Today we’re having a chat with composer, producer, and online tutor Dirk Ehlert. Dirk has created music for a broad variety of applications like feature films, games, film trailers, advertising, and TV networks. In this interview, we’re going to talk about the concept and production of his brand-new solo album ‘Elements’ (published by Dos Brains), featuring 15 epic orchestral, melody-driven tracks. What is more, Dirk lets us in on his experiences & workflows as a working media composer and was even kind enough to provide us with a little exclusive video walkthrough on the production of his track “The Last Haven” – one of the magnificent tracks on “Elements”.
EPICOMPOSER: Hi Dirk, thank you so much for taking the time! Please allow our readers to get to know you a bit better. How did you get started as a musician? What is your musical background? How did you get into composing?
DE: First of all, thank you for having me. Music has been a part of my life rather late, I started to get interested in making music at the age of 13/14. Back in the school, I was attending, there was a focus on art – acting, dancing, music, etc. and I just happened to get together with a bunch of other kids to start a school band. I always felt attracted to the piano though I never had any lessons as a kid. From there I went through a bunch of different stations – I had singing lessons for a couple of years, I’ve been in a choir, started to get interested in producing music (using a Soundblaster Pro and my dad’s Intel 386 with 8MB of RAM – fun times!).
Anyway, after school, the music faded a bit into the background for me and turned into a hobby – I sang in a choir, played in Top 40 bands, etc. Then in 2008, things finally got a bit more serious with a symphonic gothic rock project called AnsoticcA. This was actually the first time that I (necessarily) got in touch with orchestral arrangements and sample libraries (EastWest Quantum Leap’s Orchestra at that time). We had some decent success with our band but sadly all fell apart shortly after. In 2011, I finally decided to give it a shot and to try to go my way in the music industry. I started out on royalty-free music marketplaces and was quite surprised when I realized that people actually were willing to pay money for my creative endeavors. From then on it was pretty much a mix of hustling, improving, despair, partly luck, and sometimes just being at the right spot at the right time. Although working from Germany for all the time, it happened that I more or less found all my work within the US market (trailers, TV, film) and it stayed that way pretty much ever since. It’s only now that after 7 years of working full time as a composer, I have started my first project with a german game dev.
EPICOMPOSER: Your new solo album “Elements” is packed with emotional, melody-driven, epic orchestral tracks that – although each one has its unique style – together seem to form some sort of bigger picture. Is there any kind of common thread or storyline related to the album?
DE: Thanks for the kind words! “Elements” does not have a storyline per se as you would expect from a concept album.
All tracks stand for their own and are not interwoven with each other (with the exception of “Excelsior”). When it finally came to the point to decide the order of the tracks on the finished album, I went back and forth a lot between different constellations in order to establish a certain kind of “flow” and consistency throughout the listening experience. Based on your question it seems that it worked out fine 😉
EPICOMPOSER: Elements is the outcome of one year of conception, creation, and composition. How did you come up with the idea to create your very own epic orchestral album? How did the collaboration with the well-known production music business Dos Brains come into life?
DE: I have been working in the trailer music industry for quite a while before I started working on “Elements”. I have also been a composer under the roof of Dos Brains for several years now, so it was an easy decision to work with them for my first solo album. One of the key concepts was asking my publisher (Dos Brains) to give me the freedom of choice regarding musical style and direction. I also asked him to not put the project on a looser deadline to give me room to develop and grow this thing and come up with something that truly speaks to me – (and hopefully them, too!) and then I took it from there.
Of course, we sat together and discussed the tracks and the overall “style” or feel of the album. Generally, I knew that I wanted to write music that heavily features vocal talents that I have gotten to know along my way as a composer. I am still overwhelmed to this day, how much these singers have lifted the tracks and pushed the emotional impact – they all have provided stellar performances to the music – the same applies to the cellist featured on the album.
EPICOMPOSER: One thing that strikes me whenever I’m listening to Elements, is that although you generally play by the structural rules of trailer music, you skillfully managed to break them at many points in order to create more interesting and unpredictable arrangements. Was this a conscious decision on your behalf and if so – why?
DE: It absolutely was a conscious decision and I’m thankful to Dos Brains for giving me the freedom to do so. I knew from the start that I wanted to break out of the typical trailer structure tracks (2:30min length, A, B, Rise, C – Climax) and first and foremost not to think about cutpoints, or ‘editability’ – but to put melody and music in the first place.
Of course, when creating a piece of epic music or a trailer music album, there is also the thought of ‘licenseability’. Elements is no exception there, but we managed to find a nice solution to that in releasing the album for the public first, and later this year there will be a slightly altered industry release. The industry release will focus on ‘editor friendly’ structures, cutpoints, breaks, etc. while the public release has a strong focus on the listening pleasure side of things.
EPICOMPOSER: Another thing that caught my attention on the album are those beautiful fast string spiccato arcs (particularly on “Excelsior”, Track 11), which sound very natural and “live”. Knowing that this is an issue many sample library composers seem to struggle with, would you let us in on your technique of authentically programming such fast string lines?
DE: Usually when I’m working on string spiccato patterns I use a feature called step recording in Cubase. With this, I can put in each note of an arpeggio or spicc pattern step by step as you play one (or multiple notes at once) and the cursor jumps to the next 16th position waiting for the next note(s). This way you don’t necessarily have to play everything live. Oftentimes that approach is good enough for my needs since I still can keep control of the dynamics within the arp. On “Elements” however, it was partly different (for example on these string shorts that you’ve mentioned). Unfortunately, the step sequencing approach can lead to a machine gun-like feel when everything is quantized to the grid. So in these cases, I set the tempo to a much slower value and record the short string performances live on the keyboard. This way I just have to do some iterative quantizing or ‘humanizing’ afterward. Over the range of 5 different spicc tracks from violins to basses, for example, the result is a nice ‘uneven’ sound in the string section mostly due to the slight timing inconsistencies in my playing. For me, this approach sounds way more natural or than any other method.
DIRK EHLERT – “THE LAST HAVEN” VIDEO WALKTHROUGH
EPICOMPOSER: You heavily featured several renowned female singers on the album, most of which have contributed to high-profile projects like World Of Warcraft, League Of Legends, or Overwatch. How was working with them and who did come up with the vocal lines – you or the singers? Were you able to work with the singer(s) directly in the studio or could you make use of remote recording methods?
DE: Working with these amazing performers was pretty much everything I ever hoped for when I started working on the album since I was lucky enough to work with singers like Úyanga (Bold), Laurie (Ann Haus), or Julie (Elven) on other projects before.
I mocked up the main vocal lines with Eduardo Tarilonte’s Era Vocal Codex. This instrument has amazing playability and sound. I strongly believe that the human voice and performance is still the hardest part to ever put into a virtual instrument, I guess since we as humans, be it musician or non-musician, are so familiar with the sound of the human voice. Therefore it’s very hard to fake. Nevertheless, Vocal Codex gets very close to the real deal in a sample mock-up environment.
I wrote the main vocal themes by myself, but I knew there was plenty of room for improvisation in the tracks. So I didn’t tell the singers what to sing specifically but rather asked them to go with the flow. For the recordings of Elements, I haven’t been in the studio with any of the singers personally. Although for me this would have been the ideal way of working (I think there is a certain kind of magic energy happening when you work with each other in the same room) we were able to work together remotely and talk about my ideas/thoughts and their input via Skype or email.
EPICOMPOSER: Apart from those seven amazing singers featured on Elements, did you incorporate any other live musicians or orchestras?
DE: I’ve included other live elements on the album, like the celli played by Vesislava Todorova from Bulgaria and Caro Teruel from Venezuela on “Awakening”. I also recorded some live performances on my own as far as I was able to – in particular recording electric guitars, acoustic guitars, mandolin, shakers, and small percussion, tambourine, and vocals.
EPICOMPOSER: Although the majority of tracks featured on your album is fresh material, there are – to my knowledge – a few ones (like ‘Excelsior’ and ‘Ascension’ feat. Merethe Soltvedt) that have already been released before. It’s clear that you have revisited those tracks to adjust and revamp their sound. How did this process take place?
DE: Exactly, these are tracks that have been released on industry albums published by Dos Brains before, but I felt the need to include them in the ‘Elements’ line up. When I started working on the project, the process that took the longest was to define the actual sound palette and which libraries to use. As a composer, you acquire more and more sample libraries over time and have more tools in the shed now than say 4 years ago. So when the final sound palette/template was set, I opened these old projects next to the new template (a nice feature in Cubase) and dragged over the midi regions track by track. There were a lot of tweaks to be made and re-recordings to do in order to make the MIDI data work with the new sample libraries. However, in the end, I have the feeling it was worth the effort. The biggest undertaking actually was “Excelsior” as this was my very first ‘epic’ track that I posted publicly back in 2012. Since then, I have grown and learned. It was an interesting experience to revisit those old recordings. That’s one of the reasons we decided to include a (remastered) version of the original track as a bonus – it kind of sets the arc from my beginnings as an epic music composer to “Elements” as it sounds today.
EPICOMPOSER: What is the setup you are currently using in your studio? Are there any particular sample libraries you find yourself using regularly?
DE: ‘Elements’ was done on a single machine, with all instruments hosted inside Cubase using a “one Kontakt instance per MIDI instrument” approach. Though my main DAW is quite old in terms of computer standards (from 2013) it’s still running rock solid with 64GB of RAM, an i7 3930K CPU @ 3,2GHz, and a lot of SSDs for sample streaming. I recently added a laptop as a mobile rig to my studio that is actually more powerful than my DAW, which is why I started to use it as a slave in the studio when it’s not needed otherwise.
Regarding sample libraries, ‘Elements’ set the sound palette for my current projects pretty much. For strings, I am mostly combining Cinematic Studio Strings (plus the recently released Cinematic Studio Solo Strings) for their lush and warm quality and Musical Sampling’s Adventure Strings for everything that needs bite. For short strings, I use a combination of Performance Samples‘ Fluid Shorts plus the Spitfire Albion range (especially Albion 3 Iceni and Albion 5 Tundra) as well as some string patches from Metropolis Ark I by Orchestral Tools.
My brass section is comprised of Musical Sampling products again, mostly their Adventure and Trailer Brass libraries plus some added spice from Cinebrass Core / Pro as well as Metropolis Ark I every now and then.
For woodwinds, I use Orchestral Tools’ BWW range plus a bit of Spitfire Albion.
My percussion section is a mix of Spitfire HZ Perc, everything by Heavyocity, Audio Imperia, Cinesamples Drums Of War, 8DIO’s Epic Percussion, and Evolution Series World Percussion. I like to use everything by Eduardo Tarilonte, Ethno World 6 as well as UVI’s World Suite for my ethnic instrument needs.
Lastly, my synth range includes Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere with a lot of expansion sounds by The Unfinished, Output’s REV & Signal, Sylenth, U-He’s Zebra, and ReFX’s Nexus. One of my new favs I discovered in 2017 is Vengeance Sound’s Avenger.
EPICOMPOSER: As a composer, you contributed to quite a few trailer and production music releases including many different musical genres. Is there a particular style you feel most comfortable with or is it the musical diversion you enjoy particularly?
DE: Over time I have been lucky enough to work on a broad variety of projects – epic and trailer music actually being just a part of it. I also make production music (in many different styles from dramedy to tension to acoustic folk or EDM), there have been film scores and just recently I could add scoring for video games to my portfolio. It’s hard to put my bet on just one area, I enjoy writing whatever opportunity comes along, and I also like to be challenged to try out new things and leave the comfort zone. If I’d have to put it down, the musical style I’d say I’m the most comfortable with would definitely be epic, emotional, orchestral, and all things tense.
EPICOMPOSER: Besides your composing ventures, you initiated an online tutorial series last year called ‘Composing with Virtual Instruments’, featuring live streams that give insight into your workflow and production technique. Tell us a bit about this project and how you came up with the remarkable idea to open up your lab doors to other aspiring composers.
DE: CWVI basically started with a very simple idea at first. I felt the need to challenge myself and see if I can do a track in say 3-4 hours that’s ready to be sent off to clients or production music catalogs. And then there was also an urge to ‘giving back’ to the community. When I was starting out, there was very little information on YouTube or the internet in general in regards to composer workflows, etc. I think Daniel James was one of the first guys to do these kinds of live streams and I really enjoyed watching them. I found it interesting to have an audience watch you work where normally you’re used to working alone in the studio. So it also had a kind of socializing aspect. And once I started it grew over time, I checked out new sample libraries that I got or just showed some different production techniques that I’ve learned over time. The audience grew steadily and I love the feedback that I get back from my audience there. Of course, CWVI is also a tool to expand my own voice as a composer as it has led to new working opportunities for me.
EPICOMPOSER: Since many of our readers are (epic music) composers themselves, is there any hint or advice you could pass on to an aspiring composer that may have helped you at the time you were starting out?
DE: Well, there a few things that I consider mandatory if you want to keep up in this field. First and foremost, I think it is essential to really hone in on your craft – nowadays, a composer is not just the guy with pen and paper sitting at the piano – you have to be so much more – composer, performer, producer, mixer, sometimes mastering engineer and IT guy… Today’s technology allows you to put out an incredible degree of tonal quality from your bedroom studio- so you really need to learn to utilize the resources you have at hand.
Keep your ears open, listen to the work of others as much as you can, dive into styles that you feel uncomfortable with, it can only broaden your horizons.
Don’t be afraid of failure, it’s part of the game. It’s the only way to grow.
EPICOMPOSER: My last question as always: If you could choose freely to collaborate with one person – doesn’t matter if alive or deceased – who would that be and why?
DE: That would clearly be Queen’s Freddie Mercury. Besides his otherworldly voice (which I think would be inspiring enough already) he was also an extraordinary musician and composer – I can imagine that working with him would have been a really interesting experience.
Dirk, thank you so much for taking the time to do this insightful interview with me! I wish you much success with your solo album ‘Elements’, your tutorial live streams, and your work as a composer in general. ‘Elements’ is published by Dos Brains , the album is available on most digital stores and streaming services like iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.