Archive for May, 2012

May 30, 2012

THE FIRST 5.1 GAME SOUNDTRACK

My soundtrack for “Rise Of Nations” was the first game soundtrack album to be released in 5.1 surround sound on DVD. While I’m proud to have pioneered a first-of-its-kind product, surround sound never achieved its full potential with the mass audience. The DVD came and went fairly quickly and copies are now very rare. But the interesting part of this saga was how it was composed, how it even got released and who was responsible.

“Rise Of Nations” was developed by Big Huge Games (BHG) and published by Microsoft Game Studios (MGS). I was the audio lead for the game while I was still working for MGS. The original idea BHG had for the soundtrack was to license authentic World music. As I started to research the genre, I realized that while it was authentic, it didn’t seem to fit into the game. Soundtracks need to support the story line. When you have such diverse and sometimes very odd sounding music, it tends to overshadow the story instead of providing support.

So I went out on a limb and put together some musical sketches to pitch to the team. I was thankful when I was given the green light to create an original soundtrack. It could then be a single vision that wrangled different elements from world, cinematic and contemporary musical genres that supported the story line. I was also fortunate to have been given a budget that allowed me to hire some outstanding musicians from the Northwest Sinfonia.

Because the game was to be released on Windows for PCs, I mixed and mastered the music in stereo. After I delivered all the files, I had a few weeks before starting my next project and decided to do a surround mix. I thought that MGS might be interested in releasing that version as downloadable files to help market the game.

As I was looking for allies in the company to pursue that, I was invited to a meeting with Nile Rodgers, who had been pursuing a partnership with MGS to release soundtracks on his label Sumthing Else Records. For those who are unfamiliar with Nile’s work, he was a founding member, along with Bernard Edwards, of the legendary disco/funk band Chic, probably best known for the tune “Le Freak.” After achieving fame, in his own right, as a guitarist and songwriter, Nile went on to produce hits for artists ranging from Madonna and Mick Jagger to Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, B-52s and many more.

So I went to this meeting and I could scarcely believe that I was sitting across from this Hall of Fame-caliber musician and producer, pitching the release of my “Rise of Nations” soundtrack. As my portion of the meeting was winding up and my hopes were dwindling, a co-worker piped in and said, “What do you think we should do about the surround mix?” That comment was like someone lighting firecrackers on the table. Nile’s first reaction was – “Now, that’s cool!” After a burst of creative brainstorming, Nile was ready to release the first game soundtrack to ever be released in 5.1 surround sound on DVD. He executive-produced the album, was always supportive throughout the process and continues to be a friend to this day.

When something has never been done, you have no template to guide you. So I researched what was possible and not possible and what would enable people to play the soundtrack on their existing audio systems. We finally decided that a standard DVD format would allow both stereo and 5.1 surround mixes to be included on the soundtrack. Any standard DVD player could be used to hear the music without forcing people to have a DVD audio player or a full-blown 5.1 surround speaker system.

As I said, the album was short-lived. But it was an experience that I’ll never forget because it speaks volumes about the creative spirit of everyone who was involved. The game, as well as soundtrack, found a very devoted fan base that is still vibrant to this day. If you do a search on YouTube for the “Rise Of Nations” soundtrack, you will find a lot of music and very positive comments from gamers who really feel a connection to both the game and the soundtrack. Huge thanks to Nile Rodgers for backing “Rise of Nations” and to the loyal listeners who’ve kept this soundtrack alive.

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May 24, 2012

ARE WE THERE YET?

With a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer ahead of us, I thought it would be fun to share some of my wackier stories about life on the road with various rock bands.  Although I’d already been making money as a live musician in and around the cities where I grew up, it wasn’t until after college that I got my first dose of being in a honest-to-goodness touring band.  It was a Los Angeles-based band called Madame Beast, formerly known as Gnarly Beast.  I guess the Madame part seemed more appropriate when the band added an attractive female singer named Leslie Lyon.

Over the course of a few years, Leslie became like the sister that I never had. And she and the rest of our band mates from Madame Beast bonded over a series of incidents that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.  I remember the night that we had a showcase at the famous nightclub Whisky-A-Go-Go, which was a very big deal.  Shortly before we went onstage, another band member’s mother said to me, “Now remember that this is your one shot at stardom.  Don’t blow it!”  Gee, no pressure!  Needless to say, my performance that night was not my best ever.

Another time, the Madame Beast equipment truck was totaled while most of us watched helplessly from the van that was trailing it.  But no one was hurt and we were actually able to salvage all of our equipment because everything was in road cases.  The PA cabinets had a few gaping holes in them, but we were able to play the gig that night.

This trip down memory lane wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the time the Madame Beast gang was standing on the balcony of a motel somewhere in the southeast US and spotted a gigantic funnel cloud coming our way.  “Uh … Is that a tornado?  What should we do?”  Well, of course, we just stood there and stared at it.

On another occasion, an over-eager reporter followed a Madame Beast band mate into a bathroom and stood outside the stall to interview him.  Awkward. I think that was the same article that got quoted by Playboy Magazine – “Then Decker jumped on top of his organ.  It was an exciting performance by an exciting group.”

But in all fairness, it wasn’t just Madame Beast that seemed to attract odd luck.

There was an incident while I was playing with Lois Lane where a roadie drove our equipment truck into a low bridge and seared the top off.  And yet another where a roadie attached a car to the equipment truck for a long trip.  But he didn’t disengage the transmission and we ended up watching the car smoke, sputter and die from the van we were following in.

And yes, I did get lost on the way to the stage one time.  But the guitar player never did a dramatic guitar solo on the floor of the stage, only to discover that he couldn’t get back to a standing position.  Those were scenes from the rock parody “This Is Spinal Tap.”  However, life as a touring rocker wasn’t 100 percent glamorous.  When I look back at all the mishaps or near-misses, I’m just thankful that I didn’t let them deter me from following my career goals.  It was all worth it because I learned a lot  — and met a lot of interesting people along the way.

Wherever you’re headed this holiday weekend, remember that getting there is half the fun!

Today, this would be on the TV show “What Not To Wear.” At the time, we thought we looked great. From left to right, me (keyboards and back-up vocals), Roger Nemour (guitar and bass) and Leslie Lyon (lead singer), the core members of Madame Beast.

May 18, 2012

THE BEST CLIENT I NEVER MET

“Sid Meier’s Civilization” was first released in 1991.  It was a turn-based strategy game, which turned into a highly successful series that continues today.  If you have ever played video games, or even just browsed the game section of your local store, you’ve probably seen, heard about, or played Civilization.

While working with Big Huge Games (BHG) on “Rise Of Legends,” I had a conversation with game designer Brian Reynolds.  He worked with Sid Meier before co-founding BHG and he mentioned that he had lunch with Sid and my name came up in the conversation.  Sid complimented my work on “Rise Of Nations.”  I was extremely flattered that Sid would call out the music as something that he really enjoyed.  Especially since the Civilization series is so well-known for its outstanding music scores.

A few years later, I received an e-mail from Barry Caudill who was producing a game at Firaxis, which is Sid Meier’s development studio.  The note said that Sid is a fan of my work and was wondering if I might be interested in scoring a new Civ game.  After recovering from the shock of having such a great opportunity appear out of nowhere, I responded saying that I would love to work with them on the project.  That project turned out to be “Civilization Revolution” (Civ Rev) which was the first game in the series that is designed for consoles and Apple’s iOS.

It turned out that the internal audio team at Firaxis was extremely busy working on “Civilization IV: Colonization,” which was set to be released at the same time as Civ Rev. So when Sid was faced with outsourcing the music, my name popped into his head.

The music implementation in the game was very unorthodox compared to any of the other games I had scored.  That wasn’t surprising, however, considering that the game would be released on multiple platforms, some of which had very limited memory resources.  I composed and produced a total of 108 music cues for the game.  The vast majority were short cues that could be strategically placed to reinforce the story line as you move throughout time from the Stone Age to the near future.  The handful of full length tracks were certainly a treat to create, since I was carrying on a legacy that was built over many years.

The oddest thing about the project, though, was the fact that I have never met Sid Meier or Barry Caudill in person.  In fact, I have never even talked to either of them on the phone.  Firaxis is located in Sparks, Maryland, which is outside of Baltimore.  At the time, my music production company, DDMusic LLC, was based in Woodinville, Washington, which is a suburb of Seattle.  So a 2,777-mile commute was not practical.

But it just worked!  Sid focused on designing both Civ games simultaneously.  And Barry and I were always in touch via e-mail.  I would upload my work to the FTP site, then Barry would run it past Sid to make sure that it worked within the context of the game.  Barry would then give me very clear feedback from Sid that would guide me through the completion of the project.  I think the important part to note here, though, is that Barry also has a deep musical history.  He is an outstanding sax player who also toured with the contemporary version of the “Glenn Miller Orchestra.”  There was definitely a lot of mutual musical respect going around between us throughout the project.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes the rules of how you get a gig are “more like guidelines.”  Give 100 percent to every project, no matter how big or how small, because your name is attached to it.  People will notice and remember your work, which leads to additional opportunities.  And the next time you’re waiting at the gate at the airport, peek over the shoulder of that person ahead of you, who is playing a game on his or her iPad.  It could very well be Civilization Revolution.

BTW – Does anyone know of any deals on flights to Baltimore?  I’d love to just walk into Firaxis one day and introduce myself…

May 13, 2012

CATALOG YOUR WORK

It’s a strange thing when you compose music for a living, although I suppose it’s the same in a lot of professions.  You find an inspiration, the spark ignites and you create something that means a lot (at least to you).  You then get side tracked by this thing called life.  While you have saved the file, the song fades into the background and is then forgotten.

But as Prince said in a song, “I’m here to tell ya…”

While doing some research for an upcoming blog, I came across a track that had long been forgotten.  I wrote and recorded it in 2009 and was obviously inspired by my passion for growling synthesizer lines.  Maybe that’s why I put it on the shelf.  Electronic music is not a popular genre these days and I probably felt that it didn’t sound current enough to release.

I can only assume that “Time Bleeds” was one of those flickers of inspiration that had a very short fuse.  Very intense, very heart felt, but something that I composed just for myself.  It meant a lot to me to hear it again, so it may resonate with others as well.  Although it may remain a track that only I feel connected to, you never know what the future holds.

My point is that you need to make sure that none of your work falls through the cracks.  No matter how many tracks you compose, regardless of whether you think the track will ever see the light of day, you need to catalog your work and register it so that it belongs to you.

It’s amazing how many tracks I’ve composed that have kept going way beyond what I had originally expected.  Even music that you think is not relevant in today’s market could tap into a culture or a vibe at some point.  But you will never know unless you try.

Organize your music and do the follow up.  You never know what might trigger (or retrigger) the next revolution in music.

May 4, 2012

MOOG & ME

Dr. Robert Moog, whose last name actually rhymes with “vogue,” is universally lauded as the father of musical synthesis. I’m honored to say that he was also a mentor and friend when I worked as a product specialist and clinician for Kurzweil Music Systems in the 1980s.

Bob’s most famous invention, the Moog Synthesizer, produced other-worldly or majestic sounds that have been utilized by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Electric Light Orchestra, Duran Duran and countless other recording artists.  I owned and toured with a modular Moog IIIC and other Moog products throughout my live music and composing careers.  From my view as a musician and composer, Bob’s genius can not be understated.

In a March 1997 interview with the online magazine Perfect Sound Forever, Dr. Moog was asked, “Were you worried that synthesizers would replace musicians/orchestras?”  Bob replied, “I was never worried that synthesizers would replace musicians. First of all, you have to be a musician in order to make music with a synthesizer. And second, I never thought that analog synthesizer sounds would ever be mistaken for traditional musical instrument sounds. To me the synthesizer was always a source of new sounds that musicians could use to expand the range of possibilities for making music.”

That was a brief but very accurate observation.  A synthesizer or any musical instrument does not play itself.  It is a tool with which a musician or composer can create and perform music.  There now are software products that emulate the sounds of orchestral instruments, as well as synthesizers, and I frequently use them to compose music, but the music does not compose itself.

Getting back to Bob Moog and his affiliation with Kurzweil, at the time I met him, he was Vice President for new product research.  When I joined the company, it was “jaw-droppingly” cool to be working alongside this legend.  He was extremely intelligent and gave very honest feedback when asked for his opinions on music or technology.

I specifically remember talking to him about an idea I had for a new piece of equipment.  Bob simply responded, “You can build anything you want, but that doesn’t mean you can sell it.”  That kind of honesty made me realize that Bob was truly passionate about his work and was willing to pass on his knowledge.

He also was a very congenial and approachable guy with a great sense of humor.  I did a brief tour with him to promote Kurzweil equipment and he would always go out of his way to talk to everyone who wanted to talk to him.  There were also a few company parties where we all cut loose.  Bob was not a wallflower and partied as hard as we did.  What a refreshing thing, to have known someone who was both a true innovator and such a humble and genuine person.  Thank you Bob!

Bob and me after a long day at the trade show.