Gregory Jenkins on the Oddest Scene He's Ever Scored | Making Music for Films & TV

How exactly does a musician go from making music on their own to scoring films, TV shows, and commercials? We've reached out to a group of media composers to find out. In our first interview of the series, we asked pianist, producer, and soundtrack ace Tim K how he got his start, what go-to techniques he employs, and how he juggles the worlds of personal music-making and commercial work.

Today, we've posed the same questions to Gregory James Jenkins. The LA-based composer got his start with a chance gig and now uses an enviable arsenal of equipment to make music for everything from Disney Jr. cartoons to twisted short films and slasher flicks.

Keep reading to learn more about his journey from a struggling music student to a professional composer, how he approaches any given scene like a math problem, and how one should properly "stew" on theme as a deadline draws near. Check out Gregory James Jenkins' website here for more info on his work.

How did you get your start? What was your first media composing gig and how did you get it?

I got my start back in 2008 when I got a job at Machine Head as an assistant, here in Los Angeles. I had just moved out a year prior and spent my first year working for Native Instruments. My initial job was digitizing and cataloging years worth of DAT tape recordings of sound effects. Within a month of me working there, a Coke job came in. It was an industrial that would be playing outside the Staples Center at LA Live.

Since at that particular moment Machine Head didn't have any in-house composers, they let me demo for the job. Somehow, I ended up winning the job and my boss, Stephen Dewey, said, "You're a composer now." It was as simple as that, and 100 percent lucky that I was at the right place at the right time. I'd go on to spend the next seven years there working as an in-house composer for commercials.

Wienerschnitzel ad composed by Gregory James Jenkins

How has creating music for yourself or other recording artists informed your composition work?

Composing for media can be a very demanding job with lots of quick deadlines. In order to be quick and efficient I often rely on what I call my "bag of tricks," which are just various techniques I've compiled over the years that accomplish parts of the task quickly. These tricks can encompass anything from a sound I like, to a custom vocal chain channel strip, or even arrangement techniques.

Often times I'm picking these tricks up on the job, learning as I go, but when I'm working on my own music or collaborating with an artist, that is when I can really spend the time to explore and discover new tricks. Also, I am lucky enough to have collaborated with some very talented artists over the years, and each one of them I've been able to learn from and grow myself as a musician.

How has your formal education (or lack of a formal education) informed your media composition career?

I went to the Berklee College of Music from 2002 to 2007. Despite my five years of attendance, I am still 12 credits shy of that degree! That said, I use knowledge and skills I learned at Berklee everyday in my career. Harmony and ear training, writing and arranging, synthesis and recording skills—all of these have proven useful. I'd be lying if I said I was a good student, as often times I was staying up til 7 a.m. working on a "cool track" instead of sleeping or studying or practicing, but I certainly learned a lot while I was there and am thankful for the experience.

Jenkins performs with a Moog Liberation keytar at his wedding.

What do you consider to be the most essential skill sets, soft and hard, to have?

You have to be able to produce and mix proficiently. If your work doesn't sound good, you're not going to get the job. You must have good taste. This seems like a given, but if you don't have good taste in music, how are you going to make good music? The hardest part about this is finding time to continue to enjoy music. I still try to listen to an entire album everyday. New or old, it doesn't matter, but I find it hugely important to find the time to be a human and an appreciator of music that isn't my own.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, you must have good people skills. My career is largely thanks to just a handful of people. Many of my clients keep coming back because we enjoy spending time with each other. Sometimes you're locked in a room for hours with a collaborator, and you have to be a good hang. You can't be a person that's going to throw a fit, or start arguing when your client doesn't like something about your music.

What's the strangest request a director or film/tv producer has given you when describing the kind of music they want?

It's amazing, because I know there's been some wacky asks over the years, but I can't think of many. Maybe the time director Todd Strauss-Schulson asked me to score a scene of a life-sized fried chicken wing making love to a giant slice of pizza for his short film The Master Cleanse. I ended up creating a chorus of gremlin lumberjacks singing along and rooting them on. [Ed.: Track nine on the playlist below.]

What's your studio setup? What instruments are you composing with? Favorite scoring software? Music libraries?

Alright, here we go: I use Logic Pro X as my DAW. Kontakt for all my sample library needs. I like a lot of Spitfire and Cinesamples libraries for orchestral work. My go-to synths are Diva and Reaktor.

A Symphony I/O for my AD/DAs. Casio Privia as my main MIDI controller with a little Icon fader box for CCs. Elektron Analog Rytm for all my analog drum machine duties.

A host of synths that include a Moog Liberation, Roland SH-1000, Yamaha CS-15, Korg Poly-800 that'd been modded, and a Korg DW-6000.

I was able to ship my grandfather's upright Steinway from Michigan last summer, so that has made its way into my work a ton from recording to writing. I've spent the past few years putting together a Eurorack modular FX rack that has become my pride and joy. The signal path is all analog and includes stereo ins and outs for tube distortion (Metasonix), spring reverb, chorus/flanging, high-pass, low-pass, phaser, and BBD delays. I have various LFO, mixing, and other CV utilities.

I use the Expert Sleepers ES-3 for complete DAW integration. I have a series of custom Reaktor instruments that are in my main template that are sending out tempo, LFOs, envelopes, and various other controls for seamless integration with the modular. Also, the ins and outs are all normalled on my patchbay so it's as simple as turning up the send to Bus 5 to route something out to the modular.

What's your general process? Do you come up with thematic concepts for characters, plot arcs, and build from there?

Process? I don't know about all that—I probably do some of those things you've mentioned without realizing it. Obviously, my process changes from project to project as each one has different requirements.

Ignoring commercials, and just talking about narrative work, I usually begin with tone/genre. What's our band, what does this sound like? This process usually involves a variety of experimentations and explorations based on the picture and/or script depending on what we have, and I begin a back and forth with the director, producer, showrunner, or whoever is my boss in this instance.

From there we'll begin to narrow in on our sound and I'll start writing character themes. This can happen in tandem with the experimentation portion. Also, much of this work never makes it into the film/show and also often times doesn't even happen if time does not allow. Then I just dig in on writing to picture.

I really like approaching scoring a scene like a math problem. There's always beats in a story/performance that you want to hit with different things. So I'll go through and spot, "We start here. Here there's an emotional swell. Here someone is running away, etc." And then start mapping out the scene with tempo grids and time signature changes so I can hit all those moments. Then it's just filling in the blanks.

If you have a character theme you've written already, great, insert here and match the pace/instrumentation to what the scene calls for. I think that's it. Once all your broad strokes are in, you can orchestrate it up, produce it, mix it, ship it.

How do you choose the register, timbre, instrumentation?

A lot of this work is hopefully done at the beginning of a project—the aforementioned experimentation/exploration stage. It can be nice to assign certain instruments to certain characters, but not always needed or called for.

In my younger days of composing, if there was something my music needed to do but it wasn't succeeding, I would often just add something on top to accomplish that. All well and fine until you've done that 10 times and you got too many instruments competing for the same space.

These days, I spend a lot more time having fewer things accomplish all that needs to be accomplished. It's best to stick to only three things happening at any given time. Like, you have your strings creating your harmony/rhythm, woodwinds are accenting scoring moments, and brass is providing your melody.

That's kinda a dumb simplification but it works. Also, back to timbre, instrumentation—I've been really into fun doublings lately. Maybe you have a synth melody that's doubled by flutes.

Gregory James Jenkins - "Theatre Fire" from The Final Girls

How do you develop a theme over time?

Well, after you write a theme you gotta "stew" on it. I always have a "stewing" period when working on something new. I write, I think, I play with it, I think more. I think about how it's going to work to picture. To the untrained eye, this just looks like procrastination. Why am I waiting to the day before this cue is due to start actually writing to picture? Because you gotta "stew." It's an important part of the process. This is at least what I tell myself.

Once you start getting approvals on themes and scenes, the theme will naturally develop as it needs to be put against different picture. Perhaps your character is in a dangerous situation, so now you want to have elements of their theme, but in conjunction with this danger music. Well, your theme has now developed into something new. Congrats!

How much of a battle is it to work with stock music? To create a new piece that encompasses what the director loved about a well-known placeholder?

My feelings on temp music can vary widely. I've been lucky on many big projects I've been a part of where temp was only used minimally, if at all. This is obviously great, because I get to create fun, unique, original music that I feel ownership over. This can also stretch out the process to be a lot longer than it would have if the director/producer was able to pinpoint what they wanted the music to sound like.

It is hard for me to differentiate the recording/producing from the writing. I think about it all as one big process. Be it writing ideas, recording musicians who are bringing their own energy into the composition—which is in turn inspiring new ideas." - Gregory James Jenkins

That said, temp music can also be a big pain in the butt. Sometimes the reason the temp music is succeeding so much is because there's a heavy dose of nostalgia for a particular piece of music that is influencing the emotion of the picture. This can be a very hard if not impossible task to tackle.

Have you found any go-to compositional moves or tools for protagonists, antagonists? What types of chords or intervals are going to work for suspense, love, or loss?

I don't think I do any of this. Maybe I should? I mean, I probably am doing exactly this, but I don't like to think this way when I'm actually writing. I watch, I think, I hear something, and I do my best to get it out of my head.

Sure, you can do like a i-bvi progression and be like, "Well, that sounds evil." Or a I–iii progression and, "Oh no! Our character feels lost and sad." But I try to stay away from that sort of thinking when I'm writing and enjoy the challenge of finding unexpected ways to emote the same thing.

What's a breakdown of your time? How much spent composing? How much recording and producing? How much securing work? How much meeting with film directors and producers?

[Laughs.] Well, I'd say the lion's share of my time is spent actually composing, especially when you count all those hours and days and weeks of "stewing." It is hard for me to differentiate the recording/producing from the writing. I think about it all as one big process, so that's mostly what I'm spending my time doing. Be it writing ideas, recording musicians who are bringing their own energy into the composition—which is in turn inspiring new ideas. Producing and mixing and focusing on sound and small details and small moments. It's all a part of it, and this is definitely eight to 16 hours of my days.

Securing work is of course hard to pinpoint time spent. I try and go to networking events, and am in frequent communication with my top clients. I'd say there's anywhere from two to 10 hours a week of this sort of activity. Networking, meeting for a drink, emailing. If it's been slow for a few weeks maybe it's time to sit at the computer and shoot off a bunch of emails.

What do you see as the future of media composing?

Robots.

What are you working on now?

I wish I could talk about all of it, but much of it y'all will just have to wait and find out. I'm currently in the throws of finishing up scoring season 2 of the Disney Jr. show Goldie & Bear. It's always a delight hanging out with my friends in fairytale forest! (Tell your toddlers.)

As for what I can't talk about, I'll be vague. Some exciting commercial projects, a couple short films, a feature, a future television show, an album for a wonderfully talented recording artist, and maybe after all that stuff I can get back to working on my own album.


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