Notes to Notes, a real-world guide for the professional music creator

Reviews

I first got to know composer, orchestrator, and music preparer Tristan Noon a few years ago when he provided an exclusive excerpt of his e-book From DAW to Score to Scoring Notes. From DAW to Score is an 88-page guide geared towards students, enthusiasts, and anyone else seeking an introduction into working on film and television music.

Tristan Noon

His excerpt, where he described the process of breaking out chords from a single patch on a DAW to a readable orchestral score was probably the most straightforward explanation I’ve seen about this essential process that happens dozens or hundreds of times in a project. He calls it the dreaded ensemble patch chord: “This is where the composer, in a anxiety-fuelled frenzy to meet the deadline, has just played in an enormous piano-like chord with two hands to save time. It is then up to you as the orchestrator to split this out into something playable.”

Tristan has a knack for explaining not only how he does a task, but why he does it a certain way — which I find essential for comprehending information from any “how-to” guide. It’s one thing to explain the technical aspects of splitting out 6 lines of a MIDI file, with the DAW screenshots the Sibelius commands — all of which Tristan does very well. It’s quite another to say why he’s chosen which ones to divide, as he does with a certain example:

But what do we do about the extra note, as there are 6 notes and only 5 string instruments to fit them into? This means that somebody is going to have to perform a ‘divisi’. This can differ from one orchestrator to another, but in this instance, I would have everybody play one note each, apart from the second violin. This is because, more often than not, you want the melody sounding loud and clear in the first violins. If you divide them, you’re dividing the power and clarity of the note. So for that reason, I would split the second violins.

That’s the kind of important information you’re sure to retain, even if you need to refer back now and again to recall a certain shortcut or menu item.

Notes to Notes

Now, Tristan is back with a new e-book that couldn’t be more timely. It’s called Notes to Notes: The Ultimate Guide to Business in Film & TV Music. It’s not the first publication of its kind, but what I find compelling about it is its easy-to-follow structure and Tristan’s approachable style.

In it, he describes his experience in readable terms without going down lengthy tangents. He manages to convey important information about equipment, libraries, and tools he uses in his own work, setting up business accounts and invoices, fee structures, royalties, and more with specificity but avoids getting the reader lost in the technical weeds.

Inspiration, realism, and nuts-and-bolts, all in one

He’s also realistic: “The most daunting facet is finding work, and making enough money to live comfortably on. At first, it is unlikely that you’ll be earning more than a few thousand pounds per year, so keep your overheads low for as long as possible. One key thing to remember is that not everybody’s journey to success is the same,” Tristan says in Notes to Notes. “You have to find your trajectory naturally, and when you find what works for you, it’s imperative to run with it, as this is your formula, so to speak.”

Out of context this type of commentary may seem trite, but in the context of a 100-page book about a professional music career chock-full of information, it’s a useful reminder that you can take the lessons learned from his advice and apply them to your own career. I found myself nodding along in agreement, as it’s the way my own career evolved.

Just one of many examples of this is the chapter about composing workflows. Tristan says, “Everybody has a specific way of working that enables them to complete the job as efficiently as possible, by minimizing time wasted and maximizing their skills and expertise. It is your job to find out how you work best and hone that over time. At the end of every job, I sit down and think about the areas that I need to work on. For example, was I slow at bouncing stems? If that is the case, I will spend a lot of time fine-tuning these areas so that the next time I perform the action, I’m completing it far more efficiently.”

Great advice on its own, but then Tristan walks you through his own process, complete with all of the technical details about templates, gain staging, routing, instrument groups, reverb sends, and session prep — all clearly explained, often with commentary from other music professionals.

He’s also refreshingly humble and not afraid to acknowledge advice he’s received elsewhere: “I used to use fully-loaded templates, but I found that I would just reach for the same instruments and chords which inevitably resulted in boredom. After speaking to some friends in the production music business, they mentioned that they were using a more modular approach to writing, mainly when writing production music.”

The complete package

I had to smile when I saw chapters entitled “How to Get Work” and “Using Social Media Effectively” very quickly followed by ones called “Organization” and “The Importance of Computer Backups”. It reminded me of a class that John Williams — yes, that John Williams — gave at Tanglewood for student composers about 20 years ago, when I was just starting out in the business. He opened it up to Q & A, and one student asked Williams what the secret to success was. It was not the first time John Williams had been asked the question, and in a manner that seemed to imply there was a magic shortcut to fast-track fame and glory in the music industry. If he was annoyed at the question, Williams, the consummate gentleman, did not let it show. Instead, he simply replied: “It’s just a lot of hard work,” and repeated it, quieter this time, “It’s just a lot of hard work.”

What I mean is that it’s not enough to be a social media star or the life of a networking party — although those aspects, and more broadly, relationship-building are essential components of a modern-day composer’s life. Tristan covers those areas in Notes to Notes, and always from the perspective of his own approach rather than some abstract thoughts on the subject: “For me, when I chat to someone whom I admire or whose work I like, I generally try and steer the topic away from business as much as possible. I’m interested in getting to know the person and their life, rather than just their work. While talking about their work can be a useful conversation starter, I’d recommend getting away from that as soon as possible and speaking more generally about the music business or even hobbies that you might share. The amount of times that I’ve ended up having long conversations with fellow composers about a hobby that we both have in common is too many to count.”

But that will only get you so far if you can’t get a grip on the work itself. For that, there are practical suggestions on everything from how to organize your project and sample library folders to the proper conventions for naming a cue so that it conveys all of the correct information.

 

The sections on orchestration and music copying contain just the type of the information you would want to know, whether you’re just starting out or you’re already enjoying a career. I found myself agreeing with the no-nonsense recommendations on these pages where Tristan talks about “avoiding music tautology” — “littering scores/parts with superfluous information can have the opposite effect of what the orchestrator intended. In essence, it makes it harder for the player to process at speed.” Oh, how I wish everyone took this advice!

He also gives an example about using the correct methods of input: “Don’t enter technique text as other types of text in Sibelius (or other notation programs). If the copyist needs to filter technique text and you’ve input technique text as expression text, it will make their life a lot harder. You should always aim to make life as easy as possible for your colleagues, to reduce the chances of mistakes which could lead to overtime.” No joke — this exact thing happened to me, where the orchestrator was unaware of the Technique text style and instead had entered every pizz. and arco as Expression text, and then dragged them above the staff. No doubt if you work in Finale you’ve seen something similar (or worse, using the Text tool for such items!).

Bottom line

My late grandfather had a saying: “It’s who you know that gets you in the door, but what you know that keeps you in the room.”

As much as anything, that summarizes the essence of what Tristan Noon conveys in Notes to Notes.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to Logic, or the advanced encyclopedia of Sibelius commands, Notes on Notes isn’t the book for that — although it does do a remarkable job of squeezing in many such tips.

Instead, think of it as the travel guide to the music business. On its own it’s a fun read, and the best travel guides contain both practical tips and helpful suggestions for your trip. Just like the best guides, Notes to Notes confidently walks you through the essential elements of the journey of your music career, so that you know exactly where you need to go to explore further and make the experience your own.

Get Notes to Notes – on sale for a limited time

Notes to Notes is available for immediate download from Notation Central, our marketplace for music notation software and related technology. It’s $11.99. A free sample is available to peruse before you buy — once you check it out, I’m sure you’ll want to get the whole thing.

Included with the e-book are a couple of audio files demonstrating various string voicings that Tristan refers to in the orchestration chapter, an income and expense spreadsheet, and a brief video showing the Kontakt sampler loading process.

We’ve also got From DAW to Score, the first of Tristan’s e-books, which you’ll likely want to pick up if you haven’t already. It’s $8.99 and comes with a Sibelius scoring template, a PDF example cue, and audio demo of a cue.

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