Composer Interview – Kevin Stahl

kevin composer interviewDo you have any formal musical training?

Yes. I started taking drum lessons at a very young age – about 8 years old. I went on to earn a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance from the Maynard Ferguson Institute of Jazz at Rowan University. I have no formal “composition” training, per se. I am largely self taught with composition and orchestration. But the key is that I have the general musical training necessary to teach myself.

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

Studying music at the university level absolutely influenced my compositions in a positive way. I was forced to analyze and listen to music that I never would have. I was forced to study instruments I never would have. And since I didn’t go to school for composition (although now I wish I had), being exposed to all these different genres and obscure compositions made me really get inside other composers heads. I don’t know… maybe in one way it’s a good thing I didn’t study composition specifically. Nothing about composition was spoon-fed to me by professors, I had to get all the info myself and make my own connections. My wife still makes fun of me for bringing Persichetti’s20th Century Harmony” to the beach for some fun summer reading.

What would you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

That’s easy… my strength is composition. I can come up with ideas, themes, melodies, variations, etc until I’m blue in the face. My weakness is orchestration – although I am becoming more comfortable with it and it is coming more naturally lately. The way I learn orchestration is listening and experimentation, which isn’t too different from other orchestrators. Experimentation is a normal part of the work flow with anything creative. The most fascinating thing to me about music is how listening to it directly affects your emotion or state of mind – that is the ethos of music. Melody plays a small role in that… but orchestration is even more important. You can observe that by playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and changing the chords.

To me, the melody is almost irrelevant when creating moods with music. So when I’m listening to music, anything from Bob Marley to Prokofiev, if I feel a certain emotion I will replay those few bars a million times until I can completely digest what exactly is happening and what “musical device” the composer is using. And that happen to me across musical genres. I might hear something that Stevie Wonder is doing and use that technique with a string orchestra. I suppose others who have had formal training might be able to instantly identify things and work much more quickly because of it. That’s how I am when it comes to rhythms or drumming. But it’s also exciting figuring things out on my own. Like when I first discovered polytonality, for example, I was absolutely floored with how it changed my writing. I literally felt like a different person writing music.

Who would you consider to be your musical influences?

It depends on the genre… for film music, Danny Elfman is always on the top of my list. As is James Newton Howard, Harry Gregson-Williams. You know, the people everybody says. I love Russian composers like Prokofiev, Stravinski, and Hungarian composer Kodaly. Mahler is a favorite as well. I also draw a huge influence from my love of cuban music and of course Jazz. There’s other composers and bands that I love and listen to all the time but they aren’t musical influences… perhaps indirect musical influences.

Do you compose full time, or as a side project/hobby?

I’d have to say part time at this point. The other half of the time I’m trying to operate my business so that I get more composing work. Idryonis Studios is my company… I am lead composer and executive producer. So I have a large administrative role in addition to the creative work. We are a production company specializing in interactive media production and visual effects. Because of this, I’ve had to opportunity to work on some very interesting projects for very interesting clients.

What equipment do you use?

Mostly everything is “in the box” at this point. About a year ago I sold the last of my E-MU synths, samplers, and hardware mixers. I replaced them with 7 computers that were networked and running as an audio farm using FX-Teleport. I worked like that for a long time, but latency started killing me. And my wife kept wondering why the Internet in the rest of the house slowed to a crawl when I was working. It was because of all the Ethernet audio streaming. So I invested in a bohemoth Dell Workstation PC. It is a dual quad-core with 16 GB of RAM. Now I can run everything in a single box… like 10 CPU-intensive VSTs live without bouncing at very low latency… I love it.

Besides the computers I have use couple Mackie Controls, an M-Audio Keystation Pro midi controller, MOTU 896HD for audio, a MOTU midi interface, a Kurzweil Mangler that I haven’t used in a long time – to name a few. Oh, and a Virus TI, which is really fun.

Whats your main DAW, and how do you find it?

I use Sonar 8. Right now it’s the only viable 64-bit DAW software for PC. Previously I used Cubase, which now finally has a real 64-bit version and has some very intriging features. And before that I used Emagic Logic… remember the good ol’ days? I also use Adobe Audition for sample editing, mastering, and encoding. Although my business partner, Chris Potako, mostly handles that stuff. I ussually have him do any post production and mastering work because I don’t have the ear or patience for it… he does. Well, I’m not sure if he has the patience for it either, but luckily for me he’s a perfectionist and a control freak. A lot of our post production work involves strange processes because of the unique applications. It’s not a lot of your everyday television post work. So we will both work together on a technical and creative solution for how to mix or master something and then he’ll take it from there.

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

My favorite VST is definitely EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra. Hands down. I can’t say enough good things about it. It is absolutely integral to what I do. I own some Vienna Instruments as well, but for quick mockups, and even finished products, nothing beats EWQLSO. I regularly use a handful of EastWest products. I also use Omnisphere a lot. And anytime I have a chance I use my Virus TI. I also record live musicians as well whenever the budget permits, which is always easier than sequencing and it comes out better. Being a very active performer, I’m friends with some incredible musicians who owe me lots of favors. :)

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 am a drummer and percussionist. Like I said I’m an active player. I’m in a jazz fusion quartet now and we play a couple times a month. I had to quit a steady reggae gig with Marc Lomax, that I loved, because of the time commitment. I had a short stint playing with Jon DeLise. I’ve also played in cuban bands, and I always do freelance jazz gigs and even the theater circuit around here. All those different styles have definitely opened my ears a lot. I just have a lot more to draw from. But even more so, composing has changed my playing… but that’s for a different interview.

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

Excluding virtual instruments? My drums — My Yamaha Maple Customs — are my absolute favorite instrument. I’ve had them for half my life and I think they just define my sound as a drummer. I can’t really play on anything else. I would LOVE to own a concert marimba. A Marimba One, to be exact. Which really makes me laugh because when I graduated college about 6 years ago I said to my friends, I can’t wait to never see one of these damn things again! Marimba was the one instrument that I was just not inherently good at.

With drums, I can sight read or play anything… Not to sound like an ass; but it just comes very natural. But with marimba I had to literally work HARD to get good. And as a jazz performance major on drums, I was required to learn… no not learn, I was required to PERFECT marimba and other concert percussion. You don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, I guess. Learning marimba was one of the single most beneficial things to my composition skills and musicianship. And that’s testament to my teacher Dean Witten too, I guess.

Whats your favourite piece of hardware and why?

I definitely think my Virus TI is the coolest thing I own. Only problem is there are no 64-bit drivers for it, so it’s setup all wierd right now. I have to use the TI software so I have it on a 32 bit PC with SaviHost to run a stand alone instance of the plugin. And then I control it with hardware midi and audio. Definitely clunky… But it works.

Hey Access! Make 64-bit Windows Drivers!

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

Well, it really depends on what point you’re at in your carreer. It’s nice to think that you can create a style so unique that people will hire you just because of it. But it’s rarely the case unless you’re an A-list composer. And I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Hollywood composers say, “Create your own style… if someone wants a composer who sounds like Hans Zimmer, they’ll just hire Hans Zimmer.” Well, someone who has the budget to hire Hans Zimmer also won’t be seeking composers on Craigslist. Not even Mandy, or even Taxi or any of these indie-based job services. And if you’re starting out, or even if you are already doing professional work, chances are you’re looking for new jobs and contacts at these places.

I think you definitely need to develop and find your own style. But at the same time, you should be familiar with the modern day composers and how they do what they do. Conversely, I have come across many job ads that say if your demo sounds remotely like Hans Zimmer it will be discarded without notice. So there are lots of directors and producers who hate that stereotypical film score sound.

It’s like when people say, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” If you want to compose major studio feature films, you have to compose like a feature film composer. Personally, I compose how I want, but I always strive to fit it into that Hollywood format.

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

I focus on orchestral music. But I’m capable of much more. I don’t believe one person can compose in every style. Oddly enough, I can only really compose in styles of music that I don’t play. I play jazz almost every day… but I can not write it. I hardly ever play in symphony orchestras but that what I always write. I also compose little quirky 30 or 60-second TV and radio spots… I love that stuff. A while ago I had to write an entire soundtrack of about 9 hard rock tracks for an amusement park ride; and I think they came out sounding pretty cool.

What appeals to you about creating your style of music?

I really don’t know… because orchestra music is freaking hard and really complex to compose and orchestrate for. I honestly don’t know what the appeal is. It is just the way my mind works, which is completely contrary to what someone might think about a jazz drummer.

When I hear music in my head, it’s being played by an orchestra. I don’t consciously decide to write orchestra music. It’s just what always ends up happening, even when I start out trying to do something completely different without the orchestra. The provided musical excerpt is a perfect example. I started this cue thinking, “We’re underwater, there’s a shipwreck, it’s dark, very little life… let’s do all light synths and sound design stuff.” I blink my eyes and all of a sudden I have a full 60-piece orchestra with full brass playing a hugely dramatic passage… so it just kind of happens despite my best efforts.

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

Games, amusement park rides, films, video productions, conventions. Games are always the most challenging. The storyline is not linear like a film, so all your cues might be split apart and mixed dynamically by the game itself, or each cue has to have multiple entry and exit points… there are a lot of very interesting technical solutions to that problem. And since I’m the executive producer at my company, I get to be a part of those discussions from the start. But you really cannot become emotionally attached to your music because it’s bound to change.

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

Honestly, I don’t have one… I wish I did. I just kind of start. Themes and variations come very natural to me. So once I have a sound or an idea, it’s easy for me to take that and just start writing. I compose, orchestrate, and mix all at the same time. So it goes very slowly. That’s one thing I wish I could change about my process. But I like things to start sounding complete as soon as I begin.

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

Most of my clients are actually clients of my company, Idryonis Studios. We deal with very large companies in the pharmaceutical industry and other large corporate and entertainment clients. But the coolest projects we do are with Entertainment Technology Corporation. They manufacture motion simulators and we’ve worked with them over the past 5 years or so on really innovative rides. Through that relationship we’ve had the opportunity to work on games for motion simulator attractions that are currently installed around the globe at various amusement parks as well as contract work for companies like Virgin Galactic, which was amazingly fun. I am finishing up music for an interactive project right now that is a deep sea exploration game. Being produced in association with NOAA (Nation Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and EarthEcho Internation (with Philippe Coustaeu).

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

I don’t do much personally. I have a website where I pimp myself out to filmmakers and marketing firms looking for music. I’ll take on side jobs when work is slow at Idryonis, but mostly I do all my work through the studio. Our work mostly comes from word-of-mouth and actively selling ourselves to potential clients. We do use Google Adwords, but the jury’s out on how effective that is. I don’t believe any of our work comes from those leads.

What project have you enjoyed working on the most?

There’s been a lot. Honestly, I enjoy any time I get to really be creative and make cool music. When I was making the rock soundtrack for Monster Roll Cage I had a lot of fun making the music, and then subsequently recording the parts. I had a chance to meet some very good musicians, in fact that’s when I first worked with Jon DeLise who played much of the guitar parts. But in addition to the music on that project, being the executive producer, I was involved on a day-to-day… rather hour-by-hour management of the project. I say that because we had about 6 weeks to make a full featured game from scratch that had to integrate tightly with the motion base and featured custom hardware controls, a full 5.1 surround mix, sound effects (which I also contributed to)… I really only had a couple weeks to write all the songs, get them recorded, get them mastered, and make the shipping deadline. And, because the music and sounds were being coming out of speakers that were inside the enclosed ride, we realized very quickly that our mixes sounded AWFUL. They would not translate from our studio to the ride at all. So we came up with an interesting solution.

We took very clean and accurate convolution impulses of inside the ride, and took them back to the studio. Now, we could put that convolution on our master bus before any other mixing happens and then, like magic, we could hear what it would sound like in the machine. Then we could do all our mixing and effects, bypass the convolution, and then like magic again we’re left with a mix that would translate to the ride. It sounded pretty bad in the studio but sounded really great in the ride itself. It’s really fun being a part of the creative and technical aspects of projects like that.

Another fun project is the one I’m almost finished with now. It is also for a motion simulator that will be installed in museums and aquariums this year. In the ride, you explore the deep ocean and travel through the kelp forests, coral reefs, down deeper to a shipwreck and finally a pitch black deep ocean canyon. As you explore, you learn about sea life, the ecosystem, and conservation. It’s been a very challenging project technically and musically. Each scene becomes visually darker and darker, and so the music had to match that without freighening the children. :)

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?

I don’t have any tips that are any more useful than what advice is already common knowledge. To be completely honest, I didn’t get my first professional job until after I stopped wasting time scouring the internet for tips and advice and I just started writing music. What I can offer is a little anecdote about how I got into the business.

I spent the better part of my teens and early-20s trying to get composing jobs. I just wanted a break. I soon realized that it is really, really difficult to get jobs as a composer. I didn’t understand why no one was returning my calls, why no one was commenting on my music submissions. I would listen to my demo reel over and over and say to myself, “I really like this music… why won’t anyone hire me?! If I were a producer this is exactly what I would want.”

*Lightbulb* – People say, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” … I say, “If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.” I started my company with friends and hired myself :)

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

Yes! I listen to music that is most opposite of what I’m writing for a little while. For some reason that helps me. I find that I most often get writers block when I’m trying too hard to emulate a specific sound or a specific composer. Meaning, when I’m trying to be someone else.

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

Yes absolutely. I’m at that point with the project I’m doing now.

How long do you typically spend on one track?

It really depends on how long the track is and what style of music it is. I can’t really comment.

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?

Yeah, I kind of let the music lead me. It reminds me of when I’m walking through the grocery store with my 2 year old. I let her walk around the aisles but I’m constantly nudging her shoulders from behind to aim her in the right direction.

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

Play guitar. I really want to be able to play guitar. I’ve tried… by my fingers hurt :)

What ultimately are your goals?

They keep changing. I always dream of doing feature films and working in the lavish LA studios and scoring stages. It just gets tough because at this moment my goal is just to keep working, I don’t really care on what.

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

1) Mei by Echolyn — It’s full of amazingly complex stuff but still very listenable… plus it’s 30 minutes long so I can kill more time.

2) You are the Sunshine of my Life by Stevie Wonder — I love him… plus it’s my wedding song.

3) Define Dancing by James Newton Howard (& Peter Gabriel) – from Wall-E… what a beautiful cue.

What is the most stupid thing you have ever done?

Put a glass bottle of soda in a camp fire. But even worse would be not following up with someone when receiving a really good lead. To be a free lance composer you have to be a good businessman and a great networker. Don’t think people will come to find you.

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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