Individually, Brian Trifon and Brian White have been making their own waves for years in the fields of film, television, and video game music and sound design, as well as through their own projects (Trifonic, Gasmilk, and BRML). However, in 2013, they joined creative forces to establish Finishing Move Inc., combining their experiences and skill sets to form a new force to be reckoned with in the field of music for games, TV, film, and advertising. Most recently, the Oakland-based duo has collaborated on the original score for Double Fine‘s game Massive Chalice, as well as the re-mastered score for Halo 2: Anniversary. We had a chat about their work on those projects as well as their unique approach to creating music together.
You have an entertaining story of how you first met and began to work together, seemingly involving quite the leap of faith. Are leaps of faith part and parcel of how you work, whether with each other or with those involved in the projects you write for?
Trifon: For the people that don’t know, White and I were friends for a long time before we began working together. Our professional lives crossed paths about 8 years ago. White used to own an audio school where they taught Pro Tools certification classes. Anyway, he needed an additional Pro Tools instructor, so he called me up and asked “Hey, do you know Pro Tools? I need another instructor.” I said “no, I don’t really know Pro Tools very well” and White responded “Great, you’re hired!”
Other than that initial leap of faith many years ago, I don’t think leaps of faith are part of our process. We try to be bold and adventurous when it’s appropriate, but we are both very thoughtful and detailed-oriented people. We usually aren’t throwing caution to the wind unless it is necessary.
Your way of collaborating on your music and complementing each other’s skills is particularly unique. Would you elaborate on that process for our readers who may not be familiar with it?
Trifon: White and I have several overlapping skills, but many complementary skills as well, which is what makes us a great team. My strength is in creating unique, evocative sounds that are detailed and memorable. I also have a knack for melody and texture. That being said, I’m not as good with form and I have a tendency to get lost in the details. On the other hand, White is incredibly good with form and structure as well as melody. He generally has a big picture mindset and has an incredible ability to quickly transform rough ideas into polished finished product.
White: Depending on the type of sound we need to shoot for, we might take different approaches regarding who starts an idea, but I will almost always finish stuff. If you compared our process to making a pop record, Trifon will often play the “artist” role while I will act as the “producer,” shaping and polishing the best raw ideas into a coherent finished statement.
Your individual work is obviously strong for you both to have already been in the industry, and it only gets stronger when you collaborate. Would you say that hiring Finishing Move Inc. is like hiring a single composer with double the potential? Like you’re each one half of a beautiful mind?
Trifon: I don’t know if the reality is as poetic as “each one half of a beautiful mind,” but there is certainly an element of that. I think the benefit of working as a team is that we act as a quality control for each other’s work. We have a huge overlap in taste and aesthetic, but also many differences. The differences in taste actually help with the overall quality. Neither of us allows the other to become too self-indulgent. That is a good thing!
White: We have a rather cheesy pun in saying that we bring “exponential potential”, since we are both named Brian and that’s like having “Brian Squared”. But in all seriousness, collaboration extends our range, since we have our own natural tendencies towards certain styles or aesthetics, and we aren’t afraid to express our opinions openly with each other. Sometimes the partnership means having each other’s backs when something about a project gets tough, either operationally or emotionally; other times that partnership means getting your ego checked in the quality control pass that the other provides.
Does it ever feel like there’s more White on one cue or project, and more Trifon on another?
Trifon: Not really, we have a combined sound that is slightly different than our individual sounds. We’ve worked together long enough to know where to leave room for each other. White knows I’m going to probably add certain types of sounds or details so he’ll leave room for those. I know that White is going to create awesome percussion parts, so I mostly stay out of his way on that front. Once again, having complementary skills and knowing each other’s tendencies allows for us to not step on each other’s toes and to have a very consistent and coherent sound.
White: We both maintain our own individual artist projects outside Finishing Move to fulfill any extreme artistic desires if we feel so inclined. When we are scoring, we strive to create a signature sound for whatever project we are working on, so if that means leaning harder on one of our unique skillsets, so be it; the team exists to support each other and get the best results possible. The end goal is to craft a unified signature sound that serves the content.
Creative freedom can be challenging in its own way, and what starts out as a playground of opportunity can quickly turn into panic, doubt, and a hell of a lot of “blank page syndrome” (or as is the case in our industry, “blank DAW syndrome”). How do you deal with these challenges, and how did that fare into your work on Massive Chalice?
White: With Massive Chalice, we almost had too much creative freedom in defining the sound of the game because the creators basically just told us to “do your thing.” One of the strategies we use in situations where we don’t have a very defined creative direction is to create our own internal style guide, using existing reference tracks that we think will work emotionally in the context of the content. Sort of approach it as more of a music director first to see what’s working and what’s not, and then approach it as a composer. We approach things more in step time, crafting the sound methodically over many iterations and even more trips down the worm hole.
On the other hand, the high pressures and expectations associated with honouring the Halo legacy present their own entirely different set of challenges. How did they play into your work on producing the score for Halo 2: Anniversary?
Trifon: Our top priority with producing the Halo 2: Anniversary soundtrack was to preserve the integrity and intention of the original score by Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, but to update the sonic quality to match or exceed today’s triple A titles. We worked with Paul Lipson (Senior Audio Director at 343i/Microsoft Studios) to map out the Halo 2 music assets and come up with a plan of how to recreate and re-record everything. We certainly felt the pressure of working on such an important and iconic score. Fortunately we worked with amazing partners (Paul, Lennie Moore, Tom Salta), which made it all a very smooth process.
You’ve brought in some great performers to collaborate with on your scores, such as guitarists Steve Vai and Misha Mansoor for Halo 2: Anniversary, and violist Nils Bultmann for Massive Chalice. Is that always a fun day in the studio? How much do live instrumentalists contribute to your “finishing moves”?
White: When budget and circumstances allow, we love working with as many world-class instrumentalists as we can and strongly believe in the value and authenticity it adds to a score. Working with Steve and Misha on Halo 2: Anniversary was such a treat; both of those guys are such monster guitar players, and having them both at Skywalker Ranch was a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity. But we find that even when you don’t have access to virtuoso instrumentalists or a world class recording facility, there is still something special about the character your own live recordings can add to the mix versus just using the same sample libraries everyone has access to. Both of us are multi-instrumentalists so we do quite a bit of live recording on our own, in fact, everything on Massive Chalice besides Nils’ Viola was performed and recorded by us.
Your philosophy entails actively railing against the homogenisation of music. The global scene is saturated with composers all using the same tools, who don’t focus on finding a voice of their own. How do you keep your compositional point of view fresh, unique, and non-derivative?
Trifon: I think it’s important to develop a distinctive voice, but it’s also important to know when it’s appropriate to insert your aesthetic and when it’s not appropriate. Bottom line is you always have to do what’s best for the project. It’s not about you and your vision; it really comes down to what works best in the context of the game. That being said, within most contexts there is some, if not a lot of room for a unique and distinctive voice to come through.
The easiest way to stand out is to create your own custom sounds. Record some instruments and program some custom patches from scratch. We have a huge library of custom Kontakt instruments that we’ve been building for years. I can’t say that they are better than what is commercially available, but they are certainly different. In the current climate, different is good.
White: I think a lot of composers listen to and derive much of their perspective and style from other composers. That’s fine, we listen to lots of score too, but that can become a little rhetorical if that’s the only place you draw inspiration from. Most of what drives our passion about music is listening to and being inspired by records and artists, soaking up as much of the current trends in music as possible and really opening up our ears to how that might fit into a modern score. There will always be a place for the traditional orchestral score, but there are many ways to emotionally connect music to picture or gameplay, and I think audiences are looking for more options.
Following on from the last question, what are your favourite tools in the studio, especially those that help you craft something unique? And really, is it much more about the technique than the tools?
Trifon: My current favorite studio tools are my Roland RE-201 Space Echo and this metal kitchen bowl that my fiancée bought at a garage sale. The Space Echo is just filled with vibes, and the metal bowl has an insane resonance and sounds creepy and fantastic when it’s bowed. I would argue it’s not about the tools OR the techniques. It’s about the person using the tools. If you could have given Jimi Hendrix a broken guitar, he would have still found a way to make incredible music with it.
White: I love my Radial Tank Driver; it lets me use spring reverb tanks from guitar amps as a studio send/return. Plug-in reverbs are cool, but there isn’t a plug-in that comes close to what a real tank reverb does in terms of dynamic character or “bounce”. You can buy all kinds of different replacement reverb tanks for between $10-20 and they all sound unique, so it’s a rather affordable obsession.
All right, we’ve talked shop a lot. What do you guys enjoy doing away from the studio? Do you find the idea of a work/life balance for a composer highly important, or laughably impossible?
Trifon: Away from the studio, I enjoy running and indulging in all of the amazing food in the San Francisco Bay Area. Work life balance is very important, but there is no way to get around the fact that you have to work a lot and work smart.
White: I’m a big espresso nerd, which is so complementary to studio life that I’m not even sure you could call it a separate hobby.
Do you see the Finishing Move Inc. concept moving beyond White and Trifon, in a Remote Control Productions kind of way, or is it more essentially duo-centric like Daft Punk?
Trifon: We definitely see Finishing Move expanding beyond just us. I don’t know that we intend to build an empire like Remote Control, but I think building an amazing team of talented people that we love to work with is the goal. We want to build something in the middle, maybe a “Remote Punk”.
White: We actually enjoy the challenge of building a business and a brand just as much as we enjoy writing music. Scaling our team is something we have planned on since day one, but never at the expense of quality output. It’s all about synergy and finding the right people.