Composer Interview – Mark Petrie

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you come from and what do you do?

I’m originally from New Zealand, but now live in California where I write music for a living. Some of the things I write for are: trailers, TV, commercials and films.

You lost your hearing for a big part of your first 5 years – do you remember any of that experience?

Like a lot of kids, I got ear infections, but mine were really bad and needed multiple operations to fix, of which I do remember a little. My mom told me I went for stretches of time where I didn’t hear much at all – it must have been like wearing very thick earplugs. Everything was working ok, it was just badly blocked up. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but at that age we’re learning a lot of things in a short amount of time that set you up for life, including how to talk. Once the operations were successful, I was able to hear perfectly and my mom tried to catch me up on reading and talking by giving me cue cards. The only side effect was some lingering speech issues, but overall I’m very very lucky to be doing music for a living, and have the doctors and my mom to thank for that.

What does your daily routine consist of?

I’d like to say I get up super early and get straight to work, but usually I have a lot of business stuff like emails and errands to take care of during business hours. On a good day I start writing around 11am and stop around 7pm, but on a crazy day I might not start work until around 10pm and continue until 3 or 4 am. I try to work on something every day. Lately the trailer music I’ve been writing has been taking longer to finish, maybe a week or more for one track. The TV music I write has to be done much faster, like a 1:30 cue in 3-4 hours. Some of the commercials that come in need to be done overnight.

What are your favorite musician/composer websites?

I like to check in at Musiclibraryreport, SCORECASTonline and the Sounds Online forums. I also check the 8Dio and Soundiron Facebook pages to see what they’re working on… to find out what I’ll be spending my money on next!

What does your studio consist of?

It’s very simple and not very glamorous – a decent weighted 88 key controller, with an audio interface hooked up to one mac pro and about 12 eSATA and firewire drives, some of which are SSD. I’m hoping to cut back on the amount of drives I have running, by gradually replacing them with SSDs.

Whats your favorite software right now?

I love the Adagio Violins by 8Dio, there are some minor bugs they’ll need to take care of, but overall the sounds are amazing.

You moved to LA to pursue a career in film scoring. Looking back, do you think you could have achieved the same success without making the move?

Well, it’s hard to say. I think there are a lot of subtle advantages to moving to LA, just like attending a big music school like Berklee. You make friends with people doing the same kind of thing, with the same goals. If they can’t do a job they might recommend you instead. I can trace most of my work today back to recommendations I got from composer buddies of mine, who I wouldn’t have met if I didn’t go to Berklee or live out in LA.

Working with a busy, established composer is invaluable too – work like that might be harder to find outside of LA or NYC. When you work under an established composer you learn invaluable lessons – not just in writing music, but also in running a business – that can help you avoid costly mistakes in your own career.
So when you add all that up, I think it might be important to live in LA for a while. These days a lot of what a trailer music or film composer does on a day to day basis can be done remotely, and I’m actually considering a move up to Northern California soon. I’d just need to be prepared to drive or fly down to LA for meetings, or travel to wherever a recording was happening.

I think the only kind of job you really need to be permanently based in LA for is episodic TV work, where you’re attending spotting sessions each week. I’ve heard of composers like Alan Silvestri, who spends a lot of his time in Northern California, renting out space temporarily in LA while they work on a film, returning home once they’re done.

Your wife is also a composer – do you work well together, or can it be tough at times?

It’s a delicate balance – we often work on the same project, but on separate pieces of music. She’s actually a pretty amazing composer, better than me (of course I’d say that – but it’s true!)

Talk us through Asperatus. How did you start it, and where did you go with it?

Asperatus was a track that kind of took on a life of it’s own. I started with the chord progression, then the twisted melody starting on a major 7 grew out of that. As the track developed, it was getting really dark. I was trying to keep it at least a little light, so that it might get used on a wider range of trailers. As a result, the middle section at 1:03 (and big ‘3rd act’ at 2:06) has this interesting battle – a give and take between dark, somber chords and uplifting ones.

This track was a real challenge to layer and mix, because everything is competing for attention. Guitars, orchestra, choir and synths are mostly in the same sonic space. For these modern hybrid tracks, I’ve found that the trick is to always decide which one element is going to be the ‘lead’ and let it sing out above everything else. For the most part in this track, guitars get a lot of space to be heard, but right underneath there is a huge amount of orchestral activity, along with choir and synths (not to mention about 50 drum tracks too).

Tell us about Royalty Free Kings. Where did you get the idea, what to you hope to achieve with it etc.?

Through the course of writing for TV, film and commercials, I’ve amassed a collection of about 1000 tracks that I retained the rights to. As a home for all this music, I’d been planning to launch a music licensing website, but it took nearly four years to get a website together that I was happy with. ended up being a site aimed at lower budget, independent producers, where the license fees cover most projects with a budget cap of $250,000. It’s become a way to service the people that contact me just about daily, who need good tracks but can’t afford the trailer music that I’ve been getting better known for.

Whats your definition of success?

It’s easy to think of it as being defined by money, or fame. For me it means being able to comfortably pay all the bills with regular, creatively fulfilling work. I think it’s also about balance – I wouldn’t necessarily consider someone who spends all of their time alone in a dark studio successful, even if they make millions a year.

How do you stay fresh as a composer?

Whenever possible, I try to alternate the styles of projects I work on, not churning out track after track of the same genre. I also listen a lot to new scores, new music – even top 40 songs to hear the latest production techniques. It also comes back to a balanced life, making sure I get out and experience the world!

What was your favorite project to have worked on so far?

I love it whenever my music gets a live orchestral recording, and I’ve been lucky enough to have that happen a handful of times over the past couple of years. I think some of the most fulfilling work I’ve done to date was for the New Zealand based documentary series Attitude. It’s hard to not get teary eyed watching such heartbreaking and inspirational stories.

Your trailer music has quite a following – a quick youtube search brings up hundreds of videos of your music with fan artwork. What’s your take on this?

Initially, when I first saw that fans were somehow getting the tracks and posting them on YouTube, I was a little uncertain whether or not it was a good thing. I still understand why some libraries don’t like their music posted online, but I’ve come to embrace it. I love that the epic music I write is appreciated by people beyond the main use of it, which is of course to be behind movie trailers! Having a bit of a following also allows me to introduce people to scores I’ve written for films and TV shows, that are quite different from the typically bombastic, epic music written for trailers.

I think that most libraries now use YouTube, Facebook and SoundCloud to their advantage, as music supervisors and editors are scanning these sites looking for the latest tracks to use in their trailers.

Where do you see the scoring (film/game/tv) industry in 5-10 years time?

I imagine that the generation of kids coming out of high school and college today will be much more open to working with people remotely. This generation grew up with the internet, smart phones, Skype etc, so they are probably going to embrace working with people based all over the world. In fact, it might become the ‘in-thing’ to source music from far flung places.

Music production software like Logic is becoming more and more user friendly, sample libraries are getting incredibly realistic, and I think we could see a flood of easily produced, sample and loop based music. This might mean that to compete with such a massive amount of readily available music, composers will need to produce music that is more natural and unique. The bar is definitely getting higher in terms of the level of quality expected, especially at the level of trailer music. It’s like an arms race, now that everyone has access to amazing sounds (with new libraries coming out every week). The way to rise above the masses is, I think, to focus on quality, originality and creating evocative music that moves people.

Where do you see the music library industry in 5-10 years time?

I think it’s much the same – all that new music will end up somewhere, and chances are that it will be libraries. Composers will need to have something different to offer that mass produced, loop based music doesn’t.

I’m not sure where things are headed with re-titling, especially in relation to audio recognition, which seems to be the big push by major music libraries. It’s going to be very interesting to see this issue play out in the years ahead. I suggest to any composer to be careful with how much of your music goes to re-titling libraries, as that side of the business could get squashed at some point. If you already have a ton of music in such libraries, consider writing for others that use a different business model. It’s smart to hedge your bets (just like with a stock portfolio) and write for different kinds of libraries – some that pay you upfront and buy out your license fees (but you still keep your writers royalties), others that don’t pay upfront but share the license fees (which can be big money, but it’s a gamble.. you could end up with nothing if the tracks don’t get licensed).

Can you recommend any books that you’ve read recently that you found useful?

These days, books on the business of composing are just about out of date as soon as they’re printed. There are some great books that go over the fundamentals, like ‘The Emerging Film Composer‘ by Richard Bellis, and ‘The Reel World‘ by Jeff Rona. There are some nice basic tips in ‘The Complete Guide to Game Audio‘ by Aaron Marks, although a seasoned composer will skim through a lot of it.

These books aren’t new enough to go into the value of marketing and connecting with clients through Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud and Twitter, or even the world of libraries (that business changing rapidly). I think if you’ve learned the fundamentals of composing music to picture and want to stay up to date in this evolving business, blogs, websites and even Facebook pages are the way to go. Here are some I check out on just about a daily basis:

Any advice for an aspiring composer starting off their career?

It’s really invaluable going to a big music school like Berklee – not just for the classes but also for the people you meet, the connections you make. That said, it’s very expensive. You should only go that route if you are absolutely committed to a career writing music. In addition to my classes and part time work, I was working on student films and even paying gigs like documentaries and indie features while I was at Berklee. A lot of my classmates were more focused on having a good time, and because of that they had a harder time getting a career going.

Once out of college, (or even while in college) I recommend doing an internship for an established composer, which at the least will teach you a lot, and might lead to a job down the line.

These days a composer has to be a producer and mixer as well as a writer. It’s important to develop your production skills just as much as your composition chops. Write often (write when you don’t have to) and take the time to compare your work to something similar by big name composers. Listen to how your mix compares to theirs, and where yours doesn’t live up to what they did. This is a great way to keep your ego in check and improve the production value of your music.

Your studio is on fire and you only have time to grab one thing – what do you take?

My dog, everything ‘should’ be backed up online : )

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.

  • Nicky Butler

    A very interesting article, amazing to think someone who spent so long with hearing problems is doing so well in the music industry! I think the artemis track was good but I really enjoyed Asperatus and it was great to hear the back story to it. It sounds like you need someone to help you with the administrative side of your business so you could work more regular hours and have more spare time.

  • prong

    Very informative Mark :)

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