We’re back with another episode of Reel Stories with ReelCrafter! In this episode, ReelCrafter co-founder and composer Sam Hulick sits down with New York-based composer and orchestrator Louis Robert King.
We take a fascinating dive into Louis’ rapid rise from cleaning floors at a ‘jingle house’ to building an amazingly-diverse portfolio of work that includes branded content for the likes of Xbox and Geico, arranging classic tunes for Ralph Lauren fashion shows, orchestrating the iconic Columbia Pictures logo, adapting Broadway shows for the big screen, writing original music for film and, as if that weren’t enough, collaborating on an album of cinematic psychedelic soul music!
The interview transcript below has been edited for clarity and readability.
Sam: Hey all, this is Sam with ReelCrafter, and we are here with another edition of Reel Stories. Today we are talking to Louis Robert King. He is a composer, orchestrator, and, according to his Twitter profile, a lover of food, wine, and poker.
Louis: That would be true.
Sam: That’s a lot of stuff. I have to ask about the poker thing because I’m into Texas Hold ’em, too. Is that like a professional thing? Do you make money playing, or is it just for fun?
Louis: I’ve done all right—I’ve done well over the years. Admittedly, I haven’t played in a little while. But yeah, I do play.
When what you do all day is write music, and then you go watch a movie or television show, it’s like you can’t get away from music. So poker is fantastic because you truly get a break [from music] and can use your brain differently.
Sam: Yeah, for sure. What’s the best hand you’ve ever played?
Louis: Oh, I can’t remember. I’m sure it’s some cold deck I gave somebody, probably in Atlantic City.
Sam: Have you ever had a straight flush?
Louis: Oh yeah, I’ve had straight flush; I’ve had royal.
Sam: Oh, wow. You’ve played a bit more than I have. I think the best hand I’ve had is 4 queens.
Louis: That’s not bad.
Sam: I was proud of it. It’s not bad, but I’m still waiting for that straight flush.
Louis: That’ll win you the hand.
Sam: It did, indeed.
So I’ll start off with the biggest question. You obviously wear a lot of hats; musically, you’ve worked on all kinds of different things. Where did you start your musical journey? What was the first thing you were working on?
Louis: Professionally, when I came out of Berklee, I moved to New York, and I got a job at basically a jingle house. They had a staff of 6 composers and routinely hired an outside orchestrator when doing something with an orchestra. The staff was incredibly talented—6 incredibly talented musicians. But they really weren’t trained to be able to write for an orchestra.
So it wasn’t that long after I got a job there (I was hired for basically cleaning the floors, assisting the composers type of things), but it wasn’t long before they were like, “Well, why don’t we just have Lou do one of these?” So I did one, and it went incredibly well.
Then the next thing you know, I basically became the house orchestrator. Which was fantastic because here I am right out of college, and I’m standing in front of forty A-list New York musicians and running a recording session like once a week.
Louis: So it was an incredible way to cut my teeth, really take everything that I learned in college and solidify and grow.
Sam: So what was that process like? It sounds like there was a team of composers, and they would just kind of write melodies and then hand them off to you to orchestrate. And these were live too? You said you recorded these live?
Louis: Yeah, these would all end up being live at the time. You know the process isn’t that dissimilar to what it is now. They would make a mock-up (this was in the nineties, so the mock-ups were a lot cruder, but you still made a mock-up). Then for whatever was going to be recorded the next day, the mock-up was approved at five or six o’clock the night before the session.
Then I would take over at that time and start orchestrating (which was all by hand) and then run it up to my copyist on the Upper West Side of New York. And at ten or nine o’clock the next morning, he’d show up with the parts, and we’d record. I mean, it was still old school at that time.
Sam: Wow, what kind of brands were you working on?
Louis: All national stuff, like AT&T and Nike. I can’t think of anything we did that wouldn’t have been national ads at the time.
Sam: What is your typical process with orchestration? When do you join a project? How early or how late? How does that whole flow work?
Louis: Well, these days, I don’t find myself doing too much orchestration because I’m too busy composing. But in the times I do pop in, it really depends on the project.
I did something recently for a live event, and it was a full orchestra (maybe like a 40-piece, a little light in the string section). So the client thought, “Well, we’ll have some pre-recorded sampled things, and we’ll kind of blend, and we’ll kind of go from here.” So I was walking in when everything had been settled—basically, this is what it should sound like.
At that point, it’s really about whether some voicings resonate better acoustically or if there is anything that will balance a little bit better? But that’s really the skill set that you’re bringing. Because if the melody is in a place where the clarinet is in a range that really doesn’t speak that great, I can’t really change it because this is what everybody’s been listening to—this is what they have an expectation of.
I might do a little double two octaves above or below with something or put a little color on it to help that come out. But I’ll usually do that by writing a cue in the score, and then you can always tell the player to play that along. So then we’ll hear it, and either like it or not like it.
But these days, it’s very different for an orchestrator than when I started. Because although there was a mock-up that I was working to, if I had copied exactly what was in that mock-up and showed you the next day, there would have been a real problem because it wouldn’t have sounded like a complete piece of music.
Louis: There were a lot of holes—it’s just what you could do with a mock-up [at the time]. So I was almost an arranger/orchestrator because I would add things. I would add a line, or I would add some contrary motion. The voicings would be more than just something static. You were supposed to breathe life into what was already there.
And today, it seems, more often than not, that you can’t really change anything because everything’s gone through a committee and several steps of approval. So everybody’s very happy, and we don’t want to change anything. And I very much appreciate that attitude.
I did the opening titles for Columbia Pictures, and basically, it was a French horn sample, some string samples, a piano, and some percussion. In the mock-up, there wasn’t very much. I changed the key because it was really bad for the French horns—it just hit a note. It would be much better if I took it down a half step. So I did that.
You could never do that today. I added little flurries at the very end that were not in the mock-up that, again, you could never do today. And it all went down fine. It wasn’t an issue.
Sam: Oh, that’s interesting. Why do you think people are sticking more to what the composer’s written today versus back then? Was it because back then, there was just a melody, harmonic changes, and the baseline, so you ran with that?
Louis: I think it’s really the process; it’s technology in the process. In 1995 or 1996, you couldn’t provide someone with a sample mock-up of what it would sound like, or that was a complete picture. Even if you did the most detailed orchestrations, the samples had no delineation between an oboe sample and a clarinet sample or even a trumpet sample in some ways; it was mush. So you could never get the kind of definition that anybody would recognize what anything was.
So I think the end client was the driving force. They were hearing something, and they knew that it was gonna be like this, but it wasn’t going to be exactly this. And we are now at a point where everyone expects it to be exactly that.
Sam: Got it.
Louis: That’s how it is, and it makes sense. When I compose and play for things, they don’t expect it to change at all.
Sam: Like you said, the tools are so much better now, and you know the samples are for each instrument; they cover the exact range that the instrument can do. I wrote music back in the nineties, and it was sort of pseudo samples, and you could play way outside the range that it was intended for, and it didn’t sound great.
Louis: Well, there’s that too. That’s another part of the job these days; a lot of the sample libraries limit where the range is. So, yeah, they can play a note, but against the full orchestra, no one’s ever going to hear it.
Sam: When you worked more on orchestration projects, what was that pitching process like? How did you pitch for a gig?
Louis: It was mostly word of mouth, honestly. It was really the phone ringing. For a long time, I did a lot in the advertising space. So at the same time, I was composing for ads, and I was also doing the orchestration.
And then, when I branched off and did any film work, it was just people who already knew me reaching out. I wasn’t actively pursuing [film work] at the time, and at that point, I had some good credits under my belt, and I thought maybe now is a good time to try and get more of it.
That was pretty much the 2000s, and in New York, you just didn’t have the amount of live recordings going on in town. You were starting to get the offshoring where everyone was going to London, and there wasn’t a lot being done in New York. So, I didn’t go out of my way to pursue [orchestration work]. [Word of mouth] was nice because you were being brought in, and everyone wanted you to succeed. Everybody wanted you to be there from the very beginning.
Sam: And when did things start to shift in your career from orchestration to like composing?
Louis: It was in the late nineties when I was doing more advertising, writing for advertising, and I did a lot of that for a while. I would say six years ago, I really wanted to change my focus and try to do some work that was a bit more artistically satisfying.
Sam: Right, well, less commercial.
Louis: The thing I’ve always loved about writing music for commercials is that it’s pretty short windows. You’re on one thing, and then you’re on another thing, and then you’re on another thing. So there’s variety and even a variety of genres.
Although I lean more orchestral, [with commercials] it’s like I can do jazz, I can do funk, I can do soul. So the opportunity to be able to bounce around and express yourself in a lot of different genres was very appealing. It made it fun, but the flip side to writing 30/60 seconds is that it’s very much tailored to what an ad is supposed to accomplish, and it’s not that artistically fulfilling.
So that’s when I started reaching out and trying to make the pivot to doing film work. At the time thought I was a little rusty in the composition department in that particular arena of more sophisticated writing. So I ended up studying privately with somebody and then trying to kind of get my chops back, and…
Sam: Yeah, I imagine as an orchestrator, you’ve seen so much work coming your way, like composition work, and your eyes are always on music. Did you find it difficult to get up to speed with composition to the point where you’re confident?
Louis: No, actually, it was really a refresher because it wasn’t anything that I didn’t learn in college, and it wasn’t anything that I didn’t know. But, 10 years go by doing music that’s pretty basic from a harmonic [perspective], or it’s not very adventurous, and you forget. Then it’s nice to kind of have the reminder, “Oh yeah, I can do this. Oh yeah, I just like riding minor sevenths.” or whatever it is. Suddenly it’s like muscle memory. It pops right back.
Sam: So you’ve worked on branding stuff, advertising, you’ve done film work, Broadway adaptations.
Sam: With ad work, you’re working off a brief, right? You’re trying to interpret keywords and convert them to music. But film and Broadway, how different or how similar are those?
Louis: I haven’t actually done very much Broadway; I did very little orchestration for a Broadway show. But doing something for advertising or working in film, at its core, is not that different because you’re supporting a visual and a story. So there’s a greater goal. But, really, it’s more about the intensity a film can have as opposed to what an ad can have. So where are you gonna go? The depths of the expression are very different.
At the end of the day, the process and similarities are that the visual tells you what to do. The storyline is laid out. How does the music flow? The form of the music? Where are the shifts in the music? Where should it be small? Where should it be large? It’s all either on the screen or in the dialog. You’re following that, which leads you where you need to be. Anytime you try to go your own way, it’s not gonna work.
I would say one of the larger differences, and I think this is relative to what you’re working on, is in advertising, you’re definitely trying to please the committee. There are a lot of voices with a lot of ideas, and you’re trying to make it work for everybody and satisfy everybody. That means everyone at an advertising agency and, at the end of the day, whoever the actual client is.
Louis: Whereas, a lot of the film work I’ve done, it’s just me and a director. So it’s a lot more direct, and a lot clearer, and a lot easier, and in some ways a much faster process. Now, obviously, if you’re working on the latest Marvel movie, it starts to get a lot more similar to advertising because there are a lot of voices, a lot of opinions, and a lot of ideas. And you have to navigate all of those.
Sam: Yeah, we’ve had some customers comment on how they’ll send a reel out, and they’ll use one link, and they’ll see all the different geographical locations because people are passing it around the team, so everyone gets ears on it.
Sam: It’s kind of fun to watch that journey. Just go on your dashboard, and they’ve all listened to it by now, hopefully.
Louis: Yeah, it is amazing, it is amazing.
Sam: Obviously, you are a ReelCrafter customer, and you’re using a platform, so not all your work is obtained through word of mouth.
Sam: Was that something that started to happen at a certain point where you realized you needed to pitch more?
Louis: Well, even when I’m getting [calls from] people who know of me, the importance of showcasing what your work is was always important. So the nice thing about ReelCrafter is that it’s made doing it so much easier.
[I think] there are a lot of people who, musically, are very much in one category or really love one category, and that’s kind of where they go. And for me (back to the “I like doing a lot of different things”), it’s like, I love doing comedy. I love doing heavy drama. I love doing, you know, really out music. I love working on a soul album with somebody. In the past, you would have to have all these tracks organized somewhere and then figure out how to edit them together and make some sort of reel.
With ReelCrafter, it’s so much nicer just to be able to have these reels kind of put together already. They’re very organized. I can alter them, I can shrink them, I can edit into them. It makes the process so much simpler.
[When] you hear wind of something, and you want to get something to [someone] as quickly as possible (and maybe it’s something that I don’t have 10 tracks of, or that I [don’t] already have that thing set up) … I can pull 4 tracks from the bins that are there. Boom, boom, boom, and in 5 minutes, I can send that off to somebody, and it makes a big difference to be able to target what you’re sending somebody.
If I just sent somebody my general reel, they would never be able to absorb what was on there through the lens of their project. So being able to quickly react and create something really relevant to what they’re trying to achieve is a huge plus. Huge plus.
Sam: Yeah, you really do need a separate reel. Going in on a project, it has to be a very targeted, focused pitch relevant to what they’re looking for, obviously.
Sam: A general reel is good for your website, or if someone’s like, “Hey, show me your stuff; what do you do?”
Louis: Yeah, or to just kind of tell somebody who you are, which is what I’ve tried to do with mine. It’s like if you want to get a sense of who I am musically, give this a listen, But if you have a documentary [project], don’t listen to that because that’s not going to work. Let me send you something else.
Sam: Have you put together any pitches on ReelCrafter as an orchestrator?
Louis: Yes, I have!
Sam: You have.
Louis: And the nice thing about that is being able to have categories, you know, one reel, next reel, next reel, next reel because [I can] do something targeted. But I found (and this is more geared toward record work) being able to show, “Here’s some soul pop, here’s some big band, here’s some cabaret broadway” kind of stuff, and “Here’s something huge and orchestral,” just to show the balance and the range, is wonderful as an introduction to people to show what you’re capable of. And it’s some of the newer [ReelCrafter] features that have come on in the last year that really made [being able to be targeted] very successful for a reel.
Sam: I imagine your goal of pitching as an orchestrator is to really show you a variety.
Louis: Yeah, especially if it’s not project-specific. If I was pitching a particular producer who did a lot of fill-in-the-blank, I try and gear [my pitch] towards this way. But if you’re just reaching out to somebody who also, maybe as a producer, has a wide interest in music and has worked with many different artists, it’s great to show the breadth of what you do.
Sam: I was also curious about your bio on your site mentioned working on fashion shows.
Sam: Doing music for fashion shows, how does that even… I have no concept of how that even works.
Louis: Well, it again is one of those things where it’s not like I went looking for it. Someone I knew called me up who happened to be acting as the musical director for Ralph Lauren for two shows. There was the fiftieth-anniversary event in Central Park. And for the fashion show, they had some pre-recorded [music that] you would normally expect for a fashion show. But because it was the fiftieth gala, they had a very large party in the middle of Central Park, and they wanted live music to entertain everybody. But they didn’t want standard wedding band stuff in the back.
So we did something of a chamber orchestra, a little bit of a small Hollywood orchestra, and we did all kinds of things. Ralph Lauren’s a huge fan of standards, so we had a few standards like, Fly Me to the Moon and such, and then we had other arrangements of film music, some Ennio Morricone. I arranged a Tom Waits tune for orchestra. We did a Bob Dylan tune. It was just to make it so that people are sitting there and then going, “Ooh, what, what’s that?” kind of a thing.
And then, for another year, they had Janelle Monáe do a surprise appearance after the fashion show. After the fashion show, they were going to have a cocktail hour with your standard jazz combo. And the people at Ralph Lauren thought it would be really interesting if Janelle came out and sang standards. So we had a six-piece brass section come out with her band, and we did a few standards. And for that, I was mostly doing the horn arrangements.
Sam: It’s cool that there was a live element. They went off the rails and didn’t use just the canned music they normally do at those kinds of things.
Louis: Yeah, my knowledge of what happens at fashion events has certainly changed. And I mean, these days, they are massive productions. It used to just be a couple of tents in the middle of Bryant Park, and everybody showed up. And now they are like film sets. They are just huge [with] all kinds of interesting things.
Sam: So, what are you working on these days? Is it mostly composition projects, or do you still juggle different things?
Louis: It’s mostly composition projects, but I’m sure it’ll be something else three months from now, and I won’t know what it is. I mean the perfect example… I worked with a band co-writing an album of what we’re calling “cinematic, psychedelic, soul music.” So a rhythm section with an orchestra. A man named Max Ramey of the band The Ironsides reached out and said, “This is something we’d like to do. Are you interested in this?” And this was in October of 2020, so it was like, “I have some time,” and it sounded really interesting. So I’m like, “Let’s try this.”
So we started the project, and it went very well. It was really wonderful writing music that wasn’t for a higher purpose of a film or a visual. I arranged and orchestrated the orchestra, and we released the first single last Friday. So, if you asked me six months before that, “Would I be doing that?” I had no idea; I wouldn’t have predicted it.
I [also] have some films that are in the pipeline. What else? I have no idea.
Sam: So they just called you out of nowhere and said, “Hey, we want you to do orchestration for this album.”
Louis: We had a common friend, so we kind of knew each other but had never met, and didn’t I didn’t know him. So it wasn’t completely like pulling me out of the blue. But it was certainly unexpected on this side, and I think to some degree, kind of unexpected on that side.
[The project] was something the band had wanted to do for a very long time, and they weren’t really sure how they could do it or what would be the best way. Then when we were deep into the pandemic, they thought, “Well, why not now? This would be a great time to try and do it,” and off we went.
Sam: Can you tell us a bit about the Ironsides album? Where can people find it and listen to it?
Louis: Yes, the single, which is called Changing Light, can be streamed on your favorite streaming service. For those of you who love vinyl, and I know I do, you can purchase it at your local record store or directly from coleminerecords.com. We expect the gatefold album to be released spring of next year, in March or April, fingers crossed. And it will also be available on all the streaming services when it’s released.
Sam: Alright, awesome. Thanks a lot, Louis. We appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today.
Louis: I really appreciate you having me. This has been a lot of fun, and I hope it’s helpful.
Sam: It definitely is. Thanks, and good luck on all your projects.
Louis: Thank you, Sam.
About Louis Robert King
As an orchestrator, Louis Robert King has created the musical colors you hear in the iconic Columbia Pictures Logo, as well as scores for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid II,” and Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Broadway classic “Annie.”
In 2020 his score for “Like Daughter Like Mother” received the Award of Merit from the Accolade Global Film Competition, he also won a British Web Award in the Best Music category for his score from “FabUless,” a sitcom about three struggling actors making ends meet as brand ambassadors.
King’s involvement in the music world also includes creating arrangements for Janelle Monae’s performance at Ralph Lauren’s 2019 fashion event and Evan Rachel Wood’s appearance at the LACMA Art + Film Gala. King also produced string arrangements for Kelly Finnigan’s solo record, and for the soul all-star super-group “The Sentiments.” He recently co-wrote an album of cinematic soul music with “The Ironsides” now available at coleminerecords.com.
You can find Louis Robert King online here:
Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/gb/artist/louis-robert-king/1505545320