Composer Interview – Noah Potter

Do you have any formal musical training?

Yes, I have a degree in music composition from the University of Chicago, where I studied with Easley Blackwood and John Eaton. I’ve also studied classical piano since age 5.

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

Its certainly helped. In music composition there’s an element of inspiration as well as an element of craftsmanship. I think that the more you learn about composing, the more you realize how important the craftsmanship is, especially in a professional context. You need to start with a faith in yourself, that the inspiration will be there when you need to call on it, and the rest you need to study, work and polish as much as you can. The inspiration you either have or don’t have, but the training and preparation is something you can control. The more knowledge, the more perspectives and experiences you can bring to bear on a problem the better. Of course, “formal” training doesn’t have to be you sitting in a classroom or absorbing knowledge from some text book.

Hands on experience as a performer is really important too – I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to accompany an improv comedy group in college, as well as to score some live theater productions. It was so helpful to be able to hear the direct impact of your music on an audience. I’d consider that “training” as well. So to sum up, I think you really need to soak up every musical experience you can find, classroom, hands-on or whatever.

What would you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

Strength: I have a knack for writing compelling tunes that will get stuck in people’s heads. Pulling a really interesting tune out of nowhere is my favorite part of composing.

Weakness: I had to approach writing for synths without a ton of hands on experience with a real orchestra. I’ve tried to overcome that through tons of “book learning” about how the instruments work, but I’d still love to have been more involved in the real thing at some point. However, if I can identify something as a weakness, I’ll make sure to work harder at that particular thing until it well, isn’t.

Who would you consider to be your musical influences?

That would be a mix of film and classical stuff. Two of my favorite sound tracks are Trevor Jones’ score for The Dark Crystal, as well as Jeremy Soule’s work on the Total Annihilation series. That game was ear opening to me in terms of how compelling and movie quality a game soundtrack could be. Nobuo Uematsu’s tracks for the Final Fantasy series were a huge influence as well. I’m a bit sorry to see the industry trend veering towards more ambient sorts of soundtracks – sometimes they work better dramatically, but I don’t think they are ever as memorable.

On the classical side, I’m a big fan of Bartok for the way that he combined abrasive modernism and complexity with the most tuneful and direct peasant inspired melodies. Prokofiev’s piano music is great too. The seventh piano sonata for example is one of my favorites.

What equipment do you use?

I have a tricked out Mac Pro workstation with a set of ASPX

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

I’m using Logic 8 right now, which is a little crash-ridden unfortunately. I must confess that Cakewalk 7 was the best MIDI sequencer I’ve used, back in 1999 or so. Too bad they stopped making it!

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 played classical piano since age 5.

Whats your favourite piece of software and why?

Symphobia is great. It gives you a quick shortcut to some pretty complicated orchestral textures that come up a lot in film music. It’s easy to overuse it, but the program is still a huge time saver.

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

I think that having a distinctive style can be a great way to “brand” yourself and move your career forward in like a middle to end stage. There’s room for all sorts of approaches however. You need to be flexible early on so that you can deliver what your clients are asking you for, obviously. Maybe at the high point of your career people will start coming to you for a particular style that you do well, but I’m not there yet so I’ll get back to you!

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

I try to stay flexible with my “commercial” music. I have my own style for the classical art music that I write for fun, to be sure, but commercial stuff is much more focussed on delivering to a client’s expectation.

How do you feel about the current trend away from thematic music for film towards music being more like a sound effect?

This too shall pass. In the tug of war between “thematic” and “wallpaper” music, I actually think that a good film or game should have a back and forth interplay between sections where the music is in the forefront, and when it can play a more supporting role. Just like there are times for black and white film, and times for vibrant colors there are times where different types of music is appropriate.

What appeals to you about creating your style of music?

My style is much more just a reflection of “how I hear things in my head” as opposed to a conscious effort to bring about a new style.

In some of your tracks I hear clarinets – I see you play clarinet yourself – do you record live clarinet and mix it into your tracks for a more realistic approach?

Actually, I’m a classical pianist. I wrote the clarinet sonata for a friend who does play the clarinet though. I do indeed use live instruments in my pieces whenever possible – it adds a really important sense of “life” even if its something as simple as a live maraca part or something. I have live piano and percussion, and work with a few session musicians to record on a per track basis.

You have a classical sonata for sale with your publisher – do you enjoy writing classical music? Do you find there are a lot of similarities between writing classical music which is to be played solely for enjoyment, compared to film music, which has a specific role?

I love writing concert music. Its totally different than writing score, however. Concert music gives you a really unlimited sense of freedom – the constraints on your creativity are only those which are self imposed.

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

I’ve composed for video games, TV and film. The formats definitely present different challenges. I think that Film work is the most demanding, in that you have an explicit framework defined by the director. Most of the time in film, you’ll know that you need to provide 37.43 seconds of music that hits these key points. There’s the added challenge of film work being much more of a “client service” – you’re bringing the director’s vision of the film to life. A lot of the time the director won’t know precisely what they want until they hear something, so learning to work collaboratively with a director is really important. You have to check your ego at the door and treat your own cues with a certain degree of humility.

TV is less demanding compositionally, and more demanding from a time frame perspective. The pace of television is fast and furious, and usually they need the cue yesterday. Composers are towards the end of the production cycle, so the slipped deadlines of everyone who came before tend to hit you full force.

Games allow the most freedom for the composer I think, because the environment that your music will be in is less determined before hand.

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

I like to set some creative limits to work within. Usually that will start with choosing a palette of instruments that communicates the mood of the film / game. From there I try to figure out what the main themes are. If there’s a major emotional climax in the film, I try to identify that and develop that music first. Once you know how your soaring hollywood string moment is going to sound for example, you can build up to it appropriately. A film is a huge amount of work, so you have to break it down into manageable bite-sized chunks so that you don’t get overwhelmed.

Can you guide us through the making of the track “Battle”? What was the project it was created for? Did you come across and problems when making it, and if so, how did you get over them?

That one is for an unannounced video game title. They wanted a sort of panoramic zoom in sequence amidst a fantasy battle. Production, EQ and MIxing are always more difficult in a fast action-ridden time of piece. Getting the strings and percussion to sound punchy and distinct for example is a lot more difficult than you’d think. Smaller scale pieces are easier to produce, but the writing is more exposed to scrutiny. Its a different set of challenges.

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

I scored the game “Dreamlife”, which was a big hit for Hasbro. We (my studio at the time, Chewy Software) kind of stumbled into the gig by doing some creative work for them through an intermediary. It was one of those friend of a friend things as opposed to a result of any direct promotion. I remember it was a pretty comical scene actually, they were coming out to check out our studio, sort of a due diligence run. The company was running out of a two room apartment at the time, having just graduated to that space out of my dining room. There was sort of this collective “oh sh*t” moment, where we had to scamper to rent larger space. We had some of our friends come in and “look busy” on laptops in the background so that we’d look a little more professional.

It was definitely a different experience working with a more corporate product development pipeline. Everything was driven by cost of hardware and target audience. I wound up having about 1MB of space to write for a MIDI engine with no built in reverb. I had to geek in those reverb effects by hand by you know, repeating each note quieter and quieter.

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

Most of my jobs come from unlikely sources. Its never some big name producer that I had to shmooze or anything. Its always the random person in an unrelated business that you met at a friend’s party last week. They’ll know someone who knows someone, and so on. Word of mouth is definitely a big part of this business.

What is your opinion on stock music – have you ventured into this part of the music industry?

I haven’t had much exposure to this. I imagine writing stock music would be a good track for someone who’d like to shy away from the customer service part of the business. Sometimes in makes a lot more sense for your client to pay 20$ to license something that is adequate than to pay to compose “award winning” level music for a scene that doesn’t need it.

What project have you enjoyed working on the most?

I had the chance recently to work with an extremely talented writer/ director, Francis Abbey, on his film “Boxing Day”.

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?

A while ago I was still trying to build credits by snagging gigs from Craigslist. I had this one guy where I scored his short film, and then he dropped off the face of the earth without giving me a copy. I’ve actually found three other composers online who list that particular project as a credit, so I think what he actually did was asked a bunch of different people to do it without telling any of them, lol. At the end of the day there are going to be some difficult people. You just have to make a decision on a case by case basis as to whether your going to work with someone or not. Now that I don’t have to take everything that comes my way, I like to make sure that if the client is tough to work with, that the result is going to be something that I’m really proud of.

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?

Look for little breaks not big breaks. Opportunities are much more likely to come from a friend of a friend than through trying to schmooze with some big name Producer at the “right” party. Concentrate on growing your network at your own career level, and move up the ladder with those people. Look for ways to help other people out with your network.

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

I usually start a track off with a melody or tune of some sort. If Im not directly inspired, I try to start off with a chord progression instead. Set some limits for yourself so that you’re “solving a problem” instead of staring at a blank page. For example, how can I write a theme using only root position chords? How can I fill in a space using only the main theme of the movie with no new material? You learn the composer’s craft to get you through the spots where you aren’t inspired.

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

Maybe about half the time. It depends on the track really. I had to write some circus music for a TV show, and that got old real fast! I try to write things that are going to have some lasting listening value, however. It’s important to invest yourself creatively so that you’re proud of the finished product.

How long do you typically spend on one track?

Anywhere from 6 hours to a week. Usually it takes longer when the director or producer has something specific in mind but doesn’t know how to communicate it. That’s when you get in to writing several different versions of the same cue to get at what’s in their head.

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?

In a film, obviously, your given a strict time frame limits. This framework of the scene is counter to my own instinct to just “listen for what comes next”. I know composers who plan out structures in detail on graph paper before they start with a note. That’s not me. I’ll try to fit things into a structure only after I have some initial ideas down. Musical structure is important of course, just for me it isn’t usually the starting point.

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

I hope to pick up the guitar as soon as I can find the time. I try to record as many live instruments as possible in my tracks.

How would you define success?

Hearing someone else whistle something that you wrote quietly to themselves.

What ultimately are your goals?

I’d like to be competing for A-list hollywood film scores in ten years.

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

It is what it is. You have to learn how to play the game that’s provided.

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

I had a lot of pressure to “do something practical” – I would have been quicker to ignore that advice. However, my life now, with my amazing wife and my chance to pursue the profession that I love is the result of all the choices that I made. I don’t think you can take individual choices out of context and approach them with regret – everything led to how things are now.

What are your other interests outside of music?

I’m into tabletop wargaming, (go Tyranids!) as well as many different kinds of strategy games, from Starcraft to Bridge. I’ve recently gotten into skiing, though my wife tends to leave me in the dust, er, snow.

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

Bartok, 2nd Violin Concerto;

Dandy Warhols “Scientist”;

Trevor Jones’ soundtrack to “The Dark Crystal”;

What is the most stupid thing you have ever done?

I broke my wrist trying to dunk a basketball once. It wound up making for great college essay material, in that I had to compete in a piano competition a few months later in a cast. (I arranged some stuff for right hand + 1 finger on left hand). So, it can read like this great triumph and determination in the face of adversity story, but actually, it was just really, really dumb.

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.

  • Pingback: Noah Potter | The Score

  • Pingback: Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-04-05

  • http://- Anthony

    Such a fantastic story! I’m in the very beginning and have just realised this is what I want to do. However I am in my 2nd year of a drama degree and by the time I graduate I’ll be 21. I feel that after saving for a second degree in music technology I will be almost 25 and will have wasted time. Any chance I can get Noah’s email. I’d really like to have a chat with the guy.

    Thanks.

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.

Sign up to our newsletter to get a monthly digest of the latest content and information on new competitions and freebies. If you would like to write for us, please contact us.

Tweets

If Sam Lake looks a bit familiar, he's both the man who created Max Payne and modelled him in the first game :) https://t.co/N163ci9apU
If you're looking for somewhere to start, check out this course from @EvenantOnline: https://t.co/U44ecBVOXK