Composer Success Series with Charlie Clouser, Sherri Chung, & Cindy O’Connor Asbjoern Andersen


Want to succeed as a composer? Helping you do that is exactly what our new Composer Success Series is all about - offering inspiration, advice on getting started and advancing your career, creative tips and tricks, helpful resources and lessons learned, from some of the industry's most successful composers for film, games and beyond.

In these first 3 interviews, you'll hear what it takes to get started and succeed in composing for the TV industry, from award-winning musician and composer Charlie Clouser, composer Sherri Chung (named by Variety in 2020 as one of 10 Composers to Watch), and Emmy-nominated composer Cindy O’Connor.


By Jennifer Walden and Asbjoern Andersen, images courtesy of Zoe Wiseman, Sherri Chung, and Cindy O’Connor
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The Composer Success Series:

 
Quick navigation – click below to jump straight to your composer of choice:

• Charlie Clouser – composer on the Saw franchise, Fox’s Wayward Pines, CBS’s Numb3rs, & NBC’s Las Vegas
• Sherri Chung – composer on The CW’s Batwoman and Riverdale, NBC’s Blindspot, and CBS’s The Red Line
• Cindy O’Connor – composer on ABC’s Once Upon a Time

More interviews in the Composer Success Series:

Inon Zur Pinar Toprak • Nainita DesaiJonathan SnipesGareth Coker Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson Daniel Kluger Ronit KirchmanZach RobinsonAlec Puro Jason Graves Peter McConnell Winifred Phillips Ariel MarxMatthew EarlChristopher Thomas

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Charlie Clouser:

ComposerSuccessSeries_Charlie_Clouser-01

Composer Charlie Clouser, photo by: Zoe Wiseman

Los Angeles-based recording artist and composer Charlie Clouser scores both film and television projects.

He’s the recipient of twelve BMI Film & TV Music awards and has also received ten platinum and gold record awards for his work as a member of the band Nine Inch Nails, and as a producer/programmer/remixer for David Bowie, Rob Zombie, Killing Joke, Helmet, Marilyn Manson, Jamiroquai, White Zombie, and many other artists.

With over two hundred hours of television underscore to his credit, Charlie’s scores to the CBS series Numb3rs and the NBC series Las Vegas spanned a wide range of styles, from ticking-clock hostage dramas and high-energy car chases to comedic casino capers and delicate heartbreak. More recently, his main title theme from the Fox/FX series American Horror Story was widely praised and helped to establish the creepy vibe of the very successful series, and his theme and underscore for the Fox series Wayward Pines provided another thick dose of unsettling atmospheres and powerful action-adventure themes.

Charlie’s scores for all seven films in the Saw franchise combined brutal electronics and homemade bowed metal instruments with tortured orchestral washes and became landmarks in industrial-strength horror, and his track “Hello Zepp” became a trademark of the franchise and a minor icon in the world of memorable horror themes. His scores for Dead Silence, Death Sentence, The Stepfather, Resident Evil: Extinction, The Collection and other films expanded upon these ideas and produced dozens of memorable themes, terrifying ambiences, and tension-filled rhythmic climaxes.

Charlie’s scores for all seven films in the ‘Saw’ franchise became landmarks in industrial-strength horror

As the keyboardist in the band Nine Inch Nails during most of the nineties, he toured the globe and contributed to their landmark albums “The Downward Spiral” and “The Fragile,” as well as numerous singles, remixes, and other projects undertaken by the band during his tenure. During that era, he remixed and collaborated with artists from Atari Teenage Riot to White Zombie, and as an early adopter and long-time user of Moog and other modular synthesizers, he has appeared in documentaries about Dr. Robert Moog’s life (Moog) and about the recent resurgence of synthesizer culture (I Dream of Wires).

Drawing from his thirty years of experience as a keyboardist, synthesist, and programmer, he brings to the table a huge palette of sounds and an unusual collection of instruments, including many one-of-a-kind electronic devices and hand-made sculptural metal instruments, all of which combine to create a huge range of emotional textures, from outright aggression to disorienting dissonance.

Find out more about Charlie’s work at IMDB.


• How did you get started as a composer? What was your very first score-to-picture gig, and what was that experience like for you?

I was hired in the late 1980’s by an Australian composer to do synth and drum programming, sound design, and computer wizardry on his score for the final season of the CBS series The Equalizer. I worked with him for a few years and got a baptism by fire on network TV deadlines, mixing for TV, and what works — both musically and sonically — in the context of TV drama scores.

I then veered sharply to the left and spent 15 years doing industrial rock records and remixes as a member of Nine Inch Nails.

When I left the band in 2001, I reunited with the same composer to score a series on Fox, and finally got my name on a card at the top of the show, and I was off and running.

I’ve split my time since then evenly between TV and film scores

Shortly after that, I scored my first feature: a low-budget horror film called Saw, which turned out to be a global juggernaut that has spawned eight sequels (so far).

I’ve split my time since then evenly between TV and film scores, and although the two avenues can present different challenges and rewards, I love them both equally and would hate to walk away from either one.

 

• Any advice to share on how to land a composing job in the TV/Film industry?

It’s always a good path to work underneath an established composer as an intern, assistant, programmer, etc. This lets you see how the sausage gets made without having your butt on the line too much, and this path worked really well for me. Without my early years as an uncredited collaborator, I would have unrealistic expectations about how to approach the creative challenges that scoring can present.

Without my early years as an uncredited collaborator, I would have unrealistic expectations

My years making records obviously helped as well, since I took away from that tons of experience at the outer extremes of musical experimentation, but scoring for picture is very different. My analogy is that making records is like painting portraits — you’ve got to get the shape of the nose just right, how the light hits the subject’s hair, etc. — but scoring for picture is more like abstract impressionism or modernism. A great score could be anything from a single red square on a black background to a wild cacophony of colors, or a photo-realistic renaissance tableau. All can work, and all are good fun.

 

• What are some essential lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?

Never make an excuse — no “dog ate my homework” stories, ever.

Never take credit for anyone else’s contributions

Never take credit for anyone else’s contributions — if the neighbor’s kid played the flute solo, give him credit (and pay him). If the young intern accidentally wrote the main titles theme for the movie, put him on the cue sheet (and pay him).

Always under-promise and over-deliver, and never, ever, be late.

 

• Any favorite tricks and workflows tips that help when composing for TV/Film?

Well, it’s no secret that having a template in your DAW, with all of the sounds you want to use in place and ready to go, with all compressors, EQ, and effects in place, is the way to go.

I pre-route every track to stem sub-masters that have individual master bus processing applied

But I do a couple of things beyond just that:

I pre-route every track to stem sub-masters that have individual master bus processing (usually limiters and things, like Ozone) applied, and the final mix is just a straight sum of those stems with no further processing. This lets me step on the stems hard if I want to and it ensures that the final sum of the stems won’t clip or misbehave.

Before I start a new project, I take some time to record new sounds just for that project and then make a toolbox folder with audio tracks and mapped sampler instruments from those sounds, and then I create a new template just for that project that uses those sounds alongside the old standards. That way each project can have a unique voice, and those sounds don’t get used on other projects.
 

• What are your favorite sites and resources for composers?

Well, I frequent GearSpace.com of course, when I want to argue about how much RAM your computer needs.

vi-control.net is invaluable for discussing and getting advice on the esoteric needs of film composers

But there’s a smaller site called vi-control.net which is more focused on composers scoring to picture using sample libraries, virtual instruments, and tools like Vienna Ensemble Pro. That site is invaluable for discussing and getting advice on the esoteric needs of film composers who want gigantic simulated orchestras on tap at all time, and there’s good musical and career advice to be found there as well.

 

• What’s one special thing you did to become a successful composer?

Since I don’t have an education in traditional orchestral composition, I might be at a disadvantage when compared to more mainstream composers, but there are plenty of them around.

I’ve always tried to steer a little to the left of the mainstream styles

So I’ve always tried to steer a little to the left of the mainstream styles, and use unusual, unique, and hand-built instruments to create sounds that are not available to the general public but that strike me in an emotional way. That approach gets me the results that I want and hopefully lets my music stand a little apart from the rest. Sometimes this approach means that I’m crashing through the bushes at two miles an hour instead of speeding down the crowded highway with the cruise control set at 80mph, but that suits me just fine.

 

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Sherri Chung:

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Composer Sherri Chung

Film composer Sherri Chung — named one of the 10 Composers to Watch in 2020 by Variety — has been recognized internationally as a trailblazing composer for film and television. Her music transcends genre, and fuses inspirations — both traditional and emerging — in support of filmmakers’ visions worldwide.

Frequently recognized for her television credits, including The CW series Batwoman and Riverdale, NBC’s Blindspot, and CBS’s The Red Line, she has also scored numerous feature films, documentaries, and commercials. Recent film credits include Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, and The Lost Husband — the latter which garnered her a Society of Composers and Lyricists nomination for Best Score for an Independent Studio Film.

She also composed the score for The Other Side of Home, which was shortlisted in the 2017 Oscars for Best Short Documentary.

Upcoming work includes scoring The CW’s Kung Fu, set to premiere in April 2021, and an animated show with HBO MAX and Amblin.

Learn more about her work at www.sherrichung.com


• How did you get started as a composer? What was your very first score-to-picture gig, and what was that experience like for you?

I grew up studying classical piano and voice, singing in choirs, and playing in bands, so I was getting a great musical education from a young age. I received a BM in Composition and Theory, and then later went to graduate school at The University of Southern California’s Scoring for Motion Picture and Television.

My move to Los Angeles is what I consider to be the start of my career. But I did do a few scores to picture before that.

The experience was one of those pivotal moments where you realize how important it is to procure and use the proper tools for the job.

My very first one was actually a live-to-picture gig where I was hired to re-write the score to the 1925 version of The Phantom of The Opera, and then perform it live at an art museum. I had no computer, no DAW, no ability to use MIDI, and no way to actually sync anything to picture besides pressing play on the DVD player and letting it run while I wrote and practiced the performance. I wrote and performed everything on my Casio keyboard!

The experience was one of those pivotal moments where you realize how important it is to procure and use the proper tools for the job. I made it work, and ultimately it was fulfilling, or at least wasn’t enough to deter me from the pursuit of this career. But it was a lot of work with a lot of roadblocks — and thank goodness there’s no recording of this performance that I know of!

My first score-to-picture gig in Los Angeles, though, was for a student film while I was attending USC. It was an experience where I learned how much of this job isn’t about the actual writing of the music so much as it is about employing good tools, interpreting a director’s direction, reading scenes effectively, and managing one’s time and resources.

Of course, the music you write and the pairing of it to picture is the end result, so your work needs to be solid, but I learned very early on in this project that there are so many other things that must also be given a great amount of detailed attention.
 

• Any advice you’d share on how to land a composing job in the TV industry?

Well, my path to composing for television started when I was an assistant and then an orchestrator for a composer working in television. That gig didn’t lead to me writing on his shows. But it got me familiar with the pace and vibe of TV.

Then, when another composer needed help with writing on his TV shows, I came in with a better understanding. So, I started out as support for composers who were further along in their careers. Then that lead to TV gigs of my own.

I started out as support for composers who were further along in their careers.

I think the real advice I might offer here is: be at the top of your game wherever you are in your game. So that if and when someone reaches out for help, you’re bringing to the table the confidence and solid work ethic they really need to get their job done. Many times this leads to more work.

 

• What were some essential lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?

I learn something new on every project, even ones where I’m working with the same client. I think it’s because every job really is different, has unique needs, and requires an approach specific to that project.

I’ll share two lessons I’ve learned that I constantly remind myself of:

Focus on what is right in front of you and give your best to it.

First lesson: Focus on what is right in front of you and give your best to it. It sounds like a simple enough task and most of us think we already do that. But it’s very easy to get distracted by the next gig, the bigger gig, the bigger budget — and ultimately that distraction is a great disservice to the work we’re doing and the work we need to put into our own growth as a composer. And then our growth as a film composer. Which are two different things.

This career takes time; it takes commitment to learn the craft, to hone the skill, to gain enough perspective and experience to make better choices with our music. The things I can do now I could not have done without getting through the years prior to now. And the things I will do even next year are likely not possible now until I learn from what I’m doing in this moment.

Every project, no matter how ‘big’ or ‘small’ is part of our growth as film composers. Learn as much as you can from each moment, and when the next project comes, you will have more in your toolbox to work with, more in your sandbox to play with.

Second lesson: I remind myself of this everyday: Don’t take things personally.

I remind myself of this everyday: Don’t take things personally.

Remember that this industry is a service one. The music you write has a function and a job, and your agenda should be based on nailing that. If something doesn’t resonate with your director, that’s okay. Try again. Have a conversation, engage them in dialogue, ask them questions — what music do they think is funny, or emotional? It’s a journey and a process. And if they don’t think your cue works, it doesn’t. And don’t try to convince them it does.

But that doesn’t mean you’re not a great composer; it just means it wasn’t the right music for the scene, or the project.

This is a hard lesson, because we’re artists and of course we take our creations to heart. But I’ve also learned that I can breathe easier and be more effective in my job when I release myself of the pressure of associating my worth as a composer to the number of versions it took to get my music approved. Be adaptable. Don’t be so precious about your music that it hinders or roadblocks the end goal.
 

• Any favorite tricks and workflows tips that help when composing for TV?

Really, for all projects but certainly for episodic, I pay a lot of attention to my gut instinct — TV especially because of the speed it moves at. If I have an initial reaction to a scene, I kind of run with that idea until something tells me it’s the wrong approach. There’s a lot to be said for the first time you see something, and you can only get that gift one time.

A more utilitarian tip (again for all projects but especially for episodic) is organization. Like, organization in the obsessive way:

• Name your files consistently.

• Have a filing system in place that works for you, and stick with it.

• Revise it until its solid and fool-proof.

There’s nothing worse than writing your masterpiece and accidentally delivering the wrong file to the dub stage.

I will have up to 40+ cues in one episode, and each have a stereo mix and 6 stems. That’s well over 200 audio files for just one episode. Each file is specifically and consistently named for ease of reference, delivery, etc.

If there are 22 episodes in a season, you’re looking at either an easy task or a nightmare depending on how organized you are. And that’s not just for you, but also for those you’re delivering to.

Your diligence in this will also help you stick the landing. There’s nothing worse than writing your masterpiece and accidentally delivering the wrong file to the dub stage.

 

• What are your favorite sites and resources for composers?

On The Track (Karlin/Wright) was such a great resource for me before I went to school for this. But, of course, now there are all kinds of online publications and videos that are super helpful. Gosh, I guess it depends on what you’re looking to know more about.

Globally, I’m not sure what’s the most helpful aside from interviews, podcasts, and presentations put out by active film composers.

…try and talk to composers who are at all different levels of their careers.

I would encourage those wanting to get into this industry to try and educate themselves as much as possible — formally, if you can (even if it’s just a course or two).

But also try and talk to composers who are at all different levels of their careers. Watching an interview with Hans Zimmer on his approach to scoring a scene is helpful to a certain extent, but it’s in some ways even more effective to talk to composers who are earlier in their careers, too.

In general, there’s no set way to do this and the more perspectives you can tap into the better, but also because a composer such as Hans has access to different resources than many other composers. It’s good to zoom in a little and see how it all starts, rather than just see what it could evolve into.
 

• What’s one special thing you did to become a successful composer?

When you know what it takes to do all the jobs on a gig, you’re creating a far stronger foundation for your brand.

Well I’m not sure if it’s all that special or unique, but I tried to be involved in as many facets of the industry as possible. I’ve done a lot of different industry jobs for other composers that weren’t writing music. I’ve been a composer’s assistant, an orchestrator, a copyist in a music preparation office, a vocalist, a pianist, a librarian at recording sessions, and an additional writer. I think all that provides a great opportunity to become a better leader on your own projects. When you know what it takes to do all the jobs on a gig, you’re creating a far stronger foundation for your brand.

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Highlights from A Sound Effect - article continues below:

 
  • Cinematic & Trailer Sound Effects Cinematic World Play Track 600+ sounds included $99
    Cinematic World┃SFX Library┃Trailer

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Cindy O’Connor:


 

ComposerSuccessSeries_Cindy_OConnor-01

Composer Cindy OConnor

Accomplished composer and performer Cindy O’Connor was nominated for a 2018 Emmy Award for ‘Outstanding Music Composition for a Series’ for her work on ABC’s Once Upon a Time . The fantasy/adventure score featured live orchestra every week. She also composed the score for the Starz series Crash , and contributed to the scores for the NBC series The Black Donnellys and Apple TV+ series Amazing Stories. Cindy combines her love of musical theater, orchestral music, pop/rock, and electronic textures to create unique musical worlds for each project.

Learn more about her work at www.cindyoconnor.com
 
 


• How did you get started as a composer? What was your very first score-to-picture gig, and what was that experience like for you?

I worked as a composer’s assistant for several years, and after getting my feet wet with arranging and “additional music” gigs, I landed an indie feature called Forgiving The Franklins.

…I spent more than my composing fee to hire a handful of live players and a mix engineer.

I had met the writer-director years ago and he had directed my first musical at a small theater in Hollywood. It was a clever dark comedy, subtitled “a religious sex comedy,” and figuring out the tone of the score was a good challenge.

The film had a tiny budget, and I spent more than my composing fee to hire a handful of live players and a mix engineer. But since it was my first score, I really wanted it to sound good. The film ended up getting into Sundance and SXSW, so I think it was a good investment! I made a lot of good contacts at Sundance, and I had a great-sounding recording of my score.
 

• Any advice you’d share on how to land a composing job in the TV industry?

If you are starting out as a composer, a great way to get into episodic scoring work is to do a web series. You might end up scoring the next High Maintenance, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or Insecure, which all began as web series on their creators’ YouTube channels.

If you are starting out as a composer, a great way to get into episodic scoring work is to do a web series.

In your quest to meet web series creators, you might join some filmmaker organizations like Film Independent, or start watching things online and look for creators you’d like to work with. With the rise of social media, most people are accessible and easy to contact. Tell them you admire their work and you’d love to collaborate, and send them some links to your music. Offer to score an episode on spec.

In your first few composing jobs, you should be thinking about building relationships and assembling a portfolio of good quality work, not about charging enough to pay your bills. If you have another source of income, you’ll be free to do composing projects that excite you.
 

• What were some essential lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?

Lean into your strengths, and build a team of collaborators for everything else. You don’t have to play several instruments, orchestrate, create scores and parts, and mix all at a professional level. There are people who have studied these crafts all their lives, and they will bring something special to your project.

Lean into your strengths, and build a team of collaborators for everything else.

If money is tight, you and your composer friends can help each other out by playing on each other’s scores, doing music prep, programming, etc.

Be open to new experiences! Some of my coolest gigs have come from random meetings and friendships I have made in the non-musical world. I bought a piece of gear on Craigslist from a composer and ended up co-scoring a film with him. I met a TV composer in a yoga class and he hired me to sing on several tracks.
 

• Any favorite tricks and workflows tips that help when composing for TV?

One thing I love about scoring episodic TV is the chance to develop musical themes over time as the characters grow and change. I love doing things to cross-pollinate musical themes, like trying the retrograde inversion of one character’s theme to play over their mortal enemy, for example.

A good way to keep track of all your themes and motifs is to create a theme index with an audio playlist

A good way to keep track of all your themes and motifs is to create a theme index with an audio playlist, and a score page with your themes written out. This makes it easy to try out your existing themes under new scenes, or to create variations by reharmonizing your melody, changing the meter, inverting a phrase, etc. If your show has a music editor, share this index with them so they can cut in cues from your growing library for the show.
 

• What are your favorite sites and resources for composers?

The Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) is an organization of professional media composers, and their website is a wealth of information with composer interviews, seminars, and tips about the business side of composing.

(ASMAC) has been hosting some excellent webinars on composing

In non-COVID times, the SCL hosts screenings and events throughout the year. They also have a wonderful mentor program for composers and songwriters (full disclosure: I am running this program!) and the next application period will open up this summer. Check it out: https://thescl.com

The American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) has been hosting some excellent webinars on composing, arranging, and orchestration for film and musical theatre. They really dig into the details with score study and technical discussions.
 

• What’s one special thing you did to become a successful composer?

…I have definitely been persistent!

I’m not sure if there’s one special thing I’ve done, but I have definitely been persistent! And I’m always learning — studying scores of composers I admire, listening to different genres of music, learning new tech skills, trying new approaches to composing, and working with new collaborators.

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BONUS: Expand your skillset with the free Sound Success Guide:

Sound Success GuideWant to branch out beyond composing? Learning new sound skills can open up opportunities for additional revenue – and with the (entirely free) 60+ page Sound Success Guide, you get insights from 20 industry experts on how to get started and succeed in 18 different types of audio jobs:
 
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A big thanks to Charlie Clouser, Sherri Chung, & Cindy O’Connor for sharing their valuable insights with us!

Want the free Composer Success Series e-book as soon as it’s released? Sign up to be the first to get it here

More interviews in the Composer Success Series:


Inon Zur – composer on Fallout, Dragon Age, Prince Of Persia, Outriders, and The Elder Scrolls.
Pinar Toprak – composer on the Captain Marvel, The Wind Gods, and The Tides of Fate
Nainita Desai – composer on The Reason I Jump, American Murder, and For Sama
Jonathan Snipes – composer on A Glitch in the Matrix, The El Duce Tapes, and Murder Bury Win
Gareth Coker – composer on the Ori franchise, Studio Wildcard’s ARK: Survival Evolved, & the upcoming Halo Infinite.
Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson – composers on “The Book Thief,” “Between the Lines,” & Disney Animation’s Olaf’s Frozen Adventure
Daniel Kluger – composer on the play “The Sound Inside,” “Oaklahoma!” (2019), & “Judgement Day”
Jason Graves – composer on Dead Space, Tomb Raider , Moss , and more.
Peter McConnell – composer on Hearthstone: The Boomsday Project, Broken Age Act 2 (2013), and Psychonauts 2.
Winifred Phillips – composer on Lineage, Assassin’s Creed, Total War, God of War, The Sims, and LittleBigPlanet.
Ronit Kirchman – composer on Evil Eye, Limetown, and The Sinner.
Zach Robinson – composer on the Impractical Jokers movie, the documentary series Artbound, Quibi’s Die Hart, Norwegian comedy The Oilfund, Josie and Jack, and the video game Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues.
Alec Puro – composer on Wicked Tuna, Black Summer, The Crew, Running Wild with Bear Grylls, and more.
Ariel Marx – composer on American Horror Stories on FX, Children of the Underground mini-series on FX, Hulu em>, and the Roku Original docu-series What Happens in Hollywood.
Matthew Earl – composer on Virtual Reality games/experiences such as the Star Trek: Dark Remnant and Men in Black: Galactic Getaway VR simulation rides.
Zach Robinson – composer for the Evermore Adventure Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, Queen Mary Chill, Dreamland (UK), Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, Dent Schoolhouse, and The Void 4D virtual reality games.

 



 
 
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