I love reading. I read any kind of books, I usually jump from sci-fi, to biographies, from fantasy, to textbooks on various topics. What I look for in my reading is to turn the last page of a book and feel I’ve learned something, that I have grown in some ways. When I finished reading Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup not only I felt I knew a lot about lean management but also that I could improve some of the aspects of my work as a composer following those same principles. Before we sink in the first topic of this multi-part series here is a bit of context:
Toyota and lean manufacturing
The concept of lean management—an approach to running an organization through small, incremental changes in processes that improves efficiency and quality—has its roots in a revolutionary way of manufacturing cars invented by Toyota. Both methods are centered on waste minimization and strong productivity, two things that every composer should try to achieve in her/his workflow. Over the course of the next weeks we will explore some of the key tools that Ries absorbed from studying lean manufacturing and then applied to startups and see how we can further interpret them to improve the quality of our work as composers. Without further ado let me introduce to you this week’s topic:
Less is more, enter the MVP
MVP stands for “minimum viable product” and it is one of the fundamental players in the Lean strategy. In the startup world creating products that are just good enough to be put in the hands of customers means obtaining priceless data or “metrics” very soon in the process and with a minimum investment of resources, energy and above all time. This ensures a healthy product growth and the possibility to make radical changes, if needed, without leaning too heavily on assumptions.
Minimum viable cue, the MVC
Every composer has been there many times, I am sure: you spend hours making sure your first batch of cues is perfect, you walk the extra mile, hardly get any sleep, eat junk food for days, finally you send them and get asked for complete rewrites. All those hours, all that energy wasted. What if instead you had saved some resources for such a scenario? With more energy left in your batteries it is easier to see you aren’t in such the bad shape you might think you are: sometimes a few focused changes might revert the situation and get your cue approved (more about this when talking about pivots in part 2). So here is a list of recommendations that will help you creating a minimum viable cue (MVC):
Keep your orchestration essential
This one takes the first spot in the list because it is one of the places where I find myself struggling more. I have to restrain myself from creating complete orchestrations in this phase but it can really help. Not only you will need to invest a smaller amount of time in each cue but chances are you will also send music that is easier for the director to assess. The important elements will stand out more and you can always refine the orchestration once the cue is approved.
A decent mock-up is good enough
Of a similar nature of the previous one, this might raise a few eyebrows. I get it, you are a mock-up nerd (so am I). But I like to think about myself that the fact I can make very realistic mock-ups is not the reason I get hired, the quality of my writing is. Creating convincing mock-ups can take several hours of work that could go wasted if the cue is rejected for reasons non-related to the mock-up itself. If you haven’t done it yet I suggest fine tuning your template so that you can reach a fair level of realism with a small investment of time and energy. Rest assured, once the cue is approved you still can (and probably should) maniacally refine the sound of those instruments that are not going to record until they sound just like the real thing!
Only tackle one cue per theme
This one is a no-brainer, but it is such an important one that it’s worth mentioning it. As good as a you think a theme you came up with might be don’t compose more than one cue featuring that theme before having it approved. Just imagine the frustration generated by a cue rejection multiplied by the number of cues you composed with that theme at their core…
Don’t be overzealous with your mixing/mastering
By now you should know the drill… You spend a full day mixing and mastering your cues, you send them over, the director rejects them and you have wasted all that precious time! Try creating quick mixes/masters, maybe even resort to an automatic solution (like using plugins presets or the master assistant in Izotope Ozone and the like) and wait until the cue is approved for the heavy fiddling.
In this phase you are generally not expected to send cues that are already perfect, chances are that the people who hired you already know you can achieve a great level of detail with your work. But this is the phase where you are expected to find good solutions fast. Becoming a Lean Composer can mean building a reputation for being the fastest guy in town!
After we send the first batch of cues we inevitably get a call or an email back with a review, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. But believe it or not, even negative ones can move us a step forward. By interpreting these “metrics” correctly we can leverage on the work already done to produce a new version of the cue closer to being approved. In the next chapter we will explore the concept of pivots and how they can lead to nailing even the most difficult cues.