Archive for ‘music’

October 13, 2013

MUSIC THAT TRANSLATES

As a musician, you start out by learning and conquering a musical style. You spend countless hours practicing and you make that style your soul purpose. As musicians, we all start that way and a lot of us continue with the goal of being the best in that certain style.

I started out that way, as well. But throughout my career, I found that heading off in different musical directions was both challenging and inspiring. Buying a new piece of gear can shed a new light and excitement on your musical experience. But shifting into a musical style that you have never attempted before can do the same thing.

When I started as a full-time composer and sound designer in the game industry, I was forced out of my musical comfort zones. Each game had its own direction and requirements. As I started to accept those challenges, I also started to really enjoy the diversity.

It was then that I realized how important it was to be able to compose in a wide variety of styles if I wanted to continue being a professional composer. Despite some success with various games, change was inevitable and I needed to widen the palette of music that I had to offer.

In my current full-time gig as composer/sound designer at IGT, I get to apply that diversity all the time. The games are distributed around the world and many are market-attuned to address regional customs. The video below contains clips from several IGT games I’ve scored, with a wide range of styles including electronic, cartoons, orchestral, South American, African, Chinese and Island. All of them are written to satisfy the requirements of being in a casino environment, but each has its own style.

What is surprising is how many games have been embraced around the world, not just in the targeted region and for the specific style of the music. It only goes to show that music is a universal language and can translate to a positive experience for anyone.

September 21, 2013

THE BEEF SONG

Years ago, when United Airlines began running a number of advertisements featuring music from George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a lot of people began referring to this classic composition as “The United Airlines Song.”

Similarly, Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” piece from “Rodeo” became widely known as “The Beef Song,” due to its inclusion in “Beef … It’s What for Dinner!” commercials.  Elmer Bernstein’s theme from the Western movie “The Magnificent Seven” has been referred to as “The Marlboro Song.”  And recently, I’ve heard people calling “Sexy People” (recorded by Arianna featuring Pitbull) “The Fiat Song.” It is said to contain portions of the Italian song called “Torna a Surriento” composed in 1902 by Ernesto De Curtis.

I’m not putting Pitbull in the same category as Gershwin, Copland or Elmer Bernstein, but my point is that licensed music on TV commercials often ends up being associated with that product rather than the person or persons who created or performed the music.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  That, of course, depends on your point of view.  If you’re a music teacher or someone who appreciates fine music, it can be shocking or upsetting to realize that many consumers have no real knowledge of the significance of the music or the composer.

For the composer, if he or she is still alive and aware of the misunderstanding, it can probably be offensive or else simply regarded with mild amusement.  Keep in mind that when a major company licenses the use of music in its commercials, the composer (or his/her estate) does make a lot of money.

I remember being very surprised — and turned off — the first time I heard Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” featured on a Cadillac commercial.  As a kid, or young adult, I thought of Cadillacs as cars that rich old men drove.  Thus, how could Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “sell out” and allow this music to be used for such a purpose?  Or as Jack Black’s character in “School of Rock” might protest, “What happened to stickin’ it to the man?”

Presently, I would be lying if I told you that I wouldn’t be thrilled if one of my compositions got picked up for use on a major ad campaign.  It could enhance my reputation and yes, it could be lucrative.  I suppose that my attitude toward the situation would also depend on the type of product that was being advertised.  Would I want my name and my image to be aligned with that product?

I don’t work in the advertising industry and don’t know exactly why specific pieces of music are selected to represent certain products.  In the cases I mentioned above, I can take some guesses.

United Airlines has a blue logo and it wants your flying experience to be rhapsodic, rapturous, exhilarating.  Beef production and consumption are associated with cowboys, the Wild West, bountiful living.  The Marlboro Man, the symbol of Marlboro Cigarettes when cigarette ads were still allowed on TV, was a rugged cowboy.  Fiat and Cadillac want you to believe that the people who drive their cars are sexy and cool.

The next time you hear a catchy pop song or a piece of classical music on a TV commercial for a car, a hamburger, a bank or any other product or service, do me a favor.  Stop to think about why you like or dislike the music and why you think it was chosen to sell or promote that product.  Then, last but not least, take the time to look up the name of the composer and learn something about him or her.

September 11, 2013

VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS

DDMLLC Studio 2013

I love working with live musicians in the studio. Their performances really bring music to life. Unfortunately, it is very costly. Only the big projects have budgets large enough to cover those expenses. So a lot of the music that I compose and produce for games, television and film utilizes virtual instruments. Like the name implies, virtual instruments are digital recreations of musical instruments that are played utilizing a computer.

The photo above shows my home studio. It is a state-of-the-art, one-person recording studio using computer technology, that allows me to compose and produce professional quality music. It consists of a well-equipped Mac Pro, five flat screen monitors, a 5.1 speaker system, audio and MIDI interfaces, keyboard controller, drum controller, mix controller, high-end music and sound design specific software and over a terabyte library of virtual musical instruments and sound effects. It was decades in the making and took several generations of technology to evolve into what it is today.

While anyone can walk into a music store and call up a cool patch on a synthesizer, there is a lot more to composing with virtual instruments than pressing a button. No matter what type of controller you use, each instrument has its own character and specific uses. Learning how to utilize the technology to create a musical experience, knowing how to play each instrument and how to create a cohesive ensemble is paramount.

Like most current composers for media, I start out writing the music as an electronically-realized score using virtual instruments. This technique allows for unlimited trial and error experimentation that’s just not possible using pen and paper or making changes on the fly in a commercial recording studio. It saves a lot of time and money because I can create demos for a producer, director, game designer, etc. that are accurate representations of what the final music will sound like. I can also work without worrying about the hourly rate of a commercial facility, which can quickly kill creativity.

If budget allows, these virtual tracks are then transcribed into sheet music for each of the live session players, in addition to the full scores for the conductor and session producers. A commercial recording studio is normally used to record all of the live players because they are best equipped for live tracking sessions. Those tracks are then mixed down to the desired format (stereo, surround, etc.). That mix is then mastered into its final delivery state for the specific media format. I have always mixed and mastered in my own studio because I know the equipment and sound characteristics of the room.

If the budget is small, then all of the processes are completed in a computer workstation using virtual instruments.

As with most things associated with the technologically savvy world we live in, composers are faced with learning and being an expert at a myriad of skills. We now routinely fill all the roles that were once segmented. These include composer, arranger, musician, orchestrator, technologist, studio owner, recording engineer, mix engineer, mastering engineer, as well as handling the business, marketing, finance, and the people skills required to please the client.

And as with any career worthy of your time and passion, it takes a very long time to master these skills— and the practice and learning never stops. There is always something else that will challenge you and inspire you to keep going. From my perspective, it’s all worth it!

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

May 11, 2013

COUNTERPOINT (THANK YOU, ENNIO MORRICONE!)

I composed a new piece of music for an upcoming IGT game this past week, that is quite different from anything else I have done for a slot machine. It is rare to use electronic instruments, but the producer and game designer feel strongly that a modern dance mix style would work well in this game and we should push the envelope. So I started experimenting with my synthesizers to come up with a track that conveys that vibe.

The drums in this music style are very simple, yet infectious. There must be something primal in human beings, causing a simple, pulsing beat to get them up on their feet and dancing when hearing it. So the drums are a very simple, repeating pattern.

Electronic dance music also relies heavily on arpeggios. This is a musical term that refers to individual notes making up a chord, rather than all the notes being played at one time. Modern synthesizers often have arpeggiators that will automatically arpeggiate chords played on the keyboard. More sophisticated arpeggiators will also allow for extensive control over the timbre of the sound. So if the composer is locked into a very specific tempo and a repeating pattern of notes, the thing that will make the song interesting then, is the chord progression.

My first layer of arpeggios was actually composed on a piano so that I could hear the basic chord progression. That chord progression was then transferred into an arpeggiator, which then automated the rhythm and timbre of the notes.

As I added more arpeggiated tracks, the challenging part was in creating music that has interesting musical counterpoint. Counterpoint in music is when there is more than one melody being played at the same time. These different melodies play off of each other and combine to create a whole, seamless piece of music.

As I always do, once I have a good demo of the direction that I’m taking with a piece of music, I call in the producer and game designer to get their feedback. That way I’m not wasting time. After they heard this piece, the producer turned to me and apologized for not knowing the musical terminology, but she didn’t care for the “tinkly” sound. Despite the description, I knew exactly which layer she was talking about. I disabled that layer and played it again. This time she loved it and they both gave me the green light to finish the piece and put it into the game.

That fifth layer of counterpoint was the only issue she had with the piece. And that made me start wondering how many layers of counterpoint can be played before it becomes confusing to the listener.

As it so happens, my family just watched the 1987 film version of “The Untouchables,” which features an outstanding music score by Ennio Morricone. There is a scene toward the end of the movie where United States Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) is chasing Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, a henchman for the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone. The music in this film sequence is very intense and it uses counterpoint to convey those emotions. When the movie was over, I listened to that music again. It contains four layers of melody and rhythm— just like my piece when I removed that fifth layer.

So I’m thinking that four layers of counterpoint is the magic number that the brain can understand, without being overwhelmed or confused. Thank you, Ennio Morricone, for not only a great movie soundtrack, but for also teaching me another lesson in music.

And by the way, if you are interested in learning more about Ennio Morricone, he also was famous for scoring several of Clint Eastwood’s “Spaghetti Westerns” such as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

Here is a YouTube clip from “The Untouchables” to which I am referring:

May 5, 2013

1st PASS THEMES

As the projects get bigger, the budgets expand and more people’s jobs are on the line, you jump through more hoops as a composer. That’s not necessarily bad. It just means that the iterative process becomes longer.

When I was hired to create the music score for Rise Of Legends (ROL), I had already proven my composing and producing skills on many other games. This game had the fortunate circumstance of having a big budget for the music score. While I did have a budget for live musicians on Rise Of Nations, it was not big enough to hire live recording session musicians for every part. But as you gain more experience, people tend to gain trust in your abilities.

When you get to the point of managing a large music budget, there are lots of checks and balances that go along with it, every step of the way. So in ROL, I didn’t just start composing full-length music cues. I was presented with a rough script and concept art that depicted the direction the game was going. I was then asked to come up with a number of short themes that might support that direction.

This can be a double-edged sword for a composer, or any other creative person. On the plus side, you have an opportunity to come up with a lot of ideas in a short format that might work in the project and actually help steer its direction. And when the creative spark hits other team members in the project, great things can happen. But the down side is that the creative flow is interrupted. Composing is often a matter of following your gut emotions and interpreting them in musical form. Those emotions can be lost if you stop, then go back to finish the piece that you started weeks or months ago.

While researching this blog, I took a listen to the initial themes that I came up with for ROL. It was interesting to hear that one actually made it into the game as written. The rest of these themes were used as a starting point to create music cues that ended up in the game. There are other short themes out of the original 15 that were never used because the emotional connection to that feeling had passed and couldn’t be restored.

But you never know when listening to those short cues which ideas might reignite a fire in the future. Always press that “record” button. Always save those files. Because you never know when they will inspire you to finish your original thought.

This YouTube video is a montage of my favorite short themes that I created electronically for ROL in my studio in Woodinville, WA.

April 28, 2013

EVERYONE HAS AN OPINION

If you plan to make a living as a musician and/or composer, I’ve got some quick advice for you. Get used to criticism, but don’t let it deter you.

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of opinions for or against my music. One of the greatest or funniest comments of all time: “I’ve always wondered who wrote that awful music!”

This statement was actually made by a realtor who was touring one of my homes in the Chicago area. She spotted my music studio and asked me what I did for a living. At the time, I was composing music for Gottlieb pinball games at Premier Technology in Bensenville, Illinois. I explained what I did for a living and thus, the infamous and ignorant comment, “I’ve always wondered who wrote that awful music!” Needless to say, that realtor did not get the listing to sell my house.

How many times have I been criticized or ridiculed? In the course of my career, way too many times to recall them all. I do remember being “booed” by a bunch of obnoxious drunks in a bar called The Gridiron in Crown Point, Indiana because I apologetically explained that I did not know how to play “Jingle Bell Rock” at a gig shortly before Christmas. This led to “My grandmother can play better than you!” and other choice comments that can not be published here, because they are too offensive. That was a long gig.

I remember people giving me advice about what kind of equipment to buy, what to wear onstage, etc. Oh, yeah, according to a past band leader and band manager, I shouldn’t have worn my wedding ring onstage because I was supposed to appear “available” to female fans. That same band leader and manager told me I’d never work again after I left that band. Oops, where are they now?

More recently, an old friend, upon hearing that I now compose music for casino games, said, “What a horrible job. You just make noises all day? How do they pay you? With tokens?” I told the person that I love my job at IGT and changed the subject.

I know that the vast majority of people in this world do not intentionally mean to cause harm when they talk. It could be that they have a strange sense of humor, are totally drunk, or they are simply incapable of filtering anything that comes out of their mouths. My way of dealing with this kind of criticism is to shake my head, roll my eyes and have a good laugh. I don’t take it personally.

All that said, there are also times when constructive criticism can be very positive. This is particularly true when working with a team, which I do all the time for games. Music is a very subjective thing and there are a lot of people who need to be pleased with the results. These include the producers, game designers, studio directors, sales force, buyers and ultimately, the players. So I always listen to what people are saying. Sometimes, that means taking the music in a totally different direction than I would have gone on my own. But more often than not, those voices have helped make a better game.

Unless you are creating music only for yourself and no one else will ever hear it, get used to criticism in one form or another. That’s just part of being creative and especially in music. The most outrageous comments will eventually make you laugh, even though they may not be pleasant at the time. The constructive comments will help to create more successful projects. Never let it get to you. Simply enjoy music as the universal language and celebrate your part in it.

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March 10, 2013

BEHIND-THE-SCENES MUSIC

We are exposed to music every day in the media and it’s easy to forget that people actually work very hard behind the scenes to bring us entertaining content. These people never receive standing ovations for their work — and outside of a few in the industry, no one knows or cares who they are.

In the mid-1990s, I started composing music for production music libraries. Production music libraries have large catalogs of music that are available to license in television and film productions. When music is needed, and the production doesn’t have a full-time composer or music staff, TV or film producers search through these libraries to find the right music cues for the project. Once they find the right piece of music, they pay a licensing fee to use it in the project. The publisher and composer normally split the profits from licensing.

Since I started this venture, my production music has been placed in over 150 television episodes, specials and films. Most projects are produced and broadcast in the U.S. A large number are then syndicated around the world.

Performing Rights Organizations, such as ASCAP, of which I am a member, collect royalties from broadcasters when the music appears on these televised shows. The royalties are then distributed to the publishers and composers whose music was used. While royalties from instrumental music can be extremely small for each music cue, the number of times they are broadcast can add up to a nice little bonus check for a composer.

Unless you are a staff composer, there is no notoriety or credit given for composing/producing music that is licensed through a production music library. On a lot of my licensed work, you will only see “Music by: Pump Audio or Getty Images or Warner/Chappell Music.” And because I never know what productions are using my music, I don’t find out which shows I’m on until I see royalty statements, which can arrive up to a year later.

If you are a composer or songwriter, don’t overlook this opportunity to make a little extra money from your hard work. It’s unlikely that it will ever be enough revenue to sustain you. But it is a great way to supplement your income.

February 28, 2013

THE “MOOG” DOCUMENTARY

While combing through Netflix selections last week, I found a 2004 documentary called “Moog,” which was directed by Hans Fjellestad. This interesting film presented Dr. Bob Moog, the father of music synthesizers, just as I remembered him from the days that I worked with him at Kurzweil Music Systems.

Bob was a brilliant guy, but also down-to-earth and funny. He was kind of like your favorite nerdy science teacher — a little wacky, but friendly and approachable.

For instance, in the film “Moog,” Bob said that he sometimes got inspiration for his inventions while doing the most mundane things, such as cutting the grass or eating a hamburger. I think that most musicians and composers can relate to that, too. When a riff or a melody pops into my head, I try to write it down as fast as I can, because the distractions of everyday life can quickly derail the creative process.

Bob also mentioned in the film, that before “Switched-On Bach,” people knew very little about electronic music and doubted that it would ever have widespread appeal. And he admitted that the first synthesizer sounds heard by the general public “were freaky, like primitive sounds that would steal your soul.”

But when keyboard players like Keith Emerson (Emerson Lake and Palmer) and Rick Wakeman (YES) embraced Moog synthesizers, the public now realized that this new medium could be used to create beautiful music —not just spooky sound effects. As a guest in the “Moog” documentary, Rick Wakeman pointed out that this was “the first time keyboard players could give guitar players a run for their money.”

I definitely believe that I was hired for certain gigs because I owned a Moog synthesizer. It was exciting to be treated as a counterpart to a lead guitarist, rather than just some guy playing keyboards in the background.

Also in the “Moog” film, Bob talked about having tea with Keith Emerson in 1970 and getting a test pressing of ELP’s hit “Lucky Man.” Soon after that, Bob laughed, “Kids started demanding synthesizers for Hanukkah and Christmas gifts.”

I think my favorite part of the “Moog” documentary was when Bob remarked,
“The instruments we make are designed to be played live … (in) interaction with others.”

This is such an important point because there’s still a widespread notion that synthesizers have the ability to do some sort of tricks on their own. I’ve said this before and I will say it again: Synthesizers — or any musical instruments — don’t play themselves. They are merely tools that we use to perform or compose music. And while synthesizers are like machines, human emotion and human talent come along and turn the sounds into something that is pleasing to the ear.

I enjoyed the “Moog” documentary and recommend it to anyone who is curious about electronic music. I also think it accurately conveyed Bob’s love of music in general.

As a side note, Bob Moog passed away in 2005. In 2006, his family launched The Bob Moog Foundation to honor his contributions to both science and music and to keep his pioneering spirit alive.

The foundation’s Web site explains, “Music is at the very core of the Bob Moog Foundation. Bob’s motivation for his innovative work was not solely synthesis or electronic music, but music as a transcendental language that brings people together in community. Bob stated many times how he much he enjoyed working with musicians and the open, creative spirit that they bring to their work.”

For more information about the Bob Moog Foundation, visit http://moogfoundation.org/

Me (Duane Decker) playing live with my modular Moog synthesizer.

Me (Duane Decker) playing live with my modular Moog synthesizer.

December 30, 2012

UNUSED TUNES – THE STORY OF “QUARTET”

In my last blog post, I mentioned pieces of music that never get used. I was curious to take a listen to those bits, so I booted up my master music library and revisited some old tunes. There were a lot of tracks that I loved hearing again, but I realized that I have come a long way since they were written.

Then I came across “Quartet” which I originally wrote for Rise Of Nations. After nearly 10 years, the details are fuzzy as to exactly why the track never appeared in the game. But the process I have always followed is to put together a “temp track” so that the producers, game designers, etc. can listen to it before going into full production. That means that Quartet, as you hear it here, was composed, performed, mixed and mastered by me on a digital audio workstation (DAW). Essentially, a DAW is a computer system that’s sole purpose is music creation.

To be honest, Quartet did have a small and rather obscure part in Rise Of Legends. Although it is never heard in the game, it appeared as a bonus track on the original soundtrack (OST) released by Nile Rodgers’ Sumthing Else Records. As we were putting together the project, Nile suggested that we include bonus tracks. I had nine first pass music tracks that I composed for the game before we shifted musical direction. So those pieces were added to the DVD.

The Rise Of Nations OST was the first game soundtrack to be released on DVD with both stereo and 5.1 surround mixes. But being the first of anything can be dangerous. It proved to be more of a test for other game soundtracks. When the first run of this soundtrack was sold-out, there were no reprints made. There are only a couple thousand in existence, making them very rare.

So now that I’ve exposed one of my little bits that has been hidden away, I wonder if I can persuade other composers to contribute to the “Unused Symphony?”