Saturday, May 25, 2013


     In the Fall of 2012, I joined a team working on the sound design for a production at a neighboring school, Northern Michigan University.  The play was, "Fallujah," written by Evan Sanderson.  It's the story of a young journalist, embedded with the Marines for part of their tour of duty in Iraq.  The team consisted of myself, Chris Trevino, and Pierce Huxtable, who was our man on-site.  Most of the design work and creation was to be done by Chris and myself, with supervision from an adviser, Christopher Plummer, and the director, Ansley Valentine.  It was Pierce's job to implement our work into the show, and make sure it fit, and ran smoothly.  I took on the job of composer.  The task was not an easy one; the script called for heavy metal and hip-hop, as well as licensed songs for key moments.  To make it more difficult, the metal and hip hop were to blend with the muezzin singing the call to prayer.

     To start, I listened to a lot of Middle Eastern style music, including traditional, metal, and electronic styles.  My goal was to represent the clash of cultures, and the continuing Westernization of their culture.  After a period of research, I put together a series of non-diegetic music clips to use during scene changes, or in backgrounds of scenes taking place in the city.

     Once I tackled the general feel and style of the region, I decided to work on the specifics detailed in the play.  The play opens with a prologue, which serves as a loose retelling of the final battle scene.  In the final scene, the play calls for the song "Hell's Bells" by AC/DC to be blasted loudly, as a coping mechanism of sorts for the soldiers fighting the battle.  The script calls for heavy metal music in the prologue, without specifying "Hell's Bells."  We didn't want to use the song in the prologue, so I wrote a short, instrumental hard rock piece that follows the same chord progression, and evokes the feel of the song.

     Upon reviewing the piece, we weren't sure how well it was going to fit.  Though accurate to it's inspiration, and a fitting piece to boost the confidence and morale of soldiers, we were afraid it would send the message that we're rooting for the war.  As a precaution, I composed an alternate piece to use in it's place.  This one was a more modern-styled heavy metal.  As a design choice, I decided to have the drums play a double bass drum pedal at constant sixteenth-notes, to simulate the sound of helicopters, as might be heard in battle.

     In the end, the director felt that the first piece was the one to use, as it felt more accurate to the situation for the soldiers, as well as foreshadowing the use of "Hell's Bells" later on.

     In another scene, a marine is telling the journalist a highly-embellished story of battle.  To introduce the scene, the script called for the sound of the muezzin, followed by a hip-hop beat, with the new blending together in a bizarre mash-up.  I took a recording of a muezzin reciting the prayer, and built a simple hip-hop loop around it.

     After writing all these quite diverse pieces of music, I wanted to write a piece that brought them all together.  My idea at the time was that it could be used towards the end of the play, perhaps to build tension before the final battle, or to be battle music itself at the end of it.  I wove different elements of my previous pieces together to form a fitting theme that ties them together.  I used the drumming style from the metal piece, the distorted, rhythm guitar used in both the rock and metal piece, the strings from the hip-hop pieces, and a traditional-sounding Middle Eastern melody.

     In the end, that piece never quite fit in properly with the story.  It was a great experience, though, and provided me with an opportunity to tie things together.

     Overall, this was an exciting project to work on.  It gave me plenty of opportunities to familiarize myself with types of music that I generally didn't listen to on my own.  I had never written in Middle Eastern modes before this, and it was great to try something new.  It taught me to seek out the unkown, and embrace it with open arms.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Sound Machine

In the spring of 2012, I was a part of a group producing a radio-style adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The Sound Machine."  The short story is about Klausner, an inventor who builds a machine designed to change the pitch of super-sonic sounds so they would be within the human range of hearing.  To Klausner's horror, he discovers that plants emit bone-chilling screams when cut or damaged.  The first screams he hears are caused by the woman next door cutting roses.

To achieve these sounds, we recorded screams from our actors.  We then side-chained some of the female screams through the Sculpture modeling synthesizer to achieve the metallic-sound described in the story.  We layered it with an inhaling scream and applied various processing techniques to both.  Next came the daisy screams.

The daisy screams were accomplished in a similar fashion to the rose screams.  The major change was to increase the pitch to give the sound the impression of coming from a smaller plant.  For the beech tree scream, we did the opposite.

The beech tree scream was made using a pitch-shifted male scream, layered with a whale song.  The effects were side-chained through a vocoder synth with granular synthesis simulation applied.  The effects turn the scream into a monstrous roar as the tree cries out in surprise.

It was a challenge trying to realize the sounds as so brilliantly described by Roald Dahl, but in the end, we came up with what we believe are some interesting and creative solutions.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Backstage at the Rozsa

I had the pleasure of engineering the recording for a two-night jazz concert at Michigan Technological Univesity.  The backstage of the Rozsa Theatre was converted into an intimate jazz club.  Each night consisted of three sets.  The first and last sets were the Research and Development Big Band and the Jazz Lab Band respectively.  Each night, a different jazz combo played a short, two-song set in between the larger groups.  The first night, Momentum performed, and the second night was Jazztec.  Each night of the performance was mixed into it's own CD.  In addition to engineering the recording, I mixed and mastered the CDs.  Below is a selection of samples from across the two nights of the concert.

The larger ensembles were directed by Mike Irish.  Engineering assistance by Paul Bristol and Tom Conran.

Romancing Horror: The Picture in the House by H.P. Lovecraft

      In November 2012, Michigan Technological University mounted an original production, devised by Roger Held, the Chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department.  Romancing Horror: Four Stories by H.P. Lovecraft brings the audience into the living room of Professor Rodney Phillips, where they are transported into the world of renowned horror author, H.P. Lovecraft.  Professor Phillips and his wife, Edith, take on roles of Lovecraft's protagonists, with additional help (or hinderance) from their servant, John.  Four stories are told during the course of the evening: The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Music of Erich Zann, The White Ship, and The Picture in the House.

     Each story had different sound designers and composers.  I composed the music for The Picture in the House.  The story is about a traveller, who seeks shelter from a storm in what seems to be an abandoned house.  She soon discovers an old man lives there, and while friendly and congenial, she suspects there is something he's hiding.  When he shows her his favorite illustration from an old book about the Congo, she discovers the truth about his intentions.

     Working with my sound designer, Peter Falk, we determined the best course of action was to set the tension and mystery through subtle, ambient sounds.  Using Akira Yamaoka as my inspiration, I composed more ambient-style music to fit in the background, inducing a subtle sense of dread and mystery.

     An exception to the style was the theme that played when the old man made his entrance on the stage.  It was the first time in the play that more than one actor shared the stage during a story.  The music needed to stand out as a dramatic accent to the shock of seeing a ragged, old man in the doorway of a supposedly abandoned house.  I elected to make the melody a small bell chime sound and have it come out of a speaker hidden in the clock on the mantle, as if it were a tune that plays at the top of the hour.  I made the support instruments sound broken and out of tune to represent the feeling that something is wrong with the situation.

     As the play goes on, and the sinister intentions of the old man become more obvious, the music becomes louder and more cacophonous.  In addition to the ambient droning, I layered in tribal drums and sharpening blades, tying to the underlying theme of cannibalism.  To instill a sense of horror, I manipulated sound effects of chimps and men screaming to sound twisted and otherworldly.  The piece builds tension until our protagonist notices blood dripping onto the table from the ceiling.  Before she can make a move, a bolt of lighting destroys the house in a violent explosion.

     By using slowly building tension throughout the story, with accenting proper locations, I believe we were able to bring Lovecraft's style of slow-mounting horror to life for what turned out to be a memorable finale to the play.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Original Songs

I've long dreamed of writing and recording my own music, so I'm very excited to share these two tracks.  They were developed from riffs into full songs over the first half of 2012.  All of the parts were written by myself.  I also recorded all the real and synthetic instruments, with the exception of bass guitar.

Silent Hill Downpour Trailer

As a sound design exercise, I took the trailer to the video game "Silent Hill: Downpour," removed all of the audio, designed a new audio track from scratch.  I wanted to stay as true to the footage as possible, while retaining the "classic" Silent Hill feel.  I used a combination of existing sound effects with MIDI and synthesizer sequencing to come up with horrific and mysterious sounds.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra

In December of 2011, I ran a tracking session for the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra.  Dr. Joel Neves, the director of the orchestra, wanted a high-quality performance free of audience noise to be suitable for radio play.

During the tracking process, we used 19 different microphones to close mic the instrument sections, 4 microphones to capture the orchestra as a whole, and 2 microphones placed in the back of the hall to capture natural reverb.  By using so many microphones, we were able to capture all the necessary detail of the performance, however, being that there were so many instruments that were close miked, the recording sounded very "dry."  We solved this by using Altiverb 7 to create the illusion of listening to the performance from the audience.

The two songs that were recorded during this session were "Overture to Nabucco" by Giuseppe Verdi and "A Night on Bald Mountain" by Modest Mussorgsky.  You can listen to samples of the recording below.