Composer Interview – Andrew Sigler

andrew siglerDo you have any formal musical training?

My undergraduate degree is in composition and my masters is in classical guitar performance.

Do you think this influences your compositions in any way (positively or negatively?)

It’s hard to be completely objective about how my education impacts my writing. Having said that, I think it’s largely a positive thing, if only to dispel the notion that understanding theory gives you some kind of “Merlin Advantage” over composers who don’t understand all the underlying mechanics of music. When I was a kid I thought that I needed to go to school to learn how to write music. I even avoided writing until I got into school and started studying, thinking I might make mistakes. It took a while to realize that understanding the rules of music has nothing to do with being able to write music. That’s why they typically call them ‘Theory/Composition’ degrees. I’m more of the latter.

What would you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

My strengths in writing are rhythmic variety and occasionally colorful orchestration. My weakness (the big one…) is doing too much. It’s very hard for me to pare things down in my writing, so I often end up with…too much. It’s always been a problem for me. Writing effectively and simply is a real gift, but I often feel like I’m doing too little when I write that way. I’m working on it.

Who would you consider to be your musical influences?

I love this question. It gives people an opportunity to craft a public identity, but I always wonder if they confuse their influences with their favorite composers, which are not always the same thing. I’ll put it this way, influences run more deeply and subconsciously than ‘my fave five’ composers. For instance, I love Stravinsky. And I love to say that I love Stravinsky; it’s a win-win. However, the reality is that going to see ‘Back to the Future’ when I was a kid had a much bigger impact on me musically. Let’s just say I REALLY wanted to play Johnny B Goode as quickly as possible. In the long term, Igor has sustained me but Marty got me on the road.

What’s your main DAW, and how do you find it?

Years ago I walked into a Guitar Center and asked the guy at the desk “What kind of software do I need to write music along with video?” He said (and I quote) “Umm, I think this one does it? (looks at box) Yeah dude, this’ll totally work” And that’s why I use Sonar.

What VSTs do you use, and what are your favourite ones

I use EWQL stuff for about 75% of what I do. I’ve got just about all of their stuff. I also use several Native Instruments products, notably Guitar Rig and Absynth. I also have a few Spectrasonics products as well. Omnisphere is an absolute monster…wow.

Do you play any instruments? If so, what do you play and for how long? How have they influenced the type of music you make today?

I have played guitar for over 20 years. I’ve played with orchestras, in a guitar quartet, in the studio, and live about a million times but I don’t play nearly as much as I used to. Touring is a younger man’s game, so it’s nice to be able to finish my day in the same town every night. As to the influence of guitar, much of my early music was for guitar so it had a significant influence back in the day. I write so rarely for it now that much of that background doesn’t come into play.

Having said that, I wrote a piece for a game I’m working on with the guitar.

Whats your favourite instrument that you own, and that you would like to own and why?

I have a 1994 guitar by Wolfe. I really should play it more. I have a ’93 Seagull dreadnought that gets played quite a bit around the studio.

Whats your favourite piece of software and why?

That’s a tough one. It’s like choosing among my kids! Without Sonar I wouldn’t be able to do much, but EWQLSO is probably my favorite piece of software and has had a big influence on my writing over the past 4 or 5 years.

Whats your favourite piece of hardware and why?

My PCAudiolabs rig makes me happy all day long.

How important do you think it is for a composer to have his own style and why?

It’s essential. You may have clients (you will have clients) who ask for music that sounds like one composer or another, but it’s important to look at what you are doing as art and to make sure that your individual voice is being cultivated. I remember as a kid thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool to work with this musician or that musician…” and obviously this was because I thought a particular individual was really cool and talented. They didn’t get that way by being ‘cookie-cutter’. I interviewed for a game project recently and the lead on the project said that he’d gone to my site to check out my music, and while he liked my commercial music, it was my concert music that really appealed to him. He said that it was very evocative and he could see the stories I was writing.

On the other hand, I once was contacted to do music for a short documentary. The lead and I exchanged a number of emails and had gotten all the business out of the way over a 2 or 3 day period. Then I got an email from him saying “Mr. Sigler, I’ve just listened to your music and unfortunately we cannot work together.” He indicated that my music had no melody or harmony and was just too artistic for his project! I mailed him back and said that the particular tunes he’d heard were concert music and not at all like what I would be writing for his documentary, but he’d made up his mind and that was the last I heard from him. Of course, this is someone who would go to the time and trouble of getting the business arranged before listening to the music, so you have to remember that there are all kinds of folks out there J

Are you a multi-genre composer? Or do you like to specialize in one particular area?

I’m primarily an orchestral guy, but I’ve played and written lots of rock and pop over the years as well. I also do ‘concert music’ …string quartets and so forth.

What appeals to you about creating your style of music?

Writing for orchestra may actually appeal to my weakness! Having so many different sounds and colors to choose from is pretty heady, but it can lead to overkill. I’ve been doing a lot of chamber music over the past few years to try to limit myself a bit.

What types of media have you composed for and which is your favourite?

I’ve done music for film, advertising, games, dance, and theater, among others. I’m new to gaming, but it’s quickly becoming my favorite.

What is your process for composing, especially if you are composing for a particular film/game?

Write then run. I always try to put a bit of space between myself and the music if time permits so I can come back and hear the music with fresh ears. It’s funny how coming back the next day or even after lunch can have a huge impact on your perception of the music you’ve written. I wrote music for a trailer once and then went to lunch with my wife. I told her, “This guy is going to be blown away!”, but when I got home and listened to the music again I did a complete re-write. The new piece ended up being the touchstone theme music for the whole project. The other piece went in the remainder file.

Have you had any large clients, and if so, who were they?

All my clients are big to me! Microsoft has been easily the biggest client of mine. I’ve done corporate videos, trailers, and conference presentations for them over the past few years.

If you did have large clients, how and where did you get the job?

The MS gigs came (and continue to come) through my friend Fred Northup and his company Southdown Creative in Seattle. Fred had talked to me about doing music for him for years, but at the time I had no sense technologically of how to do it. This was before my trip to Guitar Center, you know…

What form of marketing/promotion do you use, if any, and which was the most popular?

Talking to people face to face is the most effective marketing. Going to conferences to meet and network is essential.

What project have you enjoyed working on the most?

I played in a band called ‘The Megatron Jones.” That was all kinds of fun.

Have you ever had a client who was hard to deal with, and if so, what did they do and how did you deal with it?

I haven’t had any nightmare problems. Having said that, it may just be my impression of what a ‘hard to deal with’ client is. Being in a strange city at 2:45 in the morning and trying to make sure the band gets paid by some cigar-chomper is a difficult issue. Dealing with complaints about a percussion part is not. So much of one’s ability to deal with those issues comes from the degree to which you can put yourself in the client’s shoes. On a large project, you are talking to someone who likely has a fully packed day and is dealing with dozens or hundreds of issues during that time. Try not to be one of those issues! I don’t stick my nose where it doesn’t belong, but trying to be a ‘solution’ person (even if the particular problem is outside of your area of expertise) can go a long way towards staying on the project lead’s good side.

Do you have any tips for people starting up in the music industry, on how to market themselves, get jobs, and get started off in general?

Look around at family and friends. I recently found out that I went to school with a guy who is now audio director for one of the biggest gaming companies around, so I had a networking opportunity that I wasn’t even aware of!

Remember that you are in a business, so lots of general business and marketing advice will apply to what you want to accomplish. As to getting ahead in music, I’ll repeat what I said about conferences. It can be pricey to pay admission, fly in, and get a room, but if you’re not there you won’t get the gig. My most recent project came about at the Austin Game Developers Conference. I meant to go to a keynote address, but I forgot about it and ended up wandering around the expo floor. There was a guy playing Pong (an ancient homemade version…) and he asked if I wanted in. We played for a few minutes, then chatted briefly and exchanged cards. A week later we had lunch and I got the gig.

The point is, I didn’t have some brilliant plan to get a gig, but I was in the right place at the right time. Also, don’t spend all your time hanging around the other musicians! Go to some panels for game design or film or whatever…that’s where your potential clients are. Other composers are probably not going to hire you.

Do you think there is a particular point in time when it’s viable for a composer to move from part time composition with a part time job to pay the bills, to being a full time composer? How did you do it yourself when you started off in the industry?

Simply put, once you make enough money to support yourself you are a full-time composer…Ta da! But your question goes to financial security, and that is tricky to find in this industry, especially when you are at the beginning of your career. The real question is ‘How comfortable am I with risk and uncertainty?” If you can honestly and dispassionately answer that question, then you will have a good idea if this gig is right for you. When I was younger I played in bands and had the typical dream of getting a record contract. I thought, “Once we get that contract, we’re set!” The problem is that getting the contract is just the beginning. Then the real work begins. Further developing and maintaining your career, keeping an eye on the industry, watching out for the new guys…all that stuff is waiting for you once you ‘get the contract’

This is true in many industries though. My father is a successful attorney with his own firm and a huge part of his job (and his life) is generating new clients and looking for future work. This is how most people who run their own show have to operate and it’s the downside (one of them) of working for yourself. The upside is freedom, a bigger cut, and perhaps most importantly a huge real-world business skill set that you will never get working for someone else. Of course, this is assuming that you are an independent contractor. If you are an audio director for a game company for instance then your work comes to you.

Another important thing to consider (maybe the most important) is your personal life. A 25 year-old will likely have a different set of needs than a 35 year-old with a wife and two kids. Where and how you live (or would like to live) is incredibly important to consider when thinking about taking the plunge. I know quite a few people who have been in the music industry for years who really aren’t cut out for it and are very unhappy. However, their happiness has nothing to do with their level of success in the industry, but with whether or not they are a good fit for the industry. A heart surgeon who faints at the sight of blood needs to rethink things.

Do you ever get writers block, and if so how do you deal with it?

I am fortunate to have several projects going at once, so if one isn’t going well I can always switch to another. Also, writing concert music is very different than commercial music so having that contrast keeps the juices flowing. Finally, I do things other than music. I like to cook, run, hike, and play with my dogs. Sometimes your brain needs to work on the problem without you getting in the way.

Do you find that when you’ve finished a song, you’re sick of hearing it?

Zoo Tycoon - Trailer Music by Andrew Sigler

Zoo Tycoon – Trailer Music by Andrew Sigler

No. I really like listening to my music (I’m never going to live that statement down…) but I will say that it is sometimes difficult to listen to music from several years in the past. I usually hear something I want to change.

How long do you typically spend on one track?

It varies widely…anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

When creating a track, do you know how long it will be before starting it, or do you tend to just “see how it goes” and let the track make itself?

I never know what is going to happen when I write music. If I’m working on a commercial project there is usually a time limit of some description, but outside of that it’s wide open.

Is there anything you wish you could do musically, but can’t now?

I wish I could play drums well. I can keep 4/4 going for a tune or two, but beyond that it’s not pretty…

How would you define success?

Oh…let’s say being happy, but not content.

What ultimately are your goals?

I’d like to continue with my commercial projects as I have been, but I’d like to get 3 or 4 concert pieces performed per year. That’s been in the works for a while…

What are your thoughts on the role of a composer and how it will change over the coming years with technology evolving at such a fast pace? Do you feel that it will change in a positive or negative way, or do you think it will change at all?

I don’t know that the role of the composer will change significantly because of changes or advancements in technology, but I think the composition business has already gone through its most significant changes in the past 5 or 10 years with the ease of connectivity via the internet and the incredible advancements in sampling technology that allow such convincing music to be written remotely and on a modest budget. Having said that, great technology/connectivity will never replace skill and a sit-down conversation. There are many people who do ‘music for media’…it’s often clearly stated on their website…but can they work quickly and professionally? Do they really have a sense of how to work within a team format or are they really interested in writing the coolest battle cue ever? Technology won’t solve those problems or answer those questions.

If you could change one thing in the music industry, what would it be and why?

It’s such a complex system I’m not sure where to start. It’s like those movies where someone goes back in time to change one small thing and it has huge implications beyond the small change they were hoping for leaving them to rock out on Johnny B Goode in order to make things right. These are decisions beyond my ken.

How do you deal with the unsteady income from being a composer – ie. some months having more income coming in than others? Do you have other sources of income to help you during these times such as royalties, music sales in stock music libraries etc.?

Frankly, it’s been psychologically helpful to realize that these economic factors are true in many industries so I’m not left with the idea that I’m just involved in some crazy industry! I teach at the Austin Lyric Opera as my schedule permits. My students are very understanding.

What are your other interests outside of music?

Running, cooking, reading, and playing with the dogs.

Over the past while, I’ve done a few things that I’ve found useful such as keeping notepads everywhere to jot things down. Have you picked up any habits over the years that you’ve found useful?

Oh man…I’ve got so many of those things lying around. There are no particular habits that come to mind.

If you were stuck on a desert island with 3 tracks, what would they be?

– ‘Ash’ by Michael Torke (no videos available)

– ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ by Queensryche

– The last movement of John Adams’ Violin concerto.

What is the most stupid thing you have ever done?

Oh man, that’s going to the grave with me. Musically, one thing that comes to mind is that many years ago I was writing a large piece and had just finished the score around 6:00 p.m. Unfortunately I had a number of blank measures and wanted to put rests in them (or something like that) and executed some huge command that screwed up the piece. Of course, I had not saved it first so I stayed up all night and through the next day to fix it so I could have the score at a rehearsal at 4:30 the next day. I just made it.

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

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www.FilmandGameComposers.com offers a wide range of interviews, reviews, guides and tutorials for composers and musicians who are interested in writing music for film, TV and video games.

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