Writing a soundtrack for contemporary dance can be pretty varied, and as both Co-Artistic Director of Lîla Dance and a freelance composer I’ve made more soundtracks than most. Over the years I’ve made everything from abstract soundscapes to rock and roll and drum and bass. So one thing I’ve found is that you can quickly feel like you never have enough kit to cover what ever crazy brief the next choreographer might give you. But the reality is that generally, there are five pieces of equipment that I take everywhere with me.
#1 A Laptop (Macbook Pro)
I only switched to mac a few years ago, but I can honestly say it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Now, I can confidently change any equipment I connect to my laptop without worrying about installing drivers. Before, buying a new audio interface meant wasting hours of my life trying to get it to work with windows, uninstalling then re-installing drivers, and sometimes in moments of despair… completely re-installing windows.
I own a 13” Macbook Pro with a Retina Screen. I bought the top model from the Apple store, so that it would be a fairly future proof investment for me. It’s about 3 years old now and the new models are almost the same speed. I wasn’t bothered about the Retina Screen when I bought it, but I’ve noticed that it has greatly reduced the strain on my eyes from working on a laptop all day. It’s also great in theatres when everything goes dark, it will automatically dim the brightness and the screen is still easy to read.
#2 Quality Software (Logic Pro X)
While technically software is not equipment, you will be hard pushed to make a soundtrack without any software. There are loads of great music editing apps for composing for dance. I use Logic Pro X, because I’ve found it relatively easy to use and it is able to produce extremely high quality sounds. It is mac only though, so if you use a windows computer then I really recommend FL Studio, which I loved using. I could make a track unbelievably fast with its ‘click and drag’, ‘copy and paste’ style workflow.
One of the things I’ve noticed about ‘going mac’ is that the cost of the laptop is higher, but the software is much cheaper- Logic is £149.99 and so Final Cut X is £229.99. That’s amazingly good value when you consider Cubase Pro is £406, and Pro Tools can cost thousands.
#3 USB Audio Interface (RME Babyface)
An audio interface allows you to connect your computer to inputs and outputs.
Making music on Virgin Trains
Most of my dance soundtracks involve original recordings of guitar tracks or pianos. I think acoustic guitar tracks work well because they can be fluid, expressive, and dynamic. I also really like recording Cello, which can be incredibly beautiful and emotive.
Some soundtrack’s I have written music for, also contained vice overs, and recording of text. Having a quality audio interface allows me to connect a good microphone and record professional voice overs no matter where I am.
One of the reasons I chose the RME Babyface is because it has XLR outputs. This means that when I’m in a theatre running sound for a show, I can give provide high quality, low noise outputs which lock into place, so I don’t have to worry about it accidentally disconnecting during a show. Connecting to the headphone output of a laptop can cause interference from other technology, such as mobiles phones in the audience, and the longer the cable the worse the sound.
#4 Portable Recorder (Tascam DR-40 / Zoom H1)
Contemporary dance can be quite an abstract art form. One of the things I like to do in my soundtracks is add ‘found sounds’ from everyday life, to give a sense of place to the dance. It makes movement look ‘real’, and it can really support the choreographer in creating an environment or sense of place to the performances.
I own two portable recorders, the Tascam DR-40 and the Zoom H1. the tascam has XLR inputs which means I can connect professional microphones to it and record anywhere, I also use this to record film audio. The Zoom H1 is half the size and weight, which makes it super convenient to keep in my bag, and its built in microphones are capable of some very high quality recordings. Check out the recording I made of a choir at Charing Cross Station. As soon as i heard how great the choir sounded on top of the train announcements, I was able to quickly get the zoom out of my bag and record it.
#5 An instrument
These days you can get some absolutely beautiful sounding virtual instruments, but for me, nothing beats being in the studio with a real instrument, reacting to the movement around me. It’s not always a guitar, but I find that the recordings I make have more life, soul, and character than a digital instrument can ever reproduce. Recordings also have a sense of space which I find can help fit with dance.
I’ve watched choreographers spend huge amounts of time working with dancers on movement qualities, and this has had a huge impact on the importance that I also place on qualities. An important lesson i have learnt is that sometimes the way I play an instrument is more important than the notes I play.
So now you’ve heard what I use, I want to know if you’ve ever tried to make music for dance, and if so what did do you use? I look froward to reading your comments below.