Composer Nainita Desai took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Audiofile about her career. Her work involves creating bespoke scores for film, games and TV including all major broadcasters such as the BBC, HBO, ITV and C4. Her film credits include Darkness Visible and Enemy Within; she has written game scores for Playstation and Nintendo and TV credits include Earth’s Natural Wonders, The Confessions of Thomas Quick and the theme for the BBC Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Nainita has received many awards for her work including becoming a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, and is a Music + Sound Award winner and NaturVision Film Awards winner.
Why did you decide to become a composer?
As a child I fell in love with TV music – my senses were heightened to the catchiness and distinctiveness of TV themes such as Knight Rider, Grange Hill, Dr Who, Blakes 7, and Tales of the Unexpected, which grew into an obsession with film and film scores.
Film and music have this ability to transport me to other stories and worlds, and being a geek, it satisfied my need for creative expression and working with computers and music technology. I didn’t realise that composing music was an actual career that was within my grasp until I was in my twenties.
What was your first job and how did it help you to get to where you are today?
I’ve had a lot of ‘first jobs’ and each one helped me break into a new genre or area of the industry. I initially wanted to get into sound engineering and sound design. I managed to talk my way into an assistant sound designer position at De Lane Lea and as a result I had a great foundation in film sound, freelancing as a sound editor on feature films for directors such as Bertolucci (Little Buddha), Iain Softley (Backbeat, Hackers) and Werner Herzog. I got to work with the Synclavier – one of only 3 in the country at the time – a dream come true for me. There were only a couple of people to coin the word ‘sound designer’ back then!
Even though I was working on big budget features, part of a ‘big machine’, it wasn’t creative enough for me musically. I yearned to work in music, so I became a freelance engineer at studios like Jacob Studios in Surrey, Britannia Row, and eventually Real World Studios, working for Peter Gabriel.
Ultimately, I’d always wanted to work on my own music, to somehow combine my love of music and film. I felt that composing to visuals would somehow be my ultimate destiny. Then by chance I met a music supervisor who offered me the job of writing the music for a travel series for Channel 4 – my first proper opportunity to compose for TV. The production company were happy with my work and offered me another film which rolled on to more projects.
I also started out by sending 100 CD showreels and I heard back from a games publisher where I ended up writing music and creating SFX for games for Playstation and Nintendo – titles such as Sheep, various flight simulators and Pro Pinball.
What have been your favourite projects to work on and why?
One of the most personally rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on was the recent BBC / Brian Hill production City of Dreams – A Musical, a unique hybrid documentary musical for the BBC, where actuality and interviews were intercut with bespoke songs written for the contributors to sing and perform. It was a ground breaking film that made music an integral part of the narrative. I went out on location to work with the contributors and team – a rare degree of involvement for a composer.
Another recent wonderful experience was scoring a Natural History feature Untamed Romania, where my score was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Wales.
On a ‘story’ level, being involved in documentaries that have a strong social impact or message can be incredibly humbling such as For Sama, about Waad, the award winning female Syrian film maker. Other subjects include murder detective cases, rape, the holocaust, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, still births, and adopted children on a journey to find their biological parents. I can’t think of a more challenging, broader array of projects to be involved in and each and every one is incredibly important.
I’m currently scoring The Reason I Jump, an immersive BFI feature doc about non-verbal autism. It’s based on the best selling book of the same name and that’s quite experimental and creatively challenging – huge fun as it draws on my foundations as a sound designer as well.
What equipment do you have in your studio and what is the piece of kit you can’t live without?
Like many Film & TV Composers, my studio is built around Logic Pro and a Mac Pro that’s fully loaded – 128gb RAM, 3 blackmagic multidocks running 12tb SSDs that store the bulk of my sound libraries along with another 40tb of various thunderbolt raid drives.
I pretty much work in the box with fully loaded Apollo UAD Quad interfaces.
Main monitors are ATC25s, but I also have a 5.1 surround system based around Dynaudio BM6a’s controlled by a Grace Design 5.1 monitor controller for theatrical projects that require surround mixes – the combo of ATC and Grace Design is the cleanest audible signal path I’ve ever monitored with. Reverbs – I’ve used Lexicon Native, Altiverb, and the TC6000 as a workhorse but I’m now using Exponential Audio plugins, the most realistic, clean reverb plugins I’ve ever heard. For more crazy stuff I use 2cAudio Aether and Eventide Blackhole.
The studio is divided up into various areas for writing in different ways – I have a wall of unusual acoustic plucked and bowed instruments from around the world acquired for various projects, including custom-made instruments such as the Guitar Viol – a 6 stringed bowed guitar-cello electric hybrid, electric cello, electric double bass as well as a Contra-Bass that was featured on a horror feature film last year.
Synths include the Juno60, Moog Voyager, Prophet 6, Arturia Matrixbrute as well as Yamaha and Roland Boutique synths. These are recorded direct into the mac and processed via pedals. I have a patchbay where anything can be connected to anything to allow for flexibility.
Electric instruments go into the mac via the kemper amp. Being able to dial up digitally modelled amps for writing and capturing the sounds of classic amps but also experimenting, is a winner for me. Acoustic sources are recorded via Neve Preamps / Lunchbox and the Shadow Hills Dual Vandergraph adds a dark coloured sound for mastering that suits many of my projects.
I now also have a mobile rig with a Mac Book Pro , 16TB of portable SSDs in a portable chassis that also acts as a backup of the main rig with an Apollo Duo so I can write whilst away using an OP-1 and Seaboard Rise as controllers.
The piece of kit I can’t live without? I suppose it has to be something that I use everyday…my brain and the ideas it (tries to) generate! Seriously though – the ability to conceive creative approaches, fresh ideas and problem-solve musically is crucial to ‘keeping on top of your game’. On a technical level my most important piece of kit has to be my Mac Pro along with NI Kontakt sampler and numerous Kontakt sound libraries. They help facilitate the translation of those ideas into something tangible!
I understand that you have an interest in synths. How did that come about?
I was very much into Star Trek, sci-fi, and born out of that, an interest with synths and composer influences such as Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre. So I was quick to embrace and experiment with technology. At school I borrowed their EMS VCS3 for 2 years.
And the first synth I ever bought, was a Roland D-70 which I still own.
I read Mathematics at university and studied the wave equation (FM synthesis) for my thesis, developing my own form of synth modelling, so pretty geeky !
My interest in sound design and synthesis stems from my degree in maths and studying fractals, patterns in nature, sound synthesis, and physics.
You have your own studio. What freedom does it give you in your work and are there still times you need to use an external studio?
The majority of my projects are done in-house unless I’m recording orchestras.
I recently scored a theatrical feature doc ‘Untamed Romania’ that was released in cinemas. The score was recorded by the 75 piece BBC NOW Orchestra at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff, their resident home. Unlike session orchestras, they are used to playing together, therefore creating a more homogenous sound which is their main strength. You’re also recording in the main concert hall itself where they use baffles to alter the acoustics for recording when there is no live audience to dampen the acoustics.
I’ve also just recorded an Interactive movie / narrative video game for Annapurna Interactive at Angel Studios with the London Contemporary Orchestra.
That process involved improvisation with the orchestra while recording at Angel. It was an incredibly liberating process where you’re delving into the unknown.
The greatest moment for me as a composer is to hear your music realised by live players, be it an intimate performance by a soloist in my own studio or a large ensemble.
Working from home in my own studio in London gives me total flexibility. I work long hours and to pretty tight deadlines, often bringing in musicians to do overdubs on my scores. On my bigger projects I also bring in mix engineers to final mix here.
Who has most inspired you?
Musically, Peter Gabriel, Paco de Lucia, Ennio Morricone, Clint Mansell, Thomas Newman, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’s work as producers were ground breaking. Composers like Hans Zimmer who have built up an incredible brand and business alongside a huge body of varied projects and collaborations are inspiring. My partner who nurtured and instilled in me the confidence to follow my dreams. His ability to reinvent himself and embrace various musical careers and worlds has been a huge inspiration.
The work of sound designers such as Walter Murch and Skip Lievsay opened me up to the power of sound design in story telling and film. Performance Artist Laurie Anderson and films such as Aronofsky’s Pi were a major influence as an exploration into mathematics and sound. So my introduction to music for film also came via sound design.
How has the audio business changed over the past 10 years and how do you think it will change going forward especially where women in the industry are concerned?
In the last decade, streaming and the digital revolution has changed the entire landscape of music and TV. Whilst it is attractive for consumers, the creators of music are not being compensated well at all, and business models are not adapting fast enough to cope with the advances in technology and the way we consume content and music. It’s simply getting harder for composers to sustain a living in the industry and be compensated fairly for work.
There are plenty of female performers and song-writers around but very few female media composers and sound designers. When I started, there were almost no female role models. For me gender (or even ethnicity) wasn’t an issue – I looked up to and admired a small handful of female artists such as Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Bjork and many male artists and composers. Statistics show 6% of film composers worldwide are female, only 1% in the US and 3% of composers working on the top 250 highest grossing films in 2016 were women. I think this is changing for the better certainly in the UK with much more diverse voices starting to appear on every level.
In an ideal world, everyone should just be treated equally, to get a job on their own merits, and not be given ‘special treatment’. Whatever the reasons, we are indeed seeing a new generation of female composers that are coming up through the ranks – more so in the UK now than ever before – and I truly hope that trend continues to create a level playing field.
I understand that you wrote the theme for Prince Harry and Meghan Markles wedding. How did that come about and what was your inspiration?
It was a total surprise! I got an email from the music team at the BBC inviting me to work on the project.
The brief was a real challenge and I certainly felt the pressure to come up with something appropriate for the occasion! The notes from the team were to write a piece that had fresh, pop, contemporary values that represented Meghan and what she is bringing to the Royal Family. She’s really bringing them into the 21st Century. At the same time, this was for the BBC, so the music had to appeal to a large mainstream national and international audience. The team wanted the music to feel warm, positive, but have a sense of occasion and grandeur to it.
I did a fair amount of research and wrote around 15 ideas that were then honed down to what the team responded to. After the initial round, I then developed 4 of the 15 themes from which the team chose 2 that were then enhanced further. The sampled strings were finally recorded by the BBC NOW orchestra on the final chosen track, and last minute tweaks were delivered to the edit an hour before it went live on air!
You have worked at Real World Studios and Brittania Row and engineered for the likes of The Dammed, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, Sinead O’Connor and Ravi Shankar. What did you enjoy the most about freelancing as an engineer, do you still do it and how has it helped you when writing music?
I learnt the traditional way as a tape-op but I’m also pretty much self taught.
I got to work with the best world musicians, learning from leading, pioneering engineers and producers, combining genres of music where creativity and experimenting knew no bounds. It was incredibly liberating and inspiring to see germs of creative ideas flourish into fully fledged tracks.
I’ve always engineered and mixed all my TV broadcast work myself. The nature of schedules in TV and numerous re-conforms and changes required at short notice mean you have to work fast and multi-task. I’m writing, programming, mixing, engineering all at the same time. One of the most important things I picked up is that when recording and writing, capturing that magic of creative flow is the most important thing.
Having created the score for the film For Sama, you were invited to speak at Cannes Film Festival. What was your inspiration for creating the score and what was it like to speak at Cannes?
Attending the film premiere at Cannes was a bucket list moment for me – I’d always dreamt of attending the glamour of Cannes and it didn’t fail to disappoint – there is no other festival like it in the world. Having a film in the festival that then went onto win Best Documentary was a huge validation of all the team effort and dedication that went into crafting the film. Rubbing shoulders with Hollywood glitterati such as Julianne Moore was a surreal bonus, and then to be asked to speak about the music and the film was very special. People were visibly moved by just watching the trailer of the film.
For Sama is certainly one of the most unique and important films I have ever been involved in, working with two directors Ed Watts, and Waad Al-Kateab who filmed, produced and lived through the uprising. I felt this extraordinary responsibility to do the film and Waad’s life story justice, to tell the story in the most true and authentic way possible.
Being involved in the edit for 18 months from a very early stage, I wrote a huge amount of music with a sound palette encompassing electronics, sound design, and orchestral elements with a touch of ethnicity. I must have watched the harrowing scenes thousands of times, and still find it incredibly emotional to watch; the footage has an incredible force, emotion and humanity to it that transcends all barriers.
As the edit progressed and the film evolved and changed narrative direction, there was much soul searching to find the musical heart of the film. On one level the music had to capture the onslaught of angst, fear, tragedy, hope and feeling of pathos that was prevalent. To begin with, it was very rich and cinematic. However, when the focal point of the story became Sama, Waad’s young daughter, everything clicked into place. We realised that the relationship between a mother and her daughter would help us understand what it means to be human in extreme situations and musically that’s what we had to bring out, the tenderness of that humanity. As the epic historical events unfold, the music supports Waad’s journey in a very subtle, minimalist and poignant way.
I brought in Alaa Arsheed, a Syrian violinist living as a refugee in Italy. The edginess and soulfulness of his playing perfectly captured the aching heart of the film. I used the piano, violin and cello for intimate emotional themes such as ‘Sama Is Born’ which has an innocent, plaintive quality that echoes the yearning for hope and peace.
‘Leaving Home’ has a quiet defiance and determination that represents the strength of the community in Aleppo. The tenderness of ‘The Miracle Baby’ counterpoints the tragic and shocking events of the film culminating in a bitter sweet, much needed emotional release of strings, while the hypnotic hand percussion of ‘Who’s Got Sama’ opens the film where Sama is lost, amongst the chaos of the hospital bombing, stirring anxiety and unsettled tension.
You once said that “writing is to capture the magic of performance without letting technology get in the way”. How do you do that?
In terms of the writing process, I start with a blank template at the start of every project. Noodling on different instruments forces me to be creative in different ways which then takes me out of my comfort zone. It helps to not rely on muscle memory which is when you tend to gravitate towards the same approach and chordal shapes.
I blend live playing and midi samples a lot – samples are great for control and choice, lack of budget, flexibility.
However, the human interpretation of music is incomparable to samples. The speed with which you can achieve and experiment with every nuance is so much faster and organic than samples, not to mention the emotional impact of working with musicians who breathe life into your music.
I’m really keen to break down technology barriers and find a way of injecting human expression into the writing process in as fast and organic a way as possible, so I do have midi controllers such as the Touche Expressive, Jouee, Roli Rise and blocks such as the Lightpad. I was also one of the first adopters of the Roli Grand Stage.
Something that I learned from working with Peter Gabriel and the school of writing, to ‘capture the magic’ of a performance without letting technology get in the way.
So I tend to record all my improvisations when composing and then edit and fine tune later on. I write instinctively and fast when responding to visual scenes, so getting ideas down fast is important. I can then easily spend hours and days tweaking unless I am faced with deadlines!
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a media composer?
It goes without saying that having a broad base of musical and technical skills are a prerequisite. A music education has it’s merits – you learn the foundations of music and discipline, but nothing can beat the school of actually getting out there and just writing, writing, writing… writing high quality music to deadlines is crucial so building up your own reel of music and finding your own musical voice is paramount. I also recommend actually watching TV & Film and immersing yourself in the world of how programmes are made and who is making them ! So many budding composers don’t watch and study TV & Film as a medium.
Being humble, reliable, professional, ego-less, flexible, meeting deadlines, able to network, be creative, come up with ideas without just being spoon fed, following briefs, and working under immense pressure are other invaluable skills that go hand in hand with those musical skills.