Composer Spotlight - Jan Stevens

Composer Spotlight - Jan Stevens

Jan Stevens is an Emmy-nominated film and TV composer with an overwhelming list of credits that range from documentaries to multi-season series, feature films and more. A partial list of productions includes 9 seasons of Scrubs, Samantha Who and numerous pilots. Jan has earned four BMI awards and one SESAC television music award.

As Jan is also a Puremagnetik customer, we took the opportunity to chat with him about career, process and advice for budding composers. 

How did you begin your career as a composer?

I moved to Los Angeles after graduating Berklee in 81’ with a major in film music composition. To my surprise, I got my first job composing music for an industrial film the second week I moved to LA. Although I was very excited, I had no experience in making a budget and ended up having to pay for all of my overages! I knew how to compose, but lacked in business skills. This was the first of many important lessons.

Can you describe your composition process when working with picture?

You always have to remember that you are working for the creator of the project, which in TV is the producer and in film is the director. The first thing to do is to find out who is the person or persons are that you are writing for and tune into what they want. In many situations they don’t know what they want and you’ll want to develop a way of finding out. Often demos are needed and a certain amount of back and forth happens. Your success is dependent on giving the creator what they want. 

It is also important to remember that you were hired for a reason and that’s because they like what you compose and therefore you are valued. There will be times when you will need to gently voice your opinion. After all, the client is not the composer, you are. Finding your instrumental palette and style of the music you’ll compose is a large part of the initial challenge. Once you find this you are well on your way. I find that the philosophy of “less is more” works well in composing for a scene. It’s a kind of a “holding back” and not stepping on the scene. You will know when to go all out, but until then discipline is key. 

After figuring out the emotional direction of a scene I’ll begin by creating a musical thread to weave throughout. That thread can be a sound, an ostinato figure, percussion line etc. Once I have that thread I can add to it with additional counterpoint.... then it’s time to orchestrate with the established instrumental palette and style you’ve decided on.

Composing plays a huge role in steering the production towards a particular emotional result. How do you address different productions and the challenges they present in the realization of these goals?

There are certain scenes that just tell you immediately what type of music and mood they need. Those are the easy ones. The scenes that don’t work are often edited poorly, acted poorly and for whatever reason ambiguous. The director will say that the scene does not work and he’ll ask you to help clarify the emotion and lead the audience emotionally with music in a certain direction. In this case, I will study the scene carefully and may even write in words a paragraph or more about it.

The more you know about the scene, the easier and more confident you’ll feel. One thing I’ve learned, and learned the hard way, is to not start composing right away for scenes like this. If you wait and study the scene and really understand it, you will save yourself a lot of time and frustration doing re-writes.

What are some of your favorite tools for day-to-day music production?

I’ve been using Logic for many, many years. It will do anything I need and I love that it can be customized to the way I work. Although I mainly use Logic for composing, I have a Pro Tools rig for engineers who mix and track in my room and also because it’s the standard in the majority of TV and film recording studios and dub stages.

What are some of your favorite sound libraries? How do your organize your sounds to be a part of your workflow?

For speed, workflow and convenience, I’ll build a sound palette and Logic template for each project that I work on. The libraries and sounds in the template will be based on the show or album that’s being produced. I’m always on the lookout for new sounds, plug-ins and softsynths and vintage hardware and synths as well.

I just got Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 3 which I highly recommend. I’m getting into UVI’s stunning Falcon and just bought a bunch of Izotope plug-ins and they are outstanding. My latest purchase is a vintage Roland JX-8P analog synth, which I used to own but got rid of because I didn’t know I’d someday need it again.

I love composing for and recording live instruments and try to incorporate that in all of my work.

Some of Jan's favorites

Hardware: Apogee Symphony i/o Avocet Class A Studio Controller Genelec 1031A Monitors - (I replaced the woofers and they are wonderful) Avantone Mix Cubes Monitors Equator - D5 Monitors - (Big bang for the buck!)

Soft Synths and Effects: UAD - Neve and Tape plug-in, iZotope plug-ins Toontrack Superior Drummer 3 UVI, Falcon, Retro Organ, Omnisphere, Stylus, Logic Soft Synths, Puremagnetik Sound Libraries.

What advice might you have for aspiring TV composers?

Continue to build your personal library and demos while you are waiting for your next job. Listen to what’s out there in film and TV. Use what you find as examples and do your own version in order to expand your own creativity and demo bank. Get out and meet people at events and give them your card. There are amazing student films being made and you could work on one of those. Don’t give up. If you are determined to work in music then you will create an opportunity, even if it might be something different than you ever expected.

What are you working on now? Where can we expect to hear you in the near future?

I’m producing artists now and happy to add this to my usual underscore work. The first album will be released this spring.

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