Thursday, November 14, 2019

My Review of Thinkspace

I have completed my MA in Professional Media Composition at Thinkspace and should be receiving my diploma from the University of Chichester, UK, in February or March of 2020.

Thinkspace is Guy Michelmore's school. It's an online school for film/TV/videogame composers, orchestrators, and sound designers. I can't directly speak for the orchestration and sound design parts but the composing part is excellent. One thing that drew me to Guy's teaching was that he demystifies the creative process. Many of the video lectures are just Guy taking you through composing music for "media" based on either a brief or on picture. He starts at the "tinkling at the piano" stage and goes right through the arranging and orchestrating and mixing stages. Usually in about 20 minutes.

Guy is a working composer, he does a lot of work -- mostly animated television but some documentary and dramatic material too. He's very good at both doing the work and at teaching it. And he's surrounded himself with people who are good and can teach.

You can attend the school at a variety of intensities from fairly slow part-time to full-time. The full-time MA takes a year. And the price, at just under $13,000, makes a one-year degree one of the best values in post-graduate degrees. It's also possible to enroll without an undergraduate degree (like I did) although as I understand it, only 10% of the class can be "Recognized Prior Learning" or RPL students. This is why, I believe, I learned on a Monday for a Thursday induction that I would actually be attending. (That was more than a tad harrowing as I had no idea if I were going to be accepted until the last minute.)


In this course there are no "semesters" or "classes" but rather "modules." I believe this is just a sort of standard way for UK universities to work. Some modules are taken simultaneously with others. Some are taken alone.
The course itself is, from a pedagogical point of view, extraordinary. It's a professional degree, which means the purpose of it is to make hireable composers. So there is a goodly focus on things which (in a big music house) is done by assistants and associates, as well as composing for media in and of itself.
You can take some free courses at to get a feel for Guy's teaching style. His videos are a primary, but by no means exclusive, way the course is taught. His technique is a sort of "compose-while-you-watch" and for me (and everyone else I talked to in the course) it works quite well.
Let me digress here for a moment. Grossly speaking, there are two different ways to teach composition. The esoteric version is to stare into the abyss of infinite possibilities where you end up saying things like "What if, like, we took the oboe and put it underwater and then just played the keys for two bars and then the rest of the piece is just the sound of the air conditioner?" The other version is sort of a "toolkit" approach where you put together a whole stack of "tricks" and say things like "If you want to do this kind of effect, make the strings do a run-up chromatically but skipping up a third at the top of each bar." Both of these approaches have at least some merit (and now I really want to drown an oboe to find out what that sounds like). But we oftentimes need something in the middle there. We need a place where we can draw on aleotoric craziness, but also just make a pretty melody sometimes.
Guy spends most of the time composing, which may be altogether different from the esoteric approach and the toolkit one but it certainly involves doing a bit of each.

Your first assignment is to choose from a pool of different styles of music where the first 8 or so bars have been composed and then to continue the piece for another minute or so. This assignment is eye-openingly brilliant. Firstly, it's a "real" assignment. In the realm of commercial work, a basic skill-set to be able to work for a composer as an assistant is to be able to take a little piece your boss wrote and to finish the cue. In some of these music houses they have a lot of work coming through and they need assistants who can handle musical duties (and not sound terribly different from the composer you're working for.) Further assignments involve music editing, writing in a variety of styles, writing to picture, and a course called "critical reflections."

As it turns out, one of the most important modules is the Critical Reflections module. This is because research is a vital part of, well, virtually everything. Heck, even Junkie XL says that his first step when writing a new score is to research first. When I started this module (which is several months long and ends in a 5000-word paper) I thought "Meh, whatever" but I got into it and I started following Tim Summer's lectures and then it was all leading up to "bad music" and I was thinking "Yes, this makes sense, it's all coming together now. Because now we understand what "bad" is and that reveals what "good" is and..." But the course came to a complete end before we answered that question. And the entirety of the thesis I plan to do for my PhD if/when I do that is based on what I felt was the cliff right at the end of the Critical Reflections module.

Online learning
An online degree in commercial music does have certain merit. The biggest reason is that in order to do this kind of composing you essentially need a home recording studio. Having enough working labs at a school for composers, orchestrators, and sound designers, would become very ungainly very quickly. You'd need to standardize all the labs and it would be really irritating really quickly.

So I agree with the online learning aspect of it. Also, you end up getting a mix of teachers from all over the world who have done everything. I mean really heavy-duty people and people are constantly working. You will get to sit in on webinars with really high-end people who have actually done big movies, huge videogames, well-known television series, some primo talent. You will get to sit in with some amazing teachers from all around the world.

This is very cool.

A full-time student gets a half-hour one-on-one sessions (which they call "1-2-1 sessions") with a tutor each week. They're on Skype or some such. My composition tutor, Spencer Bambrick, was fantastic. To really take advantage of your tutor  you have to go into it not being all precious about your work. You want to listen to their advice and then apply it. Having someone to listen to your work and give you feedback and suggestions each week really keeps you grounded. You know where you are and have a clue about how you're doing. If you're lucky and you've done everything they've told you, you might get them as a grading tutor (you can't select them, they're luck of the draw.) If you did all the work and everything they said, you better get a distinction out of it. ;-) But seriously, I was shocked that some students weren't taking advantage of what we in the States would call "office hours" because goodness gracious it is wonderful. You want to learn? Do your work and then talk to your tutor.

[This is where I reveal that technically I cheated in my course and for several months I had two tutors each week -- one for my music work and the other for my research paper. That was great. And I genuinely thought I was allowed two tutors a week. It's not like I was taking anyone's time. I mean, a lot of students who were there when I was there were just not taking advantage of having a working professional composer holding their hands through these assignments. Note that it is possible to pay for more tutorial sessions, so I could have just done that.]

In any case, I cannot over-stress how great the 1-2-1 sessions are. They're easily worth the price of admission.

The administration of the school is plagued by a fantastically obtuse bureaucracy as one could possibly imagine for such a relatively small organization. Schools seem very good at making their administrations comically Kafka-esque and Thinkspace is about as bad at it as every other school I know of. (I'm pretty sure they're all run by the same castle on top of the same hill.)
It took six weeks for me to get an email address (many of the administration issues center around the interface between Thinkspace and the University of Chichester as they seem to only talk to one another quarterly.) I finished my course in September 2019 and I presumed I would graduate in October 2019 (I even contacted Chichester and they assured me that I was graduating in absentia ) but the Board of Examiners at Chichester doesn't meet until February of 2020 so it won't be until the following October, 2020 or November, 2020 that I could actually graduate. So, upwards of 14 months after turning in my last assignment.

Which is after my third execution has been re-scheduled by The Castle.

On the good side of administrative things is the Help Desk. Rather than just sending emails to the school to ask questions, one nominally opens a ticket. That part is an excellent system even if, er, sometimes the answers that come back are just straight-up incorrect. But even regular non-distance-learning schools should institute Help Desks. You send an inquiry via Help Desk to your professor or whomever and it's logged and doesn't involve filling up your professor's in-box with incoherent emails which begin with the words "Yo, Doc, 'sup?" (Which is something that drives teachers nuts.)

What you'll need
You need a DAW. Lots of people know and love Cubase, but there are plenty of Digital Performer and Logic adherents out there and then there's the radicals who know Reaper is where it's at. I am, of course, a cranky and self-righteous Samplitude user. ("Here's a nickle, kid, get yourself a real DAW.")
You may as well get a subscription to East West Play. The monthly cost with student discount is very reasonable. Heck, it's reasonable without. It takes some work but you can do fantastic, working mockups just using Play. The library is enormous. Yeah, there are nice things about Cinesamples Studio Strings, there are some brass libraries that are nice, but go ahead and get Play.

(If you're in the Orchestration program you will need ProTools. With the student discount it's like $10/month or something. You'll also need Sibelius. I don't remember what those are with student discounts.)

If you work on a PC, hunt around the Internet for CamelPhat distortion/filter plugin. They stopped making it for a while but I think Apple bought it and it's available in Logic now. For the PC you'll have to... er... find it.

What you'll want
Eventually you'll want some Spitfire libraries. Unlike pretty much everyone else, every Spitfire library is instantly musical right out of the box.
You're gonna need the full version of Native Instruments Kontakt. You wanna be a professional composer? You need Kontakt.

Guy will encourage you strongly to get the Valhalla DSP Vintage Verb. Just get it. It's $50. You have amazing reverbs in the Play library you got. I have an excellent convolution reverb and algorithmic reverb built into Samplitude but the Valhalla is "wider" and sounds a bit prettier so that's what I go with most of the time. Also, it's $50.

Lots of people are into the Slate plugins. I can see the attraction. I am a man, however, with peculiar taste in plugins.

What you don't want
Vienna Ensemble Pro to make a network. Yeah, Guy has a 6-computer system. Junkie XL too (multiples of them). All with VSL networking. But you know what? Get a computer with 128GB of RAM and a couple SSD drives instead. I mean probably. I'm not you. You do whatever you want.
I think this is a thing which is currently in flux (it being the year 2019). I think back in 2015 you absolutely needed a VSL network but now not so much. I could be wrong. Just watch, next year I'll have a bunch of computers networked with VSL. But for now not so much.

What I learnt
The big lesson for me personally, the thing I tend to do which I need to do differently, is that I will tend to get into a mood or groove and just stay there. Most modern underscore changes every couple bars. I learned this about me on literally the second day of induction, by Tim Johnson. Yes, it took me a year to even remotely make me "internalize" that lesson. The lesson that I learned. On my second day. Seriously, there are lots of little things I learned over the 13-months, but boy-o-nelly. That was the big un. Still, took repetition and time to sink into my little brain.

How to do it
With every assignment you also deliver a commentary form. Unfortunately the questions on the form are created for the tutor who marks your grade. This means you're answering questions that aren't on the form and are frequently just straight-up ignoring the question and writing something else in the box below it.

Every assignment is marked and given extensive feedback. I mean the tutors who mark and grade the assignments work a lot on it. Each module normally has three assignments: two formatives and one summative. The "formatives" do not count toward your final grade.

The thing about the feedback you get is that sometimes it contradicts the feedback you got from your 1-2-1 tutor, and sometimes the grading tutors don't agree with one another. But it's important to note that not all of the critiques affect your grade. Two things happen: one is that you'll get feedback which is clearly "just opinion." It's stuff a tutor might say that's good advice (like, I don't know, telling you to do a key-change differently in the horns) but they know it's just their opinion. The other thing is that as you get a higher and higher grade you're likely to get more and more detail. So it could sound like they're really nitpicking your viola divisi (or whatever) but that's because what you're doing is so good they can start to listen to that level of detail and give advice at that persnickety a level.

But man, the tutors put 45 minutes into marking each assignment. They are not fooling around. You will have a lot of detail. Don't get precious, use that detail to fix up the work. You will get specific feedback with suggestions. On more than one occasion I got a note about a cue being too, say, "dense" and to lighten it up until the climax maybe by adding a flute melody, but instead of rewriting it, I just yanked out the plodding horns that were tying up the first few bars and voila! The melody already hiding underneath came out and the music built properly.

Everybody's on the same side here. They want the music to be as great as it can be.

My advice to the student is that the student should put as much detail as they can into their commentary. In the student's commentary, they should remind the tutor or tell them what the feedback they'd gotten from 1-2-1's was, and what feedback they got from formatives (do not assume the tutor has seen or heard from you before.) Make sure you write up all the stuff you did that's different and what feedback you got and why you did things the way you did. Even say "I did not get my feedback from the 2nd formative before submitting this summative" in the commentary. I even made sure the actual assignment was in the commentary because sometimes those assignments change and the tutors are grading you based on the old way the assignment was written.
And lastly, for the assignments which I got smacked on (I passed but, yeah, I just passed) I still got really well thought-out feedback. They had specific problems with what I did but they put the details of what those problems were. So I was bummed about the grade but it was fair.

All the things
Of all the kinds of composing there is out there in the world, I would actually suggest that composing for media (film, TV, video games) is the most freeing. I know. But hear me out. If you're what BMI calls a "serious concert composer" you're going to be shoehorned into whatever your "shtick" is. If your thing is minimalism, you need to produce a lot of minimalist music. If you're a serialist, boy-oh-boy you gotta get your 12-tone ducks in a tone row. And if you're a "pop" composer, you pretty much need to do whatever the thing is you're known for. You write/produce hip-hop? Then no heavy metal or country ballads for you (certainly no symphonic music.)
But a media composer only has to make music that will serve the media. Yes, you do get pigeonholed in your career, but if you want to do hip-hop mixed with Romantic strings, a djembe, and Javanese opera, you can -- as long as it serves the picture (and, you know, if the production team likes it.)

Next up: the value of research.


Theory Blog said...

Great review on Thinkspace Education and very accurate. Your experience pretty much mirrors mine. Like you, I took advantage of the 1 to 1 tutoring sessions every week with David Denyer. Those sessions were really great. I was always perplexed by how few students took advantage of the extra tutoring, Overall all I had a great experience with the MFA in Orchestration. Reading your review actually makes me miss being a student at TS. Even though it was a lot of work being a full-time student and teaching full-time as a college professor, I had a lot of fun and learned a lot.

Thanks for the review,
Aaron Garner

Theory Blog said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gesslr said...

Wow. I think this is a fantastic and fair review. When I was there (2016/17), things were a little bit more unsettled as a number of things were just starting to scale. In particular, I found the turn around time on assignment comments to be problematic. As a full time, 1 year Master's student, the schedule was pretty intense and there were several occasions when the feedback was not timely enough to be very impactful on my final submission for an assignment. It looks like they've worked that out and have also codified the 1-2-1 tutoring aspects. That is great as those were my only two gripes.

But some of the things I took away from it: First, Guy and the staff are FANTASTIC...hands down top notch folks. Second, I learned so much while there, and I agree with Aaron (a batch mate as it turns out): I really do miss the challenge, the continual expectation to get out of your comfort zone and stretch yourself on an almost weekly basis. Third, the post graduate support is both amazing and generous.

I was a Media Composition student. When I have learned more (a lot more), I'd like to come back and pursue Orchestration.

When I look back on the experience, it was worth every penny and I would do it again, only sooner.

George Napier (USA)