Archive for July, 2013

July 27, 2013

MUSTS FOR SUCCESSFUL MULTITASKING AS A COMPOSER/MUSICIAN

Throughout my career I’ve spent a lot of time looking for opportunities to compose music for a living and learned a whole lot on that journey.

I’m really thankful now to be constantly busy, doing work that I love — composing and playing music for a living. In my full-time job at IGT, I work on up to seven different casino games at a time. Although the deadlines are staggered, they all need my attention. And in my spare time, I work on freelance projects in other (non-competing) branches of the game industry, TV and film.

It’s great to have so many opportunities to create music and to exercise my creativity in a wide variety of musical styles. But it’s also quite a juggling act. From one day to the next, I’m pulled in different directions and need to focus on whatever task or deadline is critical at that juncture.

Over the years, I’ve established some work habits to keep myself on track, while also avoiding burnout.

• BE LIKE SANTA: “HE’S MAKING A LIST AND CHECKING IT TWICE …”
Put together a checklist or spreadsheet that clearly shows the milestones and deadlines for each of your works in progress. Then tackle the responsibilities in order of chronological urgency. This isn’t to say that you can never take a slight detour from one project to the next. Sometimes inspiration will strike at random and you’ll push the record button on some ideas for a project that isn’t due immediately. That’s fine, as long as you don’t ignore the deadline that looms largest. Missing deadlines is a sure way to convince your employer or client that you can’t be trusted to do your job.

• OR YOU COULD THINK OF IT AS “TRIAGE.”
When you seek treatment at a hospital’s Emergency Room, a triage nurse will assess your condition. If your illness or injury is relatively minor, you can wait a little longer than someone with a life-threatening trauma. You can apply this way of thinking to ranking your own priorities. Which of your job duties should demand most of your attention right now? Which job duties can wait until a bit later?

• ASK FOR FEEDBACK, EARLY IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS.
I mentioned having “milestones” for projects. For example, if you’re composing music for a game, you may be asked to deliver a first attempt at an opening theme by a certain date. The game producer will review that material and let you know if you’re proceeding in the right direction or are way off-base. The sooner you get this feedback or criticism, the sooner you know if you should continue with the style or vibe that you’ve created — or whether you should tweak it, or come up with something entirely new. Why waste other people’s time and energy, as well as your own, if you’re not clear about what works for the project?

• TAKE BREAKS.
You know the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Working non-stop and never resting is counterproductive. Work hard, of course, but be sure to set reasonable limits. Eating, sleeping, getting some physical exercise and also taking mental breaks are essential to your creativity and to preventing stupid mistakes. You’ll come back refreshed and renewed. And you’ll usually find that you have a clearer picture of what you need to do and are able to get it done faster.

• LEARN SOMETHING NEW.
With each project, there is a different twist or another skill that needs to be learned to pull it off. You might be surprised at how these new pieces of knowledge will help you with future projects. Push through that learning curve. As my mom always told me, “Never stop learning.”

• EACH PROJECT IS UNIQUE.
When you are working on multiple projects, one will inevitably bleed into another. Just like getting a song stuck in your head, you tend to gravitate toward that song in your work. But the project you are working on right this minute is unique. Listen to all the feedback you get and use it to create a fresh approach. Go outside of your comfort zone, explore genres that you were passionate about a long time ago or simply think through imaginative new ways of doing things. Anything is possible as long as it serves the needs of the project.

• DON’T BECOME A PARODY OF YOURSELF.
When you labor over one very specific skill set and/or style for a long time, you get really good at it. Watch seasoned, successful recording artists. Every time they come out on stage, they deliver a stellar show. But watching them the second night seems like a repeat of the first (which is why they make the big bucks). While this is perfect for live performances, it doesn’t work for composing. Embrace everything new, different or challenging. It will make you much more valuable to producers.

It’s pretty surprising to me that I am able to juggle so many projects at one time, but I think that diversity is the key. It keeps things fresh and always interesting. If you aspire to innovate, great things can happen to you as a composer. Just keep tabs on all those balls you are juggling to make sure they stay in the air.

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July 4, 2013

THE STUDIO UPGRADE

The lifeline of any composer is his or her studio. In a lot of cases, there is more than one place to be creative and work on projects. Composing is a lot about formulating the ideas before you ever start recording. For some, that part can be done almost anywhere – in a bedroom, in the park, on a beach, or even taking a drive. But I rely on keyboard and percussion controllers that interface with my digital audio workstations (DAW). That way I can always push the record button to capture my thoughts, even if they are a simple melody or chord progression.

DAWs are fairly common among composers in the game, television and film industries. And when you have a studio at your workplace and a studio at home, they both need to be compatible so that you can transfer files between the two.

My home studio was in desperate need of upgrading. While it had served me well for seven years, it was at the very end of its life cycle and was not compatible with my studio at IGT. So I started planning this upgrade almost a year ago.

As you can imagine, upgrading a music studio is not an inexpensive proposition. So I had to wait for freelance work to come in so that I could pay for the new gear. Thankfully, I got a contract to work on a small video game that is currently under development. I am under a non-disclosure agreement with the developer, so I can’t say more about the project at this point, except that it is going very well. You might hear some of my work if you attend the PAX game show in Seattle next month.

I based my home studio upgrade on what I like and dislike about my studio at IGT. That studio has current, state-of-the-art software and hardware that allows me to do my job quickly, efficiently and allows me to deliver high quality results. The one thing that is a minor annoyance (and has been for a very long time) is the displays. Despite having two LCD displays, I am constantly arranging all the windows. It is routine for me to have 6-10 windows open at one time, so I end up doing a lot of shuffling. That takes me out of the moment and has occasionally caused some good ideas to be lost.

My current, upgraded home studio solves that problem. I now have five display monitors running from my Mac Pro. My old Mac G5 is now a server and has a display of its own. While I still need to put things on top of each other from time to time, I can choose the windows that won’t interfere with the creative flow.

I love the way I can now access any information I need at a glance. This makes decisions and edits a lot faster now. So my home studio is current today, but with the speed of technology, it’ll need to be fed in another six months or so. But the major objectives have been accomplished. And the studio looks pretty darn cool now, too.

Studio 7-4-13