Tim K on the Essential Skill Sets of a Media Composer | Making Music for Films & TV

Tim Kvasnosky—better known as Tim K—is a musician, producer, and composer that lives in the dual worlds of pop music and media composition. In between producing for Honey Dijon and Colette and playing keys for artists from Sam Sparro to Rahzel, Tim K has also created music for movies like King Cobra, I Am Michael, and 2018’s Welcome the Stranger, as well as thousands of commercials.

In an effort to learn more about media composition and share with Reverb’s readers how exactly one goes from being a musician to making music for movies and television, we’ve reached out to a number of composers working in the field. Over the coming weeks, we’ll hear from more, but today, our series of conversations starts with Tim K.

For more about Tim K, check out his website here. Keep reading to learn how he got his start, what tools he uses to work with (or against) the emotions displayed on the screen, and how he navigates the opinions of film directors.

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

In my experience media composers fall into a couple of categories. You either see the musician-based composer or the engineer-based composer. I was a musician first. I started playing when I was a kid. I started making music in the computer at very young age also.

My first media composing gig was in the early 2000s. A music house producer heard the record I had done and hit me up about doing a demo for a commercial.

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

Sadly, when you are working in most media composition scenarios you are working toward a reference from either the music house or from the ad agency. Having our unique point of view or voice isn’t always helpful [laughs]. Initially, I compartmentalized my individual music projects from my media projects. As I got better at both, they began to feed each other in subtle ways.

Tim K (All photos by Tim Shumaker)

In many cases as a composer for commercials you have to write music you don’t really care for. Even if I hate the music I’m writing for a commercial I try to find an element in the music where I can express something that is sincere or earnest, if merely for my sanity. As I began to work on bigger records, critical acclaim has helped the demand for my media work.

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

I did train as a piano player, however, I have no formal training as a composer. I think my lack of training in a formal capacity has given me an advantage. Being a piano player in the jazz context, you need to learn all the theory required to write most orchestration. Learning the individual sounds takes time, but it certainly can be done outside of a collegiate environment.

Scoring to picture is something that can be taught, however the bulk of the learning is in a hands-on capacity. The best education for composition is working as an in-house composer, as you end up working on so many different types of projects and short, tough deadlines.

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

I think you need 10,000 hours of experience in three disciplines—musician, engineer, and composer. Most composers are musicians first and then become engineers. At this point in time, not having all three skill sets in an advanced capacity sets you at a major disadvantage. It takes a lot of time.

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

I’ve worked on thousands of commercials (from Aamco to Ziploc) and I’ve seen some seriously wild things in briefs. Nothing seem strange to me anymore. I’m used to people saying crazy words trying to describe music. Honestly I’m past finding it funny, as annoying as it sounds. The quickest way to lose a client is to be a jerk, and making fun of what they say doesn’t really help you much.

Now I’m just trying to really understand what they’re trying to say so I can get the job done right. Just because people don’t have a command of the musical lexicon doesn’t negate their opinions. Musicians can be really condescending, and I don’t to want to be part of that.

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

I have a completely over-engineered home studio. I have an array of vintage outboard gear and work in Logic on a Mac. I usually write on a MIDI controller and use every instrument available. I play a bunch and have a bunch [laughs].

My favorite music libraries are definitely from Spitfire Audio, from the UK. I also use Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Sibelius, and Bitwig—mostly Logic though. I’m a heavy Universal Audio supporter and user. I’m also a big fan of Focal speakers.

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

I generally watch the scene/cut without music and with the ref track if it’s there first to see the intention of the director and editor. Then I find a tempo that seems to match up with some of the cuts and/or the vibe of the edit. I then look for the moments where score changes should happen and write markers into the session. I then mock out on piano the melodies, then add the various layers of instrumentation, mixing (and often mastering) last.

How do you choose the register, timbre, instrumentation?

I choose timbre and instrumentation based upon the mood and needs of the picture. I tend to paint with instruments to populate the spectrum as needed for feeling, impact, etc. The more you do this the more you see the roles that specific orchestral instruments often play. Sometimes it’s more related to character, sometimes it’s just related to the feeling of the scene in general.

"I’d like to believe that a truly tuneful melody can be presented in infinite ways. I have spent my whole life studying harmony, and there’s nothing that I enjoy more than re-harmonizing the context in which a melody is presented."

Generally, you’re working with the scene but sometimes you get those funny exceptions where you are working against or even independently from what happens in the picture. It really depends on the project.

When I’m working on a film I like to write a group of themes at the piano, based more on the script and the general feeling of the whole film rather than one specific scene. I’ll often write 10 to 15 piano melodies and structures and then bring those to the computer to adapt to the various cues and needs of the film.

For commercials, you’re choosing instrumentation and timbre from a brief or group of reference tracks from the agency producer. Every once in awhile they let you choose for yourself—but it’s sadly less common!

How do you develop a theme over time?

I’d like to believe that a truly tuneful melody can be presented in infinite ways. I have spent my whole life studying harmony, and there’s nothing that I enjoy more than re-harmonizing the context in which a melody is presented. Having a background in jazz harmony has offered a distinct advantage. I love changing harmonic context in countless ways under the themes I’ve written. I’m lucky that the efforts of my youth in this area of study have been so fruitful.

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?

Stock music to me is library music or mass-produced, low-quality music that’s often used in reality TV shows. Commercials and film editors usually use high-quality reference tracks and almost never use stock music. I’m usually battling a commercially released record and not a library piece from some crappy library music collection.

When film editors use temp music in a film, they often use Oscar-winning music, and commercial editors often use records on the top of the charts. Trying to make something that is better than great music is a great challenge. Anyone that can’t compete with great music isn’t going to do very well as a composer.

Tim K

In film, 90 percent of the time original music beats reference music, if for the scoring potential alone. Film directors realize the value of an original score in creating an identity for a film.

However, for spots, the familiarity of a famous song is a giant advantage. This familiarity of the known song is often what people respond to in a commercial context. The problem is when they leave the commercial they don’t remember the product—they just remember the song.

There’s so much untapped potential for original sonic branding for products, yet the test markets initially respond favorably towards what they’re familiar with. We often lose this battle against licensed music, despite the success of so many classic jingles.

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 try to avoid having any go-to compositional moves. It’s much more exciting for me to respond emotionally and honestly rather than to be calculating with chords or intervals for specific emotional response.

In my opinion the things that separate you from other composers are your advantages, rather than the things that make you sound like everyone else. I’m aware of many of these rules, but I try to break them as much as possible. Suspense can be presented in so many different ways—same for love and loss.

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?

At this point my creative processes are integrated. I’m often composing while recording and producing. It’s hard not to be impacted by the sound of the specific sample library. Some parts I write on piano first, some directly in the library I hear for the part.

I’m less excited about spending time securing work, but that’s a necessary evil. That being said, I have been lucky to work with many of my friends. These organic relationships are always my favorite. I do have an agent for film and TV who is very helpful with many of the business items related to film composition. I don’t really spend any time pursuing producers (even though that may be helpful!).

What do you see as the future of media composing?

I think the lower end of media composing (crappy music libraries) will be affected dramatically by AI composition in the future. High end composition will always have demand. Music will get easier and easier to make on the computer and with YouTube tutorials people will churn out mounds of similarly sounding crap! [Laughs.]

What are you working on now?

I just had a new film released this week starring Caleb Landry Jones (from Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) called Welcome the Stranger. It’s steamy, sexy, and freaky. Also last week, I wrapped a new film from director Justin Kelly about J.T. Leroy starring Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart.

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