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Putting the sounds and music in Usborne books

Lots of Usborne books have embedded sound chips with music and even animal noises and sounds. Composer and music producer Anthony Marks gives us an insight into his rewarding job…

Anthony Marks working on Usborne music books
Anthony Marks working on Usborne music books

Music and sounds are used in many different ways in Usborne books – from embedded sound clips for Vivaldi's The Four Seasons to buttons on the pages of Jungle Sounds and play-along tracks for the keyboard and drumming books.  I’m the person responsible for creating all the music and sound effects and ensuring they’re of the highest possible quality.

In the early stages of a book's life, I work closely with Usborne editors to find the right music or sounds for each book. Sometimes we need specific classical pieces. For Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Swan Lake we choose exactly the right clips to fit with the story and illustrations. This means taking the notation of a whole piece of music and inputting it into the computer, then using software to create a digital orchestra or band to perform the music in a way that matches the original as closely as possible.

I then select the most suitable section of the music (often a small part of a much larger composition) and create the sound clips in my studio. For classical music by a famous composer, I make sure the clips are as true to the original as possible.

Sometimes  I compose new, original music – for example, hip-hop and reggae for My First Drumming Book, and soundtracks for recorded stories in the Usborne First Reading series. Then once we have agreed how to continue, I create the finished pieces on the computer. 

Anthony Marks composing the Songs of Magic for A Darkness of Dragons
Anthony Marks testing the recorder part in the Songs of Magic for the book A Darkness of Dragons

I make the sound effects for books in several different ways. I record some of them in and around my home, including the very shouty ducks in Baby’s Very First Noisy Book: Farm and the birds in Garden Sounds. Others, such as the clunks and creaks in Noisy Castle, have to be created in my kitchen using equipment and bright ideas. And sometimes we use commercial sound effects: where I live, it isn’t possible to record orangutans in the wild! 

Every single sound I make, be it music, sound effects or a combination of the two, has to be properly prepared for publication. Sounds have to be at the right volume – too quiet and they can’t be heard, too loud and they sound distorted and muzzy. They have to be the right length, and start and end smoothly. And if I’m creating audio to match a music book (such as the tunes in Recorder for Beginners) it’s really important that what you hear exactly matches the notes you see on the page. 

I love my job because I get to work with music and sound. Each project is different so there are always fresh challenges – and I need a variety of skills and techniques. My knowledge of many different kinds of music helps me to find the right piece for each project. My ability to compose means that I can create new music in a variety of styles. I rely heavily on my computer and audio engineering skills to create the finished product. And I enjoy collaborating with editors and designers to achieve the very best possible results.  

The work requires patience, persistence and a sense of humour. One of the difficulties we sometimes encounter is that the noise an animal makes in real life doesn’t match the noise we imagine it makes (for example, most owls don’t really say “tu wit tu woo” and most frogs don’t say “ribbit”). In these cases it’s important to balance what is available with what readers expect.

Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what sort of music is required – we only know it’s right when we hear it. So it’s important to be imaginative and adaptable, and prepared to try many different approaches in order to find the right solution. And above all I have to trust my ears and keep asking questions. Does that sound fade too quickly? Is the gap between the voice and the music just right?  Does that piano really sound like an owl is playing it? 

Listen to the Songs of Magic, original music for three recorders made up of the Songs of Friendship, Magic and Courage composed by Anthony Marks.

Anthony Marks

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