Archive for ‘music’

November 21, 2015


Whisky marquee

I came across this picture of the marquee at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood and it reminded me of how people’s paths can cross over the years.

The story begins when I was still in college in San Diego, working part time as a live sound engineer at a concert club called Earth. The club was known for booking bands that were on their way up the charts.

The owner was helping a band that was being put together with some very talented and experienced musicians from Motown. They were pretty much guaranteed a record deal, but needed to bring the members together. They were going to rehearse at the club during off hours until they were ready to begin recording and touring.

One night, before their drummer arrived, they set up on stage and needed a drummer to fill in. The owner knew that I was a pretty good drummer and always carried my drum kit in my van. So I was invited to jam with the band that was to become Maxayn. It was a great experience for a college kid to play with such amazing musicians.

By the time I graduated from college, I was also playing keyboards and had designed and co-built my first synthesizer. After attempting to go it alone as a solo act, I joined the band Madame Beast as their keyboard player. We were based in Hollywood and toured the U.S. extensively, building a following that would appeal to record labels.

A couple of years in, we came back to Hollywood to do a showcase at the Whisky (as it was called then) for the record labels. Low and behold, we were sharing the billing with Maxayn. While we were both extremely busy focusing on our shows, I did drop by their dressing room for a minute. It was good to see them and I wished them a great set.

Several years passed and I had been in several different bands since then. My current band was Lois Lane. We were also touring to make a name for ourselves so that the record labels would sign us. By that time, the leader of the Maxayn group, Andre Lewis, was pioneering a new genre called techno-funk. He was playing as Mandré.

Unexpectedly, at an outdoor show somewhere in the prairie states, we shared the bill with Mandré. This meeting wasn’t quite what you might expect. And it was one of the few live shows that Andre ever performed as Mandré. Andre was dressed as a helmeted space man. (Note: Daft Punk wasn’t the first to be anonymous space men.) It was difficult to talk to him because of his helmet. But again, it was good to know that we were both still playing shows and exploring new music.

I eventually stopped playing in bands and returned to being a solo act. This time I was using the latest synthesizer technology. Because of the knowledge I acquired doing that, I then became a Product Specialist for synthesizer manufacturers Kurzweil Music Systems and then E-mu Systems. It’s uncanny that Andre became highly influential in synth and drum machine design for Roland around the same time.

While Andre and I were never best of friends, we shared a lot of the same passion for music and technology. It was always great to hear about Andre’s accomplishments and to remember that night that we shared a jam session at a place called Earth.

May you never forget the people you meet on your journey. You never know when you will cross paths with them again.

July 25, 2015


In the early 1980s, before I worked as a product specialist for synthesizer companies, I did a high-tech solo act that performed at night clubs and college campuses around Chicago and the Midwestern U.S.

The college circuit was actually pretty lucrative and it was a good way to get exposure for my original music around the time that I released a 4-song EP called “Hard Disk Drive.” But I certainly have some hilarious memories from that time in my career.

There was a rusty van that I used to haul equipment to the gigs in those days. It had no passenger seat, so I put an old armchair inside for the front seat passenger (my wife). The “roadies,” usually some friends or my wife’s cousins, would sit in the back, avoiding a hole in the floor. I don’t think that vehicle was officially considered road-worthy.

For the piece de resistance, the decrepit van frequently had engine trouble. If the engine was hard to start, I learned that sticking a broom handle into the carburetor would do the trick. But imagine my embarrassment when the van was parked in front of the administration building at some college in downstate Illinois and I had to open the hood of the van and stick the broom handle into the carburetor while the president of the college was standing there, gaping in disbelief. I’m sure that made quite an impression on him. The wrong impression!

Seriously, though, there were (and probably still are) some real advantages to performing on college campuses.

As I told a writer named Joe Ziemba, in a 1984 story in Chicago Soundz magazine, “The college circuit is a step in the right direction …because you get an immediate response, whether it be positive or negative. In a club, the response might not always be there and you don’t know if it’s you, the club or the indifference of the audience, which may just be there to get drunk or pick up somebody.”

Other good points of playing at colleges included the fact that many of the shows were scheduled during lunch hours or in the early evening. It was nice to finish a show, pack up and be on my way by 10 or 11 p.m. instead of going onstage at midnight. The college venues were usually cleaner and more luxurious than most night clubs, too.

In some of the smaller college towns, the students were appreciative to have some “big city” talent coming their way. In addition, many students welcomed the chance to help with unloading and loading equipment, to learn more about the music business.

Of course, professional conduct was expected when performing on college campuses. That meant showing up on time, dressing neatly, not using profanity or drinking alcohol in front of the audience. I worked with several booking agencies which were members of the National Association for Campus Activities and they wouldn’t tolerate “bad musician behavior” that would reflect poorly upon them.

While it’s been many years since I traveled the college circuit, I still remember the good, bad and just plain ridiculous moments. My high-tech solo act and the shows that I played during that timeframe were an important part of my journey to doing what I now love doing: working as a full-time composer.

Chicago Soundz Magazine

May 17, 2015


There IS a Cure for the Summertime Blues

“There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues,” says a rock anthem by Eddie Cochran, also famously recorded by Blue Cheer and The Who.

With the traditional school year wrapping up, many high school and college students will spend summer working at unexciting jobs or just being bored and restless. For aspiring musicians and composers, I’d like to offer some ways to get closer to your goals.

• START A GARAGE BAND. Once upon a time (all right, I’m dating myself), there were garage bands on every block. Not so much anymore. Engaging with other musicians in your neighborhood and doing a little jamming is fun, not to mention that friendly competition can motivate you to sharpen your skills.

• PRACTICE OUTDOORS. I can truthfully tell you that my parents never had to nag me to practice my drums. Music was my passion and they probably wished that I had been more passionate about pulling weeds or taking out the trash. But on nice days, who wants to practice indoors? I used to set up my drum kit in a canyon where I could play loudly AND experience the great weather and scenery. Naturally, if you plan to play an instrument outdoors, be considerate of the neighbors and local noise ordinances.

• CHECK OUT YOUR PARKS AND RECREATION DEPARTMENT. Many cities and towns have free or inexpensive summer music classes or workshops in community centers or teen centers.

• VOLUNTEER AT A MUSIC FESTIVAL OR MUSICAL THEATER. Working in the box office, ushering, selling refreshments, etc. can be opportunities to meet others who are interested in music, fulfill community service requirements for school or just take in some free entertainment.

Some are more realistic than others, but here are a few of my favorite movies that show the highs and lows of being a musician:

“A Hard Day’s Night” (rated G), “That Thing You Do!” (PG), “Drumline” (PG-13), “Ray” (PG-13), “Grace of My Heart” (R), “Almost Famous” (R), “The Blues Brothers” (R).

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry … You’ll hear some great soundtracks!

And although it’s not a movie “about musicians,” per se, “Fantasia 2000” (G) matches classical masterpieces, performed by the wonderful Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with gorgeous Disney animation. I especially recommend this film for anyone who is interested in scoring music for film.

Whatever you do, remember that summer doesn’t last very long.
Stay busy, stay positive and enjoy every moment.

In addition to playing my drums outdoors, I owned a surfboard when my family lived in Southern California. I didn't become a great surfer, but I'm glad I at least tried it. Make the most of your summer!

In addition to playing my drums outdoors, I owned a surfboard when my family lived in Southern California. I didn’t become a great surfer, but I’m glad I at least tried it. Make the most of your summer!

August 6, 2014


A former band-mate recently asked if I still had my huge modular Moog and stack of keyboards that I owned when we were playing in a band together decades ago. While the simple answer is no, there are logical reasons why not.

DuaneDeckerLiveShotLive performance setup – 1980

Back then, I was a live musician who would occasionally go into the studio to record songs. My main focus was playing live and giving audiences the most entertaining show possible. The fact that I carried over 1/2 ton of equipment to every gig was a part of the show. And believe me, despite all the work involved, it was a whole lot of fun.

Each keyboard had a unique sound. While it was possible to manipulate the sounds of each keyboard while on stage, there was not enough time between songs to make dramatic changes – especially with the Moog. There was no “save” button, everything was done manually. The main purpose of all this equipment was to perform live and entertain audiences wherever we went.


2014DDMStudio3Duane Decker Music Studio – 2014

Fast forward to today. I no longer play live. I am a full-time Music Composer and Sound Designer. Yes, people really do this for a living and I’m one of the fortunate ones who do. All of my work is done inside my recording studios. My requirements have changed dramatically and so have the technology and instruments that I use.

In order to compose, record and produce music and sound, I now use very powerful professional computer software. I have well over a terabyte of musical instruments and sound effects that allow me to create music and audio in any style. Everything is still performed and recorded in real-time. The main difference is that each part is performed using a keyboard controller and a percussion controller that trigger sampled instruments.

When budgets allow, I can bring in live musicians to record. I have even recorded a full orchestra at a commercial recording studio, then brought those recordings back to my studio to integrate them with my recordings in order to complete the finished product.

Current technology gives me complete control over every aspect of creation, production, delivery and archiving. If I need to call up an old recording session, it can be opened in a matter of seconds. Most new music you hear is produced this way.

I still love going to concerts and admire all of the talented musicians who play live. But my job as a composer and sound designer requires a very different set of tools.

May 17, 2014


It’s said that every picture tells a story.  Every t-shirt can tell a story, too, if you’re talking about my collection of souvenir shirts from my music career.

In a burst of spring cleaning last weekend, I found and opened a box that apparently had been sealed since my move from Chicago to Seattle more than 15 years ago.  Inside the box was an assortment of t-shirts from my stints with various rock bands and jobs as a music product specialist/clinician, as well as composer/sound designer jobs.

I’ve held onto these shirts, for several decades, not because I plan to wear them anymore but because they bring back great memories.  There are so many stories associated with these old shirts that I’ve decided to launch a weekly Facebook post called “Swag Sunday.”

You’ve probably heard of Throwback Thursday.  Swag Sunday is my take on that trend, using photos of  “swag” I’ve collected to share tales about the educational or sometimes outrageous experiences I’ve had in my musical journey.

To begin this series, here’s the lowdown on this very small mesh shirt that was presented to me by a fan at a nightclub called Mr. B’s in the college town of Ames, Iowa (USA).


This fan found out it was my birthday and gave me this shirt, with the words I PLAY WITH MY ORGAN, spelled out in red felt, as some sort of joke about the Hammond C3 organ that was part of my gear when I was in the band Lois Lane.

What can you say or do when someone you don’t even know hands you such a gift?  The only polite response was to accept it and say, “Hey, thanks!” That is what I did, even though I would never actually wear this shirt.

The same fan baked this birthday cake for me, in the shape of a keyboard stack, with plastic figures of The Beatles on top.  Needless to say, this was a very unexpected and slightly odd gesture.  But I was touched that someone (especially someone I didn’t personally know) would go to the effort to do this.


As you can see from this photo of the Lincoln Lodge, the motel where Lois Lane stayed when we performed in Ames, Iowa, it was not a glamorous gig.


Yet after finding this long-lost, crazy shirt, I can smile at the memory of that night.  And I’m grateful that I’ve had opportunities to travel to so many places, meet so many people and entertain them with my music.


Also, reflecting on that particular gig at Mr. B’s, here’s a photo showing the actual shirt that I wore onstage that night.  In retrospect, it looked like a costume from “Star Trek!”


Check out my Facebook page on Sundays for more great swag and the stories behind them!


April 28, 2014


“How do I become a composer?” is a question that is often sent to me by young people who would like to make a living at creating music.  I am honored that these aspiring composers look to me for advice, but there is no easy answer to this question.  There are no magical shortcuts to achieving success as a composer.

So let’s begin at the very beginning: Study the basics of music in school.  Regardless of the instrument(s) you play, the more you play, the more you will understand and appreciate the complexity of musical composition.

And know that there is a good reason why your teachers select a number of very old,  classical compositions for your school band or orchestra to perform, along with the occasional fun, contemporary themes from a Disney movie or a video game.  The creators of those movie and game themes learned from the “old masters,” too.

For music students, aspiring composers, or for anyone who enjoys film scores, I highly recommend CDs from the Varese Sarabande catalog:

Varese Sarabande is a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in film and TV scores and soundtracks.  I had the great fortune of working with record producer Robert Townson, the fearless leader of Varese Sarabande, when his label released my “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance” video game soundtrack in the year 2000.

And I’ve listened to, and learned from, many of Varese Sarabande’s compilation CDs saluting great film composers.  Just yesterday, in fact, I listened to “Themes from ‘The Phantom Menace’ and Other Film Hits,” a Varese Sarabande release from 1999.

The liner notes for this CD, written by Paul Tonks, explained that the summer of 1999 was epic at the box office, thanks to a number of blockbuster films that remain popular to this day.

The CD opens with music written by John Williams for “Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace.”  It also features memorable compositions from “The Mummy” (Jerry Goldsmith), “The Wild, Wild West” (Elmer Bernstein),  “The Matrix” (Don Davis),  “The Sixth Sense” (James Newton Howard) and more.

Tonks concluded in his liner notes, “It’s intriguing to note that at the dawn of the new millennium, even Hollywood realizes that what’s new is not necessarily better and what’s young is not necessarily fresh.”

He went on to say that a “triumvirate of veteran composers” (Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and John Williams) were responsible for a bumper crop of the best-known movie themes over a course of several decades.

An up-and-coming composer might view such comments as discouraging:  “If the same old guys score all the films, where is there room for me in this business?”   But stubbornness and a passion to create new music will help you to push past those obstacles and to make your mark as a musician or composer.

Here’s an interesting article about Robert Townson and his role at Varese Sarabande:

And if your budget prevents you from purchasing CDs of film and TV soundtracks, check to see what’s available at your  local public library.  Most have excellent collections of  music CDs that you can borrow and use for inspiration.

Robert Townson 2000Robert Townson at the “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance” mastering session for my original soundtrack CD on the Varese Sarabande record label.

April 9, 2014


This week, I watched a great documentary on PBS, “The Dave Clark Five and Beyond — Glad All Over.”  It renewed my appreciation for the Dave Clark Five, a band that in many ways rivaled The Beatles in the days of music’s so-called British Invasion.  I also learned lots that I hadn’t known before, about the Dave Clark Five and especially Dave Clark himself.

The program featured insights from other hugely successful pop/rock artists, such as Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Elton John.  In just the first few minutes of the show, Ozzy Osbourne remarked that Dave Clark “made drumming look sexy!” and Bruce Springsteen gushed about the Dave Clark Five’s “big, nasty-sounding records.”  Of course, Springsteen meant that the group’s sound was big and nasty in the best possible way.

While The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were guitar-driven bands, the Dave Clark Five prominently featured a keyboardist and a sax player.   Plus, it was very unique to see a rock band with the drummer as its front man.   Dave Clark often set up his drums in front of the other band members or had them stand off to the sides, putting himself in plain view of the audience.

Yet in the Dave Clark Five, the keyboard player, Mike Smith, was no slouch either.  In fact, he was the group’s lead singer.

Having been a drummer for many years, before I began playing keyboards, watching this “Glad All Over” documentary gave me somewhat of an “A-ha!” moment.  The guitar players often got more of the glory, but now I don’t feel so bad.

Last but not least, the program highlighted Dave Clark’s prowess as a manager, on both the musical and business levels.   Clark made a wise decision to cut back on touring in the U.S. when the fun of being on the road — or even traveling on the band’s private plane, the DC5 — started to fade away.  However, the Dave Clark Five remained a major force in the U.K. and elsewhere overseas, for several years after the group stopped touring America.

More importantly, Clark had the smarts to hang onto his master recordings and publishing rights, when so many other artists (Paul Mc Cartney included) knew nothing about the business side of music and lived to regret their lack of involvement in such decisions.  And by the way, Dave Clark also directed and produced the documentary “The Dave Clark Five and Beyond — Glad All Over.”

All in all, watching this program on PBS was a real eye-opener.  It was much more than just an entertaining trip down memory lane.  Young musicians today could still learn a lot from what bands like the Dave Clark Five accomplished decades ago and why Clark’s business decisions, as well as the group’s hits, are still so impressive.


March 9, 2014


The nature of composing music requires that you are able to focus on creating something that is never seen, touched or tasted — only heard. The results of your work impart emotions that can touch people around the world. While there is a technical side to the craft, the process of baring your soul to create music is a very solitary process.

As such, a lot of composers tend to be people who “fly under the radar” and let their music do the talking. They don’t seek to be in front of the audience constantly, relentlessly promoting themselves within the industry. But that can cause them to miss opportunities.

One way to overcome this dilemma is the internet. Social media is a great way to reach out to fans and communicate on a more personal level. I have found that this blog, Facebook and YouTube are all excellent ways to reach out, as well as gain exposure.

But having your own personal web site imparts that you are a professional and that companies can rely on you to deliver professional material. You create a brand that people can relate to and can find if they Google your name.

A composer web site should contain all the pertinent information that both companies and fans are looking for. The old journalists’ saying, “Tell who, what, when, where, why,” is a good reference as to what your web site should contain.

Your welcome page needs to introduce you in a very visual way. It usually shows a singular image of your brand and has links to other pages on your site. If you have stirred the curiosity of the reader, they will start clicking on those links to gather more information. But be sure to categorize links so that the reader can see or hear what they want, quickly and easily.

Links should include:
“About” — Offers readers insight into who you are and what you do. This includes a bio, credits, your company information, references, reviews, etc.
“Studios” — Shows how and where you work and the equipment you use.
“Demos” — Provides visitors a place to hear the music you’ve done.
“Contact” — Makes it simple for visitors to contact you directly, as well as click on links to your social media pages.

You can hire a professional web designer for great results, or there are web hosting services that provide templates for you to design your own site. Be aware that designing your own site is less expensive and you can update information yourself at any time, but it is very time consuming to do this well. If you take this route, I would recommend learning some basic HTML coding to allow you to customize your site.

Obviously, be totally honest about your accomplishments. While you may think that embellishing your resume would get you more work, quite the opposite is true. Clients and employers will not hire someone who can’t be trusted to tell the truth.

While I have never gotten a job directly from my web site alone, it has influenced clients and employers to hire me. When they research me by doing a Google search on my name, there is no doubt that I am who I say I am.

If you are a composer and do not yet have a web site, think about creating one. While it doesn’t replace personal contact and relationships, it can provide great exposure and possibly help you land your next job.

March 2, 2014


Tonight is Oscar night and people all over the world will be glued to their TV screens to see what the movie stars are wearing and who’ll take home the coveted Academy Awards.  But is anyone dying to know what Thomas Newman will wear?

Newman is one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Original Score, for the film “Saving Mr. Banks.”  Also nominated for Best Original Score are John Williams (“The Book Thief”), Steven Price (“Gravity”) Alexandre Desplat (“Philomena”), and William Butler and Owen Pallett (“Her”).

Film composers aren’t the most glamorous or visible celebrities at the Oscars.   Yet they play a critical role in setting and sustaining the mood of a great film.

In a completely unscientific survey, my wife asked some friends and family members to name movies that were especially memorable because of their original scores.  What famous film music excited or moved them and stuck in their minds after they finished watching these movies?

Not surprisingly, “Home Alone” was mentioned by more than one person.
The legendary John Williams composed the original score for “Home Alone” and I’ll speak more about this music in a moment.

“Ben-Hur” (with an original score by Miklos Rozsa) also received multiple mentions.

A few additional movies and composers named in this informal survey were “Braveheart” (James Horner), “Rob Roy” (Carter Burwell), “Rudy” (Jerry Goldsmith), “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (Ennio Morricone), “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (Danny Elfman), “Somewhere In Time” (John Barry), “Amelie” (Yann Tierson), “Polar Express” (Alan Silvestri), Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (Nino Rota), “The Last of The Mohicans” (Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman), “King of Kings” (the aforementioned Miklos Rosza) and “Vertigo” (Bernard Herrmann).

Each of the people who responded to this question obviously had his or her own reasons for loving certain films and the music from those films.  But their enjoyment of these movies — and the lasting impressions that these movies made upon them — were undoubtedly influenced by the music that propelled the action and/or captured the emotions within the story.

Getting back to the subject of “Home Alone,” my wife’s niece found this quote from Wikipedia to go along with her nomination:

Home Alone is the soundtrack of the 1990 film of the same name. The score was composed by John Williams and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score; the film’s signature tune “Somewhere in my Memory” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media.
“Somewhere in my Memory” was actually written to “run alongside the film” by Williams.[citation needed] It can be heard in numerous sections of the film, either in full length or fragments, forming the backbone for the film’s soundtrack. “Somewhere in my Memory” is performed in many Christmas concerts in schools or professional orchestras and choirs alike across the globe.[citation needed]

It is common for successful film composers to use a main theme as the backbone for a film’s soundtrack, slightly altering the tempo, key or arrangement to coincide with what is happening in a particular scene.  That theme is what often runs through your mind, long after the movie had ended.

One of the strongest impressions that instrumental music can make on a person is when it is heard while watching a story unfold on the screen. Our minds process the visual presentation and events in the story, while our hearts react to the emotions that the music score imparts. When a great story, acting, cinematography and music score combine, it is long remembered in our hearts and minds and worthy of an Oscar.

Now let’s find out who the Academy has chosen for its highest musical honors.


February 5, 2014


It was announced this week that the popular TV series “Dancing With the Stars” has severed its ties with Harold Wheeler and his orchestra.  When the show returns in March, this 28-member group of musicians and singers, which has been part of the show since its inception, won’t be in the ballroom.

I was very disappointed to hear this.  I thought that Wheeler and his orchestra always did a stellar job with a wide range of musical styles, supplying the punch and the goosebumps that only a live “big band” can provide, even in spite of a tight schedule.

It takes real talent and professionalism to pull that off, but it’s rumored that “DWTS” will now be using recorded music and/or a small electronic ensemble to appeal to a younger audience.

As USA Today reported on Feb. 5, “In a September interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Dancing executive producer Conrad Green noted that recorded music sometimes makes more sense. ‘We feel that there are some types of music and types of songs, a lot of modern music particularly, is so produced that it’s impossible for an 28-piece band to replicate that sound,’ Green said. ‘You get to a point where you’re forcing a band to try and do sound that they just literally can’t pull off.’”

I beg to differ.  I have always thought that Wheeler’s musicians and singers were exceptional in their ability to recreate the show’s music in ways that were admittedly slightly different than the original recordings — but always fresh and exciting.

According to  USA Today, Ray Hair, the president of the American Federation of Musicians, responded to Conrad Green’s statements as follows: “People who love ‘Dancing With the Stars’ also love the superb performances of the orchestra because it is such an integral part of the show … The tight, elaborate musical productions that catapulted the show into the top 10 in 17 countries can’t be duplicated by recordings and a small combo. Viewers, whether they are young or old, will reject that as artistic fraud.”

I honestly don’t know how the majority of viewers will react to the changes to the music on “Dancing With The Stars.”  Personally, I view this move as a sad example of “the dumbing down of the arts.”

Although I currently don’t perform live and I do use electronic instruments to create a lot of music, I think it is important to support live music and to educate younger generations about the value of studying music — and the goal of performing with the level of artistry and enthusiasm with which Harold Wheeler and his orchestra have done on “Dancing With The Stars.”

I’ve mentioned before, in my blog, that I have not-so-fond memories of the disco era, not because some of the disco bands were not talented, but because the prevalence of disco music forced many live music venues to stop hiring live bands.  That directly affected my livelihood and my morale, in those days when I’d been used to playing live five or six nights a week.

What do you think about the “Dancing With The Stars” producers’ decision to replace Harold Wheeler and his orchestra?  Does it bother you or do you see it as a non-issue?

I realize that change is inevitable, but this seems incredibly short-sighted. “DWTS” is removing one of the key elements of the show’s success. To me, that’s a clear indication that we, as a society, continue to devalue the emotional power of music and live music performance.