Director, Beth Dicks, who is a big fan of DJ Shadow and David Holmes. I think you can hear that influence in the boardroom music and some of the task cues. Initially, that boardroom music was much faster (about 116bpm, I think, maybe even 120bpm) and Beth asked me to slow it right down. It ended up at 96bpm and when I hear it now I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I first did it!
ProjectSAM’s Symphobia has been used heavily in the soundtrack for The Apprentice – what were your reasons for using this particular virtual instrument?
I had been using various other samples and virtual instruments for brass swells and big orchestral hits, but when Symphobia came out it became my one-stop-shop for those sounds! It’s great because it sounds so huge, but it’s also very ‘playable’, in a way that many other instruments aren’t – you can call up an Ensemble patch and ‘play’ the whole orchestra, rather than just the violins or just the trumpets. It gives great instant gratification without compromising the sound.
Stylus RMX is a key product for you, which features do you find yourself frequently utilising in your work and why?
I’m not sure I could have written most of the cues I’ve done in the last five years without Stylus – it’s the backbone of my setup and I’m usually running at least three instances and often sixteen or more. You can hear the loops all over my work, but what you can’t hear is how often I use it for, say, guitar or some other musical part. I’ll frequently export a section of audio, chop it up in Recycle and import it into Stylus so I can play with the timing, pitch and fx. It’s an incredibly creative tool and just really quick to work with.
Ivory is still the benchmark piano library for me – I have a Mellow Concert D in my Autoload template, so I can start improvising straight away. I love the VSL Appassionata Strings, Percussion and the solo woodwinds and strings in the Special Edition. Some people say they think they’re too ‘dry’, but I find they sit perfectly with my other libraries – I just use a lot of reverb on them! I think the Ensemble Pro is a very exciting tool for people like me who want to run every instrument in the orchestra on its own track but need to switch between songs without having to wait 20 minutes (or more) for it to load.
You’ve also written music for commercials – which products have been advertised to the sound of your arrangements?
In the past I’ve done ads for Ikea, Martini, Sony PlayStation, the National Lottery, Lucozade, Morrisons, Texaco and many more. I rarely do them these days, as I’m so busy with my TV and film work and I prefer to work on music where I have more scope to develop themes and emotions.
What other software and plug-ins do you use?
Last summer I switched from Logic to Pro Tools 8. Until then it just wasn’t a viable environment for the sort of composing I do, but now it’s amazing and saves me so much time. Before, I would have to export midi files from Logic to Sibelius for printing and, if I was working on an album production, I would have to bounce the audio from the Pro Tools recording sessions into Logic so I could add the virtual instrument parts, export the midi to Sibelius for printing (if there were live instruments), and bounce the audio from the virtual instruments in Logic back to Pro Tools. Now it’s all in one place!
I use Waves plug-ins all the time – the SSL G Channel is on most instrument tracks with a low-end shelf (90hz) and hi-mid ‘sweetener’ (one db or so at somewhere between 1khz and 4khz) and I have an L1+ limiter across the whole mix from the start (a terrible practice, I know, but it just sounds so good to me! I do try to make sure it’s only limiting occasional peaks, rather than crushing the whole mix.). I use Kontakt all the time as a sample player (check out some of the things the Script section can do, like pattern re-triggering for string parts etc), Morphestra is great for atmospheres and textures, Eleven for guitar processing and sometimes NI Guitar Rig, Spectrasonics Omnisphere is my go-to synth for pads, NI FM8 is also great and I have just upgraded to Trilian (I loved Trilogy but the Intel wrapper was really buggy).
I have a Digidesign 003 Rack, a Lexicon PCM96 Surround reverb which I agonised over, as it was so expensive, but sounds fantastic (if the plug-ins had been available when I bought it, I would have gone for those instead) and a TL Audio 5051 pre-amp for guitar and bass (mics - Sony C48 and a pair of Neuman KM184s - go straight into the 003, although an API or Neve mic pre-amp is on the top of my hardware wish-list). Monitoring is Adam P33As for stereo, plus A7s for surround and centre and a Sub 8.
What’s at the top of your virtual instrument wish list?
I’ll be buying the East West Hollywood Strings the day they come out. I already have about a million other string libraries, including EWSO Platinum, some of the VSLs, the LASS and the Spitfire library, but you can never have too many strings, right?!
Do you play any instruments yourself?
I play the guitar, bass, saxes, clarinet, hammered dulcimer, zither, accordion, gongs – all with varying degrees of aptitude.
In terms of the virtual instruments of the future, are there any particular sounds or features you’d like to see that as far as you’re aware haven’t been done already?
With ‘real’ acoustic sounds so readily available I would like to see more ‘creative’ instruments coming on to the market – almost everything I can imagine already exists, so someone needs to come up with a new form of synthesis. Some of my friends are experimenting with new ways of triggering sounds, using the body and light sensors and I think this is an area that has great potential for making more expressive sounds. I also think that there may be a market for simpler instruments aimed at composers and songwriters who want a really good selection of sounds to write and demo with and don’t want to wade through a thousand presets.