Working Lives: Meet TV composer Samuel Sim

Working Lives: Meet TV composer Samuel Sim

The Bay (Credit: ITV)
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Working lives: Composer Samuel Sim, interviewed by Matthew Bell.

Samuel Sim won two RTS Craft & Design Awards in 2015 for his original score and title music for ITV period drama Home Fires, and another last year for the title music of The Bay. The judges described Sim’s theme as “haunting and atmospheric”, giving “a Nordic noir feel to Morecambe”, the setting of the ITV crime drama.

How would you describe your music?

My scores are eclectic – whether they are melodic, textual, percussive, orchestral or electronic depends on the subject matter of the programme. I’m trying to create a soundscape for people to get immersed in.

What is your composing process?

I sketch out ideas after talking to the production or receiving a script – that time is crucial in understanding the themes of a programme. I have four to six weeks to pull ideas together and then, when the episodes start coming through, I write the music for each episode in a week. A script gets you out of the blocks, but there’s nothing like seeing some of the programme, even a rough cut, for inspiration.

What do you compose on?

For an orchestral or chamber music piece, I sketch out ideas on the piano or paper. For an electronic score, I lean towards beats, synths, soundscapes and samples. If it’s music for a Jane Austen period drama, I’m not going to go for Megadeath-style guitar, although you never know.…

Which instruments can you play?

I started to learn the violin at three and concert harp at six. I can blag my way through most string instruments, but my main instruments are the harp, guitar and piano. I can’t play any woodwind or brass instruments, but I write for them. TV and film composition allows me to bring the rock and classical worlds together.

How did you get into composing?

I was mentored by Michael Kamen, the Grammy-award-winning American composer. He heard me perform in a psychedelic school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – I was playing electric guitar in a T Rex-style rock band and the concert harp for the dream sequences. At the end, he offered me a job. I learnt more from Michael than anyone else.

And your TV break?

Working on a series of three-minute shorts for Channel 4, Better than Sex – they were covered in music. It was a fantastic calling card.

How has the job changed?

When I started, there were far fewer music libraries and those that existed weren’t up to scratch, so there were more opportunities to break into the industry.

Now, outfits such as Audio Network have great composers on their books, and productions can buy music quite cheaply. It’s harder for young composers to get their foot in the door now. I tend to work on productions that want more “authored” music.

And the best and worst of the job?

I get a huge thrill working with an orchestra at Abbey Road. We are so blessed in London, which has the best musicians in the world. People management, though, can be tricky. I’ve walked into a production and found
a war going on between the producer and director – and both were briefing me separately.

What’s next?

I’m working on Sky’s 10-part ancient Roman epic Domina and finishing the second series of The Bay.

What are your future ambitions?

It’s an interesting time for composition – the traditional idea of an orchestra playing themes and motifs has its place, but now you see more experimental music coming into mainstream TV and film.

Composer Samuel Sim was interviewed by Matthew Bell.

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