Michael Denny Web 1

Course Studied: BA (Hons) Music Production

Year of Graduation: 2008

Top Career Highlights:

Hailing from Kendal, Michael Denny is a highly versatile composer, music producer, sound designer and multi-instrumentalist. Michael is a specialist in producing music for meditation, mindfulness and wellbeing, and has produced music for a variety of apps, including Calm. Most recently, he was commissioned by Aerial Festival to create an immersive sonic map which explores the diverse landscapes of Cumbria. The piece combines musical compositions and experimental sound design with a spoken word narrative from award-winning writer Simon Sylvester.

We spoke to Michael to reflect on his time spent studying at Leeds Conservatoire, and learn more about the world of music for mindfulness.

What attracted you to studying in Leeds?

I was lucky to grow up in Kendal in a thriving music scene alongside musicians who went on to be in bands including British Sea PowerWild Beasts and the founders of Kendal Calling. When deciding on a University location I wanted to be somewhere with a strong music scene, and the indie scene in Leeds at the time was alive with bands like the Kaiser Chiefs and venues such as The Cockpit.

With regards to Leeds Conservatoire I was impressed by the facilities and the Music Production degree offered a unique mix of production, songwriting, composition and performance opportunities, alongside academic and theoretical study.

How did studying Music Production at Leeds Conservatoire prepare you for a career in the wider industry?

There are a number of things here - the important aspects for me were:

1 - Being taught industry standard software including ProTools and Logic Pro

2 - Learning established recording techniques to be able to record a range of instruments

3 - Communication skills - particularly learning to share creative ideas

4 - The value of the student community at Leeds was key to my development - I learnt lots from being around and working with likeminded and talented musicians and producers

Tell us a little bit more about your compositional activity in music for meditation, mindfulness and wellbeing

During my first year in Leeds I was listening to a lot of instrumental bands such as Mogwai and Sigur Ros and this is where my interest in soundscapes and instrumental led contemporary music began. As I progressed through my degree I studied optional modules in music for moving image which encouraged me to develop my composition of instrumental music, combining my influences from contemporary artists with more traditional soundtracks.

I met Calm app co-founders Michael Acton-Smith and Alex Tew shortly after finishing at the conservatoire when I performed at an event they were hosting. We kept in touch and when Calm were looking to expand into music, I reached out and put together a successful pitch to compose and produce for the platform. In total I have written around 25 hours of music for the Calm app which later went on to be named Apple 'App of the Year'.

After composing a wealth of material for Calm, I have been commissioned to produce music and soundscapes for a number of other mindfulness projects, including the likes of Meya and Brainwaves. My work was also picked up through BBC Introducing in Cumbria, and subsequently featured on the BBC Sounds Playlist – The Sleeping Forecast - which is a unique journey to dreamland, mixing instrumental music and Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast. 

How do you create the ideal soundscape to accompany mindfulness activity (e.g. for the purposes of sleep, relaxation etc.)?

With regards to approach, I have composed for a variety of purposes, including Sleep, Relaxation and Focus. One of the main differences when compared to popular music is that tracks can be much longer for mindfulness – some I have composed are between 30 minutes and 3 hours in total. While each area is very different, the commonality is that this music needs to have a continuous flow with subtle development over an extended period of time - in these scenarios the music is there as a tool to support an individual undertaking activity such as meditation or concentration.

Some of the most popular tracks, based on feedback from users and companies, have been those which incorporate natural sounds. The inclusion of a self-recorded soundscape is therefore important – whether that’s something obvious like a river, the rain or bird-song, or making my own sampled instruments out of naturally recordable objects – these sound sources give a different texture to, and compliment more synthetic material. For example, in my composition ‘Imaginary Mountains’, some of the soundscape sections which feature a rising and falling chord pattern were created from source material including a chainsaw, a creaking rusty gate and the ambience of a train station – perhaps the exact opposite of what you’d expect! With a bit of experimentation you can achieve quite interesting results by recording and manipulating sounds with time based effects such as reverb and delay. In terms of more traditional instrumentation, you can never go wrong with classic sound samples such as piano, particularly the ever popular felt piano sound synonymous with artists like Olafur Arnalds, string textures and ambient electric guitars.

You’ve recently been involved in a commissioning opportunity run by Aerial Festival. Could you tell us a little bit more about this?

Aerial is a mixed arts festival of contemporary music, literature and performance, taking place across multiple venues, which celebrates the diverse landscapes of Cumbria and the Lake District. It has been supported by funding from Great Place: Lakes & Dales.

Last year was supposed to be the first time the festival had happened but unfortunately the original programme of live events was cancelled due to COVID-19. However, in its place they opted to run a commission opportunity for sound artists who had a connection with the area to create a musical soundscape inspired by the Lake District. The brief was fairly open – although the artists involved had to have a strong connection to the area and consider the impact of the pandemic on local people and the surroundings.

I had always wanted to work on a project with my friend, Simon Sylvester who is an author and film-maker, so I approached Simon about producing a piece which combined music and spoken word. We decided that it would be good to survey local people, and ask how people felt about lockdown – the fears, frustrations, tragedies and triumphs, alongside feelings towards wilderness/nature. We also asked for any particular places in the Lake District that people felt particularly drawn to. We were overwhelmed by the response – with over 250 responses and some very interesting answers. Simon created a narrative and journey based on the answers, and I wrote the soundscape as response to this. The soundtrack aims to reflect our collective journey through the lockdown period, the imaginary mountains, the constant ebbs and flows of restrictions, attitudes and hope – in doing this we felt it also provided representation of the dramatic landscapes of the Lake District. The piece explores the themes of loneliness, emptiness, departure, arrival and belonging. Aerial Festival were really supportive and trusting, and this enabled us to develop the work as it progressed and ultimately we ended up with a project we could be proud of. ‘Imaginary Mountains’ as a finished piece of work is one which I feel a real connection to, and something I will always look back on as a positive experience and a focus during a very difficult time.

Could you comment on your experience in the world of production music/library music?

The majority of my work in this area begins life as an album concept, I will usually then compose a couple of tracks in the chosen style and subsequently pitch that to library companies. The first album commission was the hardest to get, but once I had one album complete things started to snowball, and I’ve now worked with several labels composing multiple in a wide range of genres.

Before pitching my first album, I did my research by reading articles in Sound on Sound. In particular, there was an article written by Dan Graham, which gave a detailed overview of the industry along with practical advice of how to get started. Dan is also a library owner, so having read his article I essentially pitched to him by following his guide on how to approach labels. Initially my first album concept was rejected, but I was pro-active and received some feedback alongside asking for advice from other composers I reached out to who were immersed in this world already. After taking this further guidance on board, I reworked the tracks, sent them again to Dan, and my first album was commissioned. It was an important lesson that an initial rejection doesn’t mean that you are too far off, or that you can’t go back to the same label. Once you’ve got that first commission and you’ve made that connection, you will start to see more opportunities available to their writers, and you can be more confident when seeking future work. I think perseverance and the communication skills to follow up and engage with people without being annoying is key to success, not just in library music, but lots of areas of the creative industries!

Once a company trusts you, I have found that you can go to them with a concept and maybe one track, or a reference point and you will be trusted to produce an album in that style. It is worth noting that before submitting an album idea I’ll extensively research the type of releases the label specialises in – you don’t want to double up on what they have recently released, and you need to get a feel for what a label is looking for to not waste your time or theirs.

What’s your approach to sound design and creating samples for the likes of Native Instruments and Sample Magic?

I have produced a number of packs for the likes of Sample Magic, MusicTech and Native Instruments Sounds. Similarly to when I work on library music albums, I tend to pitch samples packs towards a specific concept. While I have produced samples in a range of styles, I tend to opt to work in my strongest areas - for me this includes ambient, atmospheric and lo-fi soundscape type packs.

Once I have confirmed an idea for a pack, the first part of the process is a recording session where I concentrate on capturing lots of raw audio which will be the starting point for the samples. When capturing synth and guitar based sounds I will often use hardware effects such as guitar pedals in the recording chain whereas when recording percussive based or real world sounds I will record these dry. Once I have all the sounds in a session I will edit them into individual hits and sequences which I like. The next stage of the process is manipulating the sounds further in software with varying effects, before finally exporting the results to file.

When producing sample packs, you will often have to provide information for each sample such as tempo and the key signature so it is worth making a note of this as you go along. For me I think the most important part of the process is to ensure that you are creating interesting sounds that catch peoples attention when they are auditioning samples on sites such as Splice or Sounds.

You can see an example of a pad sound which I created using a recording made in Birmingham New Street train station on Christian Henson’s YouTube channel.

If you could recommend one thing for a recent graduate to invest in to help further their career, what would it be?

If a graduate was specifically looking to enter the world of sound design and composing for wellbeing, I’d definitely recommend getting yourself a portable sound recorder. It doesn’t have to be an expensive piece of kit, I use a trusty Zoom H4n which can record at high enough sample and bit rates to capture detailed recordings, and it also has the option to plug-in external mics if necessary. I think it’s important to record your own samples and make your own sounds and incorporate them into your work. If there are elements of your soundscapes that are unique to your work it lifts them away from the tools and sound libraries that are available to everyone - by doing this you have something that nobody else has. Take the recorder with you when you’re out and about – if you’ve not got it with you, and you miss something, you might never hear or catch it again.

Aside from a brief period of working in London, you’ve settled in the North of England. What do you think of the musical scene in the North West and do you think it is possible to have a career in music outside of the capital? 

I lived in London for a couple of years combining teaching with freelance composition, but having returned to Cumbria I have found many benefits from being based in the North West. Living costs are substantially lower allowing me to invest in equipment and a space dedicated to work. None of my clients have directly come from my time living in London, I have spent time building an online presence and this has led to collaborators as far afield as San Francisco and China alongside those closer to home in the UK.  If you choose to live in a smaller community it is important to attend industry events, network online and attend relevant meet ups. For example, there is a community of Northern based composers on Facebook that arrange social events and I regularly attend product launches and workshops such as those held by companies like Spitfire Audio. Make the most of events whilst you’re there, don’t be afraid to approach people and establish connections. I have even found that being based in the Lake District is a good conversation starter and one which people remember.

Visit Michael's website.  

Listen to Michael’s composition Imaginary Mountains

Learn more about our BA (Hons) Music (Production)

Follow Michael on Twitter @mdennymusic.

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