By Mike Peaslee
What inspired you to start creating music? Was it something that happened early as a kid on or did you gravitate toward it later on?
It was actually improvisation that led to an interest in composing. When I was a teenager I began taking jazz piano and improvisation lessons, which involved learning about music theory, harmony, etc. I found that I really enjoyed this aspect of music – the more creative side of improvising and composing. It was a refreshing change from the more technical and mechanical aspects of performing instruments.
What was your first instrument. What instruments do you play these days?
My first instrument was the piano. I started taking lessons around eight years old. Shortly afterwards I began learning classical alto saxophone. Later I learned a bit of guitar and drums. Nowadays I continue to play the piano and also the guitar. Unfortunately the saxophone is in a case collecting dust.
What led you to become a media composer?
Growing up I loved video game and film music. I was always listening to the video game scores as I played the games, or the dramatic music in the movie theaters. Around age seventeen I knew I wanted to be a media composer. While I was at university Chance Thomas, a video game composer, came to speak about video game music. This perked my interested in being a video game composer – I saw it as a unique and emerging medium for scoring.
What style of end product do you enjoy working on most - games, TV, film or trailers?
I enjoy them all for different reasons, though currently I’d say I enjoy working on video game music the most. Video game music seems to offer more compositional freedom, as the music is comprised of standalone cues that aren’t scored directly to picture, and thus allow for more flexibility in the structure and form. I also like the hybrid nature of video game scoring, in that many different instruments and styles are used. This can be the case for film and TV music as well, though I find games to require consistently diverse instrument palettes.
Do you prefer working alone or as part of a team? Do you interact closely with the production team as you shape a score or go with a more independent workflow?
I enjoy both approaches actually. I’m currently co-scoring a couple of games with other composers, though the music we are working on is fairly separate, so there isn’t a great deal of collaboration. I interact very closely with the production team as I’m working on the score. Whether it is a director, a producer, etc, I’m always sending them the cues as I write them to get feedback and make adjustments. At the start of each project I like to understand as closely as possible the creative direction so that I can best meet the musical needs of the production.
What inspires you to compose? Do you sit down and just see where the mood takes you or is it more methodical?
Interesting question! It’s a combination of many things. I’m a fairly methodical composer, so I begin by first defining the instrument palette I will use. I like to write down the different instrument categories (such as strings, percussion, synths, guitars, etc), then select instruments from each category that will best serve the music cue. After that I map out the general form of the piece – the various sections, where to insert themes, the overall dramatic flow of the cue, etc. I find that doing this preliminary organization before composing helps me have general parameters in place to define the overall musical approach. Then when I actually start composing I let the creative side take over and “go with the flow”.
Do you thrive on the pressure of deadlines or prefer a more relaxed pace?
Deadline do help bring some pressure and immediacy to getting the music done on time, though even on projects without hard deadlines I will still set my own timetables. However, I’ve found that it’s best to strike a careful balance between the structure of a deadline, but also not too rushed a production schedule. I find that I can be the most creative when the deadline is not so tight that things feel rushed. Creativity needs a bit of space to breath, so having a realistic deadline is always best.
What do you fear most when starting a new project?
Often it’s a fear of not making the score unique or memorable enough – something that stands out as diverse and distinct. One of the things I like to avoid is generic sounding music. I like to carefully plan out the different instruments I use, scoring approaches, etc, to ensure that each project has a unique music score. There’s also the initial fear of sending the client the very first music cue for feedback, as you never know what the initial first reaction will be. Though I’m pretty good at adapting to feedback so this isn’t so much an issue.
You've scored some very different genres of film and television. Is there a particular film genre or type of scene you most enjoy scoring?
I enjoy scoring hybrid genres, in particular those that blend synthesizer and modern elements with the orchestra (such as sci-fi scores). These scores give me a chance to use traditional orchestra (strings/brass/percussion), but also to layer in electronic instruments, sound design elements, guitars, etc. I’ve done work as a sound designer for video games, so I enjoy using these different skill sets when composing. I also like working in the action genre – writing fast and intense adrenaline-fueled music. I enjoy the challenge this gives in allowing me to work with a large ensemble for a powerful sound, and finding interesting ways to keep the music cue evolving and progressing for the length of the scene or track.
Can you tell us a little bit about your studio set up?
My studio is acoustically treated with bass traps and absorption/reflective panels to ensure a solid listening environment. My current monitors are Focal Twin6 Be, which provide great sonic accuracy. I have a 2014 Mac Pro loaded up with RAM and processing power. My DAW is Logic Pro. For virtual instruments I use a midi keyboard to play them in. I also have a collection of guitars that I’ll record if the score requires it. And of course many virtual instruments/plugins/software.
How do you balance samples and synths versus live recorded instruments?
I start by using the best possible virtual instruments, as this makes the mockup sound polished and allows me to envision how the live recordings will sound. I’ve been surprised at how close the mockups will sound to the live recordings – it’s a real testament to the quality of today’s virtual instruments. If a project budget allows for a full orchestral recording, even still I will at times blend in some of the sampled strings to make the live strings sound a bit larger and more epic. An example of this was my score for Sony Online’s PlanetSide 2 video game – we recorded string and brass live, but used sampled percussion and at times sampled choir (actually Soundiron Mars/Venus choirs!) as well.
Having a good mix is critical in blending samples and synths with live instruments. When I blend synth elements with the orchestra I will carefully place the electronic instruments in the appropriate range (low/mid/high) so that the texture sounds balanced and full. In the same way that an orchestrator will ensure that all the instrument ranges are proportioned and balanced, likewise when composing a hybrid score the composer needs to be sensitive to the overall EQ balance and relationships between the different sonic elements.
Which Soundiron library do you find yourself using most? Any weird ones that have come in handy in unexpected ways?
I really enjoy the Mars/Venus choirs, they sound great! I’ve used these choirs on several video game projects, including PlanetSide 2 (Sony Online), Heroes Of Kingdoms (NetEase), and others. I also get regular use from the Apocalypse Percussion Ensemble – it’s great for large and impactful percussion.
Another Soundiron library that I’ve enjoyed is the Sick series – last year I composed an album of dark trailer music and I found some great use for these libraries. The Emotional Piano library is fantastic as well; I’ve used it on several projects. I’m currently using the Bamblong, Bamboo Stick Ensemble, and Little Epic Percussion on several projects. I enjoy these unique sounding instruments; they have a lot of character.
Any new projects that you can talk about?
I’m currently scoring a couple of exciting undisclosed video games for release later this year. I recently composed the score to the video game Dawngate (Electronic Arts), which is currently in beta phase. Another recent project of mine is the score to the online video game Lego Legends Of Chima Online (Warner Bros), a fun game that accompanies the television show of the same name. I also compose trailer music – a recent trailer music placement of mine was for the film Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
Keep writing music! If music is your passion then always stick with it and find new ways to be creative. I know I speak for many composers when I say many thanks to Soundiron for making such creative and inspiring instruments that help us composers bring the music to life. =)