Oil and Water

As many people here know, film scores are subject to the whims of fashion. One thing I've noticed of late has been a scary comeback of an instrument that had long been absent from 'big' film scores since the late 80s.

I speak of ... the electric guitar!

Yes, once common in every score from Top Gun to The Rock this byword for 'instant cool' in movie scores has long been away.

I first noticed the return with (another Bruckheimer movie) Pirates of the Carribean 3. Admittedly it was a small section and not part of the overall score but there it was.

This year there have been several prominent scores making significant use of electric guitars in what are otherwise mostly orchestral scores: Inception, Iron Man 2 and How To Train Your Dragon. Each score used guitar in a slightly different way and with different levels of success, IMO.

Now it's strange to say this but even though I'm primarily an electric guitarist and have studied it seriously for many, many years, I've never really been a huge fan of it in film score. I tried to work out the reasons and I think it's often because it's used by composers who don't understand the instrument but also because it is hard to make it sit into an otherwise orchestral mix.

This is what this article is about.

One of the issues with using the electric guitar is due to the way it's usually recorded. Like most pop/rock instruments it's normally close-miked. This gives it a very definite attack. If you blend a regular orchestral score behind it then it will not be sitting in the same space. This also goes for modern drum recordings or loops and synths.

If overall you're going for a more traditional orchestral sound then I would spend time trying to push the electric guitar back into a virtual space to sit with the orchestra. This is the approach taken on How to Train Your Dragon and I believe it works fairly well. Unfortunately pushing the guitar back a lot tends to take away a lot of what makes it sound so exciting in the first place.

I recently put together a track for a movie pitch. Given the nature of the track I wanted to mix traditional orchestral elements with synths, drum/percussion loops and (ever a slave to fashion) the increasingly common electric guitars. The feel was likely to be far more 'hybrid' than traditional. What I noticed was that the orchestral elements simply cannot compete with aggressive sounding synths and distorted guitars. It's extremely hard to get them to sit in a similar space and all of the orchestral elements have too soft an attack. Eventually this gets to the point where it sounds like you have two scores playing at the same time rather than a single combined score.

Looking around for a solution I realised I needed my strings to sound more punchy and aggressive to match the synths. Once I started working with compression I suddenly understood why Hans Zimmer does what he does to orchestral sounds. He is famous for taking his brass and strings and running them through all manner of effects (from compressors to Sonnox Inflator to actual guitar amps) to give them a more immediate sound that actually balances with the contemporary elements. It really does work. Say what you like about HZ's scores, he is a very able producer and mixes contemporary and traditional elements very well.

Another important aspect is to understand what role you're going to give an electric guitar in an arrangement. Normally they have a 4 octave range from E2 to E6 (taking C4 as middle C). A lot of modern bands may use de-tuning or 7 string guitars to get down to B1 and there are even crazy 36 fret guitars taking you up to E7! Generally they can sit very well with trombones and cellos in accompaniment roles. I've found that I will tend to EQ guitars differently if they are playing predominantly in one range or another. The use of the plectrum (and close-miking) will often mean they generate a lot of frequencies across a large range and so it can be worth compressing them and EQing them to reduce the 'noise' aspects of the instrument.

It's also worth considering if you're looking for ultra-heavy sounds from your guitars then one reason they sound that big in a rock band is because they are being doubled an octave below by a bass guitar. If you are going to do this then obviously you have to be very careful with placement (or even usage) of bass orchestral instruments, perhaps reserving them for particular emphasis every now and then.

I guess I should do my obligatory VI recommendation at this point and unfortunately I can't say I've used any. This is one thing I continue to do completely live. I have heard excellent things about Cinesamples' Iron Guitars, Tonehammer Epic Guitars and the new SampleLogic Cinematic Guitars. These are all largely aimed at powerchord rhythms for the most part. Faking a lead solo with a VI is fairly tough and generally pointless because there are about a billion guitarists out there waiting to do it.

So my overall advice is that if you are planning to add electric guitar to a mostly orchestral score, consider the kind of feel you're going for and adapt accordingly otherwise you'll simply end up with two incongruous pieces overlayed and it just does not work. If you don't play electric guitar yourself then try and work with a player to get a feel for the instrument and how it works and what they can do on it. On the other hand, don't beat yourself up if you write a chord they can't play ... Def Leppard often multitracked every chord note by note so they created chords that weren't actually playable anyway ... I don't remember people (other than the band themselves) even mentioning it.

As ever, these are just my thoughts and I'm happy to use this topic as a springboard for discussion.


James ...

Cue ultra-cool guitar solo as James puts on the Oakleys and walks off into the sunset!

E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of Composers' Forum to add comments!

Join Composers' Forum


  • This reminds me of the infamous "Loudness wars" of the music industry, in which the same paradox applies - the louder you try to make something using compression, the less impact it will have - because you lose dynamics. It's quite surprising how many CDs suffer from this paradoxical blunder. I once did an interesting experiment where I equalised the RMS power of the same piece of music from a hypercompressed CD and its less compressed vinyl version (less compressed because the format couldn't handle it without physically damaging the stylus!), and you could hear the transients so much better on the vinyl one; it was really noticeable.

    Of course when we're dealing with film mixing, there is more going on. Has anyone read Walter Murch's excellent article about encoded and embodied sound? It's online somewhere, I believe. He talks about the mixing of the famous helicopter raid scene in Apocalypse Now, and has some very interesting points to make on this topic.
  • Oh right, well said Chris. I had heard that about the latest Iron Man movie.

    I guess you can't argue that about Inception ... the score was so loud you could almost hear it the movie in the next cinema. I met a lot of people who said "oh I loved the score but my cinema was playing it way too loud" ... haha ... nope, it was compressed to death and jammed right up in the mix.

    Still good point about FX. Dialog first then FX then whatever's left is for us humble media composers.
  • It's a similar problem with music and sfx in a movie - especially Iron Man. One thinks, 'this scene needs to be bad ass, so let's add elec guitar!' But what happens is that they end up having to mix the music lower due to the compressed nature of the music. Then the audio guy thinks, 'this scene needs to be bad ass, so let's add lots of sfx!' So you have lots of robot sfx and an orch score with lots of guitar. Then the music ends up getting mixed way to low because there is just too much crap going on!

    Next time an older Spielberg movie is on, take notice of how little sfx there actually is. You can even notice things happening on screen without an accompanying sound. And of course the score will be sparse enough to have power.

    The more sounds you have going on - ESPECIALLY compressed (very low dynamic range) sounds - the LESS impact the scene will have.

    Thanks for the great article, James!
  • Oh it definitely can be accomplished Doug ... however one of the three scores I mentioned above really did not manage it. At times that score sounds like two separate scores playing at the same time.
  • Glad to hear that elec guitar is now coming back into film scores. Seamless integration can probably be accomplished, if you use your mentioned approach of pushing the aggressive guitar sound back into the mix. On the other hand, if you want that 'in your face' complex tone, I think it would be possible to design an orchestral 'backdrop' for the guitar, where you make the orchestra a kind of subtle foil for the foreground guitar. So, with that scenario, the traditional orchestra would play a supporting role for the edgy guitar. I agree that you could also make the traditional orchestra sound more 'electric', and matching reverbs would also really help. An additional tact would be to write for the elec guitar in a way that goes against the elec guitar stereotypes- elec blues, heavy metal, etc.
This reply was deleted.