Hybrid Scores: The Quality of Sound, Choosing Sounds for Color,  and Beyond Orchestral Instruments

by Kristen Baum

I frequently compose hybrid scores for the film projects I score. In several of my scores, I use sounds that aren’t traditional instruments. There are a variety of reasons for hybrid scores. Sometimes a project’s budget restrictions necessitate it. Other times, it can be chosen for the effect and what that will bring to the story.

So, let me pull back the curtain a bit and share my thoughts. A hybrid score is one that combines elements—from live-recorded instruments to computer-generated/software sounds to elements recorded in the real world (field recordings/found sound).

I work in Logic on my MacPro and like most composers today, I own a variety of software libraries. These libraries range from orchestral instruments to atmospheric instruments to ethnic instruments and voices and things even farther afield. These could be specific instruments (like a theramin), or manipulated metallic sounds. The list goes on and on.

Film composers are expected to create mock-ups of cues they compose. As a result, a workhorse of a computer (loaded with RAM and with high CPU capabilities) and a cross-section of software instruments are must have tools.

But software instruments are available to anyone with the money to buy them. And some of the software instruments (libraries) sound iconic, recognizable. So the challenge becomes creating a score that doesn’t have the same sound quality as everyone else’s.


The Quality of Sound


Maybe you’re wondering, with all of this software available, why even bother with the expense and recording live musicians? Maybe you’ve heard the mock-up and think that sounds good enough. Here’s the thing. A mock-up only approximates the sound of a live orchestra (or smaller ensemble). There are musical qualities a computer-generated mock-up is missing.

Expression. There is a quality that a living, breathing human brings to music and that is the quality of living, breathing-ness. A musician can infuse passion into a note, a breath or a phrase of music that is challenging to create using only a computer. My challenge in creating an entire score “in the box,” one in which every one of the sounds is generated on the computer, is creating a feeling of aliveness in the music.

One reason for combining performances by musicians with computer-generated sounds and is that it can lend a quality of liveness to an otherwise completely in-the-box score. Why would that matter? In a word, breath. Breath gives the quality of aliveness, an added dimension, to a score that may otherwise sound flat or two-dimensional. A clarinetist friend of mine can play one sustained note and the way he plays it can move me to tears. None of my computer sounds can do that.


Choosing Sounds for Color


Choosing what tone colors to add is a storytelling decision for me. When I create a hybrid score because of budgetary restrictions, that limits me to a handful of live instruments. When that’s the case, I consider each instrument and what quality it will lend to the score as a whole. Each instrument I choose will be unique and I will choose it for its tone quality and for the meaning it will lend to the story.

In another of my scores, the story centered around a couple deciding whether they would have a baby together. So, after a discussion with the director about concept, I bought a bunch of baby-related noise makers. You know the kind. The kind your kid brother buys for your toddler just to torment you: popcorn poppers, rattles, jingle bell sticks, that annoying turtle-on-a-pull-string (or was it a dog?) that dings every time his feet go around. Yes! I chose to record every kid-related noisemaker I could get my hands on. Then, I used my recordings of those sounds as the percussion in the main title, which evoked a whimsical, childlike quality. The rest of the score evolved from there, and while the rest was more traditional—the melody, the accompaniment, the instruments I used, those noisemakers created the essence of the score.

I had a similar opportunity a couple of years later when a director asked me to score a fantasy film. A portion of the score would be a montage showing this apartment bursting with people all exploiting a mysterious blue object that showed up in this dude’s living room and started spitting out door knobs. The director wanted something unorthodox for the score. That gave me permission to experiment. So I brought out my portable recorder and started sampling: doors opening, closing, squeaks, wine corks popping, trumpet valves clicking. Anything I could think of using in a way it wasn’t designed to be used, I did. I even got out my broken-down accordion that I bought at a pawn shop in NoHo and recorded the squeaky-flappy-blurty note that sounds like a reed might be partway broken and not working right. I turned it into a percussive piece that honked and burped along with sections of melody and sections of everything+kitchen sink in between much smaller sections with fewer things thrown in. These scores are totally fun to do. BUT, I find I have to do one thing: find the organizing factor. What’s the glue that holds it all together? What creates the cohesiveness that says this is music and not just a sound guy’s graveyard of discarded effects? That’s where my musicality comes in.

Beyond Orchestral Instruments


In several of the scores I’ve composed, I use sounds that aren’t traditional orchestral instruments. It’s one technique in a composer’s toolbox that can capture a mood or convey something that our ears process as different thereby sending a subtle message to our minds to start working. When our mind gets that kind of cue we start asking “What’s up with that?” As we continue to watch, we listen for more clues until we’re able to parse the meaning of the message.

A prime example of using non-orchestra instruments as sonic clues in scores is found in Marvin Hamlisch’s score for “The Informant,” in which one of the instrument choices (a kazoo) gives the audience a consistent clue as to the reliability of one of the movie’s characters. And another example that’s farther afield, is the use of whale sounds in Christopher Young’s score for A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddie’s Revenge, in which the whale sound evokes a dream-like quality.

The things to consider when using a hybrid score, is to ask what’s the purpose of this? What meaning does it lend to the storytelling? Because, when it comes to film scoring the most important thing to remember is that music is the servant of the story being told on screen.

And the instruments and sounds we choose are one part of the larger picture.


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