Film Scoring on a (non-existent) Budget

In the past month, I had been working on a film score for a fellow Ithaca alumnus, Ryan Shuler. Any of you familiar with my work in the short movie-musical The Art of Adjustment will recognize Ryan as the tap-dancing, Star-of-David-tattooed inmate “Spaz.” His wonderful short film, Salty Corn, is a humorous mockery of the “hipster” phenomenon (as well as a nice commentary about people’s unnecessary fear of odd/absurd cultural junk they don’t understand). Over the course of mid/late June, I was in the process of moving into housing provided by my current theatre job, and as a result, I had very little in the way of technological or musical resources for most of the scoring process. This mandated some haphazard improvisation on the part of the score, which was ultimately far more rewarding and informative than expected, and yielded some enjoyable “hipster” music. I chose to document a decent amount of the process, and created this video, a loose collection of clips from my initial creation of the film’s theme, set to the resultant music.

In the above video, I can be seen making use of various household items in place of percussion, utilizing the higher strings of a guitar in an unnecessarily high (and slightly out-of-tune) key to imply the sounds of the ukulele, and generating additional instruments on my digital piano. The theme had a more limited instrumentation than the film’s completed score, but the completed score utilized very similar household items in an attempt to generate an appropriately atmospheric score, but one with alternately subtle and obvious uses of the original theme’s hipster-ness. This is a list of the following instruments/objects I utilized, as well as the sounds they generated in the completed score:

Guitar – I restrung my Washburn Dreadnought acoustic guitar with electric strings I had lying around from a gig last fall, generating a much more tinny sound on the lower 3 strings of the instrument, and a more agitating scratch, and used it for the following sounds

  • Out-of-tune ukulele effect
  • Metallic low notes
  • String-scratching
  • Guitar body percussion
  • Muted strumming (mixed in various ways for percussive and/or atmospheric effects)

Keyboard – I have a rather old Yamaha P-140 digital piano. It’s in phenomenal condition, considering its years of use and abuse both in my adolescent home, high school misadventures, and now my post-collegiate years (just the other day I carried it about 7 blocks to a local venue for a gig and back – on foot with no case, unfortunately). I used it for the following sounds:

  • Piano (obvious, but not very often used in the film)
  • Vibraphone (both with and without reverb and/or vibrato effects)
  • Combination E.P. and Vibraphone effect(s)
  • Digital strings (almost no mixing required!)
  • Upright bass (surprisingly authentic sample)

My Big Mouth – A large amount of the film’s atmospheric effects were generated by my own humming or yodel-crooning nonsense, very heavily mixed to achieve a broad and haunting tone. In the video, you’ll notice I affect a rather poorly executed Australian accent (some have said New Zealand?) when singing the material. The reason for this is the initial inspiration for the theme: Ryan Shuler, the film’s director, provided the song “Five Years’ Time” by Noah and the Whale as an example of what he considered appropriate “hipster” music for the film. I extrapolated more on the style of the introductory measures than the subsequent song, choosing to avoid too much electronic content and shoot for a sound more organically suited to the film’s east coast setting, but I was dissatisfied with the various iterations of my voice, and after listening to Five Years’ Time repeatedly for well over a week, some of the singers’ affects were stuck in my head, and I decided to generate the vocals using a more laid back method. The primary vocal line was recorded in one take in what I considered a somewhat “lazy” style of singing with a slight accent, in an attempt to separate it somewhat from the traditional American pop sound I had been making. In addition to singing for the theme and the score, I did a great deal of whistling, mouth percussion (I say that because it definitely wasn’t good enough to be called beat-boxing), choral shrieking, and even some takes of me blowing my nose that were mixed into explosive percussive noises. Later in the film, for a massively dark sequence, I utilized a gigantic choral sound as well, recording myself in 28+ layers, compressing the resultant track to generate a more cinematic effect, and recording further non-choral material over it. One of the most entertaining in-jokes of the score is that there is an entire sequence where I am shrieking in my best Diana Damrau impression, simply stating various things that people associate with hipsters (“typwriters! oh the sweaters! such big glasses! not real glasses! lava lamps! nobody’s heard of that band!” is a verbatim line from the score). The resultant squeaks were mixed with massive reverb and gate expansion to achieve an indecipherable, semi-human sound that complemented the eerie choral and string material surrounding it.

Household Percussion – As seen in the video, I used various objects from around the house to generate a percussion segment. Eager for a shaker and a snare drum, but finding neither, I improvised them. I filled a tupperware jar halfway with dried rice, and it became a surprisingly good shaker.

And yes, I ate the rice when I was done.

And yes, I ate the rice when I was done.

I then used the same rice to generate a thin layer, held under saran wrap, inside a coffee tin. Initially drumming on the tin part of it was unsatisfactory, but drumming on the plastic lid with the handle of my drumsticks generated a much more snare-like sound, if a tad higher in pitch and timbre than I wanted.

I might not drink coffee, but now I RESPECT it.

I might not drink coffee, but now I RESPECT it.

In what I’m sure was one of his more surreal summer experiences, one of my housemates was kind enough to hold a baking tray up to the microphone while I drummed on it with nearly broken drumsticks wrapped in old bandanas to simulate mallets. This was used to generate sounds akin to both a rolled cymbal, and a thundersheet, depending on the subsequent mixing, and became one of the single most useful broke-musician tricks ever.

The sweat in the bandanas helps with muting.

The heavy sweat in music note bandana helps with muting!

Various objects were struck, shaken, rubbed, scraped, or even slowly filled with water to achieve both percussive and atmospheric sounds. In addition to the above objects, I also used:

  • A cracked margarita glass (used for bell sounds), which I ultimately broke further – the glass breaking can be heard at roughly 1:42 in the video.
  • A metal bowl (largely for atmosphere) which I would strike with the drumsticks, or fill with water and scratch with a fork.
  • A large plastic bowl (seen in the video) which largely functioned as hand percussion, and was mixed to have a much larger bass drum (ish) sound.
  • An empty pot, filled with water, and rubbed with my rougher leather belt to generate an atmospheric tone. I also got a bending sound out of it by rubbing the pot while I poured the water out.
  • The baking sheet, strummed on with my fingers, rubbed with a fork, bashed with my forehead, and (on one occasion) sprinkled with rice.
  • Two empty soda cans held by their tabs and banged together.
  • A cardboard box struck with the microphone’s wind screen.
  • A small electric fan being occasionally poked with a rolled up business card to generate a thrumming sound.
  • Armpit farts (I’m completely serious) mixed to sound percussive.
  • A large flower vase partially filled with ping-pong balls, suspended from an improvised handle, and shaken to produce a strange bell-like sound.
  • A frying pan, struck with a large wooden spoon.

I’m immensely proud of the completed score, which I feel ranges from a sort of deliberately simple low-tech quality in its lighter “hipster” moments, to a rather extravagant absurdity in its more grandiose moments. The main motif of the Salty Corn Theme (a simple “do-mi-re-do” refrain heard in the chorus) echoes throughout the film, and while it is certainly not an overly intelligent or original theme, I prefer it to the initial complexity I attempted in older forms of the score. Working on such a pathetic budget may be constraining or stressful at times (the entire score was recorded on the same microphone, on my laptop, using a wind screen made from a clothes hanger and hosiery and a microphone stand held together by duct tape), it can also yield surprisingly good sounds when committed to (I’ll definitely be using the baking-sheet-with-bandana-wrapped-drumsticks trick again).  Salty Corn is not currently available in its complete form online, but I encourage you to check out the trailer (not my music) and the film’s FaceBook page for further info and updates.

On to the next weird score!

  • “Queen of the Night Aria” from Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
  • “Snuff” by Slipknot
  • “Quelqu’un M’a Dit” by Carla Bruni

About Jacob Minter

My name's Jake. I work in music and media, particularly film and theatre. I am a composer, actor, performer, and all around creative ass. I write songs about ninjas, chronic masturbation, and love, among other things. I also perform in musical theater, play a lot of different instruments, and draw silly and offensive things. View all posts by Jacob Minter


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