How to start your career in sound design & music composition: Expert advice from Molecular Sound
Blog by Louise Dodgson under Music Publishing, Music Training & Careers
Not all musicians want to be in a band or perform live, their aspirations lie in songwriting and creating new music. We chat to Dave Connolly of Molecular Sound, a music composer and sound designer, who has forged a career in creating music for commercial use; whether that be music for adverts or trailers for TV and film. Dave tells us how he got started in this line of work, what a typical day involves for him, the process of pitching music to clients, plus he offers advice to other aspiring composers.
How did you get started in music composition and sound design?
I started writing music in an indie band aged 17, leading me to study music at the University of Salford to try to develop my writing and studio production skills. I ended up meeting directors who wanted me to score their short films and, while this wasn't what I initially intended to do career wise, I started to enjoy the challenge of collaborating and writing to picture.
After freelancing for a year on various small corporate/short film projects I was invited to work at a London based music & sound design company where I ended up being one of their composer/sound designers for 3 years. While working there I really got thrown in the deep end, writing everything from orchestral to world music for a variety of different types of media. I also started to develop my sound design skills, often working sound design into music scores which is something I now specialise in.
How did you progress to setting up your own business?
Going from an in-house composer to running my own business was a huge step and the first 6-12 months were a big challenge. It's one thing to write music but managing the business/networking side is tough and was a completely different skillset that I had to pick up quickly.
I initially met with a number of London based music agencies that send out music pitches for TV adverts to composers. I realised how competitive it was to win a pitch due to the sheer number of other composers submitting work too, but after lots of failures I got a sync with a Jaguar advert. This led to a number of other successful advert syncs and within a year I was out of my bedroom studio and into a recording studio in Bermondsey.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I'd say most of my day is spent writing music. Depending on how far into the project I am, I could be starting ideas, recording instruments/vocalists, mixing or tweaking work based on client feedback.
I'm often working on 3-4 projects at the same time so usually I prioritise work based on their deadlines. Typically, turnaround time for any project I work on is 1-3 days so things are usually fast paced and involve lots of focus to deliver on time. I usually have a couple of days a month where I'm free to sort my admin out so it's usually all done in one go.
How do you generate new work & opportunities?
I'm quite lucky now that I have a small number of clients that keep me busy so I don't need to worry too much about generating new work. New jobs/pitches usually come in weekly, but it's important to have good relationships with your clients in order for them to keep coming to you with projects. I occasionally send out emails and meet new prospective clients. In general people/companies are happy to meet for a coffee in order to get a better idea about how you work as a composer.
How did you get started with making industry contacts?
My strategy is to only contact the companies that really fit with my work as a composer and that I'd love to collaborate with, rather than spamming a huge number of companies with the same email. I researched exactly what they did and sent them a small selection of music that I felt would represent me well, knowing what kind of projects they put out.
I then met with a few of these companies and some of them went on to send me pitch work. I think once a strong working relationship had been established and we were both on the same page creatively that's when the pitches started to get won.
What is the process of pitching music to a potential client?
In general there will be a pitch document outlining what the project is, some creative direction and possibly musical references of tracks they already like. This can help to get a solid idea of what they are looking for sonically. It really varies in terms of what visual content you'll get; sometimes you'll get nothing, sometimes there will be ‘work in progress’ visuals containing wireframes/storyboards, and for others the full advert will have already been made.
The process differs in each case but in the end you're expected to submit a fully mixed and mastered track as if it was ready to go out on TV. There's no room for error as usually you will be pitching against at least 3, possibly up to 10 other composers. Often the agency you are pitching for will also be up against other agencies that will also be submitting a number of tracks too. Very occasionally I've had different agencies come to me with the same pitch, in which case I always go with the agency that contacted me first.
Once the pitch has been won, sometimes the pitch track will end up getting broadcast if the turnaround is tight but usually extra work is involved to tweak it to the finished visuals. I've even had cases where the original track I've written was scrapped and a new one had to be written after I've won the pitch.
Does your income come solely from tailor-made compositions? Or do you also have a library of work that clients can approach you to use?
I do write library music but currently I work with other companies to publish my work instead of having my own library website. Writing library music is a great way of getting repeat usage and building up a stream of steady income from royalties. I do have lots of unreleased material that clients ask for as sometimes it's great to work with something I've previously written that they can adapt. It's always a good idea to keep all ‘off-cuts’ as you never know what they may be used for in future.
What advice would you give to a musician wanting to get started in sound design?
Making the cross-over from musician to sound designer came quite naturally to me as the whole process involves producing sounds in a similar way to what I was used to. I think it requires a deep understanding of synthesis and how you can layer lots of different sounds to create something entirely new.
If this isn't something you're familiar with there's lots of online courses you can take part in to get a deeper understanding. The big challenge of sound designing is looking at something that may not necessarily exist in the real world and imagining what this might sound like, then creating this imagined sound from scratch.
Then it's important to just learn by doing, download lots of pre-existing animations and film trailers and practise sound designing these. There's lots of commercial sound effect libraries you can use, or you can go out and record your own which often gives better results.
In general, it's really important more than ever to be realistic about your abilities and really push yourself in an area that you feel suits you best. There's so much competition that it's much better to really specialise in a particular area, especially at the beginning when you're starting out.
There isn't really any huge secret to getting work, just make whatever you do sounds the best it can and stands out as much as it can. You can do as much networking as possible but if your sound isn't strong compared to what else is out there, no one will want to work with you.
Are there any particular projects that you find more satisfying than others?
Great projects always happen when there is a strong creative idea behind it and everyone is on the same page. Projects get difficult when ideas constantly change. I've sometimes experienced situations where clients change direction multiple times and that’s when you really have to dig deep and not lose enthusiasm. Usually the closer you are to the creative process and your ideas are listened to, the better.
I worked on a great project where I was brought on board from day one to consult on the initial idea, went to the shoots to give musical direction and then sat with the director multiple times to bounce ideas off each other in real time. This, however, is very rare but in an ideal world that's how I'd prefer things to be done.
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