Archive for April, 2012

April 28, 2012

MECHWARRIOR 4: VENGEANCE

Composing the score for “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance” was a true career milestone on many levels.  At the time of the project’s inception, I was working as the staff composer for Chicago-based FASA Interactive, along with a stellar team of visual artists and computer programmers.  When our company was acquired by Microsoft in 1999, we relocated to Redmond, Washington.

Set in the BattleTech universe, a concept created by FASA Interactive’s Jordan Weisman, the game revolved around a world where wars were fought by giant, human-piloted robots called Mechs.  It was the fourth game in the MechWarrior series and was published by Microsoft in 2000.

Adding to the fun, my music for “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance” was released on a soundtrack CD by Varese Sarabande, a record label that is renowned for its catalog of motion picture soundtracks.  It was quite an honor to be included in such a prestigious music catalog.  As well, the game had a sophisticated storyline and the music was treated as an essential element in telling that story.

In my liner notes for the CD, I explained, “The music of MechWarrior 4: Vengeance is driven by the epic stories that encompass the BattleTech universe. Although it is science fiction that takes place 1,000 years in the future, it also embodies the human qualities that we see and feel in our lives today. It’s a time when honor, bravery and courage are valued and rewarded. It also reminds us that humans can be ruthless, treacherous and cowardly. All of these traits and emotions were integral to the score.  And of course, the massive Mechs were also inspiration for more than a few of the cues.”

With Microsoft as the game’s publisher, I had the luxury of hiring outstanding live musicians (brass, woodwind and string players from the Northwest Sinfonia) and guitarist Clifford Allen Garrett to fill out my compositions, on which I played keyboards and percussion. Stan LePard (composer for “Crimson Skies”) assisted with orchestration and Simon James conducted.

More than a decade after the release of “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance,” I remain very proud of the game and the soundtrack.

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April 25, 2012

FLYING WITHOUT A NET

While many people know me best as the composer for “MechWarrior 4,” “Rise of Nations,” “Rise of Legends” and “Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution,” creating music for epic video games has been just one of the paths I’ve explored throughout my career. One of my most unusual or daring projects was releasing a “computer rock” EP called “Hard Disk Drive” in the early 1980s.

Having toured extensively with a number of rock bands, I had reached a point where I wanted more stability and less drama in my life — and the ability to write and play music my own way. After many years of exploring and utilizing electronic synthesis, I felt it was time to really push the limits. Using a digital drum machine, three polyphonic synthesizers and various mixing facilities, I came up with a solo act that sounded like a four-piece band. It was the heyday of The Cars, Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby, so the style of the music I composed at that time fit right in with what was in vogue. But it was the method of delivery that baffled people.

In a Chicago Tribune feature story, entertainment writer Tom Popson commented, “Decker has achieved an absolute control over his musical material that would be impossible for anyone playing in a larger band.” Yet Popson added, “Club owners, accustomed to dealing with bands that consist of three or more players, often have viewed him with the same receptivity they would accord a landing party of saucer people.” I can laugh at that quote now, but yes, it was somewhat true.

Though the initial response was lukewarm, I played clubs around Chicago and the Midwest college circuit for more than two years, frequently billed as “Duane Decker, Computer Rocker.” I also got offers to join several established bands which were looking for a new keyboard player, but I had already been there and done that. Frankly, I was happier trying something new and a little wacky.

My equipment consisted of the latest technology at the time. I used two Oberheim OB-Xas, DMX drum machine, DSX sequencer, a Moog Taurus II, various effects, and sound reinforcement. The system was one of the first designed to stay in sync between each piece of gear. I programmed the drums and two or three instruments in the machines and played one or two live, as well as sang.

Computer RAM was very expensive at the time, so the instruments could only hold three to five songs in memory. Loading more songs entailed hooking everything up to a special data cassette machine and spending four or more minutes loading the next set of songs. In order to keep the show rolling, I played prerecorded music during these load times. Although I did explain what was going on to the audience, that process certainly went over the heads of many and contributed to the confusion of what was actually happening.

The musical part of this act was a dream come true. I could create and perform music that was totally my own. And I didn’t have to worry about the state of mind of my band mates, the egos, if they were going to show up for the gig, or a myriad of other things that are common in bands.

But there was certainly a tradeoff. When you perform as a band, you are only one part of the total sound. If you have a bad night or equipment fails, the sound engineer will simply bring you down in the mix. When you’re solo, it’s only you up there and you never know what will happen. It is similar to a trapeze artist, flying without a net. Your pants could split open at the seams one minute before the curtain goes up, your equipment decides to tell you “error in data” and refuse to load the next set, or the crowd is really there to see the headlining act and actually wants you off the stage. (All of which happened… LOL)

But I wouldn’t have changed a thing. This gig led to becoming a Product Specialist for Kurzweil and E-mu and way beyond.

In the big picture, go where your heart tells you. You will never be wrong.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Soundz magazine.

Web: http://www.duanedecker.com

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Duane-Decker-Music/111562938973298

YouTube:  “Take Me L.A.” from the Duane Decker “Hard Disk Drive” EP  http://youtu.be/mu6yaLgRZSc

April 19, 2012

THE ART AND SCIENCE OF MIXING

I recently received an email about mixing music. “How did you learn to mix music? And is it art or is it science?” The answer to the second question could fill a large college text book. But I’ll try to convey a quick overview.

How I learned about mixing:
Early in my career there were no schools that offered courses in mixing or sound production. If your primary focus was more about becoming an audio engineer, you could become an intern at a commercial recording studio (for no pay) and learn the craft from the studio owners and staff. Since that was not my primary focus, I read every book and trade paper on the subject and spent countless hours experimenting. I continue to learn with every new track I compose and produce. I also try my best to keep up with the latest software, technologies and audio trends.

Today, there are many colleges and universities that teach audio production in classrooms filled with the latest technology. Most also touch on the business side of investing in equipment and how to turn that investment into a profit. If you want to learn the basic art and science of mixing, these courses will save you a lot of time getting up to speed.

Technology vs. Art:
Mixing is a very technically oriented skill that requires a lot of knowledge. Knowing the technical side will allow you to craft a mix that will translate to almost any playback system and be transparent to the listener. By transparent, I mean that the mix should never upstage the music. A bad mix can be pretty obvious and detracts from the listener’s enjoyment of the music.

Have you ever heard music that just doesn’t sound right on whatever system you’re playing it on? The high frequencies are overbearing, the vocals are muffled or the low frequencies just sound like mud. Most likely, the mixing engineer didn’t take into account that the music was going to be played on a variety of different playback systems.

Or have you ever heard a piece of music where, all of a sudden, the solo instrument becomes overbearingly loud compared to the rest of the track? Loving that solo is no excuse for killing the rest of the song. You need to find a way to incorporate the solo seamlessly into the music so that it is a part of the whole musical thought.

Another aspect of the mixing process focuses on the style of music and its intended audience. Mixing a :30 second commercial for television is very different from recording/producing an orchestral soundtrack. And in my current job, I mix my music for slot machines that will be placed in very noisy casino environments alongside other machines that are vying for players’ attention. My colleague at IGT refers to this as “composing with a sledgehammer.” While you are imparting a particular feeling that supports the theme of the game, you are also constrained by what will actually be effective in that type of environment.

These are just a few points that illustrate that mixing is both an art and a science and can be very complex.

The Visual Analogy:
You can think of color correction in films being to visuals what an audio mix is to sound. In color correction, the viewer should be enjoying the story you are telling, not be confused or distracted by the background color changing from scene to scene. The same holds true with an audio mix. The mix should tell the story without detracting from the listening experience.

The Road Map:
There are technical questions that need to be asked before you decide on what direction to take a music mix. There are also subjective, artistic questions that come into play. Once you know your basic requirements, you will be much better prepared to make decisions about things like the relative mix between instruments, EQ, compression/limiting, effects processing, etc. Creating a final master recording requires that you know every audio tool at your disposal and how that will affect the final product.

This is the control room at Studio X in Seattle, WA where we recorded the live tracks for the “Rise Of Legends” soundtrack.

April 13, 2012

GOING MOBILE

This blog entry actually has nothing to do with iPhones or working from home and delivering content to an FTP site.  It’s about committing yourself to a lifestyle that accommodates your craft as a composer/musician.

My parents wanted me to become a plumber.  “No matter where you live, you’ll have a valuable skill,” they reasoned.  Although they had a valid point, I was stubborn enough to cling to the notion of making music my career.  But along the way, I learned that whether you want to perform in live shows or work as a composer, you have to go where the work is.  “Phoning it in” is definitely not an option.  You need to be face to face and create relationships with people.  Most often, people hire their friends.  They know that they can get along with you and trust that you will do an incredible job.  While it is possible, (I’ll cover my experience with Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution in another blog), those situations are very few and far between.

As a high school and college student, I thought I had it made, living in beautiful San Diego and having an abundance of places to play music, at frat parties, the military bases, nightclubs and so on.  While performing a solo act called Mr. Christopher, I was spotted by some members of a touring band called Madame Beast. When their keyboard player quit, they invited me to join them and I moved to Hollywood for this new adventure.  I’m sure that sounds glamorous, but we didn’t live in the nice part of Hollywood, and as much as L.A. is a mecca for people who want to make it in the entertainment industry, the competition there is cut-throat.  If you are used to being a big fish in a small pond, you’ll get a rude awakening when you move to someplace like L.A. with the thought of pursuing stardom.

My stint with Madame Beast, as well as the time I spent in other touring bands such as Reign and Lois Lane and my Duane Decker solo act,  took me all over the U.S. and Canada.  Some music scenes were better than others.  For every inspiring big-city gig, there were plenty of shows in not-so-great locations.

Later, working as a product specialist and clinician for various musical instrument manufacturers, I continued to tour the U.S., Canada and Europe.  Again, there were good times and bad times.  I particularly have fond memories of cities like Vancouver, Montreal, Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Cologne and of course, Chicago.  But what can I say about some stops in towns that were reminiscent of the cheesy Patrick Swayze movie “Roadhouse?”

Since college, I’ve played in every major city in the U.S. and Canada and had 12 permanent addresses on my driver’s license throughout 6 states.

My point is that in this business, as well as being open to new work opportunities, you really do need to be flexible and “go where the work is,” as my dad used to say.  I’ve made a lot of difficult choices, with the support of my family, to move frequently and landed in places that were not always my ideal destination.  I hope that young people aspiring to music careers will heed this advice and consider whether they have the drive, determination and the disposition to relocate not just once, but many times throughout the long haul that is defined by a professional music career.  You will be much better off by deciding what you are willing to sacrifice if you are honest with yourself up-front.

“Mr. Christopher” was my first solo act. I played piano, synthesizer (which I designed and co-built in college), drums and flute. I had support from a mind-bending light show created by Greg and Catherine Lloyd, Rex Reese, and a host of supporting cast members. The act was inspired by a college project in which I unexpectedly received an entire semester’s credit for performing one show. Photo courtesy of Greg Lloyd – http://www.greglloydstudios.com.

April 7, 2012

BATTLE AT WITCH CREEK

As a composer, you just never know which of your works of music will have staying power.  I did not expect “Battle At Witch Creek,” a simple piano piece that I composed for the “Rise of Nations” soundtrack (released in 2003) to have such lasting impact.  But many video game fans, music students and aspiring composers have asked for the sheet music or come up with their own interpretations of the piece — often with stunning results.  (The original: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iRz7tJ8M38.  The “Glewndack” version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BABGiL5y4lU&feature=related.  The “Shatteredr” version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjaPU1jrThg&feature=watch_response.)

“Rise of Nations” was developed by Big Huge Games and published by Microsoft Corp.  The soundtrack, released by Nile Rodgers’ Sumthing Else music label, was the first video game soundtrack available in full-surround sound (5.1) on DVD.  Composing and recording this music was truly memorable.  I worked with first-rate musicians from the Seattle-based Northwest Sinfonia, with the assistance of conductor Simon James. The sessions were recorded at Sound Lab Studio in Redmond, WA.

“Battle At Witch Creek” was also a nod to one of my former bands, which was called Witch Creek and based in San Diego.  While the band didn’t last a long time, it was a true creative experience that made a life long impression on all of us as well as a lot of people who saw our shows.

One thing that astounds me about the popularity of “Battle At Witch Creek” is that it took me very little time to write it.  I’m not going to call it a throwaway composition, yet it’s an example of a piece of music that came out of “going with the flow.”  Sometimes over thinking or spending too much time on a piece of music leads to nothing but frustration.  In my experience as a composer, I’ve made it a habit to write what I call a “sloppy copy,” based on whatever mood or vibe I’m feeling at the time.  You simply push the record button and play.  Let yourself go in whatever direction you’re feeling and don’t worry about wrong notes or poor timing.  The point is to capture the moment.  It’s helpful to then hit the save button and walk away.  Come back and revisit your work a day or two later, with fresh ears.  You can always tweak it to make it better, but the first rule is to go with the flow.

Witch Creek at a concert at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. From left to right: Mike Sterling - guitar, Rick Reed - bass, me on drums, Robb Lawrence - guitar, Gabriel Sakakeeny - keyboards. Photo courtesy of Robb Lawrence.

April 4, 2012

STAGE ANTICS

Style is never going to trump substance.  If you can’t really play an instrument or sing — without pitch correction — you might find success as a pop star but won’t earn respect from fans who demand musical integrity.  Even so, it doesn’t hurt to have a unique look or a gimmick that entices or excites prospective fans.

The Beatles, beyond being brilliant songwriters and performers, were a sensation with their “moptop” hairdos and matching suits.  The Who became as famous for their signature stage moves as for their bold music — Roger Daltrey’s windmill mike spins, Pete Townshend leaping into the air and smashing his guitars.

One of the musicians who inspired me to begin playing keyboards and especially synthesizers was Keith Emerson.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer, all top-notch musicians, also put on some bombastic shows, including a flying piano with Emerson’s bench spinning along with it.  I never managed to pull off anything quite that sophisticated, but yes, climbing onto keyboards, hanging onto the rafters, making dramatic leaps onto the stage (and hoping I wouldn’t miss), were crowd-pleasing occupational hazards that I was occasionally willing to undertake.

As well, the band Lois Lane had a drummer who set his kit on fire.  Crew members were always nearby with extinguishers.  But flaming drum kits are now frowned upon by fire marshals everywhere.  Another band called Chameleon, which played the same circuit, had a spinning drum kit a la Keith Emerson’s spinning piano.

Strangely, I later met Keith Emerson, under less glamorous circumstances.  It was at a NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convention.  At the time, I was a product specialist/clinician for Kurzweil Music Systems. Emerson was a friend of Dr. Robert Moog, who invited him to our booth for a demo.  I’ll cover more about working with Moog, the father of modern synthesis, in another post.  He was a great, down-to-earth guy.

The meeting with Emerson, however, was a bit of a disappointment. I didn’t find Emerson cordial or humble.  It’s tough to find out that some of your idols aren’t necessarily people you’d actually want to hang out with.

Nevertheless, all of these far-flung experiences kept me on the path to doing what I now love, composing music for a variety of media.  Albeit without the jumping onto stages and playing upside-down keyboard solos from the rafters.

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April 1, 2012

A LESSON FROM A FAMOUS FILM COMPOSER

It’s Easter Week, a time when Cecil B. DeMille’s epic 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments” always shows up on TV, captivating both old and new audiences.

In 2000, I had the immense pleasure of meeting Elmer Bernstein, who composed the musical score for “The Ten Commandments,” as well as “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Animal House,” “Airplane!” and “Stripes,” along with countless other cinematic classics.

At the time, Bernstein was conducting the Northwest Sinfonia at Music Works Northwest in Seattle, in conjunction with the making of “Keeping the Faith.”  Edward Norton directed this romantic comedy, as well as starring in it with Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman.  I was invited by music contractor Simon James to witness the recording session from the live recording room where the orchestra performed.  What a fantastic opportunity to watch and learn from one of the greatest film composers of all time.

During the session, Norton found a part in the score that didn’t sync properly with the picture.  Bernstein knew that the timing of his original score was mathematically correct, but something had happened along the way to throw it out of sync.  These situations do happen in recording sessions and it can be very stressful when the clock is ticking on a very expensive session like this.

After a few failed attempts at forcing a solution, Bernstein decided to give the orchestra a 10 minute break.  During this break, he sat down at the piano and rearranged the part so that it would sync to picture.  When the orchestra returned, he instructed the musicians how to change their parts.  The next take was spot on and Norton was ecstatic with the results.

Elmer was the consummate professional.  His cool demeanor and positive attitude put the players at ease and he quickly solved a problem that could have had severe consequences.  I learned a great lesson that day about being understanding and flexible, and will never forget the experience of witnessing the work of a musical master.

Links:

Elmer Bernstein – http://www.elmerbernstein.com/

Northwest Sinfonia – http://www.simonjamesmusic.com

Edward Norton – http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001570/

Ben Stiller – http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001774/

Jenna Elfman – http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001184/