Count The Beats: Interview with a film & TV composer

If you've ever played Gears of War 2 (who hasn't), or watched Desperate Housewives (we know you secretly love Mrs Van De Kamp), then chances are you've heard music composed by Pieter A. Schlosser from PaaxMusic in Los Angeles.

Pieter's been in the music business for the last five years working on a whole lot of tunes for film, TV and gaming. From CSI New York to composing in "French" for The Sims 3, he's got a wealth of experience in this field and, must be mentioned, he's an avid reader of TUAW too.

When Pieter got in touch with us regarding our 'Count The Beats' series, and sent us the above picture of his studio, suffice to say that the TUAW offices descended into a flurry of excitement (papers flying in the air and everything). What can we say, we love a picture of an inspiring setup.

The logical next step was to sit down with Pieter and talk shop. Read on to find out how the complexities of this mighty setup come together, how the iPhone works as a part of the composing journey, a little bit on DAWs, the "dream upgrade" and how to get the job done when all else is failing.

A word of warning, there is some serious music tech geekery ahead. If in doubt, just pretend that it all makes sense and slowly nod your head, then move onto the next paragraph. That's what most of us do anyway!

TUAW: Pieter, to kick things off, tell us how you got into the business of making music anyway?

Pieter A. Schlosser: I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston where I did a double major in 'Film Scoring' and 'Music Production & Engineering'. L.A. is about the only place to be when you want to write music for film, TV, games, etc. When I first got here in 2003, I started out as a runner at The Record Plant where I met a scoring mixer. Turns out he worked a lot on Hans Zimmer's scores, so through him I got to be an intern/runner at Hans Zimmer's place. Pretty soon after that, I started working for a composer who has his studio at Hans' place, Steve Jablonsky (Desperate Housewives, Transformers).

I started out as his tech doing all things tech related (keeping his studio running, updating software, coordinating studios, mix sessions, scoring sessions). Eventually, I started composing on his projects as well as doing stuff on my own outside of there. I've had the opportunity to meet lots of really great people in the business and I've had the privilege of working on some pretty big projects like 'Transformers', 'Gears of War 2', 'Desperate Housewives' both as a tech and as a composer.

TUAW: Wow, check out that rack! Your pics look pretty sweet, spill the beans on your setup?

PAS: This is a bit of a long answer, let's see how I can condense it.

My main machine (my sequencer) is a MacPro Quad 2.66 with 9GB of RAM on which I use Cubase, although from time to time I'll use Logic. There's a load of soft synths and effects on this machine, I'd say the most used are Native Instruments. My second machine is a PowerMac G5 Dual Core 1.8Ghz machine which I use to run ProTools HD3. I have 2 PC's that I use as my samplers running Win XP (32bit) with Plogue as host running Tascam GVI and Kontakt. These PC's get triggered with Midi Over LAN.

I have an RME RayDAT card as my main audio card, T.C. Electronic PowerCore X8 and lots of HDD space including a Drobo (LOVE that thing...).

Controllers: CME UF8 master keyboard, Kenton Kontrol Freak and a Euphonix MC Mix (this is nice as I can use it to control both Cubase and ProTools all through the network) and finally, ADAM A-7 Speakers.

My sequencer and PC's are all routed (via ADAT) to my ProTools machine which I essentially use as my 'mixer' and video machine (synced using MTC).

TUAW: So you don't have a mac mini then?

PAS: No, I don't. Maybe at one point I might. When I can have audio and midi all going through the LAN reliably! Now that would be cool!

TUAW: Can you explain a little further how your setup actually works?

PAS: OK. Let's see. My sequencer triggers MIDI on my PCs through Music Lab's Midi Over LAN program. It's really great because I avoid having any extra MIDI interfaces! It's basically one ethernet cable per machine and a giga bit switcher.

As far as audio is concerned, once the MIDI triggers the sounds, the audio goes ADAT out (RME cards on both) of the PC's right into ProTools. They go into an RME ADI-648 ADAT to MADI converter and from here, it goes MADI into my SSL X-Logic Delta Link. My Sequencer does the same. From my RME RayDAT card i use in Cubase right into the ADAT to MADI converter (into ProTools).

In ProTools, I have inputs for all different 'food groups' (i.e. Long strings, short strings, Woodwinds, Long Brass, short brass, hi perc, mid perc, lo perc, Synths, etc etc). For my orchestral palette, I already have EQ's and reverbs set up as inserts in ProTools so there's not much messing with those once the template is set up.

I really love this setup because these 2 ONE UNIT interfaces (ADI-648 and SSL Delta Link) take the place of 3 Digi 192's. Saves me a lot of rack 'real estate'. (Hopefully I'm not getting too technical here... but ProTools users and audiophiles like me will know what I'm talking about)

TUAW: Uh, of course, please go on...

PAS: The 'last' step is MADI to ADAT converter into an RME Fireface 800 which does my D-A conversion into my monitors (Adam A-7's). As you can see, it's all digital until the very last step (although, the one thing I won't tell you is how I have a less than adequate Behringer mixer that I use as my volume knob! I know,..I know... That would be my next purchase, a proper volume control).

If I need to record something in my studio, I use the Fireface 800 for my mic pre's.

Here's a graph of my setup. (yes, I'm a geek, can you tell?)

TUAW: Right, now that we understand your rig, we noticed those PCs you use to hold your samples. As a composer, which do you find easier to work with, your Macs or your PCs?

PAS: Hands down my Macs. Any Mac lover will know why, but if you'd like me to tell you, here I go: OS X is a beautiful and stable operating system, it's very elegant and very easy to use.

TUAW: Naturally, we would agree with that! How would you change your setup if you could? What's your next upgrade path?

PAS: I think my next move might be to have only 2 Macs, especially now with Snow Leopard where RAM isn't much of an issue, as far as how much (RAM) I can load into them. That and a combination of SSD drives would be really beautiful.

TUAW: Oh yes, that would be a beautiful thing, lets take a minute and reflect...Right then, iPhones are incredibly hot cakes at the moment. At TUAW we are wondering if the iPhone will become a serious player in the realms of music production? Do you own an iPhone and does it practically and meaningfully help you in your line of work?

PAS: Yes and yes. The obvious things are basics like e-mail and facebook (which you can do on any other smart phone, of course).

TUAW: Of course, um... lets not go there! But, bar the business/admin side of things, does your iPhone feature in your music production work flow?

PAS: Let's see. I downloaded Smule's Ocarina which is fun. I have yet to use it on one of my projects, but I would like to! I've been wanting to buy GuitarToolkit as well. Seems like a really handy thing to have around.

TUAW: Oh yes, fancy that!

PAS: Sometimes I get ideas in my head that I record using the voice app to recall later. A while back I was walking my dog and I had to write a 'french' track for the SIMS 3 video game expansion pack. I took out my iPhone and sang a melody, that popped into my head, into Voice Memo, I ended up using it for the track! That's one example.

TUAW: Logic Pro or Pro Tools? (and why)

PAS: Actually, I mainly use Cubase. It's a really well designed program and the MIDI is great. I think it beats most DAW's out there. I have to say, though, I wish Cubase would come with the quality and quantity of instruments and EFX that Logic comes with as standard. I think, because of that, occasionally I end up using it (Logic).

TUAW: What's the best project you've worked on and why?

PAS: Hmm, hard question. Not sure. I'm working on a TV series at the moment that will air in January. So far it's been really great because of the people that I'm working with. There's a lot of heart in the show as well as the team who is working on it. That's really important to me.

TUAW: Do you want to do any name dropping at this point?

PAS: Well, let's see... Oh, I don't know. I'd love to, but it doesn't feel right! However, I did work on the soundtrack for 'Gears of War 2'. It was a real treat because I got to go to Skywalker Ranch where we recorded an orchestra.

TUAW: Gears of War 2, what a sweet game, and no less, a real orchestra on the sound track, alright! What about the worst project you've worked on?

PAS: I'm not sure I want to answer this question!

TUAW: What a true professional. Finally, it's a very rainy day, you have a huge deadline to meet, but your head is blocked, there's no tunes a'comin. What do you do?

PAS: It seems when you have too much time, you tend to throw out lots of ideas left and right. When you don' t have the luxury of time, you work on ONE idea, commit to it and MAKE IT WORK!