Myles Mercer MMS Student Success

Working as a Freelance Sound Designer – Tips from MMS Graduate Myles Mercer

Since graduating at MMS, Myles has been working as a freelance sound designer, composer and producer. Here’s his sound advice.

 Hey Myles! Can you talk us through your website ‘Sketch my sound’?

Sketch My Sound is my portfolio essentially – anything that’s been released, films that I’ve been involved in and so on. Since studying at Midi School I’ve been working on quite a few projects which are running in parallel – I have more independent projects, then there are the more commercial projects, and then further projects for creating music for show reels.

Can you tell us more about your different music projects?

So, to give you an example, I recently created a soundtrack for a short tribute to Studio Ghibli. The soundtrack is nice and soppy with a little bit of fantasy. I’ve been working on some horror soundtracks but I’ve not put all of them up yet. They’re all short films so they are all under 10 minutes long.

Do you prefer writing for horror films?

I don’t know whether I prefer them, but I find them easy to write to and I like the sound design involved, you can really build the tension. I have a Planktone, which is just like a guitar string you can plugin, pluck and bow.. put rosin on a bow so it really grips the string, and it creates a really cool sound. Or you can just scratch it and apply a lot of effects and other producers get blown away by it like ‘Ugh that’s horrible!’

Can you give any advice to people looking to get into freelance sound design?

The best thing you can do is to start making friends in the industry. I really think the worst thing you can do is to start showing off to them and acting cocky because they won’t want to work with you. Then after a while you’ll start to find common interests and you’ll find the people that you want to work with. Then you may start off doing some projects for free and you’ll start building up a portfolio and then you’ll get to a point when you think ‘I want to start charging now’. That’s tricky. You have to have that awkward conversation with everyone. But most professionals get that.

‘Project one I’ll do for free, Project 2 I’ll do for a discounted rate, Project 3 – We’ve built up a good relationship, and I’m charging you.

Do you find that charging clients changes things at that point?

Yeah, as soon as you start charging people you’ll lose a lot of work in the beginning. I suppose it separates who you actually want to work with moving forward, and those that you did work with for free, that has still supported your portfolio. So it’s never a total loss.

Are there ever issues like a client may promise a payment for the work and then when the work is finished they may just not pay you?

You’ll have to start thinking about contracts, because you will get this occasionally. You can sign up to the musicians union and look at their standard contracts and adapt them to your own profession.

It’s good to have a word with the client to find out what level the project is at, for example if it’s something corporate for an advert or show reel, you need to know how much to charge because they could come back to you and say ‘3 minutes of music for £200’ and then you could end up seeing it on TV and it turns out it’s being used on a Coca-Cola advert.

It’s good you did the Music Business module with us then, eh! So you’ve spoken about your short films, talk us through your corporate angle.

So I’ve got show reels and adverts but I’ve not got many up online because most of them are not out yet. It can be fun but it can vary because it depends on whom you’re working with. Take for example this South Korean restaurant that I worked with.

This was through a media company that eat there all the time. The media company were just getting off the ground and wanted to create a portfolio for their company, and also to help the restaurant. So we did the project and they loved it and they ended up paying us! It turned out differently than I thought – I really liked the idea of researching some South Korean music and trying to create some myself. But it didn’t turn out like that.

Why didn’t the project didn’t go the way you expected?

It didn’t end up being South Korean themed because we found out that the head chef is a cellist, and I wanted to get him involved. He sent me a recording of the cello and an electric piano in the background. Then I got on my MPC and created a hip-hop infused beat over the top and chopped up the audio. This was great because it meant I got the chance to create some music for a restaurant, which is a great experience – and I also got a new contact for the head chef. Working for that media company has led to more opportunities with them too.

How do you deal with people being picky about the music you’ve written?

One thing that you really have to learn for being a composer for media and other companies is that you can’t get upset about the decisions being made, remember it’s not a music video, and the director will make the decision on whether the music piece is right for what they want. They might say ‘it sounds good pal, but I wanted to go with this’. Rather than getting upset, you should take up the challenge and be more like ‘ok cool, how can get to what you want?’

If you’re working with good people then the criticism is normally constructive which his fine. Sometimes you will have to work with certain people who are very picky about every little detail like ‘I don’t like that reverb’, and sometimes you just have to do what they say.

So say I am a company, and you are working with me to promote my company. We are meeting for the first time. What would you want from me?

If it’s our first meeting, I would want to know what it’s about and be given a brief, as it might be a subject you just don’t want to touch. Some companies might give you a script, but usually they just like talking through the idea with you. Then we would discuss about what music we both think would suit the project.

I’ve gotten to a point now where people who I’ve worked with before know what type music I like to write because I write quite quirky stuff. For example for one of the projects I’m working on at the moment I’ve sent out 3 different themes and within these themes I’ve sent 4 different versions with different instruments. Just to see what they like, so instead of saying no I don’t like that, they may say oh yes I like the melody in this one and I like the drums in this one. Then after this they may come back to you and say ‘I’ve got the first scene ready’ and then I can write some music for it and see what they think.

It can be hard because you won’t always have the final product to write to. So you could have some odd noises that are triggered by cues on screen and then if they change the scene or they say ‘Oh I just added in half a minute there’, then you will have to re-arrange everything or start from scratch.

Roughly how long would it take you to produce a minute long piece of music?

The thing is if you’ve got a deadline then you will just have to do it in whatever timeframe they say.

Deadlines do sometimes mean getting 4 hours sleep a night and things like drinking a lot of water and eating well become very important. Tea and coffee can help if you need to stay up and work throughout the night, but you’ve got be careful as your health comes first. If you’re not well, it affects your work even more. 

Another important thing to do when you don’t have much work coming through is to set up templates – make keyboard shortcuts and research how to do processes faster because it will save you a lot of time. For example I’ve got a template with Battery and Kontakt’s Abbey Road drums that is mixed with some of the Waves plugins, which can be EQed and tweaked later on. Having this template just means I can compose and not have to mess around creating a whole new drum patch.

Can you give us a run-down of your go to plugins and plugins that you would recommend for producers that want to get into this field?

You’ve got to get Native Instruments Kontakt. It’s a no-brainer. For more scoring based projects, LA Scoring Strings and Symphobia are amazing but they’re rather expensive at £600+. But East West have a collection called Hollywood Strings and they us a subscription service at around £20 a month and you can download a lot of their software. You need to make sure you have good strings as an industry requirement really.

It’s very hard to synthesize good strings and brass as well, they are the two things that can sound terrible if they are not done well.

Yes exactly, so when you’re not working have a look online and tips for humanising your sound because it’s not just velocity – it’s about the volume too. Also get to know different terms used for scoring like glissando and legato.

Myles Mercer producing music in 2A

Are there any tutorials you’d recommend that people watch?

For scoring strings there’s a guy on Youtube called Daniel James and he does music for trailers and he’s recently done some music for a Burger King advert. Podcasts are great, you can find some really helpful ones for example SCOREcast, where two Hollywood film composers discuss the state of the media music business and discuss topics relevant to all audio to picture work. They’re great because you find out about all the different roles needed in the creation of these big Hollywood scores. Then if you ever become friends with a big director and they’re like ‘yeah come and write for my film’ then you’re not completely lost.

As a final point, what advice would you give for a producer looking to get into the freelance sound design business?

Don’t forget who’s project it is – remember you are producing for them. And eat well and sleep well, your health is important.

You can check out more of Myles’ work at Sketch my Sound. If you fancy taking the course Myles did, check out our 18 month Music Production, Audio Engineering and Music Business Diploma and the Electronic Music Composition Course.