Composer Interviews


Composer Interview: Brett Aplin


1. My name is… Brett Aplin

2. I work from… my home studio

3. I've been composing for screen… for around 20 years and would describe myself as a ‘mid-tier jobbing composer’

4. Professionally, I'm also… a trained immunologist. Go figure...

5. I studied music at… Actually, I didn’t study music at a tertiary level at all, and while I learnt classical piano for much of my childhood I have no formal training in composition. Though I wish I did at times when someone throws musical terminology at me…

6. I’m also highly skilled at… vacuuming

7. Something people don't know about me is… While I always loved playing and writing music growing up, I was strongly advised to get some other qualifications behind me as a fall back. Being an obedient lad I dutifully did. However, not ever really knowing what I wanted to do with my life meant I simply kept studying, and studying, and studying, subsisting on 2-minute noodles and plastic cheese toasted sandwiches until I finally figured it out late into a PhD in Immunology.

8. My musical journey involved… growing up in country Victoria taking classical piano lessons until the age of 17 while playing in a cover band and in amateur musical theater. After leaving the country for the small smoke (Adelaide!) I consigned music to hobby status; however I underestimated the need to express myself creatively through music and so, without any band mates to ‘experiment’ on, I saved my pennies for two years (playing Billy Joel in the Adelaide University bistro) and bought an Atari 1040ST and Roland Sound Canvas. That did the trick for a few years until I moved to Melbourne, upgraded to a PC and JV1080 and wrote my first score for a short film. I was hooked! I continued writing for VCA and RMIT students for another couple of years before winning the Pete Carpenter Fellowship in 2000 and travelling to Los Angeles in early 2001 to intern with legendary TV composer Mike Post. The experience quite simply changed my life and helped me realise that I was good enough to make this a career. That is, if I only would find the courage to ditch science and step off into the unknown. This I eventually did after completing the PhD and coming to terms with having to continue my 2-minute noodle diet for many more years…

9. The instrument I'm best at is… the piano

10. I also play… guitar. Badly…

11. I'm best known for my score(s) to... I actually don’t think I’m well known for any of my scores in the sense that I don’t really have that high a profile. While I’d certainly love more high profile gigs I think it’s important that emerging composers know that you don’t have to be ‘a name’ to be (mostly) busy and to have a successful career. Most composers are anonymously earning a living. That said, earlier on in my career I certainly aspired to go to Hollywood and write for feature films but I came to realize that moving to L.A. is not a requirement for a successful career, and that a good living is more than possible here in Australia where I could also keep the lifestyle I enjoy and remain among family and friends.

Now if the question was “What’s the highest profile score you’ve written?” it would probably be ‘James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge’ co-composed with Ricky Edwards and Amy Bastow, or ‘The Gloaming’ co-composed with Burkhard Dallwitz and Dmitri Golovko. (Although if you were a young primary school-aged child the answer might be Mako Mermaids co-composed with Ricky Edwards).

12. A score I'm proud of but received little recognition for is.... This is a tough one, but probably a 2-part ABC documentary series called ‘Trigger Point’ directed by Terry Carlyon – a fabulous and moving series about police who have been involved in shootings and the psychological scars this can leave. Terry is such a wonderful film maker this probably elevated the experience. That said I’m also very proud of the score I wrote for the documentaries ‘Canberra Confidential’ for the ABC, ‘The Polar Bear Family & Me’ for BBC2 and ‘Worm Hunters’ for Nat Geo.

13. The score I wish I wrote is... pretty much any score that John Williams has written. His score for Star Wars was the first score I ever bought when I when I was a broke student in Adelaide. I’m still full of admiration for what he’s achieved and how his themes have become part of popular culture.

14. If I wasn't me, the composer I'd love to be is... There are so many composers I respect, sometimes for very different reasons and sometimes simply because they’ve written a score for a film that I love or once loved. John Williams, Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, John Powell, Alexander Desplat, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Johan Johansson, and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury have all been influences at different times.

15. My composing style is... mostly whatever the client wants. However I’m most at home writing either orchestral scores, or textural / soundscape scores. I enjoy writing in both styles. However, I most look forward to commissions where the film maker genuinely wants something different, or encourages me be truly creative (and actually means it!). Unfortunately, this is all too rare and I can only point to a couple of occasions where I’ve had that freedom and opportunity. Often film makers prefer to hear a variation on something familiar. While this is fine most of the time, look at the impact innovative scores can have (think of ‘Under the Skin’ by Mica Levi, ‘Chernobyl’ by Hildur Guðnadóttir or ‘Arrival’ by Johan Johansson for only a few recent examples)

16. My favorite sample libraries are... varied. In the synth world I love all of The Unfinished’s patches for Omnisphere and Zebra, and am a massive fan of developers Slate and Ash - those guys are really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. For orchestral music my workhorses are VSL woodwinds, Cinematic Studio Strings and Brass, and Spitfire Percussion (mostly) but I also love Spitfire’s Tundra, LCO and UIST libraries, as well as their Evo and Olafur Arnold libs. I could go on!

17. My must have plug­in is... I’m not sure that anything is a must have, nor do I think any given plugin is necessarily going to make you sound better. That said, I love all the Fabfilter stuff for ease of use and I’ve had SSL’s Native Bus Compressor strapped across my Master Bus for years now. I’m also a new fan of Gullfoss by Sound Theory which is an intelligent eq (or something). Works great if used judiciously.

18. My most memorable recording experience is... unfortunately my worst. The first time I heard my music played by an orchestra I thought I’d be moved to tears. Instead I was left devastated and frustrated that they couldn’t play what I’d written well enough in the limited time we had left in the recording session. We ended up using my midi mockups for a number of the cues we recorded that day…

19. All my scores seem to include... a patch from Omnisphere

20. My workflow is typically... Watch the film/episode once with the temp track, then do my utmost not to listen to it again!

21. I compose using... Cubase with Vienna Ensemble Pro.

22. My screen composing income is supplemented by… APRA! Although I tutored medical students for many years early in my career which was a lot better than waiting tables.

23. The person(s) and/or institution that helped me get to where I am now is... There are plenty of people who have been important figures in my career including my childhood music teacher June Missen, all the way to Mike Post as well as many friends, collaborators and mentors including Ricky Edwards, Dale Cornelius, Caitlin Yeo and Burkhard Dallwitz. However, it was really my parents who were most instrumental, putting up with scales at 7am each morning and driving me to and from piano lessons, band practice or theatre rehearsals for many years. I count myself very fortunate to have been given these opportunities.

24. The thing I love about my job is... the moment a cue falls into place and you know, in your bones, that you have nailed it. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like but when it does it’s the best feeling in the world.

25. The things I dislike about my job is... negotiating music agreements. There is almost nothing more stressful!

26. My favorite piece of technology is... my television and surround sound system, because I love watching movies and can never seem to get to the cinema.

27. When I’m not composing, I like to.... research how to do something, and then do it. For example, I recently built acoustic treatment for my studio and tested the acoustic response of the room before and after. Very rewarding!

28. A message to my fellow composers would be... to talk honestly with each other about the business. This is SO important. When I first started out I met a number of composers who tightly held onto the knowledge they’d acquired over the years, were cagey about what they’d learned and generally made me feel like an outsider looking in. I don’t take this view. I strongly support sharing what we’ve learned across all aspects of the business and looking out for each other, and believe all screen composers would be far better off financially if we did. The idea that sharing what you’ve learned somehow compromises your ‘competitive edge’ is simply not true, but rather it fortifies us all against the huge changes we are now seeing across the industry. Mike Post also hammered this point home to me. He was often asked by established Hollywood composers why he regularly mentored emerging composers when this would only serve to increase the level of competition. He replied that better composers who make sounder business decisions make the entire industry stronger. I agree.

I’ve noticed when talking to other composers that I almost never get asked about the process of writing music but instead often get asked about the business side of the job. Questions like “Is this a shit deal?”, “Is it normal to give up publishing?”, “If the upfront fee is low what rights should I retain?”, “What’s a reinvestment deal?”, and more. These sorts of discussions are the key to a sustainable career in screen composition. Certainly I’ve sought advice from more experienced composers who I trust when I need guidance and this has been invaluable. But without community this just isn’t possible. While the AGSC plays an important role in assisting geographically or professionally isolated composers, even better is simply to organise regular meet ups with other local composers for a coffee or a beer to swap stories. I have found it extremely rewarding to be part of a generous group of composers here in Melbourne who do just that, and who have each other’s backs. I would encourage all of you to create your own similar communities wherever you are in Australia. If this results in even one composer being less likely to accept a rubbish deal or better able to advocate for themselves then that’s no small thing.