Composer Interview – Rob Oxenbridge

rob oxenbridge composerTell us a bit about how you got into composition?

I’d played guitar for about 17-18 years and always had a dream to create my own music but didn’t pursue it for a number of reasons, the main one being that I never considered it could ever be much more than a hobby. I had a basic DAW, Mixcraft, which is pretty good but has limited midi functions, and a copy of Native Instrument’s Absynth and a few drum loops. I didn’t even have a midi controller keyboard so Absynth mostly collected virtual dust. I toyed around with ideas for church and my own songs but didn’t really have any encouraging outlets with the result that I didn’t achieve anything worthwhile. About a year ago I was watching tv and zoned out to the picture and started really listening to the music and sound. It was an eye-opening moment as I realised all that music had to come from somewhere…but where? The more I listened, the more I thought I could create background music for tv usage. So I spent some time with Google and discovered the existence of music libraries.

Initially, I came across many of the so-called ‘royalty free’ non-exclusive libraries. I had no understanding of what that meant but submitted some tracks to a few, was ignored by some but got accepted into a couple and that was the real start of my journey. I googled far and wide and read as much as I could find but at that stage of unconscious incompetence, you don’t know what you don’t know, so I had little real comprehension of much of the information. One site I stumbled on early in the process though was called Starpolish. It did have a lot of useful articles. But it really wasn’t until I discovered the Music Library Report (MLR) and the Taxi forum that any meaningful education began. In this period, I bought a basic 49 key controller, a few sound effects packs, some more drum loops and a few other soundpacks that I can’t recall. They might have been Kore expansions.

As I devoured the cumulative knowledge of the MLR and Taxi members, my creativity exploded. I had bigger ideas than skills and had to learn how to use a DAW properly, how to employ midi, mixing skills and the like. As well, there was the realisation of how little I knew about the industry, the way it operates, how to access the avenues available to freelance composers, and so on. You can imagine how steep my learning curve was – so many new concepts to come to terms with and requisite technical skills to develop! It could have been overwhelming but I guess I didn’t think about it. I just dove in headfirst.

I think one of the things that got me through that early stage was collecting sample libraries. I’ll confess now…”Hi, my name is Rob and I’m a VSTi-aholic!” Every new sound set invoked more ideas, and cruising through presets is still one of my methods for sparking inspiration. I stumble onto a sound that wants to tell a story or provoke an emotion and I play around with it for awhile. Sometimes, I have the skeleton of a track sketched out within minutes. Other times, several hours pass before I realise it’s not going anywhere.

My first year of this journey sees me relatively unscathed; I haven’t been burnt, I’ve learnt heaps, developed many technical skills, grasped the basics of the industry and a number of exciting opportunities have come my way. On reflection, I think it’s been a very successful first year – probably as solid as anyone could hope for.

Whats your favourite software at the moment?

I’d feel unfaithful naming just one! I love Kore 2, it’s so powerful and creative. If I can’t find exactly the right sound I need, then it enables me to combine NI instruments and even third party VSTis and effects so as to create precisely what I need. It’s an amazing instrument. Also, Absynth for its beautiful evolving pads and soundscapes. Kontakt, of course, because many of my go-to sample libraries are in that format. East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra Gold. And I’ll have to add my current DAW – Presonus Studio One PRO. It has rock solid stability and is very intuitive to work with.

What websites have you bookmarked that you find helpful as a composer/musician?

There’re several I visit everyday without fail.

1) Music Library Report for research and sometimes there’s a good discussion.

2) The Taxi forums – I’d have to consider it my number one educational venue. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the Taxi concept, the forum contains a wealth of knowledge to mine and it’s such a valuable place to interact with peers, get feedback on work, offer feedback to others, learn about techniques, products and business, and just have fun. The beauty is you don’t need to be a Taxi member to participate on the forum.

3) Youtube – I keep a close eye on the channels I’m subscribed to. There’s always great music coming through. It’s an invaluable, free place to keep up with whatever genres you wish to follow. I’ve discovered or been able to research all my favourite artists, composers and bands on there.

4) Last but not least, Trailer Music News. It’s useful site for reading the latest news in the trailer music field, which is my chosen direction.

Do you compose solely as a living, or do you perform/teach etc. to support the compositional aspect of your life?

The goal is to reach a point where it’s providing the equivalent of a full-time income. I think that’s going to take maybe 4-7 years to achieve. If it occurs sooner, I’ll be ecstatic. For the last 3.5 years I’ve been trading shares full-time for a living (in total, I’ve been trading for about a decade) so I work from home, have no boss and can devote time to music whenever the markets are unco-operative. It’s a pretty ideal way to transition from one career to another. I love trading but it’s not creatively satisfying. Once I’m doing music full-time, trading will be down-shifted to longer-term investing. I nearly consider myself a full-time composer. But I’m waiting for the income to prove it to my wife!

What is the most important tool you use as a composer? Software/hardware/mental etc.

My PC: without it, it would be very difficult for me to create the music I do. It would require an expensive lineup of hardware synths, access to an orchestra, a traditional recording studio, a range of vocalists, and so on. Of course there is software involved that takes care of those elements but without the computer, the software is useless. And vice-versa! But the PC really is the heart of the operation.

You write a lot of music for libraries at the moment – How do you keep track of your cues and their locations, keywords etc. Software/spreadsheet?

I have a basic spreadsheet. It’s a work in progress because as I go along, I evolve more useful ways to organise the info. Thanks for asking this question, it reminds me that I desperately need to do some updating! Essentially, it’s a simple matrix of library name, cue name, (retitle name if applicable), length, and list of edits. I’m planning to reorganise my non-exclusive catalogue but I’ll return to that in a later question.

What does your demo pack contain/look like when you send it out?

So far all my marketing has been undertaken online, so it’s really about tailoring an introductory letter and having audio demos easily accessible, hence my soundcloud account. If a library wants mp3s and they don’t have an upload option, I use the service which stores the tracks online and delivers a download link via email. I know the stories of bins full of CDs in publisher’s offices, and artists using wooden presentation boxes or other innovative ideas to stand out, but promoting online to libraries is relatively straight-forward. They have their submission guidelines and you follow them.

You write a lot of cinematic cues – do you enjoy writing these, or did you get into this as you see there being a bigger market for this type of music?

Well, I fell into it by accident but I’d also say it was inevitable. Epic music is an expression of my soul. If you’ve ever heard the track “He who brings the night” by Two Steps From Hell, well, I jokingly refer to it as the soundtrack to my mental life. It’s playing in the background right now! I have a deep connection to this kind of music. I can’t explain it, but it expresses something that both speaks for me and excites me in ways that other music cannot. Maybe it’s the simple boyhood fantasy of being the action hero who defeats the dragon and gets the girl. I got the girl, but the dragon eludes me.

Initially, I was writing music that I thought would be suitable for tv, but even then some cinematic sensibility was sneaking through. Mid-late last year on the Film Music Network site I responded to a listing calling for industrial music written for trailers. At that time, I didn’t really have an understanding of trailers but it sounded exciting so I wrote a few cues over a couple of days and submitted them. Within five minutes, I had a reply with one of those cues being signed straight up and a request as to where they could hear more of my tracks. I started deliberately listening to more trailer music and found that it really summed up everything I wanted to do in music.

Trailer cues can be quite short, 0:30-2:00, with the epics up to 3:30-4:00. They’re very intense with a lot of sound design elements that build the excitement and propel the music forward. The percussion can be completely over the top. One library I’ve made contact with likes what I’m doing but wants even bigger, faster drums so that’s a really fun outcome in comparison to a non-trailer library I submitted to who responded by telling me my tracks were too “noisy”. Ha ha.

Do you plan on writing any other type of music, or are you happy to stay within the one genre and get to a very high level?

At this stage, trailer music is all I want to do. One day I’d like to work on a video game, but my current goal is to become the best trailer music composer I can be. I think I’m on the way for that one. I try to become better at what I do with every new track and I can see exponential growth when I listen back through music spanning this last year. As long as I maintain that ethos to improve, I believe I’ll begin accruing the credits. There are composers like Mark Petrie, Michael McCann, Thomas Bergersen, Troels Folmann, Paul Dinletir and so on, who are all outstanding in this genre. If I can get cues into trailers alongside them, I’ll be a happy camper.

Do you worry about being pigeonholed into one genre of music, or are you happy to work in the same genre and get to a very high standard?

It’s not something I worry about. I can see how that might be a potential concern for a scoring composer trying to diversify into new areas. The client will want to know about previous work and credits and if you can’t show you’re already proficient in that, it may detract from hireability (is that a word?) regardless of your capacity to deliver. My current goal is to attain a high standard in trailer music. But being a library writer, pigeon-holing is not really an issue. If I want to compose material that doesn’t fit my current publishers, there are hundreds of other libraries out there to approach. Having credits will help you get a hearing but at the end of the day, the tracks you’re offering are either good quality and fit their catalogue, or they’re not. Earlier on the journey, I found rejection hard to take. When I discovered that different libraries have different needs and tastes, rejection became a non-issue. Tracks which couldn’t find a home with A, B, or C were readily accepted by X, Y or Z. As long as the quality is there, it can usually find a home.

So now I shrug off rejection, it’s not personal. A reporter once said something like, “People who fail in show business get rejected all the time. People who succeed, like Joan Rivers, get rejected most of the time.” That’s the difference. As a library composer, you’ll get rejected most of the time. That’s normal. If you’re being rejected all of the time, then stop and take a look at your music or your marketing approach. Your work quality might not be there yet – external feedback will help with that. Or maybe you have a real niche style that no-one is prepared to take a risk with. Either go out there gigging and touring and create a market, or expand the range of what you’re prepared to create. If all you do is Mongolian throat choirs, then your potential commercial viability is very limited. Lastly, if the music isn’t the issue then seek external advice on how to improve your marketing.

What is your plan for the next couple of years or do you have one?

Absolutely! How do you know where you’re going or what it will look like when you get there if you don’t have a plan? It mainly involves writing for several of the top shelf trailer music libraries. I’ve recently had positive contact with several of them and that’s an amazing and exciting accomplishment given less than one year in the industry. Further beyond that, is the idea to establish my own trailer music house but there is a lot of planning and additional business knowledge required in that idea so it isn’t yet a goal. It remains flexible for the time being. I’m more open to the possibility of continuing working with the right libraries and not going down the “own trailer label” road. I think that writing for good libraries has obvious business advantages that a start-up would struggle to overcome. And at the end of the day, this is a business so why not partner with those who have the marketing expertise and contacts that you ultimately need?

How would you define success?

I have two ideas of what my personal success will look like. One is deriving a full-time income from music. The other is becoming a “go-to guy” eg. random music supervisor to colleague: “We need a track that has such-and-such attributes”. “Alright, contact that bloke, Rob. He’s the guy to write that.” That would be very validating. As a bonus, I think it would be pretty cool if a VSTi creator would invite me to write an official demo for a new release instrument.

Talk us through “Tactical play” – how did you start it, what instruments/vsts did you use?

It’s not my favourite track (that honour belongs to “Last dance for the fallen”) but it probably best exemplifies my general writing process. This track essentially wrote itself, which is my favourite kind of cue to work on – no writer’s block! I wanted to combine strings, big drums, electronica and guitar in a punchy action style. I had the rough idea in my head so the first step was to work out the tempo and establish the skeleton.

The opening string riff was the backbone of everything else. Is it called a riff? That’s my guitarist background showing. I used the 70 piece marcatto patch from EWQLSO Gold. A basic beat was added, which I later deleted. I duplicated the strings and beat several times, spaced it out a bit and then kept replaying it to visualise how I wanted other sections to enter. Then I wrote each additional string part up to the 1:00 mark. I think there are about 5 or 6 string layers through the first minute. Most of them are marcatto but there is a sustain patch buried in there and a fast legato. Also one layer of brass that supports the main riff. For this kind of supporting work I usually reach for the VSL brass ensemble in the Kontakt factory set. It has a nice sound and is really easy to work with quickly. For more intricate and obvious brass, I prefer the EWQLSO instruments. Once the structure was there, I duplicated the whole section and left a space of about 4 bars in between for the breakdown. I knew I wanted a change and breakdown but at this stage I wasn’t sure what it would sound like exactly. In the end it required 8 bars.

With all that in place it’s time to build the percussion. I started with one of the midi performances included in Stormdrum 2. They’re great for getting things going but they’re rarely exactly suitable “as is”. There was a fair amount of time in reworking the SD2 layers but far less than writing them all from scratch.

Now I had to outline the breakdown section. I sketched out a string part and beat so I could record all the guitars in one session.

Next came the guitar parts. They were all recorded dry. I play an ESP Horizon Custom into a Boss GT-10 which then pipes directly into the computer. Working out the phrases didn’t take long but recording did. Record. Playback. Delete. Record. Playback. Delete. Rinse and repeat many times over. Getting the timing just right is the usual hassle. You’d think after 17 years I could play in time first take, but nope – press record and my brain shuts down. Once the recording is spot on, then the tone is added using Guitar Rig. The parts you can hear clearly are all clean tones with delay but in the breakdown and second half there are really heavy distortion parts. They’re not in-your-face but if I mute them, it leaves a large sonic gap in the track. Distortion is courtesy of NI Rammfire. I’m a big Richard Kruspe fan! For the uninitiated, he’s the guitarist for Rammstein, a German industrial band.

Then on to finalise the strings in the central section, and work out all the electronica and sound design elements. I use a lot of NI (Kore, Absynth) and Heavyocity for that. Last but not least was the job of writing the epic build out drums. For that task, I’ve been reaching for Cinesamples’ “Drums of War”. DOW has such an epic feel and is easy to work with. It tends to sit nicely with every other instrument I have. I wrote the DOW parts from scratch. Last but maybe most importantly comes mixing. Bringing all those elements together can be a real challenge at times. Guitar and orchestra ok. Guitar and electronica, easy. Guitar, orchestra, electronica and epic drums is a whole other ballgame. During mixing, I will often delete parts and add cinematic elements. Finally, I like to put the track aside and give it a few days to a week before returning with fresh ears to do a final mix and tweaks. Every time, I will pick up something that was previously missed.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Just about anywhere. Two sources I mentioned earlier are surfing instrument presets and youtube. Sometimes I can be listening to a composer’s track and a certain combination of instruments and notes, or a chord progression, sparks off an idea. (It’s never about copying, I’m trying to refine my own style.) It might be a tv show or movie and the music doesn’t work so I mentally sketch an idea that could better fit the scene. That would be score though so I have to adapt it for trailer but if the creativity is sparked, that’s easily done.

One environment that’s very inspirational for me is chaos and the dark side. Lol. I love watching and hearing a powerful storm. Natural disasters, while no fun for the people involved, lend themselves to cinematic music. One piece, “Last dance for the fallen”, was written as the devastating Queensland floods were occurring in January 2011. My wife and I were watching it all unfold on the news and for a number of reasons it was hitting close to home and deeply affecting us emotionally. I like to think a lot of that feeling made it into the piece.

As an aside, I made a youtube clip with the track and some images from the floods. It’s on my website. There is one particular shot of a family sitting on their car roof, stranded in a debris filled torrent. We watched live as a news chopper circled that car and signalled rescuers as to the situation. Later on we found out the father was lost to the water. It was such a tragedy. I think directing that kind of experience into music can result in something that comes from the heart and has a particular magic, something more than just a production piece. In making the clip, I deliberately avoided a lot of far more emotionally compelling pictures. I wanted to tell the story because as a Queenslander I shared in it, but I didn’t want to deliberately confront viewers with the harder moments. Many similar stories could be told now about the unfolding earthquake, tsunami and radiological disaster in Japan. I think that’s one very special privilege we have as musicians, is to be able to tell stories which are often better told without words.

Outer space has an inherent majesty, beauty and terror that demands music be written for it. So overall I could say the ‘bigger’ side of nature is a deep well of ideas. In particular, I connect with the darkness. As a Taxi member, I’ve tried to write for some of the listings calling for light, happy, quirky music but I always seem to find that within the first ten seconds of a track, I’ve ushered in a monster, the tragic fall of a hero, or impending disaster.

A process I find less productive is sitting down and playing around with the keyboard. I tend to find the ideas flowing out of that become ‘stuck’ as piano oriented pieces. I hear of composers who write everything on the piano then orchestrate the instruments once the writing is done. That doesn’t work for me.

Have you had any experience with re-titling and if so, what are your thoughts on it?

Yes, that’s where I started. It wasn’t until I already had tracks in those libraries that I came across the counter-arguments. I’ve considered both sides of the debate and I think a big consideration will be how digital ‘fingerprinting’ alters the tracking process. I see the potential for messy disputes in broadcast. On the other hand there are many media uses for music where fingerprinting need not apply: websites, iphone apps, non-broadcast corporate videos, etc. Where the composer owns the copyright, she has the right to exploit that in any legal way available to her and retitling is one such opportunity. As a counter to that, I know for example, of a very successful library that refuses to work with any writers who have music in retitle libraries. I think many tv composers would be ecstatic to have their music in this particular library due to the high-profile clients and large placement success. So does one avoid retitling to be able to access that kind of avenue? I don’t have an answer to that one. Each composer needs to decide what makes sense to them. What doesn’t help is the rhetoric that demonises one side or the other.

A while ago I made the decision to stop submitting to any more retitle libraries. For the moment, I have music in six reputable ones and with sufficient time (maybe another year or two) to analyse the performance of my tracks in those, I’ll then reorganise my catalogue so that the libraries which are most successful and have least overlap in clientele can look after all my non-exclusive tracks. Not every track is in all libraries and I might ultimately treat them all as exclusive which will mean despite the retitle option, each track will still only be available in one library. My personal jury is still out as I can see both sides.

I’ll also be culling tracks in those retitles – listening to earlier work in comparison to what I’m doing now, well, there’s such a disparity in the quality that I don’t think it makes sense to have material out there that I wouldn’t be prepared to submit now. It’s not as though I would now submit B grade material to retitle libraries and A-grade to the exclusives. As I go forward, there will be tracks that don’t suit my trailer goals so they will be added to my non-exclusive catalogue. I will still be maintaining the quality of the work, only submitting it different directions. For now, my focus is trailers and that means high-end exclusive publishers for the best opportunities.

Who was your biggest client to date?

As a library composer not seeking custom scoring work yet, I don’t have clients as such. But the publishers I’m starting to work with do have impressive credits, so all I can say is “stay tuned”.

How do you market yourself as a composer?

First, I have a soundcloud account. At the moment, I’m using the free option but I can see myself needing to upgrade at some point. Secondly, I’ve setup an initial website. As the funds become available, I’ll be paying for a slicker presentation there. For now, it contains some basic info and incorporates tracks hosted on the soundcloud account.

I use MLR and Trailer Music News as a starting point to find libraries I want to work with. Then it’s a matter of spending time on the library sites, seeing if my music is a fit, getting a feel for their clients and credits and deciding which ones to approach. At that point, I have an introductory letter which I tailor to suit the submission. It covers some basic bio, contact details and links to either my site or relevant soundcloud tracks. Not too much info but hopefully the right content to inspire them to click and listen to some demos. I always follow up on any responses I receive. This is my most successful marketing strategy.

Lastly, I’ve been using the Taxi A&R service. It hasn’t generated any deals as of yet but they have some interesting, very high-paying advertising opportunities and just one deal out of that would be worth every cent Taxi has cost me. There are other services similar to Taxi such as Music Xray, Youlicense, Film Music Network and a few more. Through FMN, I’ve achieved one deal and a few possible contacts, and nothing worth mentioning from the others so I’ve stopped using them. I’m not saying they don’t work, others have found positive results with them, but so far FMN is the only one that generated a return for me.

Have you ever advertised your services?

To date, I’ve had no need. Hopefully, that remains the case.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in their first year of writing music?

I’m going to repeat what I’ve said elsewhere:

1) The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know. Be open to learning and embrace constructive criticism.

2) Rejection isn’t personal. What is useless for one company might be absolutely perfect for the next, thus….

3) Targeting accurately may well be just as important as any other factor. The cheesiest, most cliched sounding piece probably has a home somewhere. Your job is to find its home, not get angry at the publishers who don’t want it. If they can’t use it, why would you want them to sign it and have it sit on their shelf doing nothing???

4) Not everyone will like what you do. Publishers X and Y could have wildly conflicting opinions of your work. It’s not that either of them are right or wrong. They have different tastes and different clients.

5) Your music is probably not as good as it could be (especially when you’re starting out). You have to sift through all feedback, positive and negative, and decide if there is anything in it you can take onboard, but consider it you must! There’s no place for arrogance or egotism in this business.

6) Your friends and family will always love your music. That’s their job. Therefore you can’t trust their comments to improve your work. Unless you’re fortunate like me – my wife is brutally honest! It’s very important to get honest, informed, constructive criticism from people in the industry. I think it would be very hard to develop to a pro level without it.

7) This is a business. Be professional. That means being courteous, respecting submission guidelines, following up on responses, and very importantly: be easy to work with. That does not imply compromising your artistic vision but remember that in this business, your music is there to support the bigger picture of the music supervisor, director or producer.

Also, align yourself with people who are doing well at whatever it is you want to do. It’s much easier to pick the brains of people already on the road than having to make all the discoveries for yourself. If you can find yourself a quality mentor, jump at the chance. One pitfall with this is you don’t necessarily know if they know what they’re talking about, but if they already have success and are open and constructive with their feedback, then it’s a place to start. As you gain knowledge and experience, you’re better able to judge the value of input you’re receiving. But you have to start somewhere! On this point, I highly recommend the Taxi forums. There are working professionals there who are more than happy to help, but just be aware that they are working and that means you may not always receive timely replies.

Don’t be precious with your music. Don’t become emotionally attached to a piece. Its job is to be out there earning for you, and having it at that level can mean reworking or deleting what you think are great ideas. Thankfully, trailer music libraries encourage creativity and innovation but if you’re writing for film and tv, or custom scoring projects, the boundaries are probably going to be more tightly defined.

Where do you see the future of music in 5-10 years?

That’s a tough one as it’s changing so quickly. Development of the net and new technologies will probably be the major driver in how the landscape is shaped. I think more major labels will fall over because they’re trying to prop up the old ways. For instance, I rarely buy CDs and on iTunes I rarely buy whole albums (there are a few exceptions): individual songs are what I like and if an artist doesn’t have the track available as a download single, I’m not going to buy the album for one track. I don’t know how widespread that attitude is but if enough people think a certain way, it shows up in trends. Innovation will probably be grass-roots driven. With the proliferation of relatively cheap, high-quality software solutions enabling home studios to achieve what took hundreds of thousands of dollars in hardware to once do, indie labels and solo producers can compete at the same level as the big guys. Concurrently, a similar revolution is occurring in video recording and production, so small teams will be producing very watchable shows that are released via net-based avenues. For composers, there’ll continue to be opportunity for a long time to come. We may need to become more creative though. Let’s see.

In all of this, the sleeping dragons are India and China. They both have burgeoning middle classes with appetites for electronics and luxuries that the West take for granted, but maybe their taste in music isn’t always the same. How can that massive new market be explored by adaptive composers? It’s worth thinking about.

Do you have any projects lined up?

As a library writer, I don’t have projects as such. Currently, I’m working on a trailer collection by invite of a publisher. A collaborator, Leigh Ferguson, is helping me with this. Watch out for him in the future. I also have some invites for specific material from some other libraries so there is plenty of work in the pipeline. It’s reached a point where I have more opportunities than time so I’ve stopped sending out intro letters. Sometimes I can’t believe how much I’ve achieved in one year. I have a lot to be thankful for.

Can you recommend any good books on composition/scoring etc. that you’ve read?

Unfortunately, no. I haven’t read any books on composition or scoring so if you would like to recommend any to me, I’ll follow up on them. So far, my education involves forums, A/Bing reference material against my work, analysing a cross-spectrum of other composer’s material, and looking for feedback from qualified people. There are several courses with Berklee Online that I would like to study, but that’s a budgetary issue for the time being.

Trapped on a desert island with only 3 tracks?

If I were trapped on a deserted island the three tracks I’d want with me are:

“He who brings the night” by Two Steps From Hell

“The Poet and the Pendulum” by Nightwish

“Feuer frei” by Rammstein

Written by: admin

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.

  • Rob O

    Cheers bro. It was an honour to do this.

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  • Aaron J Curtis

    Enjoyed reading that. Funny when you said about writing a light quirky piece that soon turns into a monster, can imagine you “slamming your whole arm” over the keys just when the piece is about to get to a funny part!

    Great tracks by the way.

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