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Interview: TV Music Composers Mr Miller and Mr Porter

Serving two generations of children with their unique style of music, Mr Miller and Mr Porter have written some of the most well known themes and incidental music to classic television programmes such as Sooty, Panic Station, Art Attack, Motormouth, Basils Swap Shop, Tricky TV, Big Barn Farm and much more. freeSFX.co.uk’s Alan McKinney took a trip down to their Brighton studio to meet the pair and talk about their music and career. 

AM: What are your backgrounds in music and how did you start working together composing music for TV? 

Mr P: My Dad played saxophone in dance bands so there was always music around in the house and when I was old enough, about 16 I think, I used to go out at weekends and  play in restaurants and clubs: working men’s clubs; bars and  things like that. I came to Brighton to art college to study painting, got in a band down here and tried to be a pop star  for about 15 years and failed miserably, met Pete and I haven’t looked back.  

Mr M: And me, I used to write songs when I was a kid and then I was in a couple of bands, went to college to learn how to be a music teacher, which I did for a while and not very well. Then for several years I was in something called the Brighton Bottle Orchestra, which was a kind of comedy musical act. Did several kids programmes and was asked by one of the researchers on one of them to write a song for another programme which I did with the chap I used to be in the bottle orchestra with. They didn’t use it but asked me to do it again for another programme which I did. By this time, Mr P and I had met and I said if there is anything else give us a shout. There was a programme coming up called 'Panic Station' which was a kid’s science programme. They said do you fancy having a go at that and I said yes and Mr P and I got together and that was the start of it really; we got the job and we carried on from there.  We just drifted into it by mistake and we stayed there ever since and that was 23 years ago.  

AM: So you obviously work well together, do you ever argue? 

Mr P: No not as much as we ought to.  

Mr M: [laughs] No we don’t. There’s moments of tension occasionally when one of us thinks something should be done one way and the other one doesn’t but on the whole we get on pretty well.  

AM: Do you usually agree on the direction of a track? 

Mr P: Yeah 

Mr M: Yeah 

AM: Working as TV composers 23 years ago must have been a lot different, so what are the main changes you’ve noticed? 

Mr P: Well the main thing that’s different for us is in those days everything had a union representative present so we had to travel to the studio to Maidstone or wherever it was; they’d check our electrical equipment for safety and there had to be someone logging what everyone was doing. 

Mr M: One of us has to be the musical director, so we took it in turns. The good thing was, anywhere you went you were given travel expenses. There was always someone with an envelope with £50 in it. But once we waited for about 2 hours before recording something while 3 people found an extra socket, but we weren’t allowed to touch the sockets because that was their job so it’s changed quite a bit since then.   

AM: Regarding budgets: are you given money in advance for projects or do you charge the commissioning company after the jobs completed?   

Mr M: Usually a budget is agreed before hand, I say agreed, we’re told what the budget is. That’s one thing these days, when we first started there was more room for manoeuvre... 

Mr P: Negotiation, there’s no negotiation now. 

Mr M: No you’re just told what it is. Well I’m sure David Arnold when he’s writing the latest Bond movie has a little bit more negotiating power than we do. Actually, the budgets for the kind of work we do which is mainly kid’s TV...  

Mr P: It’s less than half it was when we started... 

Mr M: In real terms yeah.  

AM: Does that affect how you make music? Do you use real instruments or do you do everything on computer? 

Mr P: We do use real instruments when they’re appropriate. Very often we’ll get either a live saxophone, trumpet or more often these days a vocalist, or a guitarist or something just to give it more of a... what’s the word I’m looking for?.. 

Mr M: A more human feel I suppose. Any instrument you want you can have on the computer but having a bit of human in there is nice. 

Mr P: I mean we’d love to be working on the budgets where we can get a string section in or a big brass band, you know, but we don’t. 

Mr M: [laughs] But there is nothing like working with the human voice, I mean it’s great having singers. We did a kids’ TV programme called Tricky TV where [we needed] lots of people shouting the word Tricky TV and we got my mother-in-law, the builder who was working on our house at the time, loads of kids, a room full of golfers, somebody said my husband’s playing golf this afternoon with all his mates so I went round there and recorded the group of lads and then the wives later on, it was great. The human voice is a wonderful thing to work with. 

AM: Can you run us through a typical project from the commission stage to it actually being approved? 

Mr M: Well normally we would get a call from somebody saying we’re thinking of doing this, would you be interested in either doing the music? Sometimes some our clients just ask us straight away, or alternatively pitching for it. 

Mr P: The phone rings, we say yes usually [laughs]. I mean we generally go off to our separate corners and come up with ideas; send them 2 or 3 rough sketches which is what we prefer to do rather than finished, polished fancy demos. They respond to those sketches and then we develop the one that they think is the most promising and work with them as closely as possible.  

Mr M: Yeah, we do tend to email people things very often, which I don’t know whether all composers do but we certainly work with producers and directors who aren’t use to that so much. Somebody gives us a brief and the first thing that pops out that’s reasonably in line with the brief we’ll send it to them. 

Mr P: And very often it’s useful because they can say no I didn’t realise but that is exactly what we don’t want so you can more easily narrow down what they do want.  

AM: How long does the process take from getting commissioned and actually finishing a project and signing it off? 

Mr P: Well that varies enormously now. It’s almost always they leave it to last when they’ve spent all the money on everything else and there’s hardly any time left to do it.  It’s usually a matter of 2 to 4 weeks, sometimes a bit longer. 

Mr M: Somebody will phone up and say are you interested in pitching for this and we’ll say yes, when do you need it by and they’ll say Friday and this is Wednesday afternoon. Very rarely do you get a long time to think about your pitch but then once you’ve got the job, as Mr P says its 2 weeks to a month.  

Mr P: And we always get it there Friday and no one listens to it until Tuesday. [Laughs] 

AM: How do you get paid? Do you get paid a commission fee or do you make your income solely from royalties?  

MR P: Always a commission fee. Sometimes half of its paid half way through the job and the rest on completion.  

Mr M: Usually you get a contract saying we will pay you half on signature and half on completion but by that time we’ve already finished it anyway so usually it’s just in one lump sum.  

MR P: It’s very rare that we get the contract before we’ve finished the job but the vast majority of it is royalties. For us it’s performance [royalties] a little bit of mechanicals but it’s mostly performance.  

Mr M: Because we’ve been going so long, there’s so much of our stuff out in the world floating around. 

Mr P: It’s a bit like doing the lottery isn’t it. When you open that envelope you’ve no idea whether you’ve won a fiver or a million. It’s usually a lot nearer a fiver. [Laughs] 

AM: Do you think if you stopped composing music now, you’d still have a relatively good income just off of royalties alone from your previous work?  

Mr P: We don’t know. Art Attack has been the most successful I suppose, the longest running and most successful. They stopped making that several years ago now.

Mr M: A lot of our royalties are from abroad as well because nowadays, companies don’t make programmes just for England. Everything has to have potential for worldwide exploitation.  

Mr P: That’s why you don’t see Sooty anymore, he’s not considered global. 

AM: What equipment do you find yourself using most regularly? 

Mr P: Logic and all it entails is the backbone of what we do; we’ve got a load of modules, Emu systems and various other bits and the old Triton gets used quite a bit. 

Mr M: But it is largely all in Logic these days; 95% of everything we do is inside Logic.  

AM: How important do you consider contacts and networking in terms of getting work? 

Mr P: Well we’re the world’s worst networkers [laughs]. If we’re at a networking function, we’ll be the ones in the corner talking to each other. We rely entirely on word of mouth really and reputation.   

Mr M: We’re very good at dealing with the clients we use and everyone enjoys working with us. We’ve never gone touting for business. We’re really lucky. Occasionally we have had no work and we think, we’ll, we must get together a new show reel and send it off to people. But I don’t think we’ve ever got a job through sending anyone a show reel so it is just satisfied customers. People work for one company and move on to another company and they phone us up. So networking is important but we’re bad at it.    

AM: How knowledgeable of different musical styles do you need to be to work as a composer for TV and film? 

Mr M: Neither of us are fantastic musicians at all, Mr P plays bass very well and I am a moderately okay keyboard player and we’re not particularly au fait with different musical styles so we tend to mash things up. A while back, Disney made a Latin version of Art Attack to be broadcast in Latin America and they wanted us to ‘Latin up’ the titles. We panicked a bit because we’re not experts on Latin Music so we bunged in a bit of this and a bit of that and crossed our fingers and then we got an email from the head honcho in Disney South America who loved the way we’d mixed this style with that style. 

Mr P: The thing is we do listen to an enormous amount of different kinds of music and what we tend to do is almost parody it. The Latin version of Art Attack wasn’t subtle. We just took the obvious part of Latin and made it our own I suppose. In that respect I think it works well with kids as well.  

Mr M: So if someone asked us to write something in the style of John Williams, we’ll have a go and it won’t be John Williams but it would turn out to be our version of John Williams. 

Mr P: We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the kick drum sound or tempo like a lot of dance music people do. If it pulls the right strings and pushes the right buttons that’s good enough for us. 

AM: What advice would you give to any aspiring composers out there? 

Mr M: Like we said at the beginning, we drifted into it. I mean we both love music and we’re musicians in our own ways but I don’t think either of us thought we’re going to write music for television when we grow up. We’ve been very lucky; we’ve been working for 23 years and we’ve never starved yet.  

Mr P: My advice would be, make your music. Take it all in but at the end of the day make your own music. In this business you have to compromise to some degree. We’ve ended up with a style we can call our own but it’s come out of constantly compromising to what other people want and sometimes it makes the music better anyway. Sometimes the music gets better because you have to chop it round to fit the new version of the pictures which might be a second and a half in the middle of a piece of music and there’s no easy way around it but you adapt the music and sometimes make it better for doing it.   

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About Mr Miller and Mr Porter 

Mr Miller and Mr Porter operate from their studios in Brighton, United Kingdom. For more information, visit their website.  

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