This month we interviewed Jeff Ball, an award winning Los Angeles based music professional with over 18 years of music creation experience. Jeff has bought his versatility and expertise to a wide range of projects and roles including directing audio, composing, creating sound effects and performing on violin and viola in countless game soundtracks. You can check out his site here
RS: As someone who moves between composing, sound effects, recording violin, and directing audio how do you balance your schedule? Do you focus on one project at a time or is each day a combination of different work? As an instrumentalist do you keep a regular practice schedule?
JB: Practicing is really important for maintaining your skill as an instrumentalist. I think of it almost like a workout and focus building exercise. It’s really an athletic skill first and a musical ability second. Violin practice gets your blood flowing and your brain in the right mindset, so I usually start my work day doing an hour of sight reading symphonies before I do anything else. It’s a lot of fun. IMSLP.org has tons of public domain sheet music available for download, and YouTube has a lot of options for recordings or videos to play along with. I can learn a thing or two about orchestration along the way. Once I do that, I’ll usually have a list of tasks that I want to get finished for the day.
If I have a long term project, I’ll schedule out and divide the work through the entire length of the project, allotting for stuff like possible revisions and schedule changes. It helps me know exactly how much work I can handle, keeps me consistently working, and keeps my stress level down. That said, each day usually has a combination of projects. I don’t usually have a problem switching between them. For me it feels like reading three or four books at the same time.
RS: How did you become involved in composing the stingers for Star Wars: The Old Republic? What was the process like working on the project? How specific were the requirements you were given?
JB: Back in 2010, I was brought on as a contractor with a few other guys to help rework the music from Monkey Island 2. A friend of mine was working there on the music team and brought me in for the job. That’s where I started to get more acquainted with Jesse Harlin. I eventually met Jesse in person during GDC, and we won a GANG award for Best Handheld Audio for our work on the game. I kept in touch with Jesse and eventually got to know him better when LucasArts was dissolved. Then one day Jesse messaged me because I had posted a new track on Facebook that I had written for a trailer music library company in the UK. We talked about the track a little bit, then he offered me the work writing some stingers for The Old Republic. That was pretty much it. Even though LucasArts is dissolved, Bioware is still developing content for the game. Jesse was brought back to add some music content, and needed some help to handle all of it under the time constraint.
The process was pretty simple actually. I was given a specific amount of cues and cue lengths between ‘determined’ moments or ‘positive Imperial’ moments. Jesse told me about the themes they had used in the original score, so I could incorporate those into the imperial tracks. I ended up asking Jesse some questions about what kind of ‘determination’ they wanted, and then I started writing. There were a few revisions at the beginning, but most of the cues had no revisions at all after that. I have a lot of practice when it comes to imitating composers.
RS: You can definitely hear the John Williams influence in the stingers. What did you do to capture that sound in your compositions? What was the process like composing for a project with such a defined and well known sound?
JB: When you’re given a Star Wars project like this, and asked to write music that sounds like John Williams, it can be a bit daunting. I caught myself when I finally started working on it thinking about how I’ve always wanted some kind of opportunity to be paid to write this kind of music. It was a rush, and I only regret that it didn’t last longer.
I’ve spent years analyzing classical composers and learning consistent traits that make their music the way it is, and finding similarities between composers, and then seeing how many of those tricks I can use in my own writing. I basically taught myself to compose and orchestrate by doing this. Writing John Williams style music basically takes any of your copy/paste shortcuts away.
When it comes to John Williams, in my head I’m immediately thinking about using parallel triads, sweeping melodies, asymmetric phrases, complex rhythm that compliments a creative orchestration that doesn’t get repetitive, using lots of woodwinds to their fullest extent, and writing killer brass chords with sweeping strings over ‘wrong’ bass notes. They didn’t tell me to do any of that though, I just knew that from analyzing Star Wars music. I’m lucky to have a background of classical music, where I know the pieces that inspired the score for Star Wars as much as the score itself. So in a lot of ways, I’m not really writing to imitate John Williams, I’m writing to imitate a conglomerate of Holst, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Howard Hanson.
RS: Do you think having played violin on so many games informs the way you work as a composer? And does your work as a composer inform how you record violin parts?
JB: I think the thing I’ve learned the most from playing violin on different games is how different composers approach their work. There honestly is no perfect or proper way to do any of it, and most composers don’t even try to achieve that, they just jump into the musical abyss and try figure it out as best they can as they go. Each individual experience in the abyss is different depending on the type of person, and how they understand themselves and the world. So anything you could learn from another composer usually won’t apply to you, but as a performer you get to feel their experience and know that it exists. I think I’ve gained valuable perspective and self confidence from that, maybe even a higher state of musical consciousness, I dunno. I always analyze composers, and I guess this gives me an in to their worlds. Not only for musical stuff, but business thinking and general personality as well.
On the other side of it, being a composer makes my violin work a lot more accessible for composers who don’t have experience with sheet music or violin writing. I can use my composer sense to intuit what they are looking for through the MIDI and samples, and then give them what they want the first time. I’m always willing to re-record tracks, but actually re-doing takes has been very rare for me.
RS: Outside of composition you have a long list of credits as a violinist on many video games. How did you begin taking on those roles? Any advice for people looking to work in the game industry as an instrumentalist?
JB: My first GDC was in 2009, and I had a great time networking with all the composers there. I told them I was a violinist, and they asked how much I charged. I had never really thought about it at that point, but it made sense that I could sell myself as a violinist to the composers. I talked to the mixing engineer John Rodd in GDC 2010 about what kind of recording equipment would be good for me, and he gave me a great recommendation. It was a slow process overall and took a lot of trust building. I did some work that was presented at GDC, and was very well received by a room full of composers. After that, I got one other consistent client, which ended up leading to more and more. It was an exponential growth kind of thing, but definitely took a long time initially.
My biggest recommendation for instrumentalists is to get experience recording yourself in the video game remix community. They’re always looking for instrumentalists. The work is usually unpaid, but it’s a great way to build a portfolio and work with lots of different composers quickly. The type of instrument you play will matter a lot, some instruments just aren’t needed as much because they can sound convincing in samples, but a live instrument always adds value to a track.
If you want to create a demo reel specifically for composers, make sure you record music that composers can identify with, which makes it easier for them to know how to utilize you in their own scores. In a lot of cases, they probably don’t have a lot of experience knowing how to write for you, so makes sure you are approachable and easy to work with.
RS: What sort of studio set up do you have? When you provide violin samples how are they mixed? What process do you go through to make sure the recording will match the sound of the overall game?
JB: My studio is a pretty standard home built PC setup, and my DAW of choice is Reaper. For violin recording I have two Shure KSM-32 mics, and an Echo Audiofire Pre8 (which they stopped making unfortunately). I have Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pro and DT-770 Pro headphones. I use the closed version for mixing, and the open version for recording violin.
I record myself in stereo with the pair split about 5 feet at arms length in front of the instrument. I hard pan each mic 100%, which gives the option of using mono left or right if needed. I don’t usually worry about mixing unless I’m recording parts to be mixed in an orchestra cue. When I’m doing that, I’ll usually spread the mics and raise them higher to reduce the close proximity noises, and then play very ‘humanized’. The samples are perfect, so I like to record the parts a little less perfectly to fill in the gaps of realism. It works surprisingly well. I don’t need to treat my space to record violin, since it’s a very high pitch instrument. I get a high quality clean recording as long as I’m on carpet.
RS: Do you have any final advice for GANG members?
JB: I struggled for a long time with knowing whether I should focus on one thing, or focus on many things in game audio. Lots of composers would give out advice saying just to be yourself and focus on that one true personal expression that only you can give to the world. Now that I have experience doing my job, I think that being yourself is really only half the battle. You should be yourself first, and then be able to imitate others. If you’re only expressing your personal musical voice, you limit yourself. Unless everyone absolutely loves your personal musical voice, you’re screwed.
Compare composing to voice acting. If you’re a voice actor, you don’t just act using one voice and call it your signature voice. Sure, you have your voice that you talk with regularly, but when you’re put in a position to act, you’re infinitely more useful if you can comfortably voice multiple characters. Most of the work in games is work for hire. You have to learn the different accents and different styles of speaking to really tackle the work. Listen to the music in Memoirs of a Geisha, and then ET, they were written by the same person. The same can be said for game audio in general. Learn how audio programming works, learn implementation, learn sound design, field recording, mixing and mastering, orchestration, conducting, playing an instrument, or even extraneous skills like video editing, web design, marketing, or even do something crazy like make your own game. All of these skills can be incredibly useful for indie games with small teams, and you’ll expand your network from the people you encounter and learn from on the way. You might even find something unexpected that you really enjoy. Figure out how to maximize your usefulness.