The music of Adam Young, also known as Owl City, has taken a new direction in recent years: film scoring.
Adam is an incredible talent and a longtime friend of Shure, so we were excited to support the Adam Young Scores Short Film Contest. Learn more about the contest and see the winners here.
I caught up with Adam to talk about why he loves writing scores, which mics he uses in the studio, and his trusty Shure headphones.
Why did you want to launch this film contest? What’s the goal?
Adam Young: I love the idea that if you have 10 different people tell the same exact story, you will have 10 different versions of it—the same facts, but presented in different ways. I started thinking about what it would be like if filmmakers were to take the music I’d created based upon my love of a specific historical event and use it to tell a story of their own, either based upon the same event or something entirely different. I was really excited about the idea. I love being inspired by my favorite stories, so my ultimate goal is to inspire in others that same love of creating art.
You mention on the project’s website that you fell in love with film scores at an early age. Is this project your first leap into that world?
AY: I’ve been writing film score-type music for a few years now, experimenting and learning the process a little at a time, but I’ve not released anything in this vein until 2016. The thing I love about film music and instrumental music as a standalone genre is that there are far fewer rules than in pop music. I don’t have to think about a song needing to be the typical radio single 3:30 minutes in length, or worry about a pop song structure or sensibility. I can just sit down and start creating, and let the music be whatever it is without worrying about fitting it into a mold.
As a result, I have a huge amount of unreleased instrumental music that I’ve created over the years. I enjoy listening to some of my oldest recordings and realizing that I’ve learned a lot along the way. I use that as inspiration to strive to get better.
How did you manage the shift from writing pop music to writing scores?
AY: It was all about appropriate timing. For many years, I’ve wanted to release the film score music I’ve worked on, but I’d been too busy with my pop project Owl City. The scores were a side project that was always on the back burner until I looked at my schedule for 2016 and realized it was a great time to pause Owl City for a few months and work on a really important project I’ve wanted to do since I was 16 years old.
How does writing a pop song or dance track compare to writing scores?
AY: A pop song is, of course, all about the lyric and melody of the vocal, but an instrumental song, to me, needs the equivalent of a lead vocal to propel it forward and give it purpose. That might be a piano melody or a string phrase—anything melodic, and something catchy you can hum along with. I have a huge appetite for uplifting, euphoric melodies, and that’s something that makes pop music and instrumental music very similar in my approach.
Why did you select different historical events as backdrops for your scores?
AY: I initially considered simply writing 11 albums of instrumental music purely for the sake of creating art, but I know myself well enough to know the albums could’ve wound up sounding too similar to each other. I knew I needed a way to ensure each album would sound different and unique. I love history, and I was inspired to write my own interpretation of my favorite historical events using music.
How do you know what sound is going to perfectly capture a moment in a visual?
AY: For me it’s an instinctive process and not really something I think about cognitively. I’ll sit down and know I need to write a piece of music that captures a specific emotion: fear, triumph, foreboding, bliss—whatever the emotion may be—and I really just start playing and recording. It’s very intuitive for me. If I get done and I listen back and realize it isn’t quite right, I’ll usually start over and save that first attempt in case it fits better as a different puzzle piece I may need in the future. Beyond that, I just let the spirit of the story I’m trying to tell guide the music.
What Shure gear are you using in the studio when scoring?
AY: I have a handful of Shure microphones that are hugely important in my workflow. I use an SM7B for sampling vocals, which I manipulate and turn into organic pads and synth textures. I have a pair of KSM141s I use to record piano and strings. I also use them to capture field recordings. I love my classic SM57s for drums. I use a KSM44A for bells, percussion, acoustic guitar, strings and other sources that require a lot of articulation. To capture the warmth and round off the edges of sharper sources, I really love my KSM313 ribbon microphone.
I hear you have a trusty pair of Shure headphones you rely on. What model are they, and what do you like most about them?
AY: Something I absolutely cannot live without is my pair of SRH840 headphones. It may sound strange, but I don’t actually use near field speakers or studio monitors of any kind for this project. Instead, I write, record and mix everything on headphones exclusively. I love being immersed in music, and headphones have always been my favorite way of consuming music, so that’s my reason behind choosing headphones versus speakers.
I think listening to music should be fun whether you’re creating or enjoying it, and the SRH840s are the most accurate yet pleasing headphones I’ve ever used. I take them everywhere with me—on airplanes, on tour, on vacation, even mowing the lawn. I know how my favorite albums sound, and in turn, how music is supposed to sound through the SRH840s, so I’m really confident mixing with them because I’ve become so used to them. It’s difficult for me to use anything else!