Posts tagged ‘live music’

November 21, 2015

INTERWEAVING THREADS

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.

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August 6, 2014

FROM HARDWARE TO SOFTWARE

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.

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.

February 19, 2013

“RISE OF NATIONS OVERTURE”

Sometimes hard work and noble intentions aren’t enough to bridge the gap between musical genres. It seemed to work between other genres, so why not bring a game soundtrack to a classical music concert stage? Then again, maybe it really was a great idea, but the circumstances made it impossible to pull off.

About three years ago, my old friend, Maestro Gabriel Sakakeeny, contacted me with the idea of arranging a long piece of music using my work from the “Rise Of Nations” and “Rise Of Legends” video games. He suggested that I use a sonata allegro form because it has been used for hundreds of years in classical music. He was the Founder and Music Director of the American Philharmonic – Sonoma County and wanted to include the piece in one of the orchestra’s concerts.

From this challenge, I quickly realized that this could be yet another opportunity to learn and grow and take my career into a whole new direction.

But I was deep in the throes of looking for a paying job to support my family and I had no experience in classical music since college. Despite that, I started wondering if this could be a path that would be rewarding and far-reaching. After all, I have never backed down from trying things that might be considered unconventional. New paths had sometimes paid off for me throughout my career.

But sometimes no matter how hard you try, things just don’t turn out the way you plan. Such is the story of an ill-fated effort to bring my “Rise Of Nations Overture” into the classical music realm.

I spent months in my studio sifting through music, choosing what would be included, editing, arranging and orchestrating and ultimately created the entire 8-minute, 36-second piece inside my computer. It was the philharmonic orchestra arrangement of my work on those games. I had to leave a lot of music out, due to its diverse, ethnic nature and unique instrumentation. But I knew that it would not be practical to bring in soloists playing rare and unique instruments from all over the globe, so the overture focused on the orchestral portion of the scores.

The world premiere performances were to be at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California on February 19th and 20th, 2011. Then the reality of our undertaking became an issue. The community orchestra did not have the instrumentation required to pull off the piece. So my portion of the concert was cancelled.

Gabriel then booked the piece at a high level, private venue in Monte Rio, California in May of 2011. I was invited as a guest and was treated like royalty. But the concert was scheduled to take place outdoors and a thunderstorm turned the venue into mud. That concert was cancelled, as well, and rescheduling it turned out to be impossible.

While this piece of music has never been performed live, I have learned volumes about my craft. And even when you go into a project with all your heart and soul, things can go wrong.

Everyone in creative fields, whether they admit it or not, has gone through challenges and failures that may not be their own fault. Don’t take it to heart, learn from your mistakes and your successes — and always give it your all.

February 8, 2013

DUCKING THE FIRE

In my career, I’ve probably learned more from the most outrageous people with whom I have worked, rather than the sensible ones. They teach you that you can never underestimate the value of pushing the boundaries and getting a bit wild.

When I think back, there are a few people I’ve worked with who really stand out. I had the pleasure to work with one guy who was absolutely unforgettable. While he passed away a while ago, he made an indelible impression on me (and a lot of others) that no one could ever forget.

During my days as a touring musician, I was in a band called Lois Lane that was based in Chicago. We played all-original rock music and toured throughout the U.S. and Canada. There were certainly no wallflowers in the band. In fact, we were all bound and determined to lay it on the line every show and hold nothing back — even if it meant taking on some big risks to entertain the crowds. That’s why my friend and former band–mate Bill Gent comes to mind.

We’ve all seen Gene Simmons from KISS spitting fire, drummers playing their solos on spinning platforms and Keith Emerson with his piano going end-to-end while playing a solo. But unless you saw Lois Lane, you never saw an entire drum kit go up in flames.

Bill was a drummer who wasn’t technically perfect. Keith Moon from The Who comes to mind as a comparison. Like Keith, Bill was a wild man and always entertaining. He would always be the guy who threw us a curve ball in the middle of the show and kept us all on our toes. And he had a smile that would always make you wonder what he was up to.

As for “ducking the fire,” that’s exactly what I did every show. As was typical in the day, the rest of us took a short break while Bill did his drum solo. He would solo for about five minutes or so and I would come back on stage early, in the dark, to do a few support things.

Our crew would drench Bill’s drum kit with lighter fluid, then light his sticks on fire. As he hit each drum and cymbal with his flaming sticks, it was my job to trigger the big boom sound effects on my modular Moog synthesizer that would shake the house. Because I had a large stack of keyboards between Bill and me, I would duck when he ignited his drum kit. Some might think that it was just a trick, but it was an extremely hot burst of flames that could singe your eyebrows off. I can only imagine how hot it was where Bill was sitting. So I would “duck the fire” behind my keyboard stack as every drum or cymbal in his large kit was ignited.

After the fire extinguishers put out the last of the fire, I’d follow up with my best DJ voice saying, “Ladies and Gentleman, the Phenomenal Billy Gent!” (Crowd roar…)

I will forever remember my good friend Bill. Always look for that person who doesn’t just keep it safe. They will not only move a project forward, but also inspire you to do the same. Thanks, Bill!
Billy Gent

September 22, 2012

CHEMISTRY – IT’S WHO YOU WORK WITH

I’ve been thinking about this subject for months. No one is an island. We all rely on each other for support and to move forward. But when a friend sent me a link to Jonathan Antoine’s audition on “Britain’s Got Talent,” I realized how important it is to recognize that your family, who you associate with, work with, and befriend can make all the difference in the world.

Jonathan is an extremely talented 17-year-old who has been a victim of the way he looks all his life. If you watch this video, it becomes painfully obvious that the judges and the crowd have made their decisions about him and his partner as soon as they took the stage.

The wonderful part of this … is how they got to that stage. His singing partner, Charlotte, knew that he was incredibly talented. She is a cute girl with talent of her own. Her pop singing style might have propelled her into a solo spot on the show. But she chose to be with Jonathan on the stage. For the 17 years he has been on this earth, Jonathan has dealt with people judging him on first impressions. Charlotte knew that despite that, they could show the world what they can do and ensure that Jonathan would have a chance to be heard.

In my experience, in addition to my own family, I have learned so much from the people I’ve worked with. Even my bad experiences have taught me volumes about my craft, who I am, what I’m capable of, and the person I want to be.

You need to value times when you get to work with people who have a common goal. Each person has something to bring to the table. My times as a freelancer were wonderful. I was my own boss and my schedule was much more in the creative lifestyle. But I was always wondering how much better it would be if there were a team around me to give me honest feedback and fill the gaps in skills that I’m not so good at. I now have that.

Thankfully, Jonathan has Charlotte. Their chemistry together is what made it possible to show the world their talent. I’m sure we will be seeing more of both of them in the future, no matter what happens on a TV show.

August 30, 2012

LOUNGE ACT BLUES

When asked about the low points of my music career, I can’t forget the stint I did as keyboard player/singer with a boring lounge act called Jim, Bonnie and Duane. We had a steady gig at a restaurant/lounge called The Hungry Hunter in a Southern California beach town. The best thing I remember about the gig was that we got free food — and it was good food, too. The pay was also decent. But playing middle-of-the-road cover tunes by acts like The Captain and Tennille and Fleetwood Mac was painful, considering my preference for artists such as The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

It was also a very strange thing for me to be on a tiny stage playing background music for the dinner crowd, using a full-blown modular Moog and RMI Keyboard Computer. My equipment alone took up most of the stage and Bonnie would sing in front of this 6-inch-high stage. I could have (and probably should have) played this gig with one small electric piano.

At some point, Bonnie left the group due to medical problems. And so the act became the even-less-riveting duo of Jim and Duane. We shifted over to a regular gig in National City, California … and the boredom continued, but it was a source of income. When Bonnie recovered from her illness, she rejoined the act. One night, she set a beer on top of my amp and it spilled, ruining the amp. That was it. I couldn’t take it anymore. “See ya later, Jim and Bonnie.”

Fortunately, I was then invited to join a successful Denver-based band named Reign. The musicians were very talented but a bit lazy. They didn’t practice much — and they focused on cover material. Their repertoire was much more challenging than the song list from the Jim, Bonnie and Duane days. Singing/playing hits by Journey, Kansas and Earth, Wind and Fire was tolerable, but whenever I’d suggest adding some original songs, I was shot down. As Reign’s line-up began to disintegrate, I was forced to look for another touring band and really hoping for a chance to “upgrade” to one that was more ambitious.

Timing was on my side. A band named Canary, which played the same Western U.S. circuit as Reign, had recently lost its drummer, Bill Gent, to a new band called Lois Lane. In turn, Lois Lane was looking for a keyboard player/backup singer. Bill, who had seen me with Reign, recommended me for the gig. I spent several years with Lois Lane, playing original material and developing new skills and increased confidence, which later paid off in a number of other great music jobs.

The take-away lesson is that anyone striving to be a musician or composer, or maybe anyone in any line of creative work, must be patient, flexible and confident that sometimes the least glamorous jobs will sustain you while you follow your true calling.

August 11, 2012

UNSUNG HEROES OF “MECHWARRIOR 4: VENGEANCE”

To my amazement and delight, people from all over the world continue to contact me with questions and comments about my past projects, such as my original video game soundtrack for “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance.”

Developed by FASA Studio and published by Microsoft in 2000, this soundtrack is still appreciated by many avid gamers and others who’ve discovered tracks from “MechWarrior 4” on YouTube.

Although I composed the music and played keyboards and percussion for “MechWarrior 4,” the soundtrack would not have been the same without the following outstanding musicians:

• Concert Master: Simon James
• 1st Violin: Kyung Sun Chee, Tom Dziekonski, Simon James
• 2nd Violin: Linda Anderson, Jean W. Yablonsky
• 2nd Violin: Susan Guikis, Laurel Wells, Joe Gottesman
• Cello: Rajan Krishnaswami, Susan Williams, Virginia Dziekonski
• Bass Violin: Stephen Schermer
• Trombone: Peter Ellefson
• Bass Trombone: Stephen A. Fissel
• Trumpet: John Aigi Hurn, Charles Butler
• French Horn: Joseph Berger, Peter Moore
• Flute: Susan Telford
• English Horn: Dan L. Williams
• Guitar: Clifford Allen Garrett

The guitarist who performed on this soundtrack was a co-worker at Microsoft. The other talented musicians for “MechWarrior 4” were members of the Seattle-based Northwest Sinfonia. Members of this esteemed group have performed on a number of film soundtracks, major game titles and at the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s dazzling annual production of “The Nutcracker.” To work with musicians of this caliber, and to have them perform the music that I composed for “MechWarrior4: Vengeance” was a thrill and an honor.

Onstage or in the studio, the company you keep can make or break a project. Always strive to associate yourself with others who can elevate your efforts with their contributions.

April 7, 2012

BATTLE AT WITCH CREEK

As a composer, you just never know which of your works of music will have staying power.  I did not expect “Battle At Witch Creek,” a simple piano piece that I composed for the “Rise of Nations” soundtrack (released in 2003) to have such lasting impact.  But many video game fans, music students and aspiring composers have asked for the sheet music or come up with their own interpretations of the piece — often with stunning results.  (The original: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iRz7tJ8M38.  The “Glewndack” version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BABGiL5y4lU&feature=related.  The “Shatteredr” version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjaPU1jrThg&feature=watch_response.)

“Rise of Nations” was developed by Big Huge Games and published by Microsoft Corp.  The soundtrack, released by Nile Rodgers’ Sumthing Else music label, was the first video game soundtrack available in full-surround sound (5.1) on DVD.  Composing and recording this music was truly memorable.  I worked with first-rate musicians from the Seattle-based Northwest Sinfonia, with the assistance of conductor Simon James. The sessions were recorded at Sound Lab Studio in Redmond, WA.

“Battle At Witch Creek” was also a nod to one of my former bands, which was called Witch Creek and based in San Diego.  While the band didn’t last a long time, it was a true creative experience that made a life long impression on all of us as well as a lot of people who saw our shows.

One thing that astounds me about the popularity of “Battle At Witch Creek” is that it took me very little time to write it.  I’m not going to call it a throwaway composition, yet it’s an example of a piece of music that came out of “going with the flow.”  Sometimes over thinking or spending too much time on a piece of music leads to nothing but frustration.  In my experience as a composer, I’ve made it a habit to write what I call a “sloppy copy,” based on whatever mood or vibe I’m feeling at the time.  You simply push the record button and play.  Let yourself go in whatever direction you’re feeling and don’t worry about wrong notes or poor timing.  The point is to capture the moment.  It’s helpful to then hit the save button and walk away.  Come back and revisit your work a day or two later, with fresh ears.  You can always tweak it to make it better, but the first rule is to go with the flow.

Witch Creek at a concert at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. From left to right: Mike Sterling - guitar, Rick Reed - bass, me on drums, Robb Lawrence - guitar, Gabriel Sakakeeny - keyboards. Photo courtesy of Robb Lawrence.