Interview with Colin O'Malley

Answers by Colin O Malley / Questions by Troels Folmann. December 2011.


Colin O’Malley is a composer, songwriter and orchestrator.  His clients include the United States Air Force, the Walt Disney Company, Universal Studios and Electronic Arts. In 2005 he received an Emmy nomination for his score to the PBS WW II documentary “The Last Reunion: A Gathering of Heroes.” Other scoring credits include the feature film “Letters to God”, “Superman Returns” for Warner Bros. Interactive/EA and “Tomb Raider Underworld “for Eidos/Crystal Dynamics.  Hope you enjoy!

Tell us a little about your musical background and influences?

I studied piano growing up and music in college, but most of my real education in music came from landing projects and figuring things out from there.  I really didn’t have a clue when I was starting out.  I guess that’s probably the same for most professions.  As far as influences, that’s a tough one.  It really changes a lot.  I’ve been heavily influenced by many of the great film composers: Thomas Newman, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, the Zimmer…..I can keep going. I’ve studied tons of the great classical composers and orchestrators as well.  Debussy is my favorite.   I relate much more to melodic composers vs. atmospheric ones.

Increasingly I’m influenced by songwriters and producers.  Leo Z, Max Martin to name a few.  There is a focus to popular music that I admire a lot.  It’s so hard to do well.  In some ways it’s much easier to modulate all over the place and indulge an idea versus really focusing it.

I can’t include this in my lecture at Juilliard, but I love melody in a cheezy 70-80′s TV theme sort of way.  Battlestar Galactica, Air Wolf, Axel F, Knight Rider.  There is something to be learned from the phrasing and focus of the themes in that era.  Everybody is still humming them….

What was your first commercial project?

When I was in high school I wrote a song called “Corn Chip Pie.”  It was inspired by a very tasty item served in the school cafeteria.  My brother and I would perform it on the announcements and assemblies.  It became an anthem for our school.  At football games there would be 1,000 people chanting “Corn Chip Corn Chip Corn Chip Pie!!!!”  While I was not given any $ for the composition, the lunch lady gave my brother and I all the Corn Chip Pie we could eat.

You have worked closely with Yanni for many years. How did you guys end up working together?

A good friend of mine was his studio engineer for years.  He played Yanni my material on a number of occasions and I was eventually invited down to Yanni’s studio in West Palm Beach, FL.  We hit it off and I’ve been working with him ever since.

What is the newest Yanni project you can tell us about?

He’s just finishing a world tour and TV special in Puerto Rico.  That was the big focus this year.  He has some really interesting collaborations with other artists that I admire coming up.  That is probably the best thing about working with Yanni.  I’ve gotten to meet and learn from some incredibly talented producers, musicians and artists.

One of your many known signature scores is Superman Returns. Tell us about that project and how video game scoring differs from other media?

It was really fun to write this type of material with full orchestra.  It was also very difficult to write anything that would hold a candle to the William’s score.  In that vein I hope they don’t try to do another orchestra/march for the Superman reboot.  Some sort of modern Zimmer approach is the only way to crack it in my opinion.  If they go with an orchestral fanfare it will probably just remind people that they liked the original better.

As far as game scoring is concerned, there are obviously some structural differences you have to consider to match the changing pace and flow of a game. You end up writing loopable chunks that build gradually in intensity.  Outside of that, the writing process is not that much different from what I do when I’m writing for other media,

You have also composed a variety of things for Disney. How did that relationship start?

I started out as a Disney intern many years ago. That lead to lower level music jobs and I’ve just worked my way up.  A large chunk of my business today is now built around projects for Disney marketing.

You are regarded as one of the leading midi orchestrators. Do you mix a lot of live stuff with samples or how does it work?

Years ago I became very fixated on the idea of pushing samples to the point where I would not need to use as many live players.   It wasn’t about not wanting to work with live orchestra.  It was more the thought of having that sort of creative control in front of me 24/7 that was intriguing.  It was valuable training trying to achieve that goal, but I’ve eased up on that obsession.   At this point it’s really a mixture of live and samples, depending upon time and budget.  In this day and age I think you need to be able to handle both approaches well.  It’s very rare that I don’t add at least a vocal or live soloist to a piece.  A single human element draws focus and makes the samples sound better than they are.

Midi orchestration generally requires a lot of resources. What is your DAW rig made of?

I’m running Logic 9 on an 8-core Mac Pro with 32 gigs of ram. I used to use Cubase and will go back there if something happens to Logic.  I have a PT rig to interface with Yanni and other clients that want things delivered that way.  I also have 4 slave pc’s.    Everything is hooked up over light pipe.  I prefer the latency and stability of hardware instead of some of the newer LAN solutions.  My orchestral template is around 300 tracks.  I don’t use nearly that many, but I like the idea of having everything available without stopping to reload. As sample libraries and programming evolves, I see myself working with smaller templates.

I know you have recorded a variety of custom samples in the past. Can you tell us a little about that and what you recorded?

I’ve been involved in a number of custom/private sampling projects.  At some point I’ve done strings, brass, winds, choir, vocals…..pretty much everything.  For years there was a small group of us constantly sampling something.   We did a ton of experiments and tried to come at things a bit differently.  Most of my partners in those early ventures are now very successful commercial developers.  The level of detail you inevitably train your ears to listen to during a sampling session is actually really beneficial (but I didn’t realize it at the time).  I’m definitely better with mockups and orchestration because of all those years sampling.

What 8DIO libraries do you use?

Liberis and Requiem Pro are permanent fixtures in my template.  I LOVE the Taikos and really all the other 8dio epic percussion.  Rhythmic Auras are also really inspiring. Hybrid Tools as well……love those gritty boomers

All sample libraries have their limitations. Tell us what you think are the next hurdles to overcome in terms of orchestral tools?

Traditional commercial sampling involves getting a large number of fairly static performances.  These are then crossfaded to simulate the emotion of real players.  This approach appeases a composers inherent need to control everything.  I think we’ve hit the ceiling as to what can be accomplished with this approach and it’s time to move on.   Music is dynamic.  It moves and flows.  For me the key to sampling in the future is literally capturing emotional performances in great depth.  Never a static note. In my opinion that is the key to cracking the “Holy Grail” in terms of sampling. The technology is evolving to the point where we can move beyond the traditional sampling model.

Do you have any advice for composers and orchestrators wanting to break into the industry?

Be really, really, really humble. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

What’s next for you?

I’m gonna take some time with family over the holidays, eat a lot and also conquer the Holy Grail of sampling and co-produce the greatest BEEEEEEEEEEP sample library the world has ever seen.