In this 4 part tutorial series, I will take you through some practical and easy, yet super effective steps to make your themes more interesting, more cinematic and powerful.
In the following articles, we will take musical themes themes and enhance them using a mix of atmospheres and textures, booms, hits and transitions, ostinatos and layering.
These techniques and tips are not meant to teach you how to write new themes, but how to enhance existing themes to make them more interesting, powerful and cinematic. They are elements that enrich the main theme – by changing what’s around it.
Let’s take an image as an example. Look at the two images below.
The first picture contains only the main motive, the focus point. However, the second picture has context, space and might be a bit more interesting (though sometimes less is more!). The only thing changing between the two pics however, is only the background and surroundings – not the main element itself. Yet the picture feels completely different.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do musically – starting with atmospheres and textures. To make another analogy to the painting, the atmospheric background is going to be the soft, blue sky that makes up the backdrop of our image.
Here is an example of the subtle but effective transformations of some themes by using these techniques. First is a simple piano theme, where atmospheres and booms are added to make it more cinematic:
Below is another example, where I arranged the same theme for strings and horn. But… it sounds a bit boring and dry, although the theme itself is good enough. So I spent 10 min and used the 4 techniques in this article series to freshen things up. Check out the before and after result:
This article series will teach you some techniques, some extra tools to bring into your workflow. Keep in mind that not all of the techniques are always needed for every track – but these four tips can definitely help you beef up your themes, and make them sound more cinema-worthy and interesting when you have a decent musical idea to start with.
For the first part of the process, we’re going to look at how to use atmospheres, pads and background textures to enhance your cues. In this first example, we’re going to work with this little piano theme we checked out in the first audio file above.
It’s a cute little theme, but can feel rather naked and boring when compared to the more expanded version from earlier.
One of my favorite ways to add some interest and depth to calm passages like this, is to start by adding a background texture. Such a soundscape usually works very well for intros – but can make great breaks and bridges too. Needless to say, this technique works better for more simplistic and minimal musical statements like a piano intro or a string theme, rather than a full blown orchestral finale.
I don’t know why, but I’m gonna try keeping up the analogies to the picture – hoping it might make sense and be helpful somehow. So let’s look at the background atmospheres and textures, the light soundscape that fills the void behind the main theme – as the light blue sky behind the lady in the pic. It’s subtle background changes that makes the object in focus more interesting, and add a sense of space.
For this background ambience, I’ve used a mix of pads from Audio Imperia’s Photosynthesis series, and Omnisphere 2 – run through a Valhalla Room reverb with a long reverb time and a high wet-dry ratio to give it a very floating, ambient feel. Listen to the texture below:
When making such textures, I have a few tips to keep in mind:
Keep it simple
First of all, you don’t want it to take too much attention. Slowly evolving or static soundscapes are usually better than a super complex melodic pattern, as the purpose of the atmosphere is to work as a background – giving the main focus to the piano. Look at the sky again. It’s simple, but not just a completely plain blue background. It has some subtle texture and color variations. This is what you want to achieve with the background music element; Light, transparent – but textured.
As I discuss in my course, when it comes to foreground, middleground and background elements – static or repeating motion without much change will naturally fall to the background of a musical arrangement. This is especially true if you have elements with more movements on top of it (in this case, the piano melody).
I like to combine very static elements (like sustained high strings) with elements with a slightly evolving feeling, like a pad that changes slightly in texture over time, or a pad where you automate a filter/EQ to make it evolve slightly as the theme is moving.
Listen to my atmosphere sound clip to see what I mean. Play around and see what you come up with!
Notes and Chords
In terms of notes for simple backgrounds like this – I usually just stick to the root notes in octaves, while maybe throwing in a little fifth here and there to create a sense that the atmosphere is evolving. These are very “open” and not too defining options, that gives a lot of room for the piano to explore different harmonies without crashing with the notes of the pads. Below you can check out the midi input of my pads. Again, simplicity is key.
Keep it light
Next, since the piano is the focus – keeping the background light and airy is usually a good idea. If you use a background texture that occupies the entire frequency spectrum, this might take some space and attention away from the piano, which is not what we want. You can hear that my texture is very light and focused around high frequencies, giving the mid and low space for the piano to cut through. That said, low deep drones can work too – as long as you keep them simple, and make sure to give some space to the piano. It’s all about the feeling you want.
To create a light atmosphere, you can use a pad that has a natural airy and light quality, or you can use basically any sustained sound, and roll off the low-end to give it a lighter feel, which you can see I’ve done below.
Keep it spacious
For background pads, I like using a fairly transparent reverb with a long, smooth tail like Valhalla Room. I often use a fairly high wet/dry ratio to make things blend together a little. Adding some reverb can tie the pads together, and make the atmosphere more floating and less dry and in your face, making it sit nicely behind the more upfront piano (or other main) elements.
Again, let’s have a quick listen to the atmospheric texture I pieced together.
And this is the piano alone.
Now, let’s combine the two and hear what it sounds like so far.
Now, while it’s still not done, the cue sounds quite a lot better just from adding these atmospheres in the back. The piano melody has been put in context, a little musical environment in the same way that the Yoga lady now has a blue sky behind her. This is making the image and track a bit more interesting.
But atmospheres can be used for more than just pianos. Let’s have a look at a string arrangement of a simple chord theme, with the very same atmospheres added in the back.
Here is the string theme isolated:
And here it is with the atmospheres added underneath. Sounds quite a bit more rich and reflective, right?
There are lots of ways to experiment with this type of background elements. However, following the guidelines above should be a good place to start. If you want to slap my atmosphere on your newest piano theme, feel free to download the atmosphere track below and see how it sounds!
But as you know, we’re far from done. Just as we have a dock and water to add in our picture, we’re gonna beef up our cues using hits, ostinatos and layering techniques in the coming weeks to make things shine.
Next in this 4 part series, we’re going to have a look at how to use hits, booms and transition effects to create more of an impact, drive and weight to your tracks.
If you like these tutorials and want to dive deeper, check out Cinematic Music: From Idea To Finished Recording for a complete guide to composing, orchestrating, recording and mixing cinematic music using digital tools.
Cinematic Music: From Idea to Finished Recording
The starting composer’s guide to composing,
orchestrating and mixing orchestral music.