Aussie comedian Justin Hamilton has been doing a cool behind-the-scenes thing in his podcast. He’s posted a series of recordings of his one man show at various stages in its gestation – from tryout shows, through to a “finished” version from midway through the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s not only very funny – it’s also a fascinating insight into the iterative creative process that underpins long-form standup comedy.

It got me thinking about all the draft versions of music that I’ve got sitting around on my hard drive, and I decided it might be instructive to write a blog post with some audio examples which showed that process on a musical front.

So I’ve gone with the Buzz Bumble theme music for a couple of reasons. First, it was relatively recent, so I still have most of the correspondence, and it’s somewhat fresh in my mind. It’s also one that changed quite dramatically from the first sketch to the final piece, so there’s some meaningful evolution to talk about. I was a bit worried about repeating myself, as I’ve already done a walk through of the theme project in this video, but this post is more about idea generation & the process of refining the composition, so I think it’s still worthwhile posting.

For reference, here’s the finished theme as it’s currently going to air.

 

First Things First

I started on this in December of 2012. I hadn’t seen a frame of animation at this point, but I’d seen some character & set artwork, plus read some story outlines and a couple of early draft scripts, so I had a decent idea of what the show was. I’d also had some very preliminary discussions with the director about musical direction, so I did have some parameters to work within, although they were fairly loose. The music had to have a “live show” feel, so no synths, loops etc. Somewhere along the line I’d got it into my head to overdub a bunch of kazoos in the style of a brass quartet, so I thought I’d give that a go for draft #1. Really the main thing was to get something really basic down so that the director and I could start refining.

Here’s what I ended up with.

First Draft

 

If you don’t know anything about the kazoo – it’s basically like the old tissue paper & comb thing – you’re pretty much singing through it, and the vibrating membrane makes it sounds all buzzy. I can’t actually sing as high as the lead line in that demo, but thanks to Reaper’s varispeed capabilities I didn’t have to 🙂

I dutifully sent that off to David the director. David’s got some musical background himself, so it’s much much MUCH easier to talk to him about this stuff than it is with some clients, and the feedback was very specific. Sometimes you can get things like “can you make it sound more orange?” or “I’m just not not feeling it, but I can’t quite explain why”, and that can be a challenge to interpret. No such worries here.

Aaanyway, the first feedback indicated that I was on the right track, but there were a few suggestions, including the following:

  • Start the music sparsely to allow more of a buildup.
  • Introduce a stop & restart somewhere in the middle to add interest.
  • More raspy/buzzy sounding kazoos – not so “hi fi” sounding.
  • Change the lyrics from “The Buzz Bumble Show” to simply “Buzz Bumble”.

Easy done. Off my own bat, I also decided to have a try at formant shifting the vocals to get it sounding a bit more “buggy”. Ordinarily I probably wouldn’t make such a big change without a discussion, but we were still very much in the stage of throwing ideas at the wall to see what would stick 🙂

Second Draft

 

I believe the notes from this version were given verbally, so I can’t recall precisely, but somewhere along the lines we decided to drop the kazoo. It was also concluded that the “small voices” idea, while quite appealing, didn’t really fit with the tone of the show. The context of the episodes had us in the bugs’ world – they weren’t tiny, they were just the characters of the show, and the speaking voices were definitely not going to be pitched or formant-shifted in any way. So “bug voice” went out the window, and I started putting together a more realistic(ish) sounding brass section. As we were contemplating a quite marked change in sound I only did the first half of the theme, with the idea that I’d get feedback on the overall direction before completing it. You can start to hear the first fragments here (particularly in the introduction) of what would become the final theme.

Third Draft (excerpt)

 

The director loved the opening, as well as the overall orchestration & feel. Alright!

It was suggested that the “faux finish” at 4-seconds was a bit too long, and in hindsight it was absolutely WAY too long! Also the “Buuuuuzzzz Buuuumbblllllllle” was deemed too drawn out.

So…

Fourth Draft

 

Now it’s getting pretty close – the intro is pretty much locked down, and the last several seconds are not a million miles away from where the theme ended up – a couple of those drum fills are still there in the final version.

Up until this point, the brief had been to avoid having lyrics in the theme. The show was going to foreign markets, and a decision had been made to keep any sung lyrics as basic as possible in order to simplify the translation process. At some point this idea was retracted for the theme, so I was tasked with coming up with some words. At last – time to put that English Literature major to good use!

I jotted down some scratch lyrics (which ended up being used without a single change!) and spent an hour or so laying them down. I go into more detail on that process in this video,

I also made some structural & arrangement tweaks. I closed up the gap between the intro fill and the first verse, and pulled the brass out of the verses so as not to distract the ear from the vocals. I also mixed up the meter a bit, throwing in a bar of 2/4 before the “Buzz Bumble” section (which is itself in 6/4). I love little moves like that – it just makes the whole thing a bit more interesting than just plodding along in 4/4.

What I ended up with was pretty much the finished theme.

Fifth Draft

 

A bit more polishing to get it to the FINAL final, but in essence it’s all there.

Simple as that! I hope this is useful to somebody out there one day.

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