Composer Interview – Michael Shumway

Do you have any formal musical training?

Yes. I studied Jazz Bass Performance in college. I’ve also received private music instruction for most my life on a variety of instruments, mainly the piano (you can thank my mom for that, lol).

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

I’d say that it definitely influences my writing in a positive way. I use my piano instruction on a daily basis, and although I don’t exactly use my bass chops very often, my theory and orchestral classes from college have been invaluable to me.

What would you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

I would have to say that one of my strengths is writing orchestral music that is mature and textured. I enjoy writing very dramatic pieces for film that allow the orchestra to be inventive and full. Music that tells a story. I think I write pretty strong character themes and motifs. (Man, I don’t like bragging this much about myself.) On the flip side, some of my weaknesses… hopefully no directors read this… haha I’m a perfectionist. If I’m going to write music, it has to be perfect or it drives me crazy. I don’t like doing half jobs. Directors seem to always want cues finished yesterday, so for me, I have a hard time just handing something over when I don’t think it’s just right. The director will usually like it anyways, but for me as a artist, it’s sometimes difficult.

Who would you consider to be your musical influences?

In the film world, John Williams is by far my #1. After him, probably James Newton Howard, Michael Kamen, Bernard Herrmann. Recently, I’ve started liking John Powell and Michael Giacchino as well. In the classical world, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky. I’m a pretty big sucker for classical music.

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

Depends on the day. Haha. I also run a web development studio and so my time goes between the two. Sometimes it feels like 2 full time jobs and other times my time is spent mostly in one or the other.

What equipment do you use?

I run my setup off a Mac Pro 8core loaded with a bunch of RAM and hard drives for samples. I have an 88 key MIDI controller that I do my playing into the computer with, and then everything else for the most part is run by software. I have very little hardware. I use a MOTU HD192 interface for my monitoring and a pair of Tannoy monitors. Besides some other miscellaneous studio gear, that’s about all I use for scoring.

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

I use Digital Performer 5. Haven’t quite upgraded to version 6 yet, but probably will sometime soon. It’s been really stable for me. I seriously haven’t had a single problem with it. I hear about nightmares all the time with other daws, but I’ve never experienced that with DP. I used to use ProTools, but wanted something a little more artistic/composer friendly and my buddies down at Sweetwater Sound recommended DP to me. So, I ordered it and have been happy ever since.

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

I use primarily East West’s platinum orchestra. Occasionally I’ll also use their RA, Choirs, SD2, etc. I find that EastWest has a really good sound out of the box, and I don’t have to tweak things to get it to just sound good enough for MIDI mockups for the director. I’ve also heard good things about Project Sam and their Symphobia library. I might start using that.

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. I play the piano, bass (electric and acoustic), violin, drums, and organ. Everything else I just tinkle on. I’ve played piano for 20 years, violin for 12, bass for 7, drums for 7, and who knows on the organ… a while i guess.

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

My favorite instrument is my custom 5 string electric bass I had commissioned from GW Basses, and I would really like to own an upright bass. I haven’t had one in my house in a while.

Whats your favourite piece of software and why?

Digital Performer. It’s so easy to use, looks great, and it’s fun to make music!

Whats your favourite piece of hardware and why?

My Mac. You gotta love Apple. Looks good, no problems… always up and running.

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

I’m a fence sitter on this one. I think it’s important to write your own music, but directors are always looking for a specific sound, so you usually have to deliver what they’re looking for. Granted, if you can carve out your own sound in the industry that directors come to you for, that’s great. Just write music that feels like you. Stuff that you can express yourself through. If you’re doing that, I think you’ll be original enough to stand on your own.

At every stage in a composer lifetime, they will be asked “Can you create something identical to this track in every way, but change it enough to not be plagarism”. How have you dealt with this if it has ever arisen?

Well, it can be a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it’s nice to already have your musical palette laid out for you, but other times it can drive you crazy. I usually just try to keep the same texture as the temp music that they are referring to, but change the melody, harmonization, etc. Sometimes it can be difficult, but not impossible.

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

I can do any genre, although, I really have a soft spot for orchestral action cues. Nothing better than that.

What appeals to you about creating your style of music?

I think it’s great, as an artist, to be able to make a spot in this world that is only yours. Your music is yours and nobody else’s (at least, let’s hope so!) and it’s great to be able to share that with people.

What is your view on mixing electronics with live/orchestral instruments?

I think it can be very effective if done tastely. Composers these days seem to rely on loops, electronics, etc a little more than I think they should though. I’m more of a traditionalist is some aspects. I really think that an orchestra can portray 99% of emotions out there. I think the mix of the two mediums can be very powerful though, I just don’t like the loop approach which seems to be the norm in hollywood these days.

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

I’ve done mainly film, tv commercials, and a little bit of film trailer work. Film is my favorite media to write for because your ability to progress a theme along. Let the music build and mature. You usually have plenty of time to explore the music a little more. TV Commercials are my favorite to make money at. They are usually a quick job and they pay well. On the flip side, you really have no time to explore a theme. You just convey musical idea quickly. So artisticly, it’s less satisfying, but the wallet likes them.

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

Well, after you spot the film with the director, I sit down at my computer and open up Finale. I do all my writing with manuscript. I usually start with character themes and where I want the film to go.

Turn Around

Turn Around

My first full cue is usually the climax of the film where the music is at it’s full maturity. Then I write backwards and break the themes apart for the other cues. Once I finish all the cues and the director has passed off on the rough mockups, I dump all the MIDI files out of Finale and into DP for round 2 of the MIDI mockups. If the film is using a live session, then I’ll just perfect the score and send it to the copyist. If not, and the film is using a synthesized soundtrack, then I do the delivery of the final masters.

How do you deal with temp-tracks that you are given for a particular project? Do you try to work them into your music, or try create something better, which hopefully the director will like?

I usually just ignore them. I try to write something that I obviously think would fit better. If the director is attached though then you might have to accommodate, but I’ve been pretty fortunate and haven’t had that problem too many times.

At every stage in a composer lifetime, they will be asked “Can you create something identical to this track in every way, but change it enough to not be plagarism”. How have you dealt with this if it has ever arisen?

Well, it can be a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it’s nice to already have your musical palette laid out for you, but other times it can drive you crazy. I usually just try to keep the same texture as the temp music that they are referring to, but change the melody, harmonization, etc. Sometimes it can be difficult, but not impossible.

Have you ever had any projects where the music was needed to be completed in a very short time span – if so how did you work around this?

Isn’t that every project??!! It seems like they always need the score done yesterday. I just move as fast as I can. Pull late late nights… work everyday. Just do whatever it takes. You can only work so fast so let the client know that, but then do your best to make them happy and that’s really all that you can do.

Have you ever had any projects where you weren’t happy with the music once it was compelted? How did you deal with this if so?

Yeah, a couple. It usually comes about from a rush job or something that was needed yesterday. A couple of those projects I keep in a dusty ol’ shed in the back… haha. The only thing you can do is move on and write something better the next time.

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

I’ve had mid-sized clients. Nothing from one of the major studios, but good sized independent production companies.

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

Most of my work comes from word of mouth. Referrals are key.

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

Like I said above, referrals are everything. You do one film really good, then the director will refer you to one of his friends and so on. Always score a film like they are paying you a million dollars. You never know who will be listening.

What project have you enjoyed working on the most?

A short film that demanded some great scifi/action cues. That was a lot of fun.

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?

I’d say no. Directors, producers, and anyone else involved closely with the film is going to have a pretty strong opinion most of the time. The trick is to be able to deliver something that you are proud of as an artist, but still meets the expectation. Obviously there is going to be some conflicts when you have 5+ people making artistic decisions, but I’ve always worked with professionals who know how to handle differences like adults. That’s just the nature of the creative process as a joint effort, and that’s what making a film is… a joint effort. As a composer, you can’t just jump into a film and make the music your way, or lead the film in the direction you want. The best films come from a close collaboration between the director/producer/composer/etc Always be willing to mold.

How do you deal with clients who are not near you, so personal meetings are not possible?

A lot of phone calls! I just try to make every effort possible to always make the client feel comfortable and help them feel like they can always reach me. I always try to answer my phone. I think that in a long distance project situation, constant communication is obviously key.

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?

Just like everything else, I don’t think there is one magic answer. Just work hard. If you work hard, you’ll get lucky once and land a great gig… then hopefully you get lucky twice. The main thing really is to work hard. Talk to everyone. Phone calls, email, on and on. Seek out student films in the beginning. I don’t like doing anything for free, because I think that our craft is worth something. It doesn’t have to be much, but get something out of it. Be willing to work on any project. Hone your craft. Write tons of music. If you have free time, write a melody. Just always stay productive and work towards your goal. I think that’s something that every composer struggles with, but the ones that do it have 300 times the chance of being successful over the ones that don’t.

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

Oh, of course. I usually get stressed out and feel like yelling at something… haha! No, I think the best thing is either to just plow through it and maybe come back to it later if what you wrote is something you don’t like, or take a 10 minute break and go eat, play drums, run around the block… something to get your mind off of it. That usually helps me.

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

Yes if I did a bad job on it, and no if I did a great job. I’ll actually listen to it over and over after I’m finished just basking in the music if it’s written well. But, if it’s a mediocre cue, then I get real sick of it. haha.

How long do you typically spend on one track?

I can usually write about 2-3 minutes of music a day. But that depends greatly on creative flow, writers block, oatmeal raisin cookies on the kitchen table, etc. But that is the benchmark I usually try to hit.

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?

It depends on the direction the director/producer has given. 90% of the time the track is timed to the film and I know exactly how long it is going to be for a certain cue. Other times the director just want the music to come in and out in the background and there is no set time.

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

Oh, there is always something to improve on. I don’t play any brass instruments, but I wish I could.

How would you define success?

If I can make a good living for the rest of my life writing music and enjoying it, that would be success in my eyes. Also, since I’m married, I would define it as a happy life at home, which I have thankfully!

What ultimately are your goals?

Be able to share my music with people. I love music and it’s the best way I know of to communicate to people. It’s something that I love to share. I hope that my music can eventually influence a lot of people for the good.

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

I wish there was more space for composers both artistically and gigs. There always seems to be a flood of mediocre gigs out there and very few good ones. And the ones that do roll through are very seldom something that would choose to work on. Quite often you take a client because it’s a job and you need to pay the bills. I don’t like art through that filter.

What is your outlook on life and what motivates you?

I’m a pretty positive person. I don’t like taking “no” for an answer. I think writing new music for new projects is super exciting. I don’t stay content for very long if I’m doing the same thing over and over, so I really enjoy music composing because you can always make it different and it’s always for different projects. Keeps things interesting.

What are your other interests outside of music?

I love graphic design. I’m a big lover of basketball. I also enjoy shooting guns, watching movies, playing video games, hanging out with my wife, trying new things, driving race cars and motorcyles, and lot’s more.

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 probably should have picked up some habits over the years other than forgetting everything I’m supposed to remember… haha.

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

That’s a tough one. My answer would probably change depending on the week, but for now I’d have to say Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, John William’s Duel of the Fates from Star Wars, and Michael Kamen’s Main Titles from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

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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  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXGpl6kJiCU Remo

    Awesome interview, just like all others on this site!

    They really inspire me and give a better look on how it really is in the music industry. Im a beginning composer myself that will start a study next year in Holland. get really inspired by these interviews, so thanks again! :)

    greetings,

    Remo

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