From musician to arranger, conductor and composer
Miller professes to having been very into music as a child. “When I was a kid I wanted to play guitar – I was one of ‘those’! Fortunately, I learned it quickly, started playing rock ‘n’ roll at parties and stuff at 13 or 14 years old.” He then gravitated towards jazz, which he loved, and - being from Detroit himself – got very familiar with Motown. “I worked in all the clubs in Detroit, and did a lot of recording, also. I played saxophone - a friend of my dad bought my brother a saxophone, but my brother didn’t do anything with it, so I took and learned it.”
“So I was mainly a player growing up, then as I got older I got more interested in writing. But I was an arranger for years before I ever did any composing.” His move to composing, he thinks, was a mixture of happy accident and several important personal relationships. “Before I came out to L.A. I’d been in the army for three years in a jazz band, playing saxophone and guitar. Before I went into service I had been Paul Anka’s guitar player, so after I got out I went back with Paul as his conductor. He moved me to New York and I worked with him full time. About 3 years into that run, I met my wife and wanted to get off the road so I decided to leave the Anka gig and we moved to L.A.”.
Landing the big breaks
Before moving to L.A., Miller called everyone he knew to persuade them to help him out with work when he got there, an approach which reaped rewards: “It wasn’t too long before I got some arranging work: string arrangements, horn arrangements, a lot of Motown acts, lot of Brits – Rod Stewart – all kinds of people.” Crucially he also began to get called upon to update TV themes – “I was like the young cool guy, supposedly!” One of these was the massively popular Knots Landing – “that was one of the first ones where they just said ‘make it cool, make it hip!’ So I did that and they liked what I did, so I got on the composing list for that show and it just snowballed from there. I contributed some compositional stuff in my arrangements; they were happy with it, and I was happy to do it. It was a great break. That’s when I started meeting music supervisors at studios and all that.” Miller was snapped up for several popular US TV shows, including Designing Women and Wings: “I was like the ‘second-season guy’; they wanted to try something different so I came out and then they kept me for the series.” Then came his next big break landing composing for Frasier, a gig which was to last over a decade. “The Wings guys are the ones that got me Frasier. I loved those guys, but after being with them on Wings for a while and being really happy they put a call out for three theme submissions for their new show, Frasier. So I was one of three, I could easily have lost it, but I submitted this thing and they loved it. I was there for the whole run of the show, it lasted eleven years – Kelsey Grammar wanted it to go for as long as Cheers!”
A traditionalist exploiting the best of the modern
Through the course of his evolving career, Miller has worked through enormous changes in technology, from sitting at the ivories of a piano, to the knobs and sliders of a synth. What strikes you is that he has very successfully managed a mixture of sticking to some traditional principles whilst picking up the best bits of new technology to improve the process.
“As an arranger, I started out writing with pencil and paper, and using live orchestras. Then I got into the electronic stuff simply because of budgets and technology and things that were happening, I had no choice.”
It might have taken some time to get to grips with technology in the early days, but now he is completely hooked. “We first started having to do some electronics on Knots Landing, but I didn’t know how to do it! I’d write it out like a regular score and go over to a friend of mine who was a great keyboard player and programmer, and he would record it. Eventually I had to learn to do it. But I loved it really because I’m a little bit of a geek. I love technology, and my OCD means I go on many websites every day to see what’s new – I’m a beta tester for Kontakt for Native Instruments, and also Vienna Ensemble Pro. I look for updates compulsively every single day and install them immediately - I have even installed new stuff in the middle of a session! I admit I broke the golden rule, years ago when I got my first Mac Plus, I updated to my Mac IIci and in the middle of a session I changed computers! I couldn’t help it!”
But he really does remain a purist at heart. “I’m a traditionalist when it comes to a real orchestral sound. I try to keep the music legitimate. I’m not one to take a string section and throw it through filter X then reverse back and roll off all the high end and all the low end. I love great audio, but I want the instruments to sound as real as they can. Unless I’m doing something that calls for more ‘out there’, contemporary sounds.”
Miller stands proud as one of the old school: “I’m not much of a keyboard player. I used to play piano in clubs, all the old standards and all that. And maybe that somewhat influenced the way I write. Even though I now write on the computer, I still write for first violin, second violin, viola, cello, etc; I don’t just write a whole thing then start cutting and pasting all the parts. I obviously take certain shortcuts with certain things, but I stick to the old pencil and paper approach, even if not literally using pencil and paper - I still write that way.” “We have some guys in this town who are brilliant, they’ll do orchestra mock-ups and you’d never know they’re not real; but there’s a lot of guys that don’t. I’m fast, I’ve always been a fast arranger, I have been forced to learn to turn out a lot of music overnight, but it’s all always thought out. If someone has just hacked their way through, I can always tell. There are certain sounds I think ‘why would they do that?’ It doesn’t sound right.”
But even in the old school he likes to experiment. “I try to use technology the way I feel it should be used. I’m a little bit unconventional – so I use Logic Pro as my sequencer, and people say ‘I don’t understand how you work in Logic the way you do, you’re so left-field, you don’t use this stuff in the traditional way the programmers meant’. But I like it that way: I have little patience with manuals.”
Right on cue
One piece of technology Miller raves most about using – manual or no manual - is Video Slave: “the streamer option, that’s just kind of a no-brainer, there’s no reason not to put that before every cue, even if you don’t absolutely need it for that particular cue. It’s this visual thing, even if you’re doing something to clip, there’s something about seeing that thing that just wakes you up.”
He first discovered the software several years ago. “I downloaded the demo and it seemed really good. I really liked it but I thought ‘I don’t really need this’ - it seemed just as easy to put the video into Logic and have it on my computer. But my studio grew, now it’s multiple computers and CPU is always an issue. And I thought ‘why not look at the video on a separate computer’; I opened up a Video Slave 3 demo and it just worked, it was right on the money.” He was so impressed he wanted to get properly involved testing and developing for Non-Lethal Applications. “I emailed them and said ‘this thing works! Is there a beta deal going on?’ I was prepared to endorse it - which I’ll only do if I really believe in something - and I wanted to be on the team and help test it. When things like this get better, it helps me – it’s all selfish, it ain’t for them it’s for me! The better we can make this thing; the more invisible, the more transparent, the easier it is for my work.”
A no-brainer for scoring live
Video Slave has clearly been making Miller’s work a lot easier already. He explains how he uses its cue functions as an essential part of his workflow when scoring live. “When you’re on the scoring stage with a live orchestra, especially when it’s free timing - when it doesn’t have a tempo, if you have a streamer from Video Slave come across you know to catch that cut. There’s something about that, even at the beginning of a cue there’s something about having a beginning streamer come across, it means you’re kind of ready. Almost like telling you to take a breath. I lived without it for so long, but all of a sudden I thought, ‘I really like this!’ There’s no programming involved, you just sit and put the cursor where you want it, add streamer and it’s done! The orchestra doesn’t see it. I see it and the producers’ booth sees it but the orchestra don’t."
As for any composer questioning why they should use Video Slave, Miller has the instant response: “Number one: it’s going to be on another computer, so you’re taking all the CPU of the video off your system. We’ve got so much going on on our computers, so many windows open, even before you add the video to it. There’s not enough room. Number two: there’s all the little extras – there’s even some stuff on Video Slave that I haven’t gotten into, there’s so much. For me it’s a no-brainer. If the technology is there and it’s as smooth as this one is, why not use it? If it’s pain in the neck, then no, but this one is just sitting there as if it’s on the same computer… it’s always in sync. It’s great.”
Be curious, and don’t try to fake it
As for the one piece of advice Miller would pass on from his experience to aspiring composers, he has learnt one thing for sure: “The most important thing is to be curious about the music that you are seeing and hearing. I was in college for five years as a Music Theory and Composition major. It was semi-worthless for me. What I really needed and wanted to learn I learned by sitting at lunch or casual meetings with some amazing arrangers I respected, picking their brains, asking questions, and looking at scores. So be curious when you hear something. And don’t try to fake it - you’ve got to be as prepared as you can possibly be. Many of the guys and ladies in this industry are serious and you are competing with them. So be curious about what they are doing, see what they are doing, listen, and figure out how they get that sound."
All those casual meetings and lunches, picking up nuggets from other arrangers and composers has certainly paid off for Miller. His inspiring capacity to stick to his traditional “real music” principles whilst adopting the best in audio and video innovation, and his fantastically influential and varied experience from conducting to composing makes him someone I’d like to lunch with for a few crumbs of inspiration.