Award-Winning Film Composer John Powell Talks About How He Uses SWAM Instruments, Music, and Creativity
With over fifty scored motion pictures under his belt, John Powell is a prolific and influential film composer, to say the least. Some movies he worked on include Shrek (2001), Robots (2005), the second and third Ice Age films (2006-2012), the Happy Feet films (2006-2011), the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy (2010-2019), amongst many others.
He’s earned three Grammy nominations for his work on Happy Feet, Ferdinand, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, and his score for How To Train Your Dragon 1 earned him an Academy Award nomination.
So when Emanuele Parravicini, Audio Modeling’s CTO and co-developer of the SWAM engine, received an email from Mr. John Powell’s office, the whole team got excited. It’s not every day an award-winning film composer takes the time to write to us to express his appreciation of our products!
What started as a friendly email exchange developed into an hour-long interview where we had the chance to talk to the man himself not only about SWAM but also about his perspective on music, the creative process, and the music industry.
We logged into Zoom at the appointed time. John Powell warmly greeted us, and we introduced ourselves and the company. It seemed we shared the excitement as Mr. Powell settled in to answer our first and most obvious question — one we were dying to know the answer to — how did he discover our SWAM instruments?
“Honestly, I’m not sure how I found you guys. It was definitely through the internet, maybe something I read on Apple News or some other tech-related news platform. No one told me about SWAM, that I remember. Then, I saw one of your demonstration videos on your YouTube channel.”
“That video caught my attention because, at the moment, I’m re-writing an opera I wrote 28 years ago with composer Gavin Greenaway and librettist Michael Petry. We didn’t have a big budget back then, so it was written only for fourteen instruments. I tried to program it the usual way I write but since it’s written for solo instruments, I couldn’t find good samples to work with.”
“With SWAM instruments, I can perform from the score. They’ve been particularly useful in this case because all the instruments in this piece are solo instruments.”
We listened to John Powell explain why he enjoys working with SWAM.
“When you’re film scoring, you’re not sketching something out on paper and handing it over to someone to have it orchestrated. As composers, we need to write every note played by every single instrument. Film composers need to become a master of every instrument they write for or at least, a master of the keyboard version of it. That’s something I understood working with Hans Zimmer back in 93-94. Because of that, I’m drawn to any sound that is very playable.”
“I hate sample libraries that are endless patches. You have to load up a patch to do this thing and then load up a patch to do that thing… Then you end up with ten different tracks. Or when you’re trying to get a result that sounds natural and performable from an articulation set and you end up cross-fading with MIDI from one type of sound to another to get the slides, portamentos, the right vibrato… It’s annoying.”
“I always loved sounds that allow me to do it all. That’s what drew me to your instruments — you seemed to have gotten everything inside one performable instrument and that’s not something really possible with samples at the moment.”
“When I’m working with samples, I need to shift between a technical and a creative mindset all the time. To counter that, I set up huge auto-loads on my systems, just because I don’t want to have to go through that technical mindset when I’m in the process of creating. But with SWAM, I can stay in this creative state longer because I can play the instruments as I go.”
After the praises came the time for some constructive feedback.
“There’s one thing I’m lacking in your instruments and that’s the relationship between the instrument and the room.”
At that moment, we understood why Mr. Powell asked us for a meeting. He had some questions of his own about our technology, questions Emanuele Parravicini eagerly answered. What followed was an enthusiastic conversation between audio software experts on ideas about how to not only model the sound of an instrument but also the sound of the room it’s recorded in and even the sound of specific microphones used to record them.
Audio Modeling has been aware of this issue for quite some time and is actively conducting research to understand what would be the best approach to achieve this kind of result.
“Whatever you do, I think you shouldn’t include the sound of speakers,” John said. “That’s the big problem with acoustic modeling at the moment, it always includes the sound of speakers and I think that’s a disaster. We already have speakers at the end of the chain, so it’s like having them twice.”
“Regardless of that aspect, it’s fascinating to me how you’ve developed such an unlikely level of quality that I haven’t seen before. We are so used to working with samples, and we know the problems that come with using samples, but this is such a different approach.”
We were curious to know if working with SWAM will influence the way he writes music in the future.
“Admittedly, I’m not approaching these instruments from a creative perspective. I’m looking for accuracy so that I can create a performance-based audio representation of the score.”
“It’s true that when using technology, one thing that’s interesting is exploring possibilities that go away from realism. But if we decide to move away from what real instruments can do, we need to keep sight of the fundamental reasons we love these instruments in the first place and why they work for us.”
“Let me give you an example. In the original recording of ‘American In Paris’, there’s a specific scene, it’s a very sexy dance between the main characters. There’s one trumpet note there, just a single note that slowly does a crescendo. Many people played that same piece beautifully afterward, but no one has played it quite like Uan Rasey, the trumpet player in the original recording.”
“One day, I arranged for Uan to come to my studio and sort of ‘bless’ my trumpet section since he had taught many of them. I talked to him about that note in ‘American in Paris’. I told him that for me, I hear everything in that note — everything I ever felt about love, sex, life, death… Everything! Just in that one note. Something about the way it changes from one thing to another and how it blossoms. Every time I hear it, I see the Universe open, and I see all human experience. I told him all this and he kind of looked at me and said ‘You know, it was just a gig that day.’ But when I asked him what happened in the studio and how he got to playing and recording it this way, he said they did the first take and then the director came to him and said ‘Listen, this needs to be the sexiest note you ever played.’”
“Now, ‘sexy’ is a difficult word to use in music, and in the end, what I got from that note is not sex, it’s much more than that. But his response was a very deep and human contact with this word and he made it blossom because he was a master of his instrument.”
“It’s not just the note, it’s also the arrangement and where it goes, but that note itself, how the timbre changes, always struck me as the epiphany of what musical expression is. Singers can do it, great players can do it. Gershwin wrote that single note with a crescendo and a slur over it and like I said, others have played it magnificently but no one has played it quite as magnificently as him, in my opinion.”
“That’s the musical and human connection I will always say is required for everything you do in music. So if you’re taking an instrument away from reality, you need to try and hold on to that. If there’s a synth note that doesn’t sound at all real but it blossoms in some way, or it changes in the timbre — the timbre meaning the change in the note means something — that’s what I’ll always be looking for, even if the sound is unrealistic.”
So what gives a musician this kind of unique and recognizable sound? And how can music composers and producers achieve this kind of sound quality while using technologies like MIDI and sample libraries?
“You can make your own sounds. Hans Zimmer has always created new libraries of sounds and I’ve done this also in the past: recording instruments, then sampling and processing them to make new sounds. For example, some reasons the Bourne films sound the way they do is because I was using a particular TC Fireworx box as my processor, and I chose to use a lot of bass and very specific guitars, playing them a certain way with different tunings. But then the most important part came afterward when editing.”
“It’s the choices you make that create your sound and the technique you have when writing music. People ask me which sample libraries I use. Honestly, I use the same ones as everybody else! But it’s the choices I make when I’m working with these libraries that create my sound. When you work with samples, or even when you work with something like SWAM, you have the possibility to change everything. You can change the acoustic and see what happens if you go with a drier or a wetter sound. You can place instruments differently in the space and see what happens if you have instruments far away from each other that are normally close or the other way around.”
“For example, I always loved ensembles, especially taking solo instruments and making ensembles with them. In The Call of the Wild, I had an ensemble of fourteen banjos. It’s not a sound you usually hear. That’s one way of developing your own sound, to just think and do things differently in some way. It sounds cliché, but it’s difficult to do and for me, it comes down to my fascination for other people’s music.”
“I have many musical obsessions I always come back to. There’s a four-bar phrase in a Vaughan Williams piece I always remember, there’s a record from Judie Tzuke that has a string arrangement I always remember, and then there’s my own experience of playing certain pieces that I always remember. You go through your whole life, you hear music, and it does certain things to you, depending on what is happening in your life at that moment. Or you simply remember that music because it sparks something in you.”
“All these connections music makes, they are like emotional diamonds buried inside us that we carry around. Then when you write music, really all you do is start pulling them out and using them. I think artists and musicians with very unique sounds simply carry around slightly weirder diamonds or they pick diamonds that are very different.”
“If you can remember all of Star Wars’ music and write like that, it’s great, but it’s not very useful to anybody else in the world. We need people to write like Star Wars but not. We need something new that doesn’t sound exactly like Star Wars. A person might try to write like Star Wars but can’t so the result comes out as something different but equally wonderful.”
“That missing accuracy is important. You need the memory of these emotional diamonds, but you also need to forget the details of what you heard so it can become whatever feels right at the moment. Some people are very accurate in recording those emotional moments and it just comes out exactly like the thing they are remembering. That’s fine, but it doesn’t move anything forward; people won’t see it as anything new.”
“In my case, at my best, I’m remembering the strengths of the emotions but completely forgetting the details of how the piece was played or written. When you fight to achieve the same kind of emotion while forgetting the details of how it was done originally, the result becomes something else. Then it has a chance of being unique.”
“That’s because in the end, if I’m remembering Ravel, I can’t forget I also love Esquivel or Timbaland beats but Vaughan Williams and Ravel never heard these things. It makes no sense to me to leave out some of these influences when I’m trying to reach that same emotion. Why would I do that? Because they are different? They’re not different, they feel the same to me. I get the same emotion from one than from the other so why not use both? Then, if I’m lucky, it becomes something different but with a strong feeling to it that people can recognize.”
The art of music composition is one thing, but breaking into the industry is something else entirely. We asked Mr. Powell for his advice to anyone who dreams to one day be where he is.
“In many ways, I had as much pleasure working on my first advert many years ago back in the UK as I had working on How To Train Your Dragon, even though that advert was terrible. I probably did something like $150 for the demo and $450 for the final. It wasn’t anything great at all, but what I liked was pursuing the idea of making it work, of making it right, and I enjoyed the act of creation more than the effect my work had on people. If you don’t enjoy the creation process, it’s very hard to balance that with the amount of rejection you’ll get.”
“For some, it’s worse. Take actors for example. They can get rejected from the moment they walk into a room, just because of their looks. At least, for composers, looks are not that important… Even though, admittedly, we all look like this,” pointing at himself, “we’re all white men. It’s embarrassing and I really hope this will change soon.”
“If you enjoy writing, you’ll do it again. And if you get rejected, you’ll figure out why and how you can write better. Tenacity is the key to that.”
“Making money in this business is hell, and it’s worse now than it ever was because so many people can do it. Technology has made it possible for anyone to write and record music. I squeezed in at the end of a period when it was very much about people’s talents. I don’t think I had as much talent as many of the people surrounding me, but I had a talent for looking into technology to find different ways to do things. It’s not much of a vision, it’s not a Philip Glass kind of vision, but it was enough for me to keep pursuing technology and its use along with a musical understanding of things.”
“I got through in the industry because I was lucky and tenacious, and I was tenacious because I enjoyed the process. Not the process of people liking my work, even though it’s wonderful when they do, but the process of me liking my work was more important.”
“If I had anything to say to anybody, it’s that if you don’t enjoy the process all the time, and if it’s not all about the moment of creation rather than the moment of presentation, you shouldn’t do it. It’s going to be too painful. It’s difficult, you’ll get rejected a lot, and the stress is huge. Obviously, compared to many other jobs, real jobs, it’s much easier. It’s the hardest ‘easy job’ in the world in my opinion.”
We didn’t want to end this interview without hearing a bit more about the opera John is working on at the moment.
“The opera is written for four soloists, a women’s chorus, a small orchestra, and also a larger orchestra for the recording. It’s going to be a bit on the shorter side, about 65 minutes long.”
Grinning, he said, “I like to think of it as an ‘operatainment’ because it’s perhaps too much fun to be an opera.”
“We are planning to record it in September and release a CD by the end of the year. But as far as performing it goes, classical music has a very long process. So even though we’ll use the recording to promote the opera, find places to perform it, and approach different opera groups, and even if people love it, we probably won’t be able to perform it before 2023.”
His last words to us were “Long live the nerds!” to which we enthusiastically cheered. Yes, Mr. Powell, we are indeed going proudly towards the future, and we are all looking forward to seeing how you’ll be using our technology, and hear all the incredible music you’ll create in the years to come.
Written by: Mynah Marie
Photo credits: Rebecca Morellato