Film Composer James Bernhard Gets it Done Right with SONAR

Film composer and longtime Cakewalk user James Bernhard is a busy man. With films to score and a new music production company to run, it’s understandable. Fortunately SONAR is with him to help get things done right, right away.

James BernhardAfter getting his start as a songwriter in Long Island, NY, he made the move to LA to write music for television & film. It was in LA where the musical partnership with four-time Grammy award winning mixing engineer Brian Vibberts and golden-eared mastering engineer Patricia Sullivan (employed by Bernie Grundman Mastering) began. From this, the new company G4H Music Productions Inc. was born.

James was gracious enough to take time away from composing to have a conversation about his career, how he uses SONAR to score to picture and, despite pressure from colleagues, why he won’t ever switch to another DAW.

You’re a film, television, and multimedia composer with a long list of credits including music contributions for Levi’s, the Discovery Channel and Steven Spielberg to name a few. You’ve also worked at Ocean Way Studios and have a brand new production company, G4H Music Productions Inc. Could you give us some more specific information about your career and your recent projects?

Whether we’re speaking of my career, or any other music composer’s, always think “keep your hands and feet inside the car while the ride is in motion.”  There are certain rules: 1. The only constant in the industry is change. If you are a seeking a career, stay ahead of the curve. 2. Music composition for film and TV is a business. Therefore, do not take rejection personally (it’s just business). 3. There are two ways to do something, right and wrong. 4. Be able to budget your money, as there can be a long time between drinks.

Long before I met with success, I met with many doors being slammed in my face. However, when you wake up in the morning and all you can think about is composing, then you are a composer.

I started out as a songwriter. At that time, my goal was to find a publisher who didn’t say “no.” While playing my newest acetates for an A&R rep at Peer Southern Music, while the rep was shaking his head in the wrong direction, the executive VP happened to walk by. Two weeks later I became the youngest staff songwriter in the company’s history. Thus began a career…mine.

There are two ways to do anything, right and wrong. Since wrong will not work, that leaves but one alternative, RIGHT. Never make an excuse for a mistake on a demo. Demos no longer exist, even if you call it a demo. When you send something out, your stems better be broadcast-ready. Don’t try to work fast, instead work mistake-free. With SONAR there really is no reason that it shouldn’t be that way. Your performance is just as important as your technical ability. If need be, go in and change the velocity of a note(s) in order to make sure that the music is as you intend it to be. Some composers may play one instrument, and then produce the rest with other players. Others, such as myself tend to play all instruments, with little exception.

G4H Music Productions Inc. came to pass after I was hired to create a new music campaign for Levi’s Jeans. Since I do the majority of my work in my home studio and Ocean Way Studios, I wanted to bring in the best mixing engineer I could find. Enter my partner, Brian Vibberts, who has won four Grammys over the last six years. He and I had never worked together prior to that. By the time we finished that first session, we could finish each others sentences. As for mastering, if you want the best you go to the best, Bernie Grundman Mastering. As it happened, we were referred to Patricia Sullivan, a mastering engineer who specializes in motion picture soundtracks. Our mastering engineer works with John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, just to name a few.

Over the next few years, Brian and I did quite a bit of work together. When the time was right, we planned carefully, and the result is G4H. Presently, we are working on 2 feature films, the names of which I cannot, and would not reveal.

What keeps you using SONAR, despite pressure from your colleagues to switch to Pro Tools?

Before I can answer this question, comes the obvious question: Why Cakewalk?

After the advent of digital recording, I used a number of different products. When I finally found the software that I felt at home with, it was Cakewalk Pro 3 version. At first I would upgrade due to price. After a while I was hooked. By the time SONAR versions came out, I became addicted. My workflow was much easier than anything I used in other studios. I am currently using SONAR X1 Expanded and transitioning into X2 which I have noticed about a 20% faster workflow. When it comes to workflow, nothing beats it.

This brings me to Pro Tools. Please understand, there is Pro Tools, and then there is Pro Tools HD. When I work at Ocean Way Studios, I use Pro Tools HD 10 and it comes with a price tag. By the time you’ve added the appropriate plug-ins and the additional cards and the hardware, you will be in the range of approx. $25,000.00. Of course you haven’t begun to shop for your controller, and if you don’t go overboard you will only spend an additional $30,000.00.

When comparing regular Pro Tools 10, the decision is yours. Keep in mind a few things. The learning curve for Pro Tools is 9 on a scale of 1-10. SONAR has a learning curve of 5 on the same scale. By the way, Pro Tools 10 is 32-bit, while SONAR is 64-bit. Pro Tools 10 is touting a normalization effect. Cakewalk has had this since SONAR 7. I find absolutely no reason to change to home versions of Pro Tools, when SONAR does so much more, in the box.

What do you keep handy in your composing rig? That is, what are your go-to synths, plug-ins and other equipment?

This question comes down to your personal preferences. As a composer, I really don’t have the time, nor the desire to program synths. So as a result, my third party plug-ins should be easily mastered. Unfortunately, just learning the different patches and nuances of these programs takes at least a few months to conquer the basics.

I tend to compose either on piano or guitar, depending on the genre or feel I’m after. I happen to love ivory pianos. With so many to choose from, I still haven’t listened to all of them. However the sonic quality is fantastic. My guitars are assorted, from Martins to a 30-year-old Ibanez, to my favorite acoustic from Takamine: Model EF340SC Cedar. In my studio, my go-to mics are Lewitt’s. This is a relatively new company from Austria, but they really make great mics.

Now, I’m hesitant to reveal the synths I use, as most composers are. However, I will mention a few. ProjectSAM has to be my basic go-to programs. I’m not going to divulge which programs, but this company is first rate. I also use some Vienna programs. They too have a great reputation.

What specific features in SONAR do you use most?

When it comes to those features that I use with SONAR, it would be easier to ask what features I don’t use. Obviously, I use track and console views for record and playback. Piano roll, staff view, event list, and video. As far as process is concerned, I use gain, normalize, fades, crossfades, nudge, scale velocity. I use tempo changes, series tempos, setting time codes. Almost forgot important features like bouncing, importing, exporting. This list contains features I use on almost everything I compose. I’m sure I’ve left out items, however I tend to use keyboard commands most of the time. As I mentioned before, there are two ways to do things, right and wrong. SONAR helps me do things RIGHT.

Does SONAR’s ProChannel figure into your process?

Surprisingly, yes. ProChannel is a feature I often use. I really don’t use it for mixing, as my partner has won 4 Grammys in the last 6 years. However, there are times that I will be looking for a particular timbre for an instrument, and ProChannel gives that to me. I also like the way ProChannel is set up. It looks much like part of the channel strip from an SSL 4000G.

You’ve spoken to the Cakewalk Tech Support staff about your use of plug-ins that were designed for film scoring, such as those from ProjectSAM. However, you’ve also mentioned using the Cakewalk Studio Instruments Strings plug-in as well, which admittedly does not offer the same amount of customization. What makes the SI Strings an appropriate choice in some cases?

If you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let the cat out of the bag. The fact is, I often use Cakewalk plug-ins in my compositions. I’ve used SI strings as a layer for a number of pieces. I also use Dimension Pro quite a bit. Session Drummer are my go-to drums. You will find just about every VST in the box to be a useful tool depending on the context at hand. Working in the box takes a lot of knowledge on how to get layers of depth, and those combinations of VSTs that I use increase certain harmonics or give me just a slightly faster attack. Their uses are endless.

What is a typical workflow for you and your partners at G4H?

It really depends on what you are doing at the time. If you’re working on a TV series,  the work is fast and furious, which incidentally is not an excuse for RIGHT.

However, if you are working on a film projects, I find the work more intense. Once you’ve watched the film a few times (let’s say 20) you then start work. Presently in my case, I am working on a film leaning more towards scene elements rather than character elements. Fortunately, the director agrees. After I write a scene, I will send the scene over in MIDI and audio to Brian. At this point, Doc begins surgery, which really makes the music come alive. I always send a 2-track over with the individual tracks, many times with automation (another SONAR feature I forgot to mention), so he is able to hear what I am hearing. Occasionally a track or two may be sent with Boost 11 (forgot that one, too). At that point he and I will get together to set music to picture. I don’t necessarily have to be there, unless I have some very specific ideas. As far a mastering is concerned, that is the last link, albeit an extremely important one in the chain.

Composer James Bernhard and mixing engineer Brian Vibberts


If any, what measures do you need to take when transferring projects from your SONAR setup to Pro Tools?

It’s simple as can be. I export the the individual tracks to a desktop folder in broadcast wave. Then, I send them via a very secure large file transfer program.

He’ll mix as needed, and add effects. He too, has all my programs, so he can make changes at the source. Brian is the most creative engineer I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. He and I will often put our heads together when it comes to sound design.

What kinds of technical hurdles have you had to overcome using software to compose rather than traditional methods?

Let me answer this question with another question. Would it be easier to have built the great pyramids by hand or using cranes?

I have composed orchestral pieces both ways. It is much easier to compose with the use of digital workstations, over a pen and a score pad. The answer becomes even more evident, when you look at today’s composers. Over the last fifty years or so we have seen the A-list composers doing less scores. That said, the greatest composer of my time is without peer, it’s John Williams. On the other hand, the most popular film composer of today is Hans Zimmer. Do not overlook this very important fact. Without classical training, it is near impossible to score a motion picture. That said, I don’t think I would even attempt to score a film with just a pen, and I spent 4 years of classical training.

Does writing to picture aid your composition process or provide more challenges than writing “music for its own sake”?

If you don’t love writing to picture, than the life of a film or TV composer is not for you. There are drawbacks, as well as great satisfaction composing for film. The drawback is that people hear your music, but don’t listen to it. Your job is to compliment the film. You are there to add or detract as the case may be. A film is made up of scenes. Many scenes have arcs to them. As the composer, it is your job to accentuate those scene arcs, but never over play them. Unless that is the director’s wish. Some day you will need to learn about spotting sessions, but not today.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring composers in today’s modern music landscape, what would it be?

If you are serious about making a career of scoring for film or TV, get a good grasp of music theory. Stay ahead of the digital musical curve. Last but not least, get an education in business. Remember, it’s not personal, it’s just business, mixed with a lot of art and science. It’s a challenge, but very rewarding.

For examples of his compositions, visit To get in touch with James directly, his email is