DIY Muso Spotlight – Michael W. Bell

Here is the latest  DIY Muso Spotlight, where I talk to fellow DIY Musos and find out a bit about how they do their things. This time I’m very pleased to have had a chance to interrupt Michael Bell’s busy schedule with a few questions. 

I came to know Michael through some soundtrack work I did for a film he was also working on a few years ago. I’ve since seen his expertise and workload grow along with his impressive skills as a composer. Let’s see what he’s got going on.

Spotlight On: Michael W. Bell

“Hello to all and a big thank you to Stu for asking to me be apart of the community! I’m Mike, a UK based film composer working from my home studio, Aurora Eclipse Productions. I have composed music for short and feature length films, trailers, documentaries, animations, websites and idents/company branding for various filmmakers, producers and music supervisors worldwide.”

Name: Michael W. Bell
Age: 28
Location: Surrey, UK


DAW: Logic Pro X & Pro Tools 12

Audio Interface: Mackie Only 1620i

Monitors: KRK Rocket 5s

Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO

Controllers (midi/surfaces): M-Audio Keystation 88ES / Korg nanoKONTROL2 / iPad

Instruments: M-Audio Keystation 88es, Ibanez Talman TCM50, Jackson Guitars

Synthesizers/drum-machines: All “In-The-Box”, Absynth 5, Cyclop, ES2

Microphones: Audio-Technica ATM650, sE Electronics X1, M-Audio Pulsar II (Stereo Pair)

Who/What are your biggest musical influences?

Working with film, I would say it’s the story, conversations with Directors, studying and being aware of the human condition, society, culture, setting, all these elements give a wealth of influence over the score. The great thing about composing to film is you are given the gift of the film itself and that is usually a great basis for inspiration, my job is to react to the visuals quickly and start to develop the themes and key motifs. I try to ‘become’ the character or event when looking for an emotional voice, but for me, defining the atmosphere and general mood of the picture is usually first on my priority list. This will then dictate the instrumentation and usually things start happening pretty fast.

When composing off picture, I think my inspiration comes from just general observation. If you look hard enough there is so much going on in the world, lets underscore it! Sometimes I come up with a script that exists in my head and write to that; I would like to think my music is generally very cinematic in approach every time.

Musical inspirations in terms of composers… Wow, where to even begin. I have come to admire composers from different angles, either the music itself, the approach to the composition, the production, or a mix of all three. I spent a fair bit of time at Uni exploring Jerry Goldsmith’s work for ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Alien’ which are two very similar scores in terms of approach and function; the level of detail in the orchestration and amount of thought that went into the instrumentation is just unreal; and this is the thing you know, who would get away with releasing ‘Planet of the Apes’ as a commercial musical release on it’s own? I can’t imagine it would do too well, but when synced with the film, it just interlocked so well and was a successful score, film really is the composer’s best friend as it gives the green light for experimentation.

Generally I’m a bit of a mixed bag, I love Zimmer’s bombastic scores for the more contemporary action films; Williams for his romantic work; Steiner for his Mickey Mousing; Herrmann’s haunting, impressionist work for ‘Psycho’ and his Jazzy work in ‘Taxi Driver’ all the way up to the more electronic textural approach you hear in films such as ‘The Social Network’ or “Ex Machina” and pretty much everything in-between. I’m pretty interested and open-minded when it comes to music.

Which instruments do you play?

Once up on a time, a long-long time ago I was a rhythm guitarist in a metal band, now days, I play keys almost exclusively as thats how I record everything into the computer to produce my scores. I’ve not touched the guitar for a very long time and that does make me a little sad, It’s something I’m hoping to pick up again this year. I don’t really consider myself a performer, composing the music and finding the right players to perform the piece is something that interests me more.

When did you first get into recording/producing?

Probably in around 2007, while in the band I began contributing and recording some rhythm riffs on a really old computer using Adobe’s Audition…But I never thought of myself as a songwriter, producer or anything like that in those days. I found the whole process quite scary thinking back on it and mostly just wanted to play and have fun. All that changed when I went to study Music Production at the University of Brighton in 2010, back then I wanted to be a Live Sound Engineer.

How did you get into recording/producing?

The band was definitely a catalyst for me to start looking at producing and recording my own music, but there was a module on my Music Production course at Uni which covered music and sound within the moving image and that really opened the door for me and inspired me to get composing and producing.

I think film music has always moved me; I get very into the whole world of a film and the sonic environment is a big part of that. I mean, I’m laughing now, but I can remember hiding behind the sofa as a kid as soon as I heard Mussorgsky’s ‘Night On Bald Mountain’ in Disney’s Fantasia. The visuals were pretty creepy, but I think the music scared me more and those two elements put together was just too much for my young brain!

I scored “Francis”, my first short student film in 2011 as part of the film module mentioned above, it was the first time I worked with sample libraries and considered writing for an orchestra, I fell in love with the whole process from that point on.

What was your very first set-up?

Weirdly, pretty much the same as what I use now… I took a career development loan and didn’t really hold back on the spending. My software has changed a lot and I’ve gone through different MIDI and Audio Interfaces, but the core setup is the same. My very first music system was running on the same Mac Pro system I use today, I used Logic Pro 9 and Pro Tools LE 8 as my DAWs, an M-Audio Oxygen 49 MIDI Keyboard and a Digidesign MBOX2 as my interface.

Could you talk us through your usual recording/producing process?

These days, I’ve been consciously trying to come at my music from a more rhythmic perspective, so I’ll usually start by flirting with an ostinato playing staccato/staccatissimo (depending on the speed of the cue) with a cello/violin section and take it from there… Theme wise, It normally starts on the piano while I’m working out the foundations and trying to find my sonic voice then it really depends on the project, I try not to start orchestrating too early on as I consider that to be a separate task and it can create more work for yourself, especially if your core idea changes halfway through.

Other times, it is literally the timbre and expression of the instrument which I feel speak more than the notes themselves so I will start to play around with sounds and textures rather than ‘music’ itself, I guess this is more where the ‘sound design’ element of my music comes into play. This obviously depends on how you define sound and music; to me there is little difference between the two.

Production wise, I work to a template which is constantly evolving, my favourite “go-to” instruments are loaded and everything is “mixed” to a point in Logic, so reverbs, compression, EQ and a general balance is worked out for me allowing me time to just select a patch and start writing, this does however change as the project develops and you start to “design” the sound for the film’s sonic world. There are various videos being added to my Youtube channel showing these processes off should anyone want to know more.

Stay positive, keep growing and honing your skills, be patient and have fun!

How do you handle your mastering?

I do it myself, but I don’t recommend it… I use a combination of T-racks and Slate Digital’s “Everything Bundle”. I usually have a basic rack setup on my Master Fader at all times to keep the score volumes matched as close to the dialogue and sound effects as possible, but this all changes once the track is finished…

Depending on the project as they all have different dynamic needs, I usually leave between -10 and -6db of headroom before exporting the cue for mastering. Towards the end of this year I’ll be looking for a Mastering Engineer to help me out with this process as I would really like to get a second set of ears of my work before it leaves the studio and goes out into the world.

Which pieces of hardware could you absolutely not do without, and why?

It sounds obvious, but I would be lost without my computer and MIDI Keyboard, without those two things I’d be out of the game.

Which audio plugins could you absolutely not do without, and why?

I would say Native Instruments’s Kontakt as that sampler runs about 80% of my sound pallet; Artsacoustic’s reverb as I was having some serious CPU issues before implementing that into my template and Slate Digital’s “Everything Bundle” has quickly become very important in my workflow for mixing and mastering.

Which audio plugins do you love the most, and why?

In terms of samples libraries, this changes a fair bit but at the moment I’m in love the Tina Guo Cello library from Cinesamples… It’s so versatile, it will cut through a pretty heavy mix without issue and the expressiveness of the playing both with and without vibrato has been a big hit in my more recent scores.

What would you say was the most significant upgrade/addition to your setup?

Solid State Hard-drives (SSDs), without question and the addition of the Korg nanoKONTROL2 was massive, having volume, expression, modulation and hold right at your fingertips while playing changed the game for me.

What would you say are the most significant recording/producing lessons you’ve learnt up to now?

I touched on this above, but I would say getting the monitoring volume correct when you are writing is so important, I think that goes for all types of production. Listen to music in the same genre or style you are writing/producing for and try to match your DAW output (not the volume on your monitors) as close to this as possible, even if that means temporarily adding a soft limiter to you master fader.

Obviously don’t crush the hell out of your mix, but get your volume up so it’s in context, this is especially important for film work. There have been many times in the past where I would compose entire cues, the “feel” or “mood” would be perfect, but the performances themselves were too quiet in relation to the rest of the film’s sound; I had to go in and adjust the dynamics of the players which threw the entire cue off course; it’s a schoolboy error that can be a very tiresome task, believe me.

Outside of this, try to remain focused and take breaks accordingly. If I start becoming frustrated with a mix, I no longer sit late into the early hours getting tired and irritable; take some time out, go to sleep, go for a walk, you will be way more focused when returning to the track.

What’s next for your set-up in terms of new hardware/software and/or upgrades?

I need a hardware upgrade in terms of my Mac, I’m waiting to see what Apple have in store for us towards the end of 2017 before making the jump… I’ve had my eye on Universal Audio’s UAD interfaces for some time now but until I have access to a Thunderbolt port on my system, they are out of my reach.

What’s next for you as a DIY musician?

To continue playing and having as much fun with my music as possible! I’m currently working on a personal ambient project which is very much in pre-production and putting together an album of trailer cues for sync to picture which I’m really excited about.

Any final words on being a DIY Muso?

Stay positive, keep growing and honing your skills, be patient and have fun! Moving forward, I’m excited to be talking to you guys in the group for some more DIY music and production related conversation.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Best of luck in the future!

And thanks to anyone reading this DIY Muso Spotlight, I hope you enjoyed it and found it valuable in some way. 

Feel free to add your questions or comments below. If you would like to have the spotlight turned on you then don’t hesitate to ask!

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