This week we spoke to Adam Gubman who has scored hundreds of video games and has recently released a new album called “Dark Matter”.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you come from and what do you do?
I live in Orange County, California, and I am a composer for multi-media. I mostly write music for video games (over 500 since I started in 2006), but I am also a contract composer for Warner-Chappell label Non-Stop Music, and Switch Trailer Music. I’ve written for other libraries too, but not as frequently. As a freelancer, I’m always looking for fun and interesting composition gigs; from TV Commercials to TV News, pop production, movie trailers, etc…I keep busy!
This year, you replaced the theme song for the NBC Today Show. Tell us how that came about, and how you came up with the new theme.
This gig came to me through Non-Stop Music (Warner-Chappell), as an extension of some of the news package material I have written for them in the past. I started working on music for the Today Show in 2010, when I filled in for their previous composer who fell ill and could not work on the show any longer. The first music I composed was for the NBC airing of the Royal Wedding. It was actually a mix of arrangement and new composition, as I have to include the traditional ‘NBC Logo’ music in everything I write for them…so, it’s 99% new material, and a little ‘5-3-1’ jingle at the end or beginning…often times I’ll start with the Today Show audio logo as well, which classifies these as ‘arrangements’, even though the mid sections are mostly new material.
The NBC Royal Wedding airing was the first time I’ve had any of my work reach such a wide audience, and it was really a thrill to hear the themes I composed with the ‘Big Voice Guy’ announcing the news anchors, graphic logos, etc. You can check out the first few minutes with the music here:
After that, I was approached to work on various other music for the Today Show, including transitional news packages, sports packages (2012 Olympics, additional music), 2012 Election coverage, pop music transitions, etc. I was approached to pitch on the new title theme, and after a month of waiting and testing, they decided to use my theme. I did incorporate the NBC and Today Show logos per the standard, but the rest of the music is original.
The concept was to have music that was more ‘newsy’ and less ‘cinematic’. It’s always a double edged sword when you are up against such an amazing piece of work (John Williams’ ‘Mission’ cue) that has been so iconic over the years, but with the new direction in show feel and graphics, NBC wanted something new to go along with their new vibe. The theme has had a mixed bag of responses, but I’ve received some very nice emails from people who like it a lot. Of course, you can never REALLY replace Maestro Williams, but that wasn’t the goal; they just wanted a new approach!
You’ve scored over 500 video games from companies including Ubisoft, Sony, Activision etc. – that’s a phenomenal amount for any composer. How did you get started with scoring games, and how did you rack up so many credits?
It’s been a whirlwind of writing since 2006. I got my start on ‘Pirates of the Burning Sea‘, co-composed with Jeff Kurtenacker for SOE/Flying Lab. Shortly after, I went to work as a contract composer for SomaTone Interactive, and started composing for casual games before the consumer really knew what a casual game was, and a year or so before iOs would take over as the leading publisher of casual games. SomaTone brings me a lot of work, and over the past 7 years working with them I’ve done 6 or 7 games a month. It adds up quick…this doesn’t include the expansion packs, advertising campaigns, and game trailers that we provide content for. As soon as I started to build a notable list of credits, I branched out to work with Pyramind, Boston Soundlabs, Blindlight Entertainment, Dreamheart, Square-Enix, etc. I’ve done increasingly more and more music for SomaTone in the past year, some months upwards of 60 minutes!
You’re releasing a new album soon called “Dark Matter”. Tell us a bit about the album and what you hope to achieve with it.
Dark Matter, published and distributed by Switch Trailer Music, is my first foray into sample libraries where my name is on the album cover. This is really important to a composer, because it means that the ideology behind the music is really my own. I had an amazing experience with producer Nick Murray. I wrote the album over 6 months, and recorded it in one day at Bastyr College in Seattle with 90 live musicians (orchestra and choir). The album is ‘classic horror with a modern edge’, and brings sweeping melodies and powerful building back ends, while nodding to some of my favorite horror composers, namely Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, Jeff Grace, Christopher Young, Hermann, etc. This album isn’t a graphic violent offering (even though there are some big beasty moments), but rather an album of scary narratives and setups, with some surprises in there for good measure. The market is broad; the cues will work with PG-13 ghost stories and scare fests, but could also be used in fantasy and animated halloween or macabre style movies. We don’t want to limit the market to horror only.
You write for the music library Non-Stop Music (Warner Chappell). How did you get involved with them?
I met Non-Stop Music in 2009 at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. I hit it off with their CCO, and we connected a few weeks later on a music library project for TV commercials called ‘Commercial Lingerie’. The library did well, and I’ve done three or four library projects for them every year since. I also do some of their custom sports and news packages (see above!), as well as custom TV commercials and radio ads.
Do you work with any other music libraries?
Nick Murray has hired me to do some work with Vidiots, and of course Switch Trailer Music, but I am only working with Warner and Switch for now. Who knows what the future holds! I’m open to new projects.
Do you find having your music licensed through libraries helps to bring in a passive income while you’re working on other projects?
To some degree, yes, although it takes quite a while for libraries to gain traction. My work seems to be very popular with Univision and Telemundo, and they give me a ton of placements. I’m really hoping that the movie trailer stuff starts to take off. It is such rewarding and fun work, and the payoff will be better in the long run.
What does your studio currently consist of hardware/software wise?
My DAW of choice now is Logic X, but I run a PC with VEPro so I can manage some larger libraries (Hollywood Strings) off my main rig. I have a simple rig, two computers, a K2500 (given to me by Jason Hayes; he used it to write all the music from World of Warcraft, so it’s my lucky MIDI Keyboard!), a MOTU audio card, Mackie mixer, and 30 inch Apple monitor. My audio monitors are Dynaudio BM12a‘s, which I find to be very transparent with a super wide and deep soundstage. I love mixing on them. I use Kontakt (of course!) and a host of sample libraries in the terabyte range!
Whats your favorite software right now and what software are you looking forward to most in the future?
My favorite sample libraries are from CineSamples, Spitfire, and 8Dio. I’m really looking forward to digging into Logic X over the next few weeks. Great new features, although my Cubase-only friends boast that they’ve had some of said features for years. Ah well…I guess I’m a Logic guy at heart!
What was your favorite project to have worked on so far?
This year it was Dark Matter. I think I did a good job of writing from the heart and pushing the boundaries of what I was able to do. It hasn’t been released in full to the public yet, but you can hear a sample of the album and watch the trailer here:
It was pretty amazing to get to work with such incredible mix and mastering engineers, too! Jake Jackson mixed in London, and we were mastered by Pat Sullivan, who does most of John Williams’ scores.
Talk us through your favourite cue. What was your writing process, how did you mix it etc.?
Boy…favorite cue! That’s a rough one. I’ll go through my general process:
I’m a piano player, so I start every cue either on my K2500 with Logic running CineSamples’ Piano in Blue library, or on my upright Yamaha studio piano. Quite often I’ll get melodic ideas away from my rig, and my iPhone has become my best friend in keeping my ideas recorded and organized.
Sometimes if I have to temp with other music, I’ll do a quick analysis of harmonies and instrumentation, and melody style…I’ll answer simple questions about patterning in the music, angularity vs linear melodic structure, length of phrasing, instrumentation etc., and then start to write my own version.
If I am lucky enough to be able to do what I think is best for a project, I’ll work to brand the audio the best I can to the project I’m working on. Typically I start with melody and simple harmony on the piano, and build my orchestration from the bottom up, focusing on interesting bass/mid range motion and counterpoint. I enjoy a lot of motion in my work, so I spend a lot of time with countermelodies and melodic rhythms. I might play a simple piano version into my DAW and build off of that, or jump right into orchestration and production depending on my mood.
Mixing happens as I go…lately I’ve been focusing on finding a really good sweet spot in the low end of my mixes. I find I can be quite deficient there sometimes, and it’s really difficult to mix in clarity and ‘bigness’. I think a lot of composers struggle with this, actually.
I know some guys convert everything into audio stems and mix from there, but I always like having options for changing things right down to delivery, so I usually leave everything in MIDI mode.
What’s your definition of success?
Happiness. I’m successful because I can balance my love for my work with my love for my family (first and most important to me!). I always make sure I can cook for them and I eat every meal with my kids. That makes me happy, so therefore, I’m very successful! 😉
How do you stay fresh as a composer?
I love listening to music, that of my peers as well as radio and film scores. I think I have been relatively successful in this area because I’m never happy or complacent with where I am with my writing, and I’m always trying to learn more about music and theory, etc. I went back to school when I was 24 (10 years ago) to get my degree in composition (BM Cal State Long Beach) and learn as much as I could about the field. I really wanted to stay to finish my masters, but I realized I had to get to work and focus on networking, etc. I love connecting with other composers on a personal level and sharing ideology and technology ideas. It’s so important for young composers to be connected with the online community, so they can learn and share, and become self sufficient! Without my other composer friends, I’m not sure I’d be as savvy as I am (or as I’m trying to be! haha!) right now. I’m connected to a very strong community, and I’m very lucky to be a part of it. Most of my best friends are composers and musicians.
Having worked so long in the video game scoring industry, what one thing would you change about it and why?
This is a long LONG shot, but I’d LOVE to see composers gain the ability to earn back end from the projects they’ve worked on. Everything is a buyout now, and it’s very rare that composers see any residual income outside of album sales. We’re still kind of in the ‘tin pan alley’ stage of video games, where buyouts are just the way it’s done. This might change over the years as we see distribution models morphing into a ‘free to play, but buy a new-character-outfit-micro-transaction’ style of delivery, which may mean that shrinking front end budgets don’t allow for the same kind of investment into the music that developers have allowed for in the past. That’s why it’s so important for video game composers to be able to record most everything in the box, and then supplement with a live instrument here and there to lend to realism etc. It’s just not sustainable to hire lots of musicians all the time.
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were originally starting off?
Get a law degree or become a doctor. This is a really challenging field, and I am doing EXACTLY what I want to, but it’s hard to know what the future holds. There is very little stability as a composer, and even when the money is really good, it doesn’t last for too long before you’re hustling for another gig. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a fairly steady stream of work the past few years, but that could change in a moment’s notice. I’ve seen renown video game composer friends of mine struggle for months and months while they’re looking for the next new gig. It’s a tough industry, but I adore it.
Your studio is on fire and you only have time to grab one thing – what do you take?
The stack of pictures my kids draw and leave me up here. I work at home, and that’s a lucky thing. The music is replaceable.