Composer Interview – Alex Pfeffer

alex pfeffer composerTell us a bit about yourself. Where do you come from and what do you do?

First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to this interview! I really appreciate it!

My name is Alex Pfeffer – I am from Hamburg, Germany and I am a composer, arranger and sound designer for all kinds of media, from license music over video games to music productions, movies and advertising.

When and how did you make the move to being a full time composer?

It actually was a bit of a longer process which started rolling when I came back from my studying time at the Los Angeles Music Academy. I started off as a guitar teacher and became lead guitarist in the rock/pop band “Reinvented”. Especially during the studio recording sessions for the album I got involved in computers, sequencers and plugins. At home I started to create playbacks for my guitar lessons or doing demos with the band. Besides that I always had great interest in video games so I got curious about composing for this kind of media. After sending out endless demos and application emails I got the opportunity for my first job. It actually took a long time until I was able to make a living from it and there were lots of risks involved going this route, but I was glad when it finally worked out to call myself a full time composer! :)

What does your studio currently consist of hardware/software wise?

My DAW is a Win 7 PC, stuffed with a 6core 4GHz CPU, 64GB of RAM and 3 SSD drives for samples alongside two other 1TB harddrives for projects and additional samples. As additonal hardware I am currently using the RME Fireface UC sound device, NI Maschine, the Steinberg CC121 controller, a Virus TI Snow, a Drawmer 1962 preamp for vocals, guitars and other instruments and an iPad1 for the Lemur application. My sequencers of choice are Cubase 6.5 and Studio One 2. As for libraries I am using all the major known libraries from companies such as ProjectSAM, 8Dio, Cinesamples, Spectrasonics, Native Instruments, EWQL, VSL and so on. Among many other plugins I am mostly using the Waves Mercury Suite.

Whats your favorite software right now and what software are you looking forward to most in the future?

To be honest I am pretty much blown away by Studio One. There are so many fresh and nice features I already missed in other sequencers. It still got a few quirks here and there but to see a piece of software growing up in such a short amount of time really impressed me!

I am looking forward to get some Softube plugins (especially the FET compressor and the Summit Audio EQF-100) in the future and I am also thinking about getting VSL Dimension Strings. There are a bunch of really excellent string libraries out there such as Adagio and Cinematic Strings 2 but there is something about Dimension Strings giving you absolute control about individual violins. To be honest I am not the biggest fan of too much control but in this case it can be very helpful!

You joined Dynamedion in 2005 – how did this come about and what do you do there?

Since Pierre Langer and Tilman Silescu, the CEOs of Dynamedion and I regularly visited a german game discussion forum. So we kind of knew each other before I got involved in the team. Then one day a funny thing happened. Tilman released a track whose main melody almost sounded exactly like a melody from a track I recently had written. Since I never released my track before (and didn’t hear his track), none of us could have known the melody of the other guy’s track. When I realized this I wanted to make a joke by sending the track to Tilman presenting him our “jinx situation”. Besides we had a good laugh, Pierre and Tilman noticed my sound and writing qualities and a few days later Pierre and me had our first conversaion on the phone considering some first collaborations. After a few month I became a team member of Dynamedion.

Your music has been featured in a number of famous movie trailers including Ong Bak 2, Sherlock Holmes and Saw IV to name but a few. How did you get involved in providing the music for these trailers?

Besides already writing license and trailer music for Dynamedion back then, I later had the opportunity to also write trailer music for companies such as Sonic Symphony, Epic Score, Two Steps from Hell and Liquid Cinema, just to name a few. After my tracks had been published, it was basically on the movie company to decide on which tracks work best for their trailer campaigns. Therefore I was just lucky they picked mine!

You’ve written demos for a huge range of sample library developers. How did this come about?

I am not sure if this was just a personal impression back then, but to me too many sample library demos were very calm or wanted to show the appropriate articulations of a library in a very artistic and sophisticated way. Don’t get me wrong, I am a very huge fan of this and I adore many many library demos from back then, but I kind of missed movie soundtrack like demos with a tad of hybrid and action. I decided to sit down, gather my small humble collection of lite and free available soundfonts, composed a not so well sounding action demo, tweaked the hell out of it and sent it to East West Quantum Leap asking them, if it wouldn’t be cool to have something like this, but written with EWQL Symphonic Orchestra. After a few days I received my first “Not for Resale” version of EWQLSO Gold with the opportunity to write a demo. This is how my very first demo “Alien Assault” came into life … and basically the little stone leading me to all the other great opportunities to generally write demos tracks.

Your tracks have featured on TV shows such as Fringe, So You Think You Can Dance, and many others. How did you get your music into these shows – through libraries?

Yep, it basically works the same way as it does with trailer music. Once released, the tracks – to explain it a bit more simple – are being hosted in a huge music library pool producers/companies have access to and it is again on them to pick tracks of choice for their shows or campaigns.

What was your favorite project to have worked on so far?

Wow, that is a tough one. There have been so many projects I really enjoyed creating music for, but a very special one was writing the music for the EA phenomic video game “Battleforge“. The music was written by Dynamedion and as far as I remember each of the four composers of the team (including me) were assigned to one faction of the game (fire, ice, nature and shadow). Since I was responsible for the shadow faction and the mission was just: Go wild, go dark and weird! … which basically meant to experiment and explore – a client’s blessing for every composer! :)

The result was a really dark, mean and weird soundtrack consisting of orchestra, rattling percussion and lots of organic synth and vocal sound design.

Talk us through “Through the Night” featuring Malukah. What was your writing process, how did you mix it etc.?

The track was basically a demo written for Eduardo Tarilonte’s sample library ERA. This gem is all about great sampled medieval instruments and on my mind I had the idea to write kind of a folklore, Irish sounding track with fantasy and role playing game influences. I also had this tragic and dramatic picture in my head of a woman running through the night with blood on her hands. She did something terrible but couldn’t remember what it was. While I was in the process of writing the lyrics, I asked Malukah if she would be willing to sing on this track since her skills were exactly what I was looking for. She ever put me under a spell since the first time I heard her vocals on the Skyrim “The Dragon Born Comes” cover, written by the amazing Jeremy Soule! I was very happy when she agreed and was even more amazed when I received the final stems. The mixing was really difficult, since I wanted to make the track sound as a commercial selling track. You know, simply enjoying the music like listen to the vocals. On the other hand I had to make sure to feature Eduardo’s ERA since the main mission was still to write a sample library demo. I am aware that you can’t please anyone. Some people found the soloed instruments too obvious, while others missed more vocals. In the end I am still overwhelmed by how many people listened (and still listen) to the tracks and responded in a positive way which shows me that the end result was appropriate to most people out there.

Do you ever find it difficult to disconnect from work/internet etc. when on a day off as, being a composer, you spend a huge amount of time online/glued to a pc?

To be honest, I really don’t have a problem to get disconnected from work, let’s say when I am walking on the beach, through the park or doing BBQ with friends etc. The real difficult thing is that I hear music in my head most of the time. Most of the time it is never silent “up there” and there is always a piece going on fitting the appropriate situation. Like as it is natural to see the colors when watching a painting, I mostly hear music when looking at e.g. a sunset or a starry night.

Of course it is very helpful when receiving screenshots or videos of an upcoming game project. Not always, but very often I instantly hear how it should sound. On the other side it is pretty weird how epic tooth brushing can get! :)

How do you use social media as a musician to get work/promote yourself?

To me social networks are the best way to get your stuff out there. I use it very extensively but on the other side making sure it never gets aggressive. As much as you can promote yourself, you also have to be careful to not damage yourself. I see many people just posting music for the sake of having something to post. What I also find important is to not just post about music all the time, but showing a bit about your interested and concerns. I find it important to have an opinion! Talking of “getting work” I think I made more connections with people I worked with and for by talking about non music related stuff! However, in general terms of posting your music, one should really think about what to post and more important how you react to that. The internet never forgets! :)

What does your daily routine consist of?

In case there is no hardcore deadline coming up I really try to have steady working times. So I mostly start at around 9:30 am in the morning, once my daughter is at the Kindergarden, and again finish at around 5pm to get a few hours of family life! being aware that I am self employed and that sometimes (or sometimes very often) this can get crazy I also try to free up the full weekend. I love my job but in order to be able to still write music for many many years, it is important to give a chance to reset your brain! Furthermore I am trying to go the gym as much as possible!

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were originally starting off?

Ha, what a great question! :)

To be honest I would remind myself of the two things I luckily already did since I started off. The first thing is: Never stop learning! The time you think that you learned everything in terms of music is the day you will die or lose your groundedness.

The second thing is focus and paying attention! These days people hardly pay attention or focus on something. It seems as so many peoples are not willing to dig below the surface and ignore to even think about stuff! A good example is when I did a walk through for 8Dio “Taiko Ensemble” back then. I painstakingly put every information one would need into the video description and one of the first comments was: “Is this Stormdrum 2??

I am aware that this is not the best example, but you can apply it to pretty much every situation. People don’t pay attention to CC commands, they don’t care about special features of libraries, sequencers and how plugins really work. Many people end up being bad composers only because they are too lazy. Therefore it is important to really focus and pay attention to what you do!

Your studio is on fire and you only have time to grab one thing – what do you take?

I would probably save my acoustic steel string. Would make most sense to continue to writing music.

Intially I was about to say that I got the most important thing on my shoulders. I would never risk my head for studio gear …. but on the other side, I couldn’t see those guitars burning! :)

Can you recommend any useful books on composition/mastering/business etc. that you’ve read and enjoyed?

Hmm, Samuel Adler would come to my mind, but I am convinced that it makes more sense to get a bit of private lessons or doing some internet courses (there are so many today). However, there is no holy grail book which let’s you learn everything faster than usual. In the end it comes down how much you want to invest in all this. You could learn much more by just listening to music, analyzing scores and also from simply learning by doing!

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/franto.kormanak Franto Kormanak

    Great interview! I’m huge fan of Alex work, not just music, but his tutorials as well. I have question regarding private lessons. Alex can you recommend some? I saw you have private lessons with Robin Hofmann, there are Berkley and Coursera courses. I’m interested in orchestration a similar lessons. Thank you

    • Emmett Cooke

      Hi Franto, I know that Mike Verta is offering private lessons online – I’m doing the Berklee Specialist Certificate in Orchestration for Film and TV at the moment and it is WELL worth the money

      • http://www.facebook.com/franto.kormanak Franto Kormanak

        Hi Emmett, thanks for reply. I will check Mike’s offer. Also question regarding Berklee Certificate. Is there any requirements like have already some other Berklee courses or something like there before enroll Orchestration for Film and TV course. How much your time does it take per week?

        • Emmett Cooke

          Hi Franto, no just have a base understanding of music theory in general and you should be fine.

          I have a degree in music, but we only touched on orchestration – the orchestration in this course is very easy to understand, well laid out and not too much of a workload.

          Orchestration 1 took around 5-8 hours per week, Orchestration 2 is taking me around 8-14 hours per week.

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