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Being an Composer's Assistant

Oliver talks us through the ups and downs of being an assistant composer.

After graduation from Berklee College of Music, Oliver assisted Christian Henson for a year on several TV dramas and series before moving to Spitfire Audio as their in-house composer. He has also assisted for composers Sam Sim and Ben Onono.

The Q & A

What are the benefits of being an assistant composer / why would you want to be an assistant composer?

It is essential to learn how things work from someone who has been in the business for a while. The job ‘composer’ is a very demanding, diverse and unique profession; one can’t learn comprehensively at a school or university. On top of that, the people a composer works with change on each project, so there is no set in stone workflow or rule book, hence experience is definitely a key skill to have and being an assistant for one or many composers can enhance this. 

You also learn a lot of tips and tricks when you assist a composer - for example, my workflow is now very similar to Christian’s. This is because I’ve had to learn his workflow in order to assist, but his methods are also very efficient and useful due to his experience. Then, of course, you get to see the creative process which is always educational and inspiring. 

Being an assistant composer is a great way to get your career started. Do good work and be easy to work with, and he or she will definitely recommend you or use you on another project. The one dangerous thing is to then get stuck as an assistant for a long time. Be perceptive and see opportunities - the composer might let you score a little project on the side for which he/she hasn’t got time for. What I wouldn’t recommend is to force yourself upon projects; know your role - you are just the assistant - don’t expect to write any music as you are here to learn, but foremost to make the composer’s life easier. 

What does being an assistant composer involve?

  • Preparing the DAW, meaning importing the film, aligning the timecode, make sure there are split tracks (so the composer can mute the temp track while the dialogue is still playing).
  • Creating tempo maps (in case there wasn’t a click used while composing).
  • Cleaning up the MIDI information and the cue the composer has composed during his working time, save accordingly, including naming, filing and of course backing up the whole thing.
  • Re-aligning cues that have gone out of sync.
  • Assist with smaller recording sessions.
  • Assure that technically everything is up to scratch and working in the studio.
  • Importing MIDI into Sibelius or Finale to prepare everything nicely for the orchestrator.
  • Track laying (turning MIDI into audio) and making stems (summaries of certain tracks, ie. Strings, Brass, Percussion etc.)  including appropriate naming and filing for the mixing / recording engineer.
  • Prepare the DAW for the recording session, including all the stems, tempo maps, clicks and make sure it is in sync with the picture.

These tasks may also occur, but, of course, it varies from composer to composer:

  • Install sample libraries.
  • Keep backing up and archive accordingly.
  • Make tea and coffee (and make them well).
  • Assist with taking notes in spotting sessions.
  • Play instruments on recording (if you can and if needed).
  • Record samples.
  • Write additional music.

How to become an Assistant Composer?

There is no right answer, as everyone probably knows, but the most important thing is to soak up other influential people’s stories and create your own ‘how to do it’ guide. By being open and perceptive of new opportunities you will find yourself in good situations. 

  • Everyone’s story is different.
  • Build a portfolio website and a short show reel.
  • Send ‘blind’ emails.
  • Going to events where you might meet composers.
  • Be bold, be brave and ask straight forward questions.
  • Let everyone know that you are looking for that kind of work.
  • Keep on making music and hunting for projects.

What are the Key Skills?

You need a bunch of skills. It is essential that you are musical and have a comprehensive understanding of music technology and basic studio knowledge. I personally feel that social skills are highly important, so I will divide the skills in two sections.

Social Skills:

  • Know how to deal with directors, orchestrators, orchestras, engineers, fixers, agents.
  • Keep calm under stress.
  • Have a can-do attitude and always look for solutions (never call or email the composer when you do your work and his whole rig crashes - you’ve got to sort it out yourself no matter what).
  • Do anything you can to help and provide an easy workflow, be attentive and anticipate problems or situations.

Technical Skills:

  • Music production skills need to be top notch.
  • DAW knowledge (make sure you know your composer’s preferred DAW).
  • Music programming skills.
  • Be tech savvy - you’ve got to know how to set up a basic recording session, knowing your basic microphones, studio terms etc. This will also help socially, as everyone likes to talk gear.

What would you look for in an assistant?

  • Someone prompt, reliable and trustworthy (there’s a lot of information that can’t be leaked).
  • Great people skills (working in a team is a key part of the job).
  • Positivity and courage, but stay humble - you are only the assistant!
  • A professional and accommodating attitude.
  • A fun person to be with, as you might spend a lot of time together too.
  • A good eye for detail and don’t make mistakes.

What are the struggles and fears you might have to overcome?

In the beginning, I was worried I’d slow down the composer instead of helping. But it’s normal; just keep cool and learn the composer’s methods, observing and learning fast. 

Not finishing in time is another worry, as you will be working to tight deadlines. Another fear is a faulty technology  - this will most likely happen to you, but important is that you know a solution and fix the problem yourself.

Any tips or tricks for graduates or aspiring composers?

Keep emailing and asking people; many times it’s about the timing. Also, do the best job you can once you get a job; the industry is small and people will work with you again if you’re good and easy to work with. (Not just composers, but editors, engineers etc. can also recommend you). 

Be aware of the situation the composer is in; you are not always there from the start of the project. It’s likely he/she is in the most stressful situation, so just do as you’re told and give it your best; the composer doesn’t care that you have just finished working on a short film - save your self-promotion for the right moment. Also just keep making music, be creative and help others too as you can; it will always come back.