Archive for ‘television’

April 28, 2014

HOW DO I BECOME A COMPOSER?

“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:

http://www.varesesarabande.com/servlet/StoreFront

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:

http://www.fimucite.com/fmct5/index.php/en/fimucite-6/guests/61-robert-townson-varese-sarabande-record-producer

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.

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February 5, 2014

“DANCING WITH THE STARS” REMOVES THE HAROLD WHEELER ORCHESTRA

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.

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