Film & Video Music Composer: Calin Joseph McCarthy

Film & Video Music Composer: Calin Joseph McCarthy

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Calin Joseph McCarthy was born in Cleveland, OH. Growing up modestly in the suburbs, Calin lived his early years in Avon Lake, OH with his parents and two siblings. An avid enthusiast for sports, film, technology and education cultivated a strong understanding of concepts, primarily in the arts. Having completed high school in 2004, and college in 2008, Calin obtained a Bachelors degree in Film & Video from the University of Toledo. Continuing to develop his compositional skills beyond college, Calin composed music, short, and feature-length film projects around northeast Ohio and the United States. Being an independent composer, he continues to create online content for film and relishes compositional challenges that can showcase his writing skills. Along with composing, he is also a professional painter and workers compensation advocate.

Student Filmmakers Magazine came upon Calin Joseph McCarthy’s profile in the Filmmakers Forums Community Online. We asked the talented composer these 4 questions.

What are some of your thoughts on the relationship between music composition and moving images?

Calin Joseph McCarthy: Well, despite film having begun without the accompaniment of music in the beginning years, I think it was always inevitable the two were going to be paired together. The ability for music to address dramatic elements, foreshadowing, and nearly everything in between makes for a total overall experience. Film music is non-diegetic, created only for the audience and unheard by the characters in the film (with some exceptions). It adds depth, meaning, situational context, and there’s simply nothing better watching a perfect pairing of a well-edited film and a well-written score.

One notable aspect of film and music that I find to be the Goldilocks zone of perfection is when you have two strong auteurs creating material for film. The director and the composer feed off each other and you end up with a project that looks and sounds like how it should have always existed. Typically these are the popular collaborations one reads about. John Williams and Steven Spielberg, Roland Emmerich and David Arnold, James Horner and James Cameron, etc. The projects they worked on reached a creation plateau, and it’s rare now a days to see that sort of achievement.

Do you compose music mostly on the piano? Do you use other instruments, tools or software in your composing process? What is your creative process?

Calin Joseph McCarthy: I do compose mostly by piano. It’s an easy instrument to manipulate, and a midi controller/ keyboard with available resources can really allow you to create what you need without an orchestra or fancy editing and such. I essentially use a midi controller that is linked to a large library of orchestral instruments. So, access to brass, woodwinds, strings, percussion, and specialized instruments to create whatever fabric a director is seeking.

Now, a lot of composers either compose with pencil and paper, or with the use of some sort of notation software. I find both of those methods time consuming and somewhat tedious. So, in an effort to remain as organic and efficient as possible, I essentially created my own personal process for composing music.

I begin with a “skeleton” track. A simple harp, piano, or guitar solo that fleshes out the general melody, length, and rhythm I want. Once that’s complete and sounding acceptable, I then use that track to create the rest of the cue. Imagine this “skeleton” track placed into some editing software. From there, you unfold the entire cue based off the information in the skeleton track. You simply begin by adding various layers; your bass, your harmonies, your counterpoint, the heavy brass, the layered strings, the chirping woodwinds, all feeding off that skeleton track. This is where the magic happens. There are no rules in this phase. I generally add and manipulate whatever instruments I want and how they will sound.

During this phase, I’m constantly recording a Wav. file of my performance. Once I achieve the desired outcome, I simply edit that part into the whole and continue to add until you have a mostly final sketch of the entire cue. Typically in a 4-5 minute cue, there’s upwards of maybe 500 different separate solo instrument Wav. files I have to edit together. A lot of composers choose to work with notation software, however, I find that the overall outcome sounds sterilized and too perfect for a human performance. The trick is keeping in small, very small mistakes so it gives the impression of an authentic human performance. Every note heard in any track I’ve created was performed by me personally, on a keyboard, without the aid of notation software. I don’t write notes down, and everything is created from memory. This way, if I have an unfortunate handling of the cue, or my computer takes a dive, I can create the entire cue again using only the skeleton track and my memory. Is it time consuming? Of course. Is it absolutely necessary? Probably not given the technology that exists to assists composers now a days. There are a million ways to skin this cat, and I always implore other composers to find the method that works best for them. If it sounds good, it is good. Kind of a general rule of thumb!

Can you share with us 3 Important Things you’ve learned while creating your favorite compositions?

Calin Joseph McCarthy: I can, and will! So, one initial thought when it comes to composing is how tremendously difficult it is to do, especially if you’re the only employee. Generally, a production may have a 100 piece orchestra, editors, arrangers, orchestra-tors, conductors, typists, etc. As a lone composer, I have to compose the entire piece, perform the entire score, edit the entire thing together, mix and master the track, and even maybe assist in editing it into the final film. But, that’s what makes it all the more worthwhile. The more you can learn and do on your own, the more valuable you are as a composer.

Secondly, how difficult it is to actually make a living as a composer. Getting nominal to exceptional exposure can take a mix of things. Luck is absolutely one of them, running into the right director or producer at the right time during your journey. It’s also about effective networking. Hooking up with the right type of project that can really showcase the music you intend to write. If you’re into writing large orchestral fantasy scores, it may not be in your best interest to accept a project that is about the societal impacts of tourists in 1973 whilst attending the great wall of China. It’s important to stay in your lane, but also to make that lane as wide as possible. A versatile composer is a commodity, but you’ll quickly discover a comfort zone with writing. Stick to that.

One of the most desirable aspects about music I’ve discovered while composing [and also a highly desired state of writing] is creating a signature sound. I don’t think I’ve personally discovered mine yet, but I can see what it looks like from a distance, and my entire soul wishes to discover what that signature sound is. Signature sound I suppose can be described as an undeniable potency of specific notes, timbre, and familiarity that is associated with a specific composer. This probably takes years of writing, going through different permutations of melodies, and creating a lot of tracks that may never see the light of day, but were otherwise stepping stones towards a larger goal. Signature sound also gives insights into who influenced a composer, and what they found important to include into their own works. Here’s the thing; we all have a signature sound…you do not “create” a signature sound, but rather dust off the one that is hiding in plain sight. Time, and effort. The only two ingredients needed to discover that.

What are your new year goals for 2021 as a composer?

Calin Joseph McCarthy: One of my primary goals this year is to jump to a new level of writing. Finding the right density, composition, and emotional impacts that sound great [professional], and that may lend themselves to a scene or an entire film. Like I mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult to make a living as a composer. I consider myself a very modest person, and would love to find a niche group of directors that enjoy the work I do. I do not have any illusions of grandeur, nor really feel the need to climb the ladder to its end. Large scale, Hollywood scores are absolutely fantastic, and are what mostly what inspired me to begin writing. Composing mostly seems to have a specific trajectory, and not everyone will get a chance to compose for a big budget project.

That being said, I personally find a lot of today’s film music to be lacking in it’s originality, it’s lyricism, and it’s devotion to providing the audience with lasting themes to hum long after they leave the theater. One of my goals would be to reinvigorate the scoring process and restore specific elements to film music that don’t currently exist. We’re in the midst of a major “remake” phase in Hollywood; you can remake a film from the 80’s all you want, but unless you also drag conceptually the score along with it, all you have is half the equation to make it work. There are a lot of competent composers out there, and a lot of variables that determine whether or not you will ever hear from them. I hope to be one of those composers that, on some level, my material reaches the ears of those who in turn, are inspired to create a composition themselves, no matter what level they’re beginning at. Time, and effort.