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The Copeland Operating System Rocks Mac OS X Con

by Daniel H. Steinberg
11/01/2004

Although it's been twenty years since the band broke up, Stewart Copeland is still best known as the former drummer of the Police. David Battino, chairman of the Audio Track of the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference audio track, hosted a keynote conversation with Copeland about the drummer's career as a film composer.

A Distinguishable Sound

In a video that preceded the keynote, Stewart Copeland explained that his ideas arise from a background where his "father was a jazz musician before he got into the CIA, and he kept his trumpet and saw himself as a jazz musician. He raised me to be a Jazz musician. My mother, meanwhile, was listening to Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and that actually led into my heart. But the backdrop for all this is growing up in Beirut, Lebanon where all the music around me was Arabic music. And so I guess, those three elements add up to somebody who doesn't practice any harder or try any harder than the next guy but is somehow blessed with a sound that is distinguishable."

Battino began the conversation by asking Copeland about his use of dogs. If you listen closely to the soundtrack of the movie "Wall Street," you will hear a very subtle almost subliminal use of dogs. Many of the reviews of the movie referred to the dog eat dog world portrayed.

Copeland explained that "the first thing you need to do as a film composer is get the job. You have to go meet the director and come up with some concept that he's never heard of before...Usually that arty concept is beyond what the film needs." The producer and director don't really want to hear dogs instead of music so the composer "often has to promise more than the director actually wants."

Playing On Your Emotions

The first thing that the composer does is sit down with the director and discuss the film. Copeland said, "In a certain scene he wants sad and in the next scene he wants happy and in this other scene he wants happy-sad: kind of tragedy with a silver lining with a whisp of fear but an underlying angst anxious thing that is about death but we want to look at the lighter side. We want to feel the love."

When it comes to these complex emotions, Copeland said, "The director has tried to get it out of the page and he's tried to get it out of the actors and the only thing he has left that can add the love, the hate, the death, the joy is the music." As an even simpler example, he asked to consider the handsome actor who says to the beautiful woman, "I love you," while she looks back adoringly. Copeland said, "The audience needs to know, because of the plot, that he's a lying scumbag." It's the music that can color what the audience sees on the screen in this way.

The Composition Process

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The spotting session is when the composer talks to the director and figures out specifically where the music starts and ends. Often, the director will apologize for not knowing musical terms, but Copeland prefers that they just speak in emotions. Copeland said, "You say that to make this a happy scene, maybe I should start here, but that's a little obvious, so maybe I should start a little earlier so that by the time we get to the point where you need that emotional punch, the music is already in so it's not too obvious." In a light movie, Copeland estimates there are twenty-five of these cues, and in a heavy movie, there are forty-five to fifty. He noted that in Highlander 2, there is more music than film.

Driving home from the spotting session, the music is already beginning to churn for Copeland. Next, Copeland starts to build a palette for sounds that he hasn't used to death. He creates a musical figure that works with a particular sound. Somewhere, he starts to create a list of all musical figures. He then starts at the beginning of the movie and creates a scratchy sketch from the five or six ideas that he's worked out. He watches a scene and gets a feeling for its tempo. Is it a battle scene or someone walking down the street? He gets a sense of the rhythm.

Directors often want a musical theme for a character. Copeland instead might get a riff or a sound or a group of instruments connected to a certain character. The next time the same character is in a similar situation, Copeland might pull up the music he used the last time, but the needs of the scene may be different and the point that needs to be emphasized may come at a different time. There may be a need to change the meter at a precise moment in the scene. There are always problems to solve. Copeland said, "A lot of my smartest and coolest ideas that I'm most proud of are the ones that are the solution to a problem." By making several passes through the movie, he can take advantage of the ideas that arise during later scenes so that early cues can become informed by later cues.

Better than the Good Old Days

Copeland talked about the process of recording with an orchestra in a huge film recording studio. The orchestra conductor does the mixing, and it goes straight into the move. In the old days, it was very hard; there was no technology, and the conductor would have to hit the marks exactly. If the orchestra missed the part where the car crash is supposed to happen by even a little bit, they would have to go back and record it again. Copeland joked, "That was then, and composers were not as well paid."

"Now," he continued, "it is really easy. Now you can take that orchestra date, chop it up, and you can change the key in it; you can stretch it so if the conductor got it wrong, you can fix it. Computers are so easy to use for those of us that are wired that way.

Battino asked Copeland to describe his work at the keyboard all day. Copeland answered that the keyboard is not natural for him. He used his seven children as an example of how people growing up in the same household can differ in music abilities. Some of his children can pick up an instrument, and wonderful things happen, while some pick up an instrument and nothing happens.

Copeland said that he is gifted with drums and is pretty good with guitars but that he never got the gift for piano. Ironically, he said, he spends his working day "entering notes to my song on the black and white keys. I do it every day, but I can't do it." Although he finds it frustrating, he notes that the good thing about computers is that either he can record something again or he can select a note and move it to where it is supposed to be. He would rather record a difficult melody in bits than electronically slow it down.

Making Records vs. Making Films

Copeland explained the difference between making records and making films. He said, "When you are making a record, you are making something that is from your heart. It is Art with a capitol 'A'. It should be as visceral, as animal, as you can make it. That's sort of what you get from listening to a record. You get a real emotion."

"When you are watching a film, that part is taken care of by the actors...The music is playing a supportive role. I wouldn't call that art. I would call it craft. The music is very specific and has the exact licks. It is not some idea that comes welling out of my heart. It's something the director needs...It's not about viscera. It's not about real human raw things; it's about getting that specific emotion just right."

Using Technology in Place of Instruments

Copeland explained that he often uses samples and synthesizers for many of the instruments. He needs to use live players for instruments, such as violins, which midi cannot accurately produce, but he says that there are practical reasons for not using live players for drums, for example.

Before going on, Copeland added as a sidebar, "We would all like to think that our appreciation of music is all about a visceral, animal, human, blood-and-guts kind of thing. But, in fact, human being are very responsive to mechanized rhythms. I don't understand why, but I love techno-rhythms that are just absolutely on the money. There is no fluctuation. You can feel the machine. Somehow, we are able to be emotionally charged by a machine." He commented that out at clubs, you can observe that the more mechanized the rhythm, the harder people dance.

He noted that in the Police days, the band didn't have access to a lot of this technology. Or, as he put it, "We had to actually play that shit. The only cheating involved was the over dubs." On the drums, he may add in a cymbol or an extra heavy drum beat for emphasis. For this overdubbing, he would "actually have to pick up a stick and hit a drum with it. It took forever. Now-a-days, I'd just find that sample and lay it down."

Technology and Composition

Copeland thanked the members of the audience for continuing to provide improvements and innovations in the technology he uses. He said, "I studied music in college and understand music theory. I can write a chart and read a chart, but it is so time consuming. I can do it, but I could never earn a living at it." He said he could never compete with composers like John Williams, who has worked with orchestration so long and has chops that Copeland doesn't have. "With the technology, I can do everything they can do, and with GarageBand, they can create anything I can create."

Copeland added that it may seem as if creating music is too easy and that the field of compoing is no longer a priesthood. For him, this is a good thing. He likes that "the only way you can compete with the next guy is raw talent. With all the computers in the world, that's not going to give me a tune. But if I've got a tune, I'll get right to it."

He said that "you don't need to go to music school anymore. You don't even need to have manual dexterity as I demonstrate every day. My competitive edge is talent; that's it. It's not proficiency. It's not training. It's not any dues that I paid. Some 20 year old kid can come along and blow me out of the water."

The Copeland Operating System

Making a reference both to the Mac and to the guest, Battino asked Stewart what he would like to see in a Copeland Operating System. Copeland responded that he's so in love with his gear that he's really had to scratch his brain to come up with a complaint. He said every time he calls up one of the companies that makes software that he uses and asks why it doesn't do this or that, they respond, "It does. Just read the instruction book on page five thousand nine hundred and three." The one thing he would like is an application that unifies his favorite keyboard shortcuts for the different applications that do the same thing. He'd like the "forward one frame" keystroke to be able to be mapped to the same keysequence for each application.

Conference chair Derrick Story asked Copeland how he got started on the Mac. He answered that his wife got one to write letters and do the accounts. It was a box that took floppies, and he noticed that his first computer was really the Fairlight in his studio not too many yards away (that took the big floppies that were actually floppy). Looking at the Mac and the Fairlight, he notes, "It never dawned on me back then that they were the same box."

He said that he came to Mac OS X very late. One of the issues for him was Expose, where the buttons make the windows go away; the feature is cool, but those function keys used to do something important in his composition software, so now he needs to use his thumb and finger for the keystroke. He realized that complaining about this is a bit ridiculous and said, "This is the kind of thing that is just miraculous that we have to bitch about. In olden times, I would have had to hire musicians, put up a microphone, book an expensive studio, and now I gotta..." as he held up his thumb and forefinger.

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