Posts tagged ‘music’

May 17, 2015

SUMMERTIME BLUES

There IS a Cure for the Summertime Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR SUMMER!
Whatever you do, remember that summer doesn’t last very long.
Stay busy, stay positive and enjoy every moment.

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

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

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July 3, 2014

THE TRILOGY OF TECHNOLOGY, ART AND MUSIC

As you walk around any game development studio, you’re likely to see the majority of programmers and artists with headphones on, listening to music. It helps them focus on their work and their favorite artists inspire them.

As I was creating my latest YouTube video, I realized how much technology and art inspire me as well. While I’ve always appreciated those elements, creating this video really drove it home.

The technology affords me an almost endless palette of musical instruments, recording, mixing and sound design options. I am able to spread those options across multiple screens so that it only takes a turn of the head to monitor all the processes that are necessary to produce a professional quality master recording of my work. And unlike early in my career, it’s possible to build a fully functional recording studio without costing as much, or more, than a house.

Most of the windows on the screens are not only functional and accurate, but also provide graphically pleasing and stimulating feedback. While I have had a lot of experience in using traditional musical instruments and recording hardware, the high contrast visuals that surround me now are truly inspiring.

If you wish to succeed in a technology, art or music career, never forget that there are elements in each field that can not only help you, but inspire you as well.

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.

July 27, 2013

MUSTS FOR SUCCESSFUL MULTITASKING AS A COMPOSER/MUSICIAN

Throughout my career I’ve spent a lot of time looking for opportunities to compose music for a living and learned a whole lot on that journey.

I’m really thankful now to be constantly busy, doing work that I love — composing and playing music for a living. In my full-time job at IGT, I work on up to seven different casino games at a time. Although the deadlines are staggered, they all need my attention. And in my spare time, I work on freelance projects in other (non-competing) branches of the game industry, TV and film.

It’s great to have so many opportunities to create music and to exercise my creativity in a wide variety of musical styles. But it’s also quite a juggling act. From one day to the next, I’m pulled in different directions and need to focus on whatever task or deadline is critical at that juncture.

Over the years, I’ve established some work habits to keep myself on track, while also avoiding burnout.

• BE LIKE SANTA: “HE’S MAKING A LIST AND CHECKING IT TWICE …”
Put together a checklist or spreadsheet that clearly shows the milestones and deadlines for each of your works in progress. Then tackle the responsibilities in order of chronological urgency. This isn’t to say that you can never take a slight detour from one project to the next. Sometimes inspiration will strike at random and you’ll push the record button on some ideas for a project that isn’t due immediately. That’s fine, as long as you don’t ignore the deadline that looms largest. Missing deadlines is a sure way to convince your employer or client that you can’t be trusted to do your job.

• OR YOU COULD THINK OF IT AS “TRIAGE.”
When you seek treatment at a hospital’s Emergency Room, a triage nurse will assess your condition. If your illness or injury is relatively minor, you can wait a little longer than someone with a life-threatening trauma. You can apply this way of thinking to ranking your own priorities. Which of your job duties should demand most of your attention right now? Which job duties can wait until a bit later?

• ASK FOR FEEDBACK, EARLY IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS.
I mentioned having “milestones” for projects. For example, if you’re composing music for a game, you may be asked to deliver a first attempt at an opening theme by a certain date. The game producer will review that material and let you know if you’re proceeding in the right direction or are way off-base. The sooner you get this feedback or criticism, the sooner you know if you should continue with the style or vibe that you’ve created — or whether you should tweak it, or come up with something entirely new. Why waste other people’s time and energy, as well as your own, if you’re not clear about what works for the project?

• TAKE BREAKS.
You know the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Working non-stop and never resting is counterproductive. Work hard, of course, but be sure to set reasonable limits. Eating, sleeping, getting some physical exercise and also taking mental breaks are essential to your creativity and to preventing stupid mistakes. You’ll come back refreshed and renewed. And you’ll usually find that you have a clearer picture of what you need to do and are able to get it done faster.

• LEARN SOMETHING NEW.
With each project, there is a different twist or another skill that needs to be learned to pull it off. You might be surprised at how these new pieces of knowledge will help you with future projects. Push through that learning curve. As my mom always told me, “Never stop learning.”

• EACH PROJECT IS UNIQUE.
When you are working on multiple projects, one will inevitably bleed into another. Just like getting a song stuck in your head, you tend to gravitate toward that song in your work. But the project you are working on right this minute is unique. Listen to all the feedback you get and use it to create a fresh approach. Go outside of your comfort zone, explore genres that you were passionate about a long time ago or simply think through imaginative new ways of doing things. Anything is possible as long as it serves the needs of the project.

• DON’T BECOME A PARODY OF YOURSELF.
When you labor over one very specific skill set and/or style for a long time, you get really good at it. Watch seasoned, successful recording artists. Every time they come out on stage, they deliver a stellar show. But watching them the second night seems like a repeat of the first (which is why they make the big bucks). While this is perfect for live performances, it doesn’t work for composing. Embrace everything new, different or challenging. It will make you much more valuable to producers.

It’s pretty surprising to me that I am able to juggle so many projects at one time, but I think that diversity is the key. It keeps things fresh and always interesting. If you aspire to innovate, great things can happen to you as a composer. Just keep tabs on all those balls you are juggling to make sure they stay in the air.

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:

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.

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