The Art & Science of Sound

Masters of Sound: Composer Jonathan Miller On His Gear and Composing for Television

Jonathan Miller is a Los Angeles-based composer who has composed over 7000 pieces of music for film and television in the past fifteen years. Some of his credits include Jay Leno’s Garage (CNBC), 1000 Ways to Die (Spike), Flip That House (TLC), Wild Justice (NatGeo), Around the World in 80 Days (History) and the film American Jedi. Jonathan sat down with us for a quick chat to talk about his gear, which features the LS50 Wireless and the art and science of scoring for film and television.

JS: How did you get into the business of scoring for film and television?

Miller: I kind of took an angled trajectory. I moved to Los Angeles to go to Cal Arts planning on teaching music composition and theory and became an assistant for another composer while I was in school. I and wound up mixing the last couple of season of the The Practice. Then I was one of the first composers hired by Thom Beers to do all of the Discovery shows he did in the afterglow of Deadliest Catch. I had been a composer of chamber works and sort of fell into working for television.

JS: When you’re doing a film score do you approach the composition with the overall sound of the piece in mind first?

Miller: Scoring for film and television is a lot of sound design. It’s a lot of approaching the sound from what the producers want, the demographics, and the overall mood of the project. For example, on season one of Jay Leno’s Garage we went into a meeting on how to craft the music and the idea was to not make it sound like every other car show. We didn’t want just guitar-based music, so I wound up writing some fairly aggressive synth-rock music that sounded like guitars but wasn’t really guitars. Then there’s the demographic concern since the show was going to be on CNBC and had to straddle a few different demographics. There’s a lot of crafting sound design and making limitations on what the sound choices are.

JS: As a viewer at home what should I be listening for that might change the experience of what I’m watching?

Miller: A lot of appreciation for what a good film score is comes down to really keying into the changing emotional textures in the background of scenes. You may take these things for granted but there’s an awful lot of behind-the-scenes architecture that goes into making those subtle emotional shifts happen. If you pay attention to the subtleties of texture you may be surprised at the nuance you hear.

JS: When did you start using the LS50 Wireless in your studio?

Miller: It’s such an interesting story of how I came to KEF. I recently put together an ambient record of new material and I went up to Scott Frazier’s studio, he produces Kronos Quartet and just won a Grammy for the Laurie Anderson record, and he mastered my record on a pair of R500s, and they just sounded fantastic. I love the concentric driver – the Uni-Q – so I did some research, and I saw an ad for the LS50 Wireless. And they were just so counter to all of the other studio monitors that are so boring and that look terrible. So many speakers look bad and don’t feel right. I’ve had ATC’s and Barefoots in the past and all sorts of monitors, so I bought a pair of LS50 Wireless and put them in my studio and I was like “I can’t even believe how good these things sound.” I mix in the box because I have to do so many sub-mixes for the shows I work on, and I just ran a USB out of my main system into the LS50 Wireless and it replaced my Crane Song Solaris (Digital-to-Analog Convertor)  at two grand, and my Barefoot MM35s which are like $8500 a pair or something stupid like that and my mixes are better. It’s ridiculous. The mid-range and the depth perception are just better, and the LS50 Wireless aren’t hyped in the lower mid-range, so there were a lot of real advantages for me. I’m religious about them at this point – I invite people over and I tell them “you’ve got to listen to these KEF speakers!”

One of the things I really like about the LS50 Wireless, in mixing for television it’s all about lower midrange and a lot of stuff is mixed down -20dB lower than the dialogue, so just having that clarity and being able to dial in exactly what I need and knowing what that is going to sound like is a major thing. It’s almost like mixing on a mono speaker in a certain way – the phase coherence is just incredible. And things like reverb – for the first time I’m able to dial in the reverb like “that should be 17% instead of 19%” – I’m able to go super-granular with it. That also applies to hearing compression artefacts, which even on the best pro-monitors can be really hard to hear, and those things are the critical things that make a mix pop or not.

That’s why I’m such a huge fan because you’ve got to go up to some really high-end speakers to be able to hear that sort of thing.

JS: Are you using them with a subwoofer?

Miller: I just recently bought the KUBE10 and it is fantastic. It’s just enough in a small room. I’m doing some hip-hop and electronica pieces where tuning the sub is important, and adding the KUBE didn’t change the mid-range like happens a lot of times when you add a sub to a system because of the extra crossover.    

JS: I really appreciate your time and it’s always a thrill to hear how our gear is used on the production side of things. So thanks again.

Miller: Yeah, fantastic, thanks for having me.

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