Interview with Blake Neely
8Dio Artist Spotlight. Answers by Blake Neely / Questions by Troels Folmann. February 2014.
Blake Neely has one of the most versatile backgrounds you will ever find for any composer – whether it be his television scores (ex. Mentalist, Arrow, Resurrection, EastWick) or countless of movie credits (ex. first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Life As We Know It, Last Samurai etc) or the fact he authored the best-selling: Piano for Dummies or his wide collaborations with Hans Zimmer, Vangelis, James Newton-Howard, Michael Kamen. The reach of Blake Neely goes far beyond the screen and his captivating spirit and music has reached anywhere from the Queen of England to opening games at the Olympics.
Let’s go back to the very beginning. How did it all start and what initially sparkled your path?
Two clichés answers but completely true: It all started when I touched the family piano when I was 4 and began making my own “music” and then the lightning bolt hit me 4 years later when I sat in a dark theater in Paris, Texas, and heard the opening credits to Star Wars. Growing up in such a small town, there was very little to do besides ride your bike, build forts in the woods and go see movies. I was kind of a music geek early on and would conduct my parents’ Bernstein records with a toy magic wand, alone in my room. I loved this huge orchestral music with amazing themes, but I knew it was all written by old dead guys. I was also an avid TV watcher, consuming hours upon hours of cartoons, which again featured music (in my mind) music by the same old dead guys. Then at age 8, I sat there in a darkened theater with my popcorn, drink and candy and this blast of new orchestral music came through the speakers as the words “STAR WARS” appeared. Suddenly it occurred to me that there must be some composers still living that were hired to do this for a living!
Now remember, in 1977, there was no internet, no way to really research and find answers easily. There was no way I would ever learn how to be able to do this for a living. But something in me said “keep searching.” My piano teachers would get frustrated with me, because instead of Bach or Chopin, I would want to learn the Peanuts Theme, the Hill Street Blues Theme, St. Elmo’s Fire, Close Encounters, etc. I was all about TV and movie themes. I bought the records and, when they couldn’t find the sheet music, I would just learn it by ear. This really developed my ear training and ability to later do takedowns and orchestrate what I heard. Sadly, my sight-reading skills lapsed, but I was happy and excited about playing music that I loved.
My parents found some private teachers who could foster this type of piano playing by ear, while also teaching me music theory, technique and the classics. By 14, my parents had also found a composer in Dallas, Texas (Simon Sargon), who took me under his wing for private lessons to help me understand and develop my composing interests. I played in garage bands and took on other interests but really just focussed on writing music at the piano. But then I discovered and bought my first synthesizers (a Casiotone and a Mirage DSK) and a multi-track recorder. This changed everything. Now I could start writing bigger-sounding pieces, like I heard in my head. They were crude but far more interesting to me than my piano pieces.
Upon graduation, I chose the University of Texas in Austin, not because of music but because it was cool, fun, friends were attending, and all that. I didn’t really think I needed to go to a music school. I could just continue exploring music on my own. But after arriving at the university and seeing that they had courses in composition and orchestration and conducting, I was dying to learn. So I applied to be a music major.
I understand that you received rejection letter from University of Texas stating you “should consider another career path then music” – what sweet irony.
It was the best letter I ever received. At first it was devastating, but then I took it as my ultimate mission to prove them wrong. This became a recurring theme in my career: tell me I can’t, and I’ll find a way. I also think that is a valuable mantra to have as a media composer, because so much of what we do is enhancing or even fixing things that don’t completely work on screen. It becomes a game of figuring out how to make it work with the music, even when the director or producer has given up. “This scene is never going to work” is always my call to action and gets me excited to figure it out.
What happened at the University of Texas is that, in 1987 at least, you were required to choose an instrument and then pass an audition to be accepted into the music program. I only felt semi-confident with piano, although I had several years with French horn and drums in high school. So I had to go before a university piano panel of four judges and play 2 classical pieces I had selected but also sight-read a third surprise piece during the audition. I studied and practiced for months and felt ready. Then, the month before the audition, I had this rather major injury to my left hand by (gross-out alert!), getting it stuck in a hydraulic press. I could still play, so I showed up to the audition with my left middle finger completely bandaged. Because I was set on composing, I handed the judges a pile of scores that I’d written and explained that “I don’t want to be a piano player. I just want to study music. Please consider this work of mine.” They looked unimpressed.
I performed my 2 pieces with my 9 good fingers. Then I completely fumbled through the sight-reading piece (Rachmaninoff, for god’s sake!). On the way out, they handed me my scores back and this one female judge said, “Next time, leave the bandage at home. We aren’t buying it, and we don’t give sympathy votes.” (True story!) I received the letter of rejection a few days later, chose a major in Linguistics, and the rest is history.
Speaking of Academia. I actually received a similar rejection which I took serious and ended up spending way too many years in (academic) institutions. What is your take on formal music training vs informal?
I think music training, whether formal or informal, is absolutely essential for everyone. It should be a core curriculum from kindergarten onward. Whether or not you want to be a musician, studying music opens your mind to so many other disciplines. You become better at math, complex thinking, evaluation, creative writing, working with others, the list goes on. It’s criminal when schools cut music education in favor of other programs. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “without the arts, what are we fighting for?” So, to that end, I believe everyone should learn a bit about music.
But your question, I think, is probably more specific to those wanting to pursue a career in music, especially film scoring. In my opinion, with the rapid growth in technology and the ability and ease everyone now has to make music on their computers, having an education in music — formal or informal — is what will set apart the true talents from the masses. The great sequencers and libraries created for all of us to use make it very easy to push some buttons and sound like you wrote something cool. But these should be seen merely as tools and instruments to be learned and used with a firm knowledge of how to write music. Too many call themselves composers for owning a Mac and a good sample library. I own lots of utensils, pans and a stove, but I can’t cook anything worth eating. If I studied how to do it, then I might become better at it.
Not withstanding all of that, there is a point at which being formally educated (or classically trained) in music can be a hindrance to working in this industry. I consider myself semi-formally trained, mostly self-taught. This can be a plus for writing music for commercial projects like film and TV, because I am hired to make music that stays out of the way and simply supports and enhances the scene. We often get the note that the score is “too musical,” which simply means distracting. I’m also forced to make big cheats musically. It isn’t always possible to set up a proper voice-leading or earned recapitulation of the theme, etc. Therefore, I try not to overthink using this chord or that chord; I just do what works with the scene. Put simply, in media scoring, I don’t think you can always worry about delivering “art,” but I do think a firm understanding of music can help you deliver something that is hopefully artful and doesn’t sound like everyone else who has the same tools.
Ironically you ended up authoring the best selling: Piano for Dummies amongst many other highly regarded publications on music. Tell us a little bit about that – I bet a professor somewhere is feeling the shame.
If that professor heard me play piano, they would feel absolutely no shame. Ha ha.
Let me back up a bit and explain how that came about. During college, I was the one who would often times sit in my room and write music instead of going out. A friend of mine took notice of this passion and told me his dad, who worked for Disney Studios, might be able to find me a summer internship in Disney’s music department. Incredible how things happen! I interned for 2 summers in L.A. for Disney. Then after graduation, I was offered a full-time job working for their record company, Hollywood Records. After a few years, I moved to Disney’s music publishing division and ran the print music division, handling publications of Disney’s sheet music and songbooks. This was licensed to a large company Hal Leonard Publishing, who printed and distributed this for us.
When I left Disney in 1996, I asked Hal Leonard if I could do freelance work for them. They had an idea for a new type of method book that would focus on how to play the essential instruments of a rock band — guitar, bass, keyboard, drums. Having read a few of these in my life, I pitched an idea for a method book that would be less dry and boring, more humorous and fun to learn. They contracted me to write Fast Track Music Instruction, which was an instant hit. About this time, the For Dummies books came out, which are (as you know) a more fun way of teaching boring things. I suggested to Hal Leonard that we do Piano For Dummies. They pitched it to IDG Books, and even though I am far from the best person to teach piano, I figured out a way to write it in the Dummies style and got the gig.
To this day, it’s hilarious to me that I have that in my repertoire. For every 10 emails I get about Arrow or Brothers & Sisters, I get one for Piano for Dummies. But that was 1998, and I’ve since given up a career as an author.
What is your instrument of choice?
Definitely piano. It’s what sparked my interest 40 years ago, and I still think it is the best instrument invented. Not only is it polyphonic, but it’s also super versatile stylistically. Plus, it helps that a piano keyboard is still the number one way to trigger and program MIDI, since I use one every day of my life.
I play piano so often that I’m a bit like an addict. When I’m away from it too long, I get a little punchy. I was in Vienna, Austria, several years ago for 10 days and during that time hadn’t touched a piano. On my tenth day, I was feeling edgy and went to the hotel concierge and asked, “Do you know anywhere in town that would rent me a room with a piano to play for a few hours?” The look on his face was priceless. I could have more easily found a brothel. I opted instead to ride scooters around the city all day until I could get home to my piano.
One of the remarkable facets about your profile is that you have worked with so many great people from Kamen to Vangelis, from Newton-Howard to Zimmer. Do you see any common threads in these collaborations – lessons carried over?
I have been so incredibly fortunate to learn from great masters of the industry like the four you mentioned. My relationship with Michael Kamen came through Hal Leonard Publishing, while I was freelancing for them. Michael was looking for someone to take his many film scores and create digital versions for a concert tour he was doing. Basically, to take the scores and put them into a program like Finale and make scores and parts. I landed the gig, and Michael and I quickly became friends. (Anyone who knew Michael shouldn’t be at all surprised by how easily it is to call him a friend.) Since it was taking various scores for film-size orchestras and making them playable for symphonic orchestra, each score required some re-arranging and re-orchestration. After a couple of years of building this library for him, he called me one night and said, “Blakey,” (what he called me) “I’m thinking that with all you do on these, you must be an orchestrator.” I had never been one professionally, just self-study, but I said “of course!” He said, “I’m going to send you something to look at for a little project with Metallica.” What?! I stayed up all weekend long, creating the best orchestration I could. He liked it and brought me on board as one of his orchestrators for that project and all of his films that followed.
Experience and credits breed more experience and credits, so after a few films with Michael, I got the project with Vangelis, which led to Hans Zimmer seeing me conducting the Vangelis piece on TV, which led Hans to ask me to conduct Pirates of the Caribbean, which led to him asking me to write additional music on that film, which led to Hans introducing me to James Newton-Howard to write some additional music. And then I had created a career while simultaneously working with my heroes!
During this time, I also got my first project as a composer on the TV series Everwood. Because of my credits with these big names, and based on a demo I spent another sleepless weekend writing, Greg Berlanti took a chance on me. I had no experience as a TV composer, but he gave me a shot. That was the essential shot I needed to begin my solo composing career. As you know, Greg has gone on to creating many more series and has loyally taken me along for the ride. Along the way, I met other producers and directors who brought me onto their pilots and series. Most notably for me were David Nutter and Bruno Heller, director and creator of The Mentalist.
Like I said, experience and credits always breed more. I’m a firm believer in taking on projects that come your way, no matter how big or how small, well-paying or non-paying. You have no idea where they might lead. But above all that, relationships are the absolute key.
You worked closely with Vangelis on Mythodea – tell us a little bit about that?
Working with Vangelis was such a high point in my career and life. I got a call from Michael Kamen’s wife, saying that Vangelis had called asking recommendations for an orchestrator. He was, for one of the first times, having a piece orchestrated for a live concert and recording. I submitted a demo of my very few film orchestrations at the time and forgot about it. A few weeks later I received a phone call from his manager, asking if I could come to Athens, Greece… “tomorrow!” Of course, I said “yes,” and the whirlwind two days in Athens consisted of dinners and talks with this legendary composer. He was bigger than life and yet, so personable. We got along like lost family members, and he offered me the job as I sat on his yacht, eating pastitsio. It was an amazing two days that turned into a total of eleven non-consecutive weeks living in Athens.
Having worked closely with Michael, I assumed it would be the normal orchestration from a MIDI sequence, but Vangelis doesn’t work in MIDI sequencing programs. He just plays everything in to tape. So this would be a takedown orchestration (just listening to audio) of a 70-minute oratorio for large orchestra, double choir, 30 percussionists and 2 soloists. He handed me the choir part, which was written out, and a DAT tape, and I returned to the States to get busy.
The tape was stunning. Vangelis is an unbelievable keyboard player. During my time with him, I would sit for hours and watch him play and write. He can play virtually any classical piece on the piano by memory. For his own scores, he had this elaborate system of keyboards, triggered by buttons, sliders, panels and foot pedals. All were linked through through MIDI Channel 1! If you understand that, then you understand how crazy it would be to play everything at once and bring different instruments in, change patches, etc. while playing it without a sequencer. But to explain, all sounds are playing at once, so he dexterously fades and/or patches in the sound he wants with his hands and feet and literally orchestrates as he plays. He multi-tracks, too, but the bulk of it is going down in one or two passes. I would watch him playing a string chord patch with both hands, playing an oboe melody on top with his right pinky, and doing a timpani roll with his thumb. It was crazy awesome to watch. I still don’t understand how it works, even after playing on his system many nights.
So anyway, I took the recording and just started orchestrating what I heard, as well as fleshing things out for fuller orchestra, making some arrangement decisions and all that you do as an orchestrator. Once I finished the scores, I headed back to Athens for rehearsals. I got off the plane, and he said “I fired the conductor. You conduct, right?” I hadn’t conducted anything professionally or more than a small ensemble in a couple of classes, but I said “of course I do!” (Always say “yes.” You can learn later.) Cut to me later conducting Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, the London Metropolitan Orchestra, 30 timpani players, a 200-piece choir and Vangelis on keyboards at the Temple of Zeus in Athens in formal tails for a PBS-filmed concert.
It was the experience of a lifetime. And it’s all on YouTube, if you want to see the spectacle.
If I recall right Vangelis works in a greenhouse looking studio – with tons of light coming in and sorta surrounded by the elements. What is your take on building studios? Most of them are like modified man caves? Any tips?
He has had many studios. I believe the one you are referring to was in Paris, France. But yes, his one in Athens also had lots of light and great views.
I’ve also had many studios since I began my career, starting with a small bedroom in our house, then a converted garage, then a converted pool house, and now I have two studios actually — a room over our garage at home and a house down the street, which I converted entirely into a studio. My theory has always been style and comfort over engineering. As long as I’m comfortable in my surroundings, I can do the work to make the music sound good. Meaning I haven’t invested tons of money or time in major sound-proofing, acousticians, etc. I do sound treatments, of course, so the neighbors can’t hear me, but I like having windows (which are never sound-proof) so I can see outside during my many hours in the studio.
All of my studios have looked sort of like a living room. They are cozy and nice to hang out in, as opposed to dark cement boxes. I spend 14-16 hours a day in there, so I like to feel at home. It also makes it nice for clients to hang out and not feel like they are in a recording studio where they can’t bring drinks or touch wires, etc. I always put my machine room away from my workspace so I don’t hear the computers. And the further away, the better. Gone are the days of worrying about lengths of USB or MIDI cables. Everything in my studio converts to CAT6, which can run miles and miles without latency. In my current studio, my room is in the living room part of the house and my machine room is in one of the bedrooms on the other side of the house.
An engineer told me once that all he needs is a decent room and some cardboard flapping to do a good mix. He explained that essentially speakers are just cardboard flapping sound back and forth. If you know what to listen for, there’s no need (in my opinion) to spend inordinate amounts of money on perfect acoustic rooms, 100% deadened sound-proofing and paneling, all that. Just make a studio you love to live in, and make your music. Work in your bedroom, if you like.
And snacks! Always stock the place with a good supply of snacks.
You have orchestrated a great deal through your career. What would you recommend younger composers do to understand the deep- and complicated subject of orchestration?
If you can’t find classes to take, which these days is far easier with the Internet, then do what I did: buy orchestral scores and their matching recordings and study, study, study. Learn why something sounds the way it does. How was it written on paper? Look at voicings, instrumentation, directions in the scores. You can find film scores now, too, but I recommend digging deep into the classics. That’s where it all starts and where it was all figured out. We experiment still and push the ball forward with modern film orchestrations, but any decent composer and orchestrator needs to know how the masters did it.
Also know when to step aside and hire a professional orchestrator. It’s a complex art form. If it’s too complicated for you, or you aren’t comfortable with it, hire someone. That’s how I got into this business, and there are hundreds of us still around who are good at doing it and enjoy it. You can focus on the tunes, programming, fitting to picture, and let have an orchestrator do the dirty work.
I also believe, however, that knowing orchestration makes you a better programmer of your demos. When I listen to a demo, I can instantly tell if the person knows how to orchestrate, as opposed to piling tracks of great-sounding samples on top of one another. It’s not wrong, and it’s very much a modern sound, but it doesn’t ever sound real. Plus, when you over synthestrate, you will never be happy when the real orchestra plays it.
Books I recommend are Walter Piston’s Harmony, Rimsky-Korskov’s Principles of Orchestration, and Samuel Adler’s Study of Orchestration.
You have a fantastic grib on writing for strings. What are some of the most important points in string writing – and string writing for samples?
Wow, thank you for saying that! I love writing for strings. It’s probably my favorite thing to put on paper. It took years of practice to get to a point where I felt both confident and comfortable with string writing. There was lots of trial and error and still is. I always try things and see if it works with the real players. When it doesn’t, I learn from it and adapt. I don’t mean trial and error with programming string samples, however, because you can make anything sound good that way. I mean writing it down and having it performed teaches you so much. How do 2 players on the same note sound compared to 3 on a note or 16 on a note. What would it sound like if I put 8 on the top note and 6 on the bottom? This kind of stuff I am always learning.
For me, the important part of string writing is to know each of the instruments and treat them as separate instruments. I don’t think of them as 4 stringed instruments with this massive range from low to high. I think of the violin, the viola, the cello and the bass and choose who plays what, exactly similar to choosing between 4 completely different instruments. By thinking this way, I find the colors produced are more interesting and things play and sound better. When I hear a line written for violin that suddenly moves to the viola because the tune went below G, it bumps me. A viola shouldn’t be treated as an extension on a violin. I think you have to think through it and write for each instrument in the group.
With string samples, this becomes one of the obvious cheats, because you have these all-string ensemble patches and just play anywhere on the keyboard and hear “strings.” I begin writing with an ensemble patch, so that I can play harmony at the same time, but then I split them out to the different instruments and arrange it properly for strings. It tends to sound more real instantly after doing this, and it helps me figure out writing problems before I commit to orchestrating. The other obvious problem with string samples is that when you play a 3-note chord you are sometimes hearing actually 48 players on that chord (16 players per note). Compound this with the other string parts and you could be listening to your demo of 100 players. You start to love this sound. Then even if you hire a large string group of 50 players, you are totally bummed by the wimpy sound. Some libraries have smart divisi now, but you still have to know what you’re doing and know how real string groups sound and work together.
Another things that has become the norm in film scoring is not thinking about how many players are playing. For example, if you have your entire string section hammering ostinatos with short string samples, then you shouldn’t also have the string section playing melodies and chords on long string patches at the same time. It sounds huge and amazing, but it doesn’t sound real. And when I’ve conducted these scores, it takes forever to record, because you have to have the players play multiple passes — once all the short notes, once all the long notes, again and again because it wasn’t right. I once did 25 takes of the same cue, even though it was played perfectly each time. It just took that many passes to get all the parts in. And thinking “oh, I have 30 violins, so half can play long parts and half can play short parts” doesn’t work because you are now used to hearing 30 play both.
I sound like a crotchety old man about this, but it’s what makes demos sound less real and more cluttered. And I tend to like clarity in music. I always say that just because the player is sitting there (or the track is loaded in your sequencer), doesn’t mean you have use them.
You have obviously worked a lot with Zimmer and Newton-Howard. How did you get into Remote Control Productions?
I started working with Klaus Badelt as an orchestrator and later additional music composer. He had a room at Remote Control. After Pirates, Hans offered me a room, but I was comfortable in my own studio so I turned him down. After 2 more films, Last Samurai and Something’s Gotta Give, I couldn’t resist the lure any more, so I accepted a room next to his and it became my second studio. I kept the room for three years, but I live about 45 minutes from RCP. Plus, I was getting to a point where I had three TV series at a time, so I was finding myself wanting to stay at my home studio more often. I finally decided to give up the valuable real estate to another composer who might need it more than me to work with Hans. I do miss those days sometimes. RCP is such a vibrant creative place with a fantastic infrastructure. If you need an engineer, a programmer, another composer to bounce an idea off, you just walk around the hallways and find what you need. Plus, it was always nice to pop into Hans’s room and listen to a master at work or just give him a hug and have a glass of wine. He’s a great listener and problem-solver when things get stressful. He’s seen it all.
You have scored some fantastic shows – recently Arrow and The Mentalist. Tell us a bit about your process approaching these?
My approach to TV has never been different from my approach to film. We are telling a story. TV is just a longer version of the story than a film can present. So I don’t tend to write smaller music or less music or shorter cues in TV. The single difference is the amount of time I have for each. For TV, I have 5-7 days to deliver between 25 and 35 minutes of music per show. On a film, I have 2-6 months to write anywhere from 40-80 minutes. What I do to close the time gap in TV is I work with very well-thought out set of palettes and templates. Arrow has a Logic, ProTools and Sampler (Vienna Ensemble Pro) template that is different from The Mentalist or a third show’s templates. All of my standard sounds for each show — orchestral instruments, character or show-specific sounds — are loaded and sit waiting. I load new sounds specific to a particular cue within the sequence, but my standard sounds are ready, pre-panned, reverb applied, EQ’d, everything. Then when I start to write a cue, I don’t waste time searching and loading that harp sound I made in Episode 2; I just start playing the same harp. I will adjust, tweak, etc., as I go but I’m moving forward with the ideas.
This also helps me keep the overall sound of the shows consistent and separate from each other. With any composer, we tend to sound like ourselves after a while, so with that much music each week, I’m bound to write similar things. It’s all coming out of the same brain. But the overall sound between the shows will be different. And much like keeping the same sets or costumes from episode to episode, it’s nice to have a consistent sound that doesn’t vary drastically each week. But even with all that, I once spent half a day writing a cue for one show with the character’s theme from another show. Those mistakes aren’t fun.
I also have a clone of my writing rig in my assistant’s room, so that he can take a cue I have mapped out and continue to work on it, or he can write his own cue in the show’s template, and we can trade files back and forth. I can also open a sequence from a previous episode and adjust it to a new episode without having to reopen the older episode’s samples and ProTools session, etc. I’m a big believer in reusing themes and sometimes wholesale cues in TV, just as you would in a film. To me, a TV series can be like one very long film, and it’s nice for the audience to be reminded subliminally of a character they haven’t seen in a while by a recurring theme. Blame it on Wagner, but character themes and “leitmotivs” are necessary, useful and important. And let’s be honest, it also helps get that many minutes of music written when you find an older cue that works.
Scoring TV can help you become a very fast writer, as long as you aren’t precious about what you write. It may not be your favorite cue you’ve ever written, but it does the right thing for the scene. I improvise a lot while I watch the picture, whether it’s film or TV, and this can also be a valuable asset for faster writing.
All your scores always have a phenomenal sound. Any grand knowledge to be passed in regards to mixing and mastering?
That means a lot coming from you, Troels, because everything you write has a phenomenal sound! There’s no grand knowledge. I get asked fequently from fans or up-and-coming composers what “that bass sound” is or which samples I use or whatever. And I tend to keep these specifics private, because I’ve spent years noodling and trying to develop a sound. I spend equally as much time programming and fiddling with oscillators and EQs and FX and reverbs as I do with writing the music in the cue. It’s all one process to me really. The biggest tip I can give anyone is to tweak, experiment, get in under the hood, don’t accept any sample library or synth right out of the box. That’s what everyone can do. Are you going to hear familiar patches, loops or sounds in my music that you also have in your computer? Of course you are! I like to sleep sometimes, too. But I like to make it sound like something of my own.
Here are some tricks I employ: I’m a big fan of mastering FX. They make everything pop. I’m a big fan of filters, because they make any sound instantly unique. I am religious about placing things in the stereo field. It’s a big field to play in, so why put everything in full stereo? I position (pan) things “around the room” for clarity and to help the mix come to life. And lastly, I’m not finished with a cue until I’ve put some piece of “ear candy” in it — something new, whether it’s a particular woodwind voicing or a cool textural sound. Something that makes you want to listen again. But make sure the producers can mute it if they don’t like it.
What do you do to stay inspired in a musical sense?
I really like to listen to new music to get inspired, but it’s tough. With the amount of music I have to write on a continual basis, I find it hard to take time to listen actively to new music. So I kind of save up and listen when I’m on hiatus, but then I get all inspired and want to write instead of taking a vacation. I also have, like every other composer, a constant radio playing in my head. Sometimes it’s my music, sometimes it’s music I can’t figure out yet (which sounds broken and annoying), and sometimes it’s other well-known music. After a long day of writing, I tend to want to turn off and just listen to talk radio, watch TV, or hang out with my family or friends.
None of that is a sexy answer, and I apologize. So here’s another real answer: new sounds inspire me. I don’t care if it comes from the speakers in Starbucks while I’m standing in line, or a new Britney Spears song on the radio, or an odd combination of a truck tire squealing in E-flat as an ambulance goes by while a hip-hop beat is thumping in the next car. When I hear new combinations of sounds, it changes the radio station in my head, and I go explore where that might take me creatively.
And I still truly get inspired by watching a scene I’m working on. Unless it’s my own private music, I tend to not write until I see the picture. It might be a subtle thing from the actors or a clever edit or a cool camera move or beautiful shot, but it inspires me, excites me and gives me ideas of what to write.
How do you integrate 8Dio samples into your workflow?
How do I NOT integrate 8Dio?! It all started when I bought some Tonehammer percussion a few years back. I think it was the Epic Toms maybe? The library was inexpensive but sounded like a million dollars, so I just started buying more and more, from Antidrum to Zitherette. And with every release there’s a new way of thinking about old instruments. But I’ve never used any library exclusively. I have a huge mix in my templates that I combine, layer, interchange to make a sound that’s right for me. With each new project, I tend to break open the templates again and add new sounds that inspire.
Specifically, in my orchestral template, I use the beautiful woodwinds you’ve created. The Adagio Violins, specifically, are often featured on “Arrow,” as are all of the Epic drums, of course. Some real favorites I use a lot in “The Mentalist” are the Propanium, Cylindrum and Hangdrum libraries. And I’m about to start working on a big new show for the Fall, which I think will heavily feature the new 8W Black library. It’s such a huge and unique sound.
I must thank you, on behalf of everyone in our business, for two often overused (by myself included) libraries: your genius Hybrid Tools and Rhythmic Aura. I never run out of new ways to use them, and they always get me out of a bind.
What is next for you?
Unlike most TV projects, I actually started and finished an entire series before it airs. It’s called Resurrection, and it airs in March. I was fortunate to get to record the score with real players for each episode, but only strings and woodwinds. The keyboard and percussion are still me. The featured piano in the score is actually my customized version of the fantastic 8Dio 1928 Legacy Piano.
I’m also very excited about The Flash pilot, which is a spinoff of Arrow. We introduced the character in two of the Arrow episodes in December, and he will get his own show for the Fall, if all goes well and we don’t screw it up. I’m a bit nervous about writing for two superhero shows each week. It means writing double the fight scenes, double the villain themes, you name it. But hopefully I can develop a sound and style for The Flash that differs enough to hopefully keep new ideas coming. I’m not promising that I won’t repeat myself, however.
Other than that, this is always an exciting time of the year because anything can happen. It could be a film, another show, or even a concert.
You have scored for the Queen of England, Pirates, Presidents, Astronauts, Olympics. You have been featured in a wealth of blockbuster movies and TV-shows. What is your aspiration at this point? What haven’t you done that you would like to do?
I want to score a video game. I really want to finish an album of some non-film music that I continue to write all the time. And I want to conduct some more live concerts, which is always a pleasure to do and exercises a different musical side of me. My craziest aspiration is to invent and build a new music instrument. Want to help me?
What are the three most important things the aspiring composer should focus at?
Work hard at developing your own sound. Always say “yes” and doors will open. Never stop writing for yourself.