By Jan Hoeglund
Dirk Ehlert is an award winning composer (BMI) based near Berlin, Germany. His music has been used for feature films, games, film trailers, advertising and a wide range of TV Networks like Bravo, MTV, HBO and NBC.
Dirk, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with us. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your educational and music background?
Thanks for having me on this interview. I have been doing music full time for now four years. Music has always been a big part of my life, although I started out relatively late at the age of around 14. I taught myself some stuff on the piano, took vocal lessons and expanded pretty quickly into the realm of producing. I started out in a school band doing some keyboard. Later on when I was in college, it were actually some close friends that convinced me to give it a try and actually study music at university. So that's what I did then for quite a while, unfortunately I was a lousy student and ended up with no certificate at all when I left university after a few years. I then did some research into different freelancing areas such as web design, video production and editing, etc. In 2008 I produced, and for the main part composed, the debut album "Rise" of my band "AnsoticcA" which gained worldwide recognition. That was also the first time that I dug deep into orchestral arrangements, since we were doing Symphonic Metal. After a few ups and downs in my business life it was in the beginning of 2011, shortly after my 1st son was born, that I needed to go back to freelancing. I told myself that this was going to be a kind of last try to get serious with music making and producing. So with no idea how to do it I started writing tracks in different styles and genres and put that stuff onto some royalty free markets to see if anything happens.
At the same time I went to Facebook and immediately saw it as integral part of my future and started networking, connecting to people, joined discussions, asked questions etc. In a pretty short time I got to know fellow composers and also found new work opportunities. After these four years I am pretty proud when I look at the work I've done so far, ranging from a good bunch of US TV placements, commercials, movie trailers and film scores. I also work as a beta tester and demo writer for various sample library developers.
You're very involved in the international composer scene and you were a chapter director for Scorecast Germany for a number of years. How important do you feel networking is for a composer?
As I've mentioned before, straight from the beginning of my career I saw Facebook as an essential tool to get being a freelance composer running. That doesn't involve composing, but "knowing the right people". I am eternally grateful that I have a chance to live in an age of technology where there are virtually no boundaries anymore. Without it I wouldn't have been able to build my career and work with clients that live 5,000 miles away.
I met so many people, some of these I now consider friends. A lot of these people have helped me on my journey. This is indeed the main experience that I took from this. When I started out back then, this whole "composer scene" was so far away like famous actors or celebrities. Only through networking and social interaction I learned a lot about the fact that these guys are just normal people, just like the guy next door. And they just do "their job". I think a lot of it has to do with attitude. If you're easy to work with and play nicely it will reflect back on you. Kind of like in real life, treat others as you want to be treated, then the rest falls into place automatically. At least you share the same interests with these people, making music and being creative, so that's definitely a good starting point.
How important are sample libraries for you? I quite enjoyed your videos on how to set up templates in Cubase. What are your thoughts on sharing templates with other composers as a lot of composers feel that their settings are trade secrets that they don't want to give away?
In times of ever decreasing budgets and extremely fast turnaround times sample libraries are an integral part of my daily workflow. Not only for sketching purposes or creating mockups but also for creating finalized "ready to use" cues straight out of the box. Luckily the technological development in recent years has made it possible to get access to a superb sonic quality on a relatively small investment level. Samples nowadays get as close to the "real" thing, and it is fairly easy to fool an untrained ear into believing that it's actually a recorded performance. That obviously helps tremendously getting great results working as a one man team. Though I have to admit that sample libraries, no matter how good they sound, will never take the place of a trained musician performing and recording your music. The human element is always the icing on the cake, so when the budget allows for it I'd always go for live musicians instead of using samples.
Glad you enjoyed the template videos. I honestly don't think you can give away "too much" in regards to your own secrets or anything. When I started on these videos I just thought about what I found hard to get info on when I was starting out. I would have loved to have that information available back then from someone else. I think it would have helped me a lot in getting faster to where I am now. Sure, I show some production techniques, but that doesn't mean that it's dogmatic in any way. It's just my way of doing things. Ask three other composers and you might get four more ways of doing the same thing. In the end I just show how I use the tools I have at my disposal. But bottom line is that it's not the tools that write the music or create a score, but the guy on the other side of the screen.
I think that the creative aspect can't be put into any tutorial, this is something each and everyone must find on their own. That is what defines "your voice" in the end, not which EQ you use or which string library. It makes me happy when I get feedback from people, that they liked these video tutorials and that they learned something from them. This in the end leaves me with a good feeling, as I just feel that I gave something back. So there will definitely be more tutorials and walk-throughs in the future.
How do you combine and balance those epic elements with electronic music and which composers influenced you?
Actually on my big template that I use for trailers (where I try to cover the orchestral as well as the electronic side together), I have surprisingly little tools running that shape or alter the sound. I don't really know why, I try to avoid EQing as much as possible. For the most part I just low cut all elements that are not meant to live in the low frequency area (so basically everything besides bass, kick and low percs). That alone helps tremendously with having room for the instruments to "breathe" My whole production process is pretty much streamlined that way, that I don't have separate processing instances, like a writing session, a mockup session, a mixing session and a mastering session for example. In my approach it all melts together... apart from the mastering maybe, depending on whether I'll do that myself or have it done by someone else. I make mixing decisions during the writing process. I also rarely touch the volume faders in the mixer. Since the majority of instruments in the template are midi based and virtual instruments I use a lot of Midi controller data. So when actually recording the instruments I balance them to each other by riding either Modwheel, CC11 or CC07 (depending on the instruments) to put them into balance with each other. And if I went all crazy with the strings for example and they already sound very thick and dense and leave little room for other instruments, I rather change the arrangement and thin out the strings instead of trying to make room for other instruments through EQing.
So a lot of "mixing" decisions are actually arrangement decisions. If you are standing in front of a (hopefully good) orchestra that plays a tune in a hall, the sound is overwhelming, full, warm, rich. And all this is in the notes they play, there's no compression, EQ or anything. So I rather try to balance my stuff when I'm composing, not afterwards in some mixing process.
Regarding my influences, I luckily have a broad range of music that I like. I am a huge fan of Hans Zimmer's work and I also love the work of Harry Gregson-Williams or Brian Tyler. Actually, there are so many other composers to list here, I'll just say that I am a fan of film music in general. But I really try to listen to that style of music only for the sake of enjoying it. When I'm working on a score I try to avoid and listen to film music to not get too distracted from my own ideas.
You grew up playing in bands. What elements and experiences of that do you feel did you incorporate into your work as a composer now?
As i mentioned before, I mainly started out on keys and piano. Over time I picked up other instruments as well, like a little bit of guitar and bass, drums etc. Being in a band helped tremendously in understanding how single instruments are part of a bigger picture. Especially when you try to "fake" instrument performances it is vital to have at least a basic understanding of the concept of how these instruments work. If someone has no idea of how to play a guitar he or she might have a hard time coming up with some decent guitar emulation on a keyboard. Same goes for arranging, ideally in a band you try to cover the frequency range with everyone involved and obviously everyone wants to be heard. So it's in the arrangement to define a spot for each note / instrument involved. That's what I try to do at home in my studio as well when I'm writing cues.
What's your take on the current film/game/trailer music scene? What changes have you observed?
The trailer music industry in particular is vastly changing its sonic face. Of course there are certain elements that will always be there to accompany the message or the intent. But lately I am happy to see that trailers go from the rather sounddesign-y/tech sounding approach back to melody and emotion. In my opinion it's easier to remember a trailer with a memorable melody than one with one huge boom after the other. Same applies for film scores, although that's tougher to generalize as there always have been and always will be new ideas and sonic qualities that you may not have thought of before. On the other hand this is strongly connected to the visuals as well, so a soundscape that may work greatly with a film you're working on can totally suck at the next project.
I'd love to see even more producers being aware of the fact that they consider budgets for live musicians. Yes, technology allows to produce on an indie level but the more craftmanship of real musicians can be involved in the creation of a score the better the final result will be.
You recently collaborated with Virginia Beach based director Scott Hansen who is very rooted in the world of horror movies and also music videos. How did that come about, how did you find each other and how did you experience the process of scoring a full length movie?
Actually we'd been in touch for about 2 years. Back then, Scot was filming "Monumental" throughout the US. It was my agent back then who sent me some composer job pitches, and "Monumental" was one of these. Actually, I knew not much about the project, all that my agent had sent me was the script. I read it and that very moment I immediately knew that I wanted to do the score for that film. So I came up with a tune based on the music I heard in my head when I read the script. As far as I know, Scott heard that tune on the phone somewhere in the middle of nowhere as they were still filming. Something must have impressed him as now that cue is the main theme for "Monumental" (the film is currently in the final stage of post production). But that's how we first came together. There have been two more feature film projects with Digital Thunderdome, a documentary, "Until it hurts", that recently premiered in Norfolk, VA and "The Possession Experiment" a great horror flick, that also is in the final stages of post production and will hopefully be released by the end of this year.
Luckily these scoring jobs haven't been the first ones for me, so I was able to look back at some other projects I had done in the past. My very first serious scoring gig was an Indonesian movie, "Hattrick" back in 2012. I worked on that one to help out film composer Deane Ogden. His mentoring was an invaluable experience for pretty much all the future projects that I took on myself then. I learned a lot working on that movie with him
Since then, the way I score follows very specific steps. First, I pretty much wet my pants when I hear that I got the gig. After that initial phase of excitement combined with fear and questioning my skills, I usually touch base with the director to set up a spotting session, so we go through each scene to decide whether music is needed in it and what kind.
After that comes some procrastination (ideally I omit that part haha) and at some point I just sit down to get my head around the sonic space that I see fitting for the movie and then work my way from there. That's also what I really love about my job, when you start out on a movie, you don't really have an idea what it'll be like in the end. Thrilling and fulfilling at the same time.
What's next for Dirk Ehlert? Another movie?
The immediate next thing will be a release of a new (very melodic / grande) trailer music album for "DosBrains", my trailer music publisher in LA. There's also a new project in the pipes with Digital Thunderdome which I can't speak about yet (but the words feature and film may be involved ) plus a bunch of library work that I do on a regular basis.