Composer Interview – Kyle Robertson

KyleRobertson1Do you have any formal musical training?

Not really. I started taking piano lessons when I was four, and in high school I studied jazz music with a college orchestration professor who really helped me get started in my writing. Music was always just a hobby for me though, and I never really decided to try my shot at a career until I got to college. But I never studied music at university.

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

I’m not sure if my writing would be significantly different had I studied in a formal environment. I’ve spent a lot of time studying music theory and orchestration, as well as scores from a lot of classical composers. So it’s really just the road I chose to go down, and it works for me.

What would you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

I’d say I’m a pretty easygoing guy, and you really have to be in this industry. There have been times where I’ve written something I feel is one of my best works yet, only to have a director hate it, or want it changed completely. You have to be able to work with people, and put your ego on a shelf and remember that you’re hired to help fulfill the vision of the director or producer. There’s also quite a bit of politics involved in the post-production process, and as a composer you have to be able to flow with things and not get caught up in it all.

A weakness would be that I sometimes analyze things way too much, and get into a sort of analysis paralysis. I’ve gotten better at it, but there was a time I’d spend a whole day editing, rewriting, and remixing stuff only to have it sound pretty much no different than before, when it was fine to begin with.

Who would you consider to be your musical influences?

James Newton Howard, as well as Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer, are big influences of mine.

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

Composing has become pretty much a full time job for me now. I also help operate a pressure washing company that my brother and I, with help from our dad, started back in high school. We started just doing driveways, and then branched out to commercial work. Now we’ve got several guys working for us and cleaning parking lots for gas stations and restaurants across Texas. That’s what really helped me afford to get my first DAW and start composing. Most of my time is spent writing music now, but I’m still involved with that business as well.

What equipment do you use?

Most of my work is done on an Apple G5, with a MOTU 2408 mk3 interface and an 88 key Triton as a controller. I monitor everything through a pair of JBL 4328’s.

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

I work pretty evenly between Digital Performer and Logic. For orchestral cues I prefer DP, but with other genres and loop based stuff I’m more comfortable working in Logic. It’s just my personal preference, and kinda the groove I’ve gotten into. I found them through recommendations from other composers.

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

I use most of the East West libraries in my writing, most often the Symphonic orchestra and Choirs, as well as Stormdrum. I’m really satisfied with the realism they offer and they blend quite well with a live orchestra when mixed together.

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’ve been playing piano for about eighteen years, and picked up guitar around 5 years ago. I think primarily playing piano has really influenced my writing style and the process in which I go about it. A lot of my dramatic pieces are based around the instrument, and when I’m starting out on a project I often sit at the piano and hack out ideas before moving into the sequencer. I also played trombone and tuba during my middle and high school years, which helped a bit in my knowledge of wind ensembles.

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

Hmm, I’d have to say one of my favorites is a Martin DC-16 acoustic guitar that I own. It’s got a great tone and I’ve used it several times in scores I’ve done. I’d most definitely like to get a Steinway D (who wouldn’t right?). I’d also love to own an electric cello, such a cool sound!

Whats your favourite piece of software and why?

Gotta say it’s Native Instruments’ Kontakt Sampler. With so many great sample libraries out there, as well as being able to load up samples I’ve created myself, it’s such a great tool and I use it almost constantly in my work.

Whats your favourite piece of hardware and why?

I’d say it’s my Apple G5. We’ve been through a lot together and it’s still kicking lol.

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

I think it’s very important. When you look at some of the veteran composers who have been really successful in their careers, you can see that each of them has a certain style that’s evident throughout their scores. When I first started to compose, my pieces were all really influenced by Hans Zimmer (and some might say still are…). I’ll never forget being called out on it too when I was interviewing for an internship with one of the bigger composers who came out of Media Ventures. That’s how almost all composers start though, by imitating the masters. But over time I’ve tried to separate myself into a more unique niche and develop upon that.

I do a lot of work with music libraries, and with those I’m often asked to mimic certain composers or particular scores. While libraries are definitely more creatively constraining, I still strive to put a piece of myself into every cue I write. When working on a more creative project like scoring a film or tv show, the director or producer will almost always have something in mind they want the score to sound like, and there may be a temp score in place. But it’s good to push yourself to be original and stay away from anything that copies an existing score. Really try to establish a voice as much as they will allow.

You said you like working on music libraries – how did you get into this, and what about creating music for libraries do you enjoy?

I got my first library work with Liquid Cinema through a recommendation from a friend. She was doing somewriting for the project and graciously offered to help get me on board. One thing about libraries I enjoy is being able to write in so many different styles for a particular project.

One day I’ll be working on a dramatic strings piece, then the next an over-the-top action piece for choir and orchestra. It’s quite a lot of fun.

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

I write mostly orchestral work, and that’s what got me started in film composing. But I’ve also branched into some writing in rock and hip-hop genres. When I lived in LA I worked at a few studios recording hip-hop and rap vocalists, which helped expand my knowledge of those styles of music. At one point I was doing some beat writing for Dr. Dre (mostly orchestral stuff with a drumbeat).

What appeals to you about creating your style of music?

Something about orchestral music just really moves me. I never really grew up listening to it, and didn’t really discover film scores until shortly before I finished high school, but I can distinctly remember hearing a piece by John Williams called “You are the Pan” from the movie Hook, and it had this profound effect on me. After listening I went and attempted to transcribe it, which got me interested in composing orchestral music. Shortly afterwards I wrote my first piece and had it performed.

What’s your view on including electronic elements in orchestral scores?

I think it brings a fresh approach to orchestral scoring, and it’s something I’ve found myself doing more and more lately in my writing. There are so many cool synths and electronic plugins on the market now that sound great in an orchestral environment.

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

I’ve done a number of documentaries, music libraries, a couple musicals, and some television work. I really enjoy working on trailer music libraries since I’m able to pack so much music into a short amount of time.

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

I’ll usually sit down at the piano and come up with ideas when I first start, and then move over to the sequencer. I sequence things out by either inputting them into the notation window or playing them from a keyboard. I’m really particular on how I want my mockups to sound, so I use a lot of volume and modulation automation to get a more realistic sound. Then depending on the budget and type of project will send the midi files to an orchestrator, and then record and mix.

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

I’ve had some of my work appear on the Daily Show during their indecision 2008 campaign, and I’m also contributing some music to a show on ABC at the moment.

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

So far I’ve gotten almost all my work, including the ones I mentioned above, through recommendations from friends and other composers. My first scoring gig I got was through a producer coming across some of my work on a website called SoundClick. I wasn’t really looking to get any jobs scoring films, but he contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing some music for a few low budget documentaries. I said sure, and was able to kind of cut my teeth and develop my writing. Shortly afterwards those docs got picked up for distribution by Warner Bros which was pretty cool.

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

I haven’t really done much promotion to find composing work other than having a website, and sending CD’s to whoever will listen. For the trailer work I do each library has its own marketing team that promotes my stuff and gets it placed.

What project have you enjoyed working on the most?

I recently finished a trailer library project with composer Jeff Rona called Liquid Cinema that was a lot of fun. It was my first experience having my work recorded with a professional orchestra and it was a great learning experience to work with a veteran production team.

What would be your dream project?

A blockbuster film would be nice haha. I’ve also always wanted to direct my own feature and write the music for it.

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?

Haha yes I have… Last year I was working on my first feature film, which called for mostly rock/pop based music with a few orchestral cues. The film was pretty well put together, and had two major distributors interested in it. I was initially just doing the music and met with the director and producer a few times before and during the process since I was in LA and they were in the Bay Area. It all went pretty smoothly at first, and they were happy with everything I delivered. I’ve had some experience with video editing in the past, so when they started to repeatedly ask if I would reedit some of the scenes they weren’t happy with I obliged. It was a bit of a pain since I knew the music would have to be edited/rewritten as well for those scenes but I thought whatever, it’s all a part of the job. All in all I reedited about half an hour of the movie, and they decided they wanted to replace most of the music I had written with other songs, which they didn’t even have the budget for. That’s when I walked. But that was just a particularly bad experience. Disagreements are bound to come up with whomever you’re working with, and that’s just a part of the job. You’ve got to be easygoing enough to deal with a lot of crap that can happen, but knowing when to walk can be a good thing too.

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?

Network with filmmakers and other composers as much as you can. Go to film festivals and conferences, and meet and talk with filmmakers. I saw that Deane Ogden mentioned this in an interview you did with him a few weeks ago, but I’ll mention it again. I’m working with Deane and several other composers on something called SCOREcast that’s going to serve as a place for people interested in film music to come and share ideas and learn about the industry. We’ll have veteran composers, engineers, agents, etc. involved as well writing columns and interviews. The web site will be up soon, and for now there’s a page up on Facebook with some info. You can check out Deane’s website too for info at www.deaneogden.com.

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

Yeah it happens to everyone sometimes. Sometimes I’ll go take a jog or go swimming to clear my head. The most important thing is not to panic when you’ve got a tight deadline and can’t come up with ideas, because that will only make things worse.

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

Haha I don’t know if I really get sick of hearing something I’ve written, I’m sure others have for sure =). It’s more that as I keep listening, I tend to notice the things that need to be changed, and that can be a never-ending process. So after a project I’ve done is finished and it’s too late to change anything, I usually don’t listen to it too terribly often. There’s always something that I want changed after the fact whether it’s a melody I wrote, the way the violas played a certain line, or the mix at a particular point, but that’s just a part of the process. I try to learn from these things and implement them into my next project. As Da Vinci said, “art is never finished, only abandoned.”

How long do you typically spend on one track?

It varies a lot. For the big-sounding choir and orchestra trailer tracks I do, it can take anywhere from a couple days to a week to write a 90 second track. For something requiring mainly underscore, I usually get about two to three minutes written per day.

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?

The majority of the time I’m given pretty strict guidelines on how long a track should be, and with technology these days it’s pretty easy to meet those lengths. If I’m scoring to picture I’ll write the music and use the tempo control and hit points within the sequencer to sync it up with the picture. If I’m doing something for a music library where I don’t have a video loaded up that I’m writing to, I’ll usually get the track to match up closely with the required length, and then slightly adjust the tempo throughout to get it spot on.

Have you ever had any times where you weren’t happy with the music you created, but you had to hand it in, as the timeline for it had passed?

I tend to work pretty well under pressure, and get the music to sound as best I can by the deadline. But I can think of one particular experience where the deadline was so tight that I had to essentially cut corners to make it in time. The music still sounded fine and the client was happy, but if I had had so much as another hour to go back and rewrite some things I would have been happier with the result.

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

I’m really trying to work on getting to where I can just sit down with pencil and paper and write, without sitting at the piano or computer to hear my ideas as I create them. I realize that not many people write like that anymore, and with film scoring it eventually all ends up in the computer anyways, but I want to get to the point where I can write just as well without relying on any technology or aide, just doing it all in my head. I’m also always trying to learn new instruments. Not necessarily becoming a pro at them or anything, but you tend to write from a different perspective after you’ve experienced an instrument hands on, different than just listening to it or studying it in an orchestration text. I’m really interested in the more ethnic instruments and their place in film scores.

What are you working on right now?

Currently I’m working on some trailer music for Disney, Rip Tide Music, and another installment of Liquid Cinema. I’m also contributing to a TV show on ABC, as well as beta testing and writing audio demos for some upcoming East West products.

If you could go back to the start of your career, what would you do differently?

Become a doctor… haha. I’m still pretty fresh at all of this, and ask me this question in five or ten years and I’m sure there’s tons of things I’d change. But for now if I could go back I suppose I would have practiced more as a kid.

How would you define success?

Well I think that’s different for everybody. For me, composing being my career, success is number one enjoying what I do, and number two being able to make a living at it. That second part can sometimes take a while to achieve, and if you ask any established composer in the film industry, they’ll tell you the money just doesn’t roll in overnight. So if this is something you’re trying to make a career at, don’t get discouraged if the checks are little to none at first. When I first started composing though, I wasn’t looking for a career at all. My view of success was just having fun and people enjoying my music, so I guess that view will keep changing as I develop more into this field. But most importantly I don’t think you can consider yourself successful if you don’t love what you do.

What ultimately are your goals?

I eventually want to start my own music library geared toward trailers. That aspect of the film music industry really interests me and I’ve always enjoyed working with libraries, so I’d really like to record and produce my own and have some other composers contribute.

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

Well it’s really hard to get into this business, and I’m not saying I know a way to change that, but it’s definitely something that hinders a lot of great composers from getting a foot in the door. If it weren’t for some really generous established composers giving me advice and work, I would have had no clue what to do. And that’s one of the big motivations behind SCOREcast that I mentioned previously. We’re trying to create transparency in this business and give advice to those looking to get into it.

What is your outlook on life and what motivates you?

I always try and stay positive no matter how crappy things get. As far as writing music goes, I really feel that this is what I was born to do, and I’ve been blessed with a great family that always supported me and my music. But I never make music the forefront of my life. I remember Jeff Rona once said in regards to the ’94 Northridge quake something to the effect of, “If you lost everything you had in the next fifteen seconds, what would be most important? It’s the same as what’s important now, that you’re here and alive.” And that’s really something I’m grateful to God for everyday, that I can live another day to be thankful.

What are your other interests outside of music?

I love kayaking and scuba diving. Here in Austin there’s some cool lake diving, and sometimes in the mornings I’ll go out with a few friends on the water to kayak and watch the sunrise.

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?

Yeah I usually keep some manuscript paper nearby to jot down ideas, and sometimes carry a small tape recorder with me in case I get a jolt of inspiration while I’m away haha.

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

Definitely “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls, always loved that track.

Then Oscar Peterson’s version of “All of Me”:

and the third would probably be Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”

What is the most stupid thing you have ever done?

Hah! That’s easy. One night I heard my toilet making this weird noise while I was doing some recording so I went to investigate, finding that there was a slight drip coming from the wall valve. Me being the do it yourself idiot, decided to mess with it. Well when I tightened the wall knob, the screw that held it to the gasket broke, and the knob fell off. Now I couldn’t get the toilet to turn back on, so I thought to myself no worries, I’ll just turn the gasket a little to get it back to where it was, and leave it at that. Well half a counter-clockwise turn later, Niagra Falls breaks forth into my bathroom, and it took about a dozen firefighters to get the water under control. I was able to get all the towels and clothes I could find to dam up the bathroom and contain most of the water, thus saving my studio. The worst part about it all was that since I lived on the second floor, all that water went downstairs pretty quick. Now the guy below me had wanted new carpet, but the management said no. So he put his own money into recarpeting his apartment, three days before the incident occurred, destroying that new carpet… So moral of the story is, don’t play plumber…

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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