We talk to EMMY award-winning composer Dave Gale

We talk to EMMY award-winning composer Dave Gale

Dave Gale is an award-winning Composer, Arranger/Orchestrator and Producer of music for film, television and other media. He has composed for television across all the major UK and US channels and networks, as well as for feature film, radio, adverts, idents and production music libraries.

Winning an Emmy for his work on the BBC television series, 'Days that Shook the World', Dave went on to score for the BAFTA nominated and Emmy award-winning series, 'Simon Schama's Power of Art', and has worked on numerous other nominated/award-winning documentaries and films, leading 'Time Out' Magazine to describe his music as 'Distinctive'.

Recently we caught up with him to have a chat about his road to glory and the adventures he's had along the way...

So, for those readers who haven’t had the pleasure of coming across your work yet, could you give us some background info about what exactly you do?

I consider myself to be an incredibly fortunate individual, as I work in a number of areas of Music, all of which are rewarding in their own way. The largest aspect of my career is as a Media Composer; over the years, I’ve worked on literally hundreds of hours of TV, mainly factual and documentary, but I started to move more into the arena of Production/Library music about five years ago. And now I find that that takes up the majority of my compositional time, but I still take on commissioned media work, as it comes along. This can include TV, adverts, radio plays and video game scoring.

Dave Gale

I also work as an arranger and orchestrator and have contributed to various pop, jazz and classical projects over the last few years. A couple of years ago, I composed a series of books called ‘Jazz FX’ which are little jazz studies for wind and brass instrumentalists, and feature in the Associated Board (ABRSM) graded examination syllabus.

This also links in with my passion for Music Education; I am a professor at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, which is an internationally acclaimed Conservatoire for students wishing to study practical and theoretical music, to the highest level. It offers plenty of diversity. I lecture in Media Composition, Arranging & Orchestration, and occasionally Music Technology.

Finally, I am also lucky enough to be part of a team of writers for the magazine and web portal MusicTech.net. Thanks to the diversity of my career, I can contribute to this on various levels, so I tend to help with reviews of cinematic and orchestral libraries, as well as multiple forms of hardware and software synthesisers. I am, and always will be, a bit of a synth-head!

"I’ve always had this weird innate ability to remember and recall orchestration details and chord structures, from things that I might have heard years ago."

When did you decide music composition was for you and how did you ‘break’ into the industry?

I learned to play the Trombone and Piano from the age of 9, and I found myself composing music pretty much from then on. Granted, much of this was by ear while sat at the piano, but I did learn to write out my composed music on a score, which offered a forum to develop my simple ideas. In my mid-teens, I started to take arranging very seriously and developed a skill of arranging and orchestrating straight onto parts, so it saved hours by not having to write out a score, bearing in mind that music publishing software did not exist at that time.

I’ve always had this weird innate ability to remember and recall orchestration details and chord structures, from things that I might have heard years ago. It was a huge desire of mine to explore instrumental playing, composition and orchestration further, and that primarily informed my decision to attend Conservatoire, and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama was an excellent fit for me. This also allowed me to spend many waking hours in the Guildhall’s (then brand new!) Electronic Music studio.

Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Breaking into TV came quite by chance. Back in the nineties, I had worked on some very small productions, mainly corporate videos and the like, but it gave me a solid grounding for extending myself into a greater arena of work. I started a small music production company with a friend of mine, and we got a lucky break with a Timewatch Documentary for the BBC, which was quickly followed by an Equinox Documentary for Channel 4.

As with so many aspects of this industry, it’s often about knowing someone who knows someone else, and then word-of-mouth starts to kick in, but it was also down to a great deal of hard work, which remains the case today.

You also write product reviews for magazines including MusicTech, how did that come about?

A few years ago, a good friend of mine, who was already a writer for MusicTech, contacted me, as they were looking for someone to write about Eurorack, which was undergoing a huge surge in interest at the time. I had just started to get into Eurorack myself, but I was already very experienced in the World of synthesis and production, so getting into Eurorack was simply another area of synthesis that peaked my interest, as it still is. Before I knew it, I was writing tutorial features on Eurorack and reviewing all manner of modules and synths.

MusicTech MagazineLater, I was approached about reviewing cinematic and orchestral libraries, as this is another area which I am well versed with, through my compositional and production work.

Which products from those reviews have blown you away the most over the last year or two?

Wow, that’s a tricky one to answer, because there is so much great kit out there, and much of it doesn’t have to cost a small fortune.

On the hardware side, I have been very impressed with what Korg have been doing over the last couple of years. I reviewed their Monologue a year or so ago, and that was a great sounding and exceptionally fun synth to use, especially at a sub £300 price point. I have just reviewed their new flagship poly, the Prologue, which is excellent. It’s a real players synthesiser and is a hugely rewarding machine to use.

In Eurorack, highlights have come from a number of sources; AJH Synth recently announced the Gemini Filter, which is based on an Oberheim design and sounds terrific, while the Studio Electronics 4075 filter module is superbly based on an Arp design, and is something of a favourite with me. Both companies also produce outstanding oscillators, which are rock solid, and sound really gutsy.

At the quirkier end, I also love the Mutable Instruments products and the ALM modules. Akemie’s Castle is an outstanding digital FM module, which rewards constantly. There’s so much versatility to be had in sonic creation with a Eurorack, it can be overwhelming when you’re trying to just score, so I often build a patch the night before I need it, so that it’s ready for me when I walk into the studio the next day.

Dave Gale Eurorack

In samples and software, Spitfire Audio have some fantastic Orchestral libraries which have become something of a go-to for me. I have always liked their Symphonic Library, but their new Chamber Strings is outstandingly good and fits in nicely with my compositional style. I’m looking forward to working with that. I also have to say that in a slightly different sense, Heavyocity’s Novo libraries are really great. They are terrific at providing different colours to add to the orchestral palette.

I’ve also recently been very impressed with the Rob Papen products. SubBoomBass 2, in particular, does exactly what it says, and sounds terrifyingly good.

Rob Papen Subboombass 2

What about your studio set-up – which bits of kit are fundamental to your set-up?

To be fair, I have several components to my setup that are imperative to my working style. Obviously, it starts with my Mac and software; I tend to compose in Logic, but I use Sibelius quite a lot too, just for printing. Occasionally I use Pro Tools, but I don’t find it so good for getting the creative ideas down quickly.

Alongside this, I have an Apollo interface from Universal Audio, which sounds simply glorious, especially when you factor in the extensive plug-ins that are available to go with it. My main monitoring is provided by a pair of Focal Twin 6 BE, which again were something of a revelation. They have always just worked for me, and I’ve largely understood them from the get-go, which is a huge relief, as I can trust them.

Dave Gale Studio

My master keyboard is a Nord Stage, which has a beautiful action to work with, especially when programming orchestral stuff, but elsewhere I have a large number of vintage hardware synths that have become indispensable for what I do. I try to move them around from time to time, as I find that they will inspire if they are close by and within arms reach, particularly when I haven’t used one for a while; it’s almost as though I rediscover what it can do, and that’s great for creativity.

The one synth which I would miss more than any other is my Moog Voyager. It’s architecture is beautiful to work with, and although many people say that it lacks the gutsy sound of the original MiniMoog, it does offer a stereo filter, which I find really useable and adds another dimension that the original Mini doesn’t have.

Alongside that, I have a vintage Roland Jupiter 8, which I am really enjoying at the moment. I don’t think it gets much better than a great Monosynth and Polysynth sat together on one desk!

Dave Gale Moog Voyager


"I try to avoid gear lust, as I generally find that I’m more creative with less in front of me"

Is there any particular hardware currently on your wishlist?

I try to avoid gear lust, as I generally find that I’m more creative with less in front of me, but there are a couple of things that I have my eye on.

I recently saw the Joué at Superbooth, which is a really beautifully designed control surface, which can be adapted to your way of working. I think that would integrate into my workflow really well, so that’s something I’m looking at, but in terms of synths, I have developed a slight hankering for a Schmidt, which is very dangerous, as they are unbelievably pricey, but it is a glorious synthesiser which I would like to have to work with one day.

There are lots of rumours doing the rounds about forthcoming polysynths, so it’s going to be very interesting to see what appears. The Waldorf Quantum looks and sounds outstanding, and I was lucky enough to have a play on one at Superbooth. I was particularly struck by it’s huge creative potential, so that’s going to be a very interesting machine to look at.

Waldorf Quantum

Which plugins (instruments or effects) would you say get used the most in your setup and why?

Not surprisingly, I have quite a few that have become essential for what I do, on the production side.

Instrumentally speaking, NI Kontakt is vital, as it tends to run all of my orchestral libraries, and more besides, but away from that, Omnisphere from Spectrasonics is still a really useful and rewarding product. It’s stunningly useful for Media work, and the interface appeals to me, in the sense that it’s very easy to get your hands dirty and change the preset sounds or create something new from scratch.

Alongside this, I still find myself using Stylus RMX an awful lot. This is mainly for individual instrumental elements, which I like to call up and then mutate sonically, either within RMX or using further FX based plug-ins. There really is an unbelievable potential for sonic creation this way, and I like that!

Onto the FX side, the UA plug-ins are outstanding. I use a lot of 1176 compressors and have started using really interesting plug-ins like the Otto Biscuit, which can do so much, away from the norm. I am also a very big fan of the Soundtoys plug-ins, using most of them all the time, but I also find the Eventide plug-ins to be invaluable. The Blackhole, Ultraverb and Ultratap get used an awful lot; the Blackhole is something of a favourite with cinematic composers, for very good reason.

"I like plug-ins that do something different to the sound and introduce new colours, harmonics and timbre to a stem"

Do you think there are any gaps in the plugin market that are crying out to be filled?

I believe that most plug-ins and effect types have been covered now, which might be why there are so many virtual incarnations of vintage classics. For me, I like plug-ins that do something different to the sound and introduce new colours, harmonics and timbre to a stem. The Vengeance Sound Glitch Bitch is a good example; It’s great for interesting effects, and not just in an EDM style or similar. I guess some form of really good granular processor would be on my wish-list. I still haven’t found ‘The One’ that works really easily and well.

You’ve composed for a variety of TV shows, films, and video games. Which project/s are you most proud of and why?

There are a couple of strands of TV which I feel pretty proud of, looking back. I was fortunate enough to win an EMMY for the soundtrack to the ‘Hiroshima' episode of the BBC series ‘Days that Shook the World’, so that will always be up there. I also worked on the ‘Rembrandt' episode of Simon Schama’s Power of Art, which was a very fulfilling project, which also won an EMMY and was BAFTA nominated.

Away from factual TV, I composed and produced a library album last year, which was something of a labour of love. ‘Retro-Futurism’ was a commissioned album for Lemoncake/APM Production Music (USA), which started life as a couple of tracks that I composed, solely on the Moog Voyager. These tracks grew into a whole album, which is very synth-centric and was immense fun to do. I’m very proud of that album! There’s a lot of classic electronica on there, but with modern production techniques, which is something I love about current scoring potential.

"The traditional studio Big Band with a small orchestra bolted on the side, is a dream ensemble for me"

Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on, or indeed has there been a project that you wish you’d been able to provide the music for?

Absolutely! I would have loved to have been involved with the feature film ‘The Incredibles’ and the sequel which is coming shortly. Michael Giacchino is a terrific composer, and this score, in particular, strikes me as a real pastiche and orchestrators gig, which is right up my street! I recently saw some footage of the recording session, and the traditional studio Big Band with a small orchestra bolted on the side, is a dream ensemble for me. Regrettably, the phone didn’t ring for that gig!

Otherwise, I would love to work with two of my favourite composers and orchestrators; Tom Newman and Vince Mendoza. Both have a beautiful musical style, along with an uncanny knack of tugging at the right strings, at least for me. Two of the finest musicians on the planet today!

Michael Giacchino

And finally, if you had to organise a concert featuring the greatest musicians of all time (dead or alive!) who would be headlining?

That’s another really difficult one!

I always have been, and always will be, a huge fan of Kraftwerk. I heard them when I was six years old, and it changed my life, so they would have to be in there. Alongside them, I would strangely weave a number of musicians who I miss terribly.

Firstly, Michael Brecker, who was one of the finest and most distinctive saxophonists of the contemporary age, along with Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastirious and Peter Erskine. Zawinul founded Weather Report with Wayne Shorter, and both Jaco and Erskine played in the band throughout its most formative years, but I would also have to bring Prince and Stevie Wonder into the mix.

PrinceI was hugely affected by Prince’s death; he was an extraordinary musician and one who placed playing instruments right at the heart of what he did, while Stevie is just a legend in all ways! I can’t even begin to think of a World without Stevie; what an utter legend! 

Of course, it would also be great to have representation from some of the finest composers of the last 100 years, and leading that charge would be Debussy, Shostakovich and Stravinsky - all masters in their own right, and all continue to influence me through their compositional style and orchestral palette.

Maybe for a support band, to this Germanic/European/Jazz fusion collective, I’d quite like to hear the late 70s incarnation of Earth, Wind and Fire. That would be an exceptional concert indeed! Where can I get a ticket?

Thanks Dave!

Discover more about Dave's work on his website here