April 9, 2014

LESSONS TO LEARN FROM THE DAVE CLARK FIVE

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.

dave-clark

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March 23, 2014

VIRTUAL MIXING

Mixing music on the computer has been around for a very long time. When I first started using “Performer” in the 1980s, I was utilizing MIDI commands to do simple volume level changes. As Performer turned into Digital Performer, which added digital recording capabilities, it added much more complexity.

There are always tactile advantages to having physical faders, buttons and knobs that feel and react like analog mixing consoles. So about a dozen years ago, I began using a physical mix controller called Mackie Control (Mackie). This brilliant piece of hardware gave me the ability to control my mixes in a very natural, intuitive and responsive way.

Mackie Control

But just as hardware samplers and synthesizers have given way to virtual instruments, I knew that the mix controller would probably be next to go virtual.  In the past few years, I began to see touch-screen control surfaces appearing on high-end recording studio mixers.  Just like on your smart phone, everything is controlled by touch.  But the price and space needed to utilize these boards made this solution out of the question for me.

Even when I upgraded my home studio last year, I kept my Mackie because it has always been a great tool for music production.

I also have a Mackie Control in my studio at IGT.  Last week, while composing, my Mackie began to fail.  Faders would mysteriously move on their own, even when the sequencer wasn’t running.  My focus on composing was completely derailed, which is clearly unacceptable.  The Mackies from both work and home are about a dozen years old and have served me well.  But it was time to research alternatives.

I found that new Mackies cost over $1,100.  While other options were both more and less expensive, none really fulfilled my needs.  While doing this research, however, a user review of a much more expensive controller referenced that “you would be better off with the Neyrinck V-Control Pro.”  (Neyrinck is a software developer that specializes in high-end software for professional recording studios.)  Further research revealed this to be an iPad app that is downloadable from the App Store for $49.99.  While I was very skeptical at first, the program does exactly what I need it to do.

V-Control

So I bought an iPad and the V-Control Pro app.  The entire purchase, including the iPad, iPad case and the app, amounted to a little over $500.  About half the cost of a new Mackie.  It communicates with Digital Performer via Wi-Fi, so there are no cables— and you can control the workstation from anywhere within Wi-Fi range.  It takes up a fraction of the space that the Mackie did.  It eliminates all the controls that I never used, while making the things I use all the time very accessible.  And since it’s virtual, there is no noise from the automated faders moving up and down.  While having faders move by themselves has always impressed visitors to my studio, the noise they made was distracting while composing.

Today, I realized that the Mackie was the last piece of hardware that I used in my studio.  Everything else is all virtual, running on the Mac Pro.  All of the rest of my hardware now sits in silence as kind of a museum of music technology.

We live in a time when technology moves extremely fast.  And it always astounds me that there are always new ideas that solve problems and improve work flows.  Keep your eyes and ears open.  While music will never compose itself, the tools we use just keeps getting better and better!

DDMLLC Studio 2014

March 9, 2014

CREATING A COMPOSER WEB SITE

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.

http://www.duanedecker.com

March 2, 2014

ORIGINAL FILM SCORES

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.

Oscar

February 17, 2014

HOW A COMPOSER MAKES MONEY

ASCAP (the performing rights organization, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) celebrated its 100th birthday on Thursday and it brought up an interesting question from many people. How do composers make money? And why would they join an organization such as ASCAP?

Like anyone else, professional composers need enough income to put a roof over their heads and food on their table. ASCAP helps to protect their rights and make sure that they are paid for the work they do.

In my brief summary here, I’m referring to composing instrumental music (not songs with lyrics).

Live Performance: Exposure to a composer’s work sometimes comes in the form of live performances of his or her work. Unless the composer is also performing in the live ensemble, there is usually no extra money owed to the composer. If the work was commissioned for a performance, that fee would be negotiated and paid up-front. The composer is also entitled to receive performance royalties through a performing rights organization like ASCAP. This amount is usually very small.

Work For Hire: Composers for media (television, film, video games, commercials, etc.) can be hired to compose music which will play during a visual presentation. The company which hired the composer will own the copyright to the music and the company controls how and when that music will be used. This can be lucrative for successful composers, who can charge a lot for their services. International copyright law also states that the composer is always credited as the composer, which allows “back end” revenue. This means that if the music is heard in a context that can be surveyed by a performing rights organization (i.e. TV or radio), then the composer can collect those royalties. Having no control over where and when the music will be placed, however, means that the composer may never see any additional revenue from their work for hire.

Production Music: This music is composed with the hope that a TV, film or game company will select it to be included in their project. This is common in television, especially for low-budget or reality shows. The composer makes an agreement with a production music library. The library then markets the music in return for a portion of the licensing and royalties that are paid. Unless the composer’s work is placed on highly successful shows, the royalties are very low.

Full-Time Composer: This is the most competitive field for a composer to enter. A staff position with a company that needs constant musical content is rare. So when a composer has an opportunity to make a good living doing what he or she has studied and practiced to do all of their lives, almost every composer will apply for the gig. But this is a job where “corporate” meets “creative” and this concept is sometimes very foreign to composers. (In other words, a composer in this type of job must be willing to work within the styles that the employer dictates.) As with any job, the pay is dependent on how successful the company is and how much the company values the composer’s contribution to that success. Unlike any of the other revenue streams mentioned above, a full-time staff composer is also likely to receive benefits such as insurance, 401Ks, stock options, etc. And the fact that they are receiving a steady paycheck allows them to focus on their craft, instead of always looking for their next job.

Pros and Cons:
As you can probably tell from reading this post, 99.9% of people who aspire to be professional composers will not make a living from that alone. Most of the talented composers I know also do other types of jobs, both inside and outside of the music/entertainment industry. But thankfully, there is something so rewarding about creating music and entertaining the world that keeps us excited and stubbornly pressing on in this highly competitive line of work.

Please support the arts and the people who dedicate themselves to making all of our lives a little brighter through music.

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.

January 11, 2014

MEETING JIMI

Throughout my career, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some pretty big stars in the music industry. I spent an afternoon watching a film recording session with Elmer Bernstein; demoed a keyboard for the man who inspired me to play keyboards, Keith Emerson; and traveled with former keyboardist for Yes and The Moody Blues, Patrick Moraz. But one of my most indelible memories is the night I met Jimi Hendrix.

The year was 1969, when music concerts played a major part in every teenager’s life. At that time, I was the drummer and singer for Witch Creek. We played a lot of original material, as well as rock renditions of classical pieces like Night On Bald Mountain and Also Sprach Zarathustra.

One time, my bandmates Mike Sterling, Rick Reed and I decided to go to a concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. We drove up from San Diego, in Rick’s beat-up little car, to see a stellar show featuring Soft Machine, Electric Flag with Buddy Miles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Of course, we didn’t have tickets to the show. We figured that we could just hang out backstage because we were musicians.

We arrived in the afternoon when the crew was still setting up, so we were able to walk right through the loading dock doors. Mike and Rick disappeared while I was talking to the manufacturer’s representative for Sunn Amplifiers. He explained that Jimi would be trying out Sunn Amps that night, in the hopes of getting him to become a sponsor.

As the show neared, the security guards came around to make sure that everyone backstage really belonged there. When they got to me, the kind rep from Sunn Amps said that I was with him, so I was able to stay backstage to see the show. It was around that time that I realized that Mike and Rick had climbed up into the lighting scaffolds to avoid being ejected. So here I was, backstage at a major rock concert, watching from the side of the stage.

Soft Machine opened the show with a set that was really impressive. I had never heard of them before and they never made another album, but they really made an impression.

Next up was Electric Flag with Buddy Miles. I was still riveted to my spot on the floor on the side of the stage, knowing that that Mike and Rick were still hovering several stories above. Just after the band started, I noticed that an attractive redhead sat cross-legged on the floor next to me. I then turned a bit further to see Jimi Hendrix sitting just a bit behind us. I’ll always remember how nice it was that he let his girlfriend sit up front with me and that he didn’t simply push me out of the way to be with her.

Trying to not be a total idiot, I said “Hi Jimi, glad to meet you.” He looked at me, smiled and said, “Good to meet you too, man.” So here’s a guy who is a legend in the rock world, being kind to this random kid backstage. It made a big impression on me that has lasted to this day.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience went onstage next and it was indeed an experience! There were actually posters made of Jimi burning his guitar during that show. The performance was one that I will never forget.

Unfortunately, Jimi died on my birthday a couple of years later. The man who seemed like such a gentleman and whom I respected as a pioneering musician was gone. But the world knew who Jimi was. He was extremely talented, a great showman and in my very brief experience with him, he was a genuinely nice guy.

Thank you for the experience, Jimi!

JimiHendrix

January 4, 2014

THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE

It’s often hidden and not talked about. It’s sometimes valued, sometimes just considered old. But when experience is combined with passion, commitment, determination, drive and creativity, it’s a fuel that ignites in a major way.

Smart companies will look to hire employees or vendors that have a broad base of experience because they know it will benefit them in a variety of ways.

Your work is done at a high quality bar, which makes their products stand out from the rest. This results in a higher return on investment.

You know more about what works. You avoid costly mistakes because you know what doesn’t work and you are able to explain why.

While an experienced worker is more costly to hire, turnaround time is a lot quicker. You know the tools and are able to produce without burning a lot of time learning the process along every step of the way.

Experience also means that you have seen many trends and styles come and go. You know what worked 20 years ago and you know why it may or may not work again today.

Even when faced with something totally new, you know the overall process to obtain the end result and are able to adapt to, or create, a new way of doing things quickly.

Because you have a broad knowledge of your craft, you are more likely to come up with a successful creative idea. You know how to balance introducing something new, without totally eliminating what was good and working before your new idea.

All of these points add up to a value-added relationship that is a winning scenario for everyone.

December 8, 2013

MUSIC FROM “A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS”

MUSIC FROM “A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS”

Music is such a powerful element of the Christmas season.  For weeks leading up to the Big Day, we hear Christmas tunes on the radio 24/7, piped in to stores and restaurants and at home as we decorate our Christmas trees, bake cookies, sip eggnog and so on.  The holiday season would simply not be the same without the songs we’ve grown to know and love — both traditional carols and contemporary pop songs.

The other day, my family was listening to the soundtrack from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and I began thinking about the origin of this beloved music and how it’s become an enduring favorite.  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the first animated TV special based on Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip.  It was a low-budget production which first aired in 1965.  Most of the children who provided the voices of the Peanuts characters were amateurs.  There was some controversy over whether to include references to actual Bible readings.  The fact that the show incorporated the telling of the Nativity story set it apart from secular Christmas programs.  And the show’s executive producer, Lee Mendelson, also went out on a limb when he decided to use a jazz trio to perform the background music.

The story goes that Mendelson heard “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” by Vince Guaraldi’s trio while traveling in a taxi on Northern California’s famous Golden Gate Bridge.  He tracked down Guaraldi, a keyboard player from the Bay Area, through a jazz columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and pitched Guaraldi on the idea of composing some music for the TV special.   A couple of weeks later, Guaraldi presented Mendelson with the “Linus and Lucy” theme that is now so closely identified with the Peanuts legacy.  That tune has been covered by other artists including David Benoit, Gary Hoey and Dave Matthews Band, to name a few.

Some of the other music from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is more traditional:  songs like “O Tannenbaum,” “Greensleeves” (also known as “What Child Is This?”), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” etc.  But Guaraldi’s trio gave these songs a new, breezy feel that was popular in the mid-1960s.  And the arrangements and performances still sound wonderful today.  Grandparents, great-grandparents and preschoolers alike can hear this soundtrack and it makes them smile, tap their feet and/or get misty-eyed about the magic of the Christmas season.

That’s what making music is all about.  It conveys emotion, it takes you back to a certain place or time in your life or gives you hope for the future.  What’s your favorite holiday season music?  Whatever it may be, enjoy and share it with old and new friends.

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.