Composer Interview – Mark Lewis

Can you give us some background to how PartnersinRhyme, and musicloops started off? How and why did you create them, and is there anything you would like to change with them?

Partners in Rhyme started in 1996. I started it as one of the first websites dedicated to digital audio on the web in late 1994 and moved it to a real domain in 1996.

We were working for Mark Mothersbaugh at the time writing music for lots of TV commercials. For each commercial we would submit 4 or 5 choices for the client of which they would pick one and we would be left with 3 or 4 fairly well developed pieces of music.

One day I decided to put all these ‘extras’ onto one CD and advertise it on our website for people to use in their commercial projects (I had never heard the term ‘royalty free music’ at that time). We sold our first CD the same week it went online and from then on I was hooked and knew that I would be selling music online for a very long time.

We started writing music specifically for sale in these collections and I started asking my musician friends if they wanted to submit some music. Everything we put online started selling. Then we started getting composers from all over the world submitting their music to us plus record labels offering their catalog for sale to us. We kept investing in the website and the store and the delivery system and it just kept getting bigger with more traffic and more sales everyday.

We now get close to 20,000 unique visitors a day on partnersinrhyme.com alone and this year’s revenue will be around $600,000 even though we are in a global recession.

Musicloops started about a year ago because our customers wanted to purchase individual tracks as opposed to the collections sold on Partners in Rhyme . I also wanted to give our composer’s a more interactive role in uploading, pricing and promoting their own music. I also built in a feature that automatically builds a royalty free music website for each of the composer’s music where he/she can customize the look with his own logo and create his/her own genres. The composer also gets 70% of every sale made directly through their website (as opposed to the main site) because they would be doing all the marketing and promotion to get that sale.

The site has turned out to be a huge success and me and my team of programmers in India are constantly adding new features. We now promote 57 composers on musicloops.com

Our main goal with these websites has always been to give musicians a place to earn a steady living creating music without the hassle of middle men and record labels. I feel we have definitely accomplished this goal.

In 2008 Partners In Rhyme and our composers have also started giving a portion of each sale to help build schools in Cambodia, Pakistan and Afghanistan through the Central Asia Institute.

Located here

I’m really grateful to our composers for agreeing to be part of this program.

Do you have any formal musical training?

Yes, I was fortunate enough to go to a sort of experimental high school in California where the majority of my classes had something to do with music. I took counterpoint, theory, improvisation plus performed in many of the bands in and outside of the school. I also taught guitar at my high school while I was going to school there which I got credit for. I even got English credits for a class that taught us how to be a DJ (the old school kind, like on the radio). So it ended up that 6 of my 9 classes every semester had something to do with music.

I also took a bus from my high school to attend college classes in songwriting and film scoring at UCSC.

When I graduated from high school I moved to Hollywood to attend Musician’s Institute which was just a phenomenal experience that shaped me as a musician and a person.

I then spent 6 years on the road playing in a band which as anyone who as done this knows there is no musical training that can match playing live 6 sets a night, 6 nights a week.

How did you find the course? Are there any great pointers that you learn in the course?

It was great. A bit over my head at times because I was just 15 years old. The two main things that stuck with me from the class were writing and evoking different subtle emotions using modal composition and the other thing being a book of scales that the teacher gave us with a specific musical scale for every country in the world. I absolutely loved that book. It even had scales for regions of countries like North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

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

I think it’s given me the ability to write things I definitely would not have been able to had I not been trained.

But these days I don’t think it is not quite as important as long as you practice whatever you are doing everyday, be it writing a trance track in Reason, or Drum n Bass in Pro Tools or just a new pop song in Garage Band.

Software and computers have opened the once secret world of being a musician to the point where anyone who can hum a tune can record a semi decent track if they put their mind to it. For better or worse, but there you go.

What would you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

I think I have a real talent for playing with people, knowing where to sit back and where to come up front, knowing how to get in the pocket on a groove. I also feel I’m fairly good at music production in general.

My weaknesses musically would be a tendency to play too fast and noodle on the guitar. I only play on acoustic guitars now to try and keep it slow and tasty.

Who would you consider to be your musical influences?

I’m showing my age here but Led Zeppelin, Eddie Van Halen and Ted Nugent really got me into playing guitar.

From then on my influences have been anything and everything. When I was in Hollywood it was punk rock, then it was Guns n Roses style heavy blues rock. Then when I worked for Mark Mothersbaugh at Mutato Musika he turned me onto the world of electronic music and samplers and I’ve never looked back since.

For the last two years I’ve listened to nothing but Psy Trance, this year was more minimal like Trent Moeller, and now I really, really like Cuban Hip Hop. I’m off to Senegal this month so I might be heavily into African music when I get back.

What equipment do you use?

I have 5 guitars and heaps of keyboards. Everything runs through a Dual Proc G5 Mac with a terabyte of storage and 4 gigs of RAM.

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

Pro Tools TDM with a gazillion plugins and soft synths plus lots of vintage outboard gear plugged in as well. I absolutely love it. It is the most flowing set up to have for just spewing out any creative idea that comes into my head.

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

I use Sampletank a lot as a sample player, Kontakt as well we just started using Structure as a sample editor and that is really fun, Strike for some drums although I prefer chopping up my own loops usually,
We have some symphonic plugins that are good. And just lots of effects plugins. The one that gets the most use is AutoTune.

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?

Yes, guitar. I’ve been playing almost everyday since I was 8 years old.

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

My acoustic ‘salon’ guitar made in Canada because it makes me sound like Robert Johnson.

Whats your favourite piece of software and why?

Pro Tools. I’m not sure why, I just think it’s a great piece of software that helps me make music 10 times faster and a 1000 times cheaper than it did 10 years ago.

Whats your favourite piece of hardware and why?

It *was* my ASR-10 sampler from Ensoniq. At one time we had three of them. Our last one just died and we have no hopes of finding a repairman here in Barcelona.

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

I think it is very important. Can a musician write music and not have a style? A composer definitely needs to develop his own ‘voice’ or style.

Part of my job in the business I own is to listen to and evaluate music submissions. I do this almost everyday, sometimes three submissions a day. I also have to listen to and approve hundreds of tracks every week into our library.

The composers who get accepted into our library all of a very definite style. Some composers get too hung up on trying to do everything from standard jazz to Brazilian death metal but 9 times out of 10 they end up doing it all badly (there are some who can pull it off though).

The demos that get canned right away are the ones where they take one drum loop and then lay some kind of synth part over it and then call it a day.

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

The farthest I get in trying to write in different genres is the drum loops I use to start with. I might use a reggae loop or a jazz loop or hip hop or big beat. But in the end it all comes out sounding like me somehow.

I can’t write ambient music. I listened to Psy Trance for two years straight and can’t write that either. So I don’t even try. I just write what ever comes to me.

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

Film, lots of TV shows and commercials, video games, you name it. I like the projects that combined music and sound design, like video games.

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

Well, we worked for Mark Mothersbaugh and Mutato Musika so we had some very large clients from advertising, film and TV.

Now that we own our own music distribution company we have large clients buying music from us everyday.

Our biggest client though was probably Disney. We wrote 25 or so featured songs for the kid’s TV show ‘Adventures in Wonderland’.

We wrote the music and the lyrics for these kid’s tunes and it was really fun. My partner got nominated for an emmy for on the songs she wrote. I met OJ Simpson on the set of the show, he was doing a cameo. He had a knife in his left hand as I was shaking his right hand.

Here’s our reel for the commercials we did for all kinds of big clients

http://www.partnersinrhyme.com/pir/PIR_Reel.html

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 would say get a great website together that showcases your work and promote the crap out of it through social networks. Kevin MacLeod has the right idea:

Kevin MacLeod’s Site

Lets say you were given a film to score. What steps would you go through in scoring for it?

I would ask for temp music and the basic timings and descriptions of the emotions that the director wanted for each of the scenes. Then start building each section according to the directions.

When I wrote music for cartoon shows and action scenes I always started with the beat first and built on that. Taking the cue from the temp music whether to go with heavy guitar or orchestration or electronica.

I would sometimes have pre-written tracks that I would drop into appropriate scenes to see if the director might like them as a starting point.

Say you were given a video game to score. What steps would you go through in scoring for it, or would it be the same as scoring for a film?

It’s been a while since I’ve scored a video game but I remember having to make sure everything had to either loop or fade into another piece of music fairly seamlessly because we would score to different rooms or scenes that had to transition into other scenes. When we did the video games we usually did the sound design as well. The mix down on the video game was really intense.

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

Yes. I deal with it by bringing other people in to write with me. Or I just mix someone else’s tracks. Or I just go and do something completely different and come back to it in a week.

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

The opposite. I can’t stop listening to it.

How long do you typically spend on one track?

It depends. No less than two days. One of my recent tracks took a year for me to finish.

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?

Definitely let the track build it itself but I try to keep it within 2:30 to 4:00.

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

I would have said that I wish I could sing on pitch but I have AutoTune now so I’m all good now.

How would you define success?

Not having a day job.

What ultimately are your goals?

To be honest I’ve hit them all. Now I’m just planning on doing a lot of traveling and playing with musicians around the world for the joy of playing.

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

I wish there were better filters. I’m sure this is what is going to happen in Web 3.0 but we need filters to make it easier to sift through the glut of music that is now online to find the gems that are out there. I think HypeMachine is heading in that direction.

What are your other interests outside of music?

I like creating visual effects for videos (I did this as a day job for 10 years), I like reading about all kinds of subjects including politics, economics and philosophy, I like cooking and going out with friends. I like speaking Spanish. Above all I like to travel.

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?

I try to keep a todo list going all the time so I don’t forget stuff. It helps keep me from procrastinating.

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

  • Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin
  • Easy Street by The Edgar WInter Group
  • Something off the Crystal Method Vegas CD.

What is the most stupid thing you have ever done?

There’s far too many to choose from. The one that comes to mind though is when we were living in New Zealand we only had one car. After work I would wait on the street in front of the Dairy Store for my wife to pick me up in our little red Holden. I was waiting there one day and a little red Holden pulled up and stopped in front of me and I opened the door and got in with all my bags and everything and started to buckle myself in when I noticed the person sitting next to me was not my wife but some woman I didn’t know who had a really terrified look on her face.

We both shrieked a little and I quickly got out of the car and waited for the real red Holden to show up.

Would you mind doing a quick run through of how you created “First Time” .ie – what did you lay down on the track first, did you use any cool vsts, did you come across any problems when making the track and how did you overcome them?

This track started like most tracks I do with a set of drum loops. I like the effect section in SampleTank for drum loops. It’s got a great compression area where you can really go over the top on getting your drum loops into that NIN type sound.

Then I work on the bass line and then the melody synth line. Once the basic track was filled out with a catchy funky groove I started singing over it (only because I felt I had something to sing about at the time).

Once the vocal chorus was solid I started moving sections around. Cutting out the drums for an intro, breaking it down in the middle by removing most of the instruments, asking my partner to mess around a bit with organ and melodica parts (a great way to break up a track and get some variety and ideas is to ask someone to go in and do whatever they want to it, including deleting your parts if they want).
Once I had a basic idea of the structure I started filling out the mix with lead-ins, fills and crashes. I spent a lot of time adding different reverb, pan and EQ effects to the vocals and of course heavy use of AutoTune.

As far as plugins I like the effects from the guys at Sound Toys like Crystallizer, Tremolater and Filter Freak. I try to use these plugins as much as possible.

I also use Ultramaximizer II for the final mix and also for the TrackSlammer feature while recording.
For reverb and delay I use TrueVerb, Supertap and Ultra Pitch Shift.

One thing I really like to do and is a secret I don’t tell anyone is to run my old crappy midi outboard gear through the Amplitube plugin. Try running a grand piano through Amplitube to really beef it up. Or run your mono analog synth sound through Amplitube to really give it an edge. In the end it took forever to mix ‘First Time’ because I started the track in New Zealand and finished it when we finally settled here in Barcelona.

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.

Film and Game Composers

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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