Archive for June, 2012

June 24, 2012

PINBALL MUSIC REPLAY

Pop culture themes from movies and TV shows have been the basis for many pinball games, video games, and slot machines throughout the years. Many have been inspired by action heroes, sci-fi series and so on. Back in the ’90s, I spent a few years as in-house composer for Premier Technology, which made Gottlieb pinball games in the Chicago area and were sold worldwide.

Among my projects were “Barb Wire,” “Stargate,” “Water World,” “Freddy — A Nightmare on Elm Street” and more. The saying “less is more” definitely applied to writing music for this platform. My main instruments and tools during that timeframe were a massive change from the hardware heaven that I had become accustomed to while performing live.

Instead of carrying tons of equipment across the continent to perform at live shows, I was now working in a soundproof room on the second floor of a manufacturing facility in Bensenville, IL. I had a MIDI keyboard, a compact Mac with MOTU’s Performer software sequencer, a PC with some proprietary software, and the soundboard used in the games. The soundboard was only capable of generating six voices using FM synthesis, which I was never fond of because of its harsh sound quality. But it did seem to work well in the noisy atmosphere of arcades.

The company usually didn’t license any music from the films or TV shows. So I would try to gather as much information as I could, such as artwork or scripts, to get an idea of the game’s vibe. I would then create original music that supported the theme of the game and would also work in the arcade environment. Composing a soundtrack using an extremely limited sound palette was certainly the biggest challenge.

Recently, pinball seems to be making a comeback. Everything goes in cycles. People feel nostalgic for games they played in their youth, when life seemed more simple. Pinball museums have sprung up in cities including Seattle, Baltimore and Alameda, CA. I hope to visit one or more of them and relive a bit of the fun myself.

I’ve put together a montage of some of my pinball music and uploaded it to YouTube. Hope you enjoy it!

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June 9, 2012

ROCK NOW AND THEN

The star-studded “Rock of Ages” movie, set for release on June 15, should be a hoot, with its story about naive musicians and songwriters eager to make it in the music biz in bombastic ’80s Hollywood. The 2001 film “Rock Star,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston, also combined comedy, drama and music but was not completely a fantasy. While my former rock bands didn’t achieve the status of the fictional band Steel Dragon from “Rock Star,” there were eerie similarities about things that happened to derail entire bands’ careers or the careers of individual members.

Egotistical singers, flaky band members who chronically showed up late or drunk, sleazy business people who took advantage of us and so on. It’s a wonder that any of us survived. But if anything, it may be harder now to make it as musician and composer than it was before, because of the current dearth of live music venues. Decades ago, there were far more places for up-and-coming musicians to perform, it was cheaper to travel from one place to another and frankly, there were less distractions such as video games, the Internet and Facebook.

Yes, it’s crazy that I’ve composed a lot of music for video games and I am here on the Internet and Facebook, bemoaning the decline of the live music scene. But it’s true that people have lots more ways to spend their time, money and energy now, than in the ’70s or ’80s where touring bands could make a decent living and introduce their music to wide audiences.

But on the plus side, YouTube is bringing a lot of great old music — and new music, too — to fans or potential fans who would not have had the means to travel to Hollywood or Nashville or London to check out the classic recording artists or the “next big acts.” And summer festivals in cities and towns all over the U.S. and elsewhere, generally provide many opportunities to enjoy live music for free or cheap. Get out and support those hard-working live musicians when you can. And support their efforts on YouTube, too.

Vintage Lois Lane photo.

June 6, 2012

FROM GAMES TO GAMING

People who know my video game music have sometimes asked why I transitioned from making those types of games to working in the gaming industry. As any composer for games, TV or film will tell you (although they may not admit it out loud), being an independent composer can be a wild roller coaster ride. To be more blunt, it is a “feast or famine” career environment. Although I’ve had abundant success in the video game industry and continue to pursue freelance projects, I felt it was time for a bit more stability.

I now work full-time for IGT (International Game Technology), which is based in Reno, Nevada and is the largest manufacturer of slot machines in the world. Whether you’re in Vegas, Paris or Hong Kong, you’re going to find IGT games on the casino floor. While it may seem like an odd transition, games and gaming aren’t that different. Both thrive on technology, art and of course, music and audio.

The level of talented people I get to work with every day is incredible. There are always new projects coming up. In fact, I’ll be scoring and doing audio design for 10 games in the next 12 months. Although there is less content needed for a single slot machine than the typical AAA video game, I get to compose, arrange and produce a lot of music in styles ranging from pop/rock and jazz to zydeco and mariachi. I’m even up for a patent for a unique way to implement music in the games.

I feel very lucky to be part of a small group of composers who specialize in slots. I would guess that there are only about 50 to 75 of us who are doing this full-time, world-wide. Since it is a very specialized field and the projects are constant, there is much more job security with great pay and benefits. I have not found this in any other part of the entertainment industry. My co-workers tell me that I smile a lot — and they look pretty happy, too.

Here’s a short video that describes a “Day In The Life” at IGT, a place where creativity is truly valued and rewarded: