Sound Advice from Bob and Barn

In our quest to leave no sound-related stone unturned, We Are Sound – perhaps inevitably – recently found ourselves talking to fellow Cambridge residents the very lovely Paul Arnold (AKA Bob) and Andrew Barnabas (AKA Barn), BAFTA nominated media composers of music for games, TV and film, and owners of Bob and Barn Ltd., a music production company.

Between them they've written 100s of scores for games (such as Sony’s MediEvil and Bethesda’s Brink), film (such as the recent AmStarDam and The Hatton Garden Job), advertising (Rowse Honey and the BP campaign voiced by Dougray Scott) and TV (Host the Week and Armchair Detectives), released 3 albums and in 2007 became R'n'B remix artists for Sony BMG. They've been nominated for numerous awards, including a BAFTA for their score to Primal and they won the Zaragoza Film Festival best original score prize for Palos.

 Barn (left) and Bob (right) in Cannes. 

Barn (left) and Bob (right) in Cannes. 

Bob and Barn are real characters and genuinely nice blokes – intelligent, creative and engaging but incredibly down to earth. We spent a very entertaining couple of hours in their studio talking about our mutual love of sound and discovering how they got where they are today, and where exactly that is!

The two friends are both classically trained musicians who met in the mid-90’s while working at games developers Millennium Interactive. They’d been separately lured to the bright lights of Cambridge, blown away, ostensibly, by the state-of-the-art 3 room 32-track high end Protools studio that was now at their disposal where previously they’d been working on analogue tape. Barn was employed to work on all music and initially sound too, for Millennium’s games; Bob worked more on the sound side to begin with (voice overs, editing sounds, dubbing etc) but music was always his main interest and after he wrote a waltz that was used in the successful game MediEvil, the pair began to collaborate closely. Seeing huge potential after the success of the game and also impressed with the studios, Sony acquired Millennium and Bob and Barn went on to write the orchestral score for the sequel, MediEvil 2.

            “We didn’t want to end up managing other people who were having all the fun”
 We had complete keyboard & studio envy in their creative space.

We had complete keyboard & studio envy in their creative space.

It was around then that the two began to realise that they’d gone as far as they could with Sony who were now huge in games. By 2001, Sony’s games consoles were viewed as far more of a ‘proper’ media machine, worthy of a place alongside TV in an adult living room space, as opposed to, say, Nintendo or Sega that were viewed more as being for children. Barn and Bob realised that in order to progress this would take them into management and audio direction when really, they enjoyed being hands-on themselves. “We didn’t want to end up managing other people who were having all the fun” says Bob. And so they started saving up to go it alone, and Bob and Barn Ltd was born.

Theirs was an unorthodox route into the world of composing for pictures, they say. The norm would be to have had a background in cinema, theatre or TV, but in fact, writing for games means that Bob and Barn have valuable experience in all realms of sound – not just in music, but also sound design, foley, dubbing, localisation and dialogue  post production – which has been a real advantage. They are sensitive to all of the disciplines and better equipped to work out what kind of sound is best suited to a particular scene.

“If it sounds good, it is good”

They decided to specialise in music (the more competitive discipline) rather than sound, even though they had so many contacts in sound design and games and were known in that world. They remain the go-to, go-between guys for the games audio industry, known for being able to put people in touch, due (they say) to their carefully collected massive database of industry professionals, but also (we say) to their personable and open-minded personalities. But listening to the pair speak, their love of music is plain to hear. They describe recording live with an orchestra as “the cherry on the cake” and claim that working in music is about far more than just earning a salary. We completely agree and love their mantra that “if it sounds good, it is good”. The freedom of being able to work as they want and express themselves as they choose is important but they clearly enjoy the production side of music as the best part of the process. In more sampled music, as used in lower budget gaming or daytime TV, there is little production or live music so the composer becomes subservient, whereas in live production they enjoy being the bosses. The enthusiasm with which they speak of working with musicians, whether it be a symphony orchestra in London or Prague, or a collection of local musicians from around Cambridge, is truly infectious and something that we at We Are Sound completely relate to. Like us, they trust their judgment and have great fun doing what they do. They are happy for the people who orchestrate or conduct to make decisions and be creative too and view their work as collaborative, with no real rules. But, they add, they don’t generally get things wrong and are asked to change things less and less.

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So what, we ask, would be your advice to someone starting out in the industry?

Another hour of conversation, friendly debate and anecdote after anecdote ensues – Barn (“I’m in anecdote mode”) regales with stories such as the time during filming of Host the Week when they had the surreal experience of being in the next door studio to Star Wars at Pinewood, and ended up, (water glass pressed to wall, he jokes, we think?), in the next dressing room to Mark Hamill, while an army of fully clad Rebel or Empire  extras filed past the window in black dressing gowns on the way to lunch (“very cool… a great jolly!”) – but the two agree that there are two main and important areas that are vital to succeed in their world:

“you have to sell the right music for the project, not just sell your music…”

First, you must know the business side, something that should be learned (but rarely taught), and is absolutely key. They are clearly frustrated at the sense that young composers can frequently (though often unintentionally) be ripped off due to their own naivety. Writing music is great but you must understand that you have to sell the right music for the project, not just sell your music. It’s not enough that your music is loved by friends and family. And you need to be able to accept criticism! In addition, you must know what your negotiating points are, what are the deal-breakers. And learn about rights! If you’re selling the rights to your work, what might the cost be long term? Rights are a nightmare generally in the music industry (We Are Sound nod heads in agreement) but in games, Bob says, people are particularly naive and don’t even seem to care about rights. Games are all about buyouts which don’t exist in Film and TV. Publishers are the ones who earn the money. It’s an incredibly frustrating truth that games can be huge, but the people involved don’t earn a fraction of what they would if it were in TV or film. In games, you’ll be paid a flat fee for your music but no royalties, which doesn’t compensate if the game does really well. “You don’t get to share in the spoils, or have a vested interest” he says “so you don’t feel quite so passionate or connected. This is not half as satisfying a way to work as a creative person. In film and TV you *want* it to be brilliant, because it really reflects on you and you benefit from its success.”

“Don’t just write the notes, get them recorded.”

The other vital ingredient to the success of Bob and Barn has been networking, something that we get the feeling that they are very good at. Don’t just sit at home or in the studio, they advise. You have to open doors. Always get other people ‘in’ to work on jobs, even it if it’s your “muso mates”, don’t just do it all yourself. Music will always sound better if you use real musicians rather than computers. “It lifts you … Don’t just write the notes, get them recorded.”

You need to do your research and know how to present yourself, they advise. Know how to network and understand that you must sell yourself. The two men are adamant that you can make things happen for yourself if you want them to. Their whole “TV thing” (Bob’s words) came about through a chance meeting at a networking event. They met someone who they didn’t work with but made a point of keeping in touch with for years, until 2010 when he contacted them about doing the music for (BBC 3 Comedy Show) The King is Dead. “We knew this was our chance and we grabbed it and it worked for us. That was a perfect example of how who you know really works. Literally all of our TV work has directly or indirectly come about through that one meeting.”

“It’s who you know”

Of the two of them, Barn in particular, has a real forte of venturing into the community, speaking to musicians and meeting people. They have become mates with the professional singers for Strictly Come Dancing who do backing vocals for many big names such as Lisa Stansfield; they’ve worked over the years with “local guys” Alex Reeves who now drums for Elbow and Rob Harris, “funk legend” and guitarist from Jamiroquai. Funnily enough We Are Sound have recently covered tracks by both Elbow and Jamiroquai and are big fans.

So anyway, about those introductions…