With his cerebral style and ivory-tower electronic music education (Carnegie Mellon, Cal Arts, and NEA Jazz grant), composer Gary Chang might have ended up the quintessential mad-sonic scientist, locked away in a lab producing experimental projects. Instead, he's turned his passion for creating unusual sounds and music into a successful career in film and television scoring. Chang's clients know they can rely on him to compose innovative, original music on time and on budget.
Maybe it's a left-brain/right-brain thing. Chang always gets the job done, effectively communicating the proper emotions and atmospheres to move a plot along. He does that with singular cinematic style music that far exceeds the quality of the generic soundtracks endemic to network TV. That's probably why Stephen King, the master of horror, chose Chang as composer for four of his television projects. King knows that Chang will deliver the nuts and bolts, along with some tasty surprises, in a way that perfectly complements King's scripts.
Chang has said, “To compose music, you have to be both a painter and a plumber.” He has various projects under his belt, including feature films The Breakfast Club, Under Siege, and The Island of Dr. Moreau; Emmy Award — winning television shows Storm of the Century, The Burning Season, Andersonville, and George Wallace; and musical projects with artists such as Barbra Streisand, Robbie Robertson, and Herbie Hancock. I met up with Chang at his Calabasas, California studio (see Fig. 1) where he spends his time multitasking on music. On the morning I stopped in, he was scoring Episode 9 of King's ABC Television series, Kingdom Hospital.
Working out of your home studio seems to suit you.
If I were trying to do all this in a commercial studio, there wouldn't be enough time. Even spending an hour a day commuting would take too much time away from what I'm doing. And besides, I spend most of my creative time in my pajamas!
It's also true that I'm comfortable doing everything myself. Back when I was studying with Morton Subotnick at Cal Arts, no one ever talked about the categorization of the recording industry. Basically, you were a composer. You walked into a room, there were tape recorders and synthesizers and other equipment, you took all of those things, put them together, and made music with them.
After I got my MFA and was doing my first studio work, it was strange for me to walk into a situation with a producer, an engineer, a tape operator, and a music arranger in which they would say “No, no! Don't touch the reverb unit. That's not your job!” Reverb is to a synthesist like an amp is to a guitarist: they're part of your tool set.
Now it's come full circle, and I'm more comfortable working that way, like Daniel Lanois or Brian Eno — they make music using a reverb unit, a guitar amp, and a microphone. Those kinds of artistic processes don't exist if you have rigid guidelines for job descriptions.
You're not a sound-effects designer, but there's something “sound-effects-like” in a lot of your music.
Generally, the sound-effects designers on a project love me. They're surprised at how much of what I do adds to what they do.
You like using analog synthesis. Do you think it sounds better than digital?
Oh yes. A sine wave output of an analog VCO [voltage-controlled oscillator], even with a noticeable amount of distortion, sounds better than most digital gear sine waves. Part of it is the way in which our ears are constructed. When you compare CDs to vinyl records, there's very little high end on vinyl. But with vinyl, you're listening to frequency information that really matters to the ear. You're able to turn up the volume and get a big, full sound; you don't get that same sound when you turn up the volume on digital gear.
You've become partial to the Wiard synthesizer, developed by Grant Richter.
Grant's Wiard is one of the pivotal instruments (see Fig. 2), along with my Synclavier, in the music for Kingdom Hospital. While studying at Cal Arts, I worked with a gigantic Buchla synthesizer. I always wanted to get back to it. Some years ago I called Cal Arts and asked if they still had those instruments. As it turned out, they'd just sold them to Grant. Now I have what's essentially a modern-day version, which I'm excited about. The difference is that this millennium's analog circuitry doesn't give off any heat, so it's as stable as a rock and is much faster to work with.
I don't know of that many people right now who are interested in the art of being a synthesist — that is, combining sonic parts and elements to create entirely new sounds.
What's wonderful about being a film composer is that, ultimately, clients want the end result. They don't sit there and hammer me about my process. So I get to use different types of equipment to create my sounds (see Fig. 3). And, whether mainstream musicians and composers know it or not, this is really the golden era of analog synthesis. There are more manufacturers out there and more interesting things going on in analog modular synthesis right now than at any other time — even the '60s and '70s. And the instruments have stability and repeatability.
Do you mean “more” in an esoteric way or for the mass market?
Some of both. For instance, Grant's latest, the [Wiard Model GR1211] Joystick Access Generator, is one of the more interesting products on the market. You can plug two inputs into a joystick, and it gives you ten outputs. It costs only $200.
There's also the PSIM-1 by Brice Hornback. It's basically a microprocessor with a flash ROM. You can patch a Windows computer to it and download basic programs. It's a programmable, nonlinear function generator [a circuit that lets you create voltage fluctuations] with four voltage inputs and four outputs. You program it with code. Soon it will have expander modules with a more extensive graphic interface and maybe more inputs and outputs, such as MIDI in and out. It's a mini computer, and it's inexpensive.
Soon you're going to be able to put together an extensive analog synthesis setup with components that cost $200 to $500. It's the direction in which I thought electronic music was going before polyphonic synthesizers came in and took over. There are some really smart people involved in this technology.
So we won't have to hear the same stock or sampled sounds all the time.
After school, you started getting hired to work on sessions. What were you doing, and how did it lead to being a composer for hire?
While in school I played in bands, and I noticed that when there's a musical problem, the resolution tends to come from the first person with a solution, who was usually the guitar player. With the processes I like to use, as you can imagine, I was seldom that person. So most of the time I found myself in subservient positions to solutions that weren't necessarily the best.
Eventually, I got a job as product specialist for Fairlight USA, and ended up programming the Computer Music Instrument (CMI) in the midst of some of the coolest artists and engineers in the business. That got my foot in the door — first as a freelance synthesizer programmer and then as an electronic music arranger, rendering composers' music as electronic music. I worked for [producer-composer] Giorgio Moroder, who was instrumental in my working with [producer-composer] Keith Forsey on The Breakfast Club. When Keith left the project to work with his usual bands at the time [the Psychedelic Furs and Billy Idol], I got to finish the underscore. And it just went on from there.
How does labor get divided up on the music for Kingdom Hospital?
The music group here in Los Angeles is me; my old friend and production manager/researcher/bassist/composer Jack Daro; my regular music editor Sherry Whitfield; and music editor Hal Beckett, who lives in Vancouver.
On Kingdom Hospital, I composed most of the original music and did most of the final editing and sweetening of recorded elements. Jack contributed a cue or two each episode, while Sherry did most of the rough assemblages. I did all the final mixes. Filming, by the way, is done in Vancouver.
How much music is there to compose?
Kingdom Hospital has over five hours of original score. A lot of the songs are chosen by Stephen. In Episode 8, for example, there were 24 minutes of score. That's substantial. It will probably stay on that level, so it's going to be quite intense. It's interesting when people create budgets for films. They understand how long and how much money it will take to produce music, but they don't factor in the writing time.
For the last episode we did, we had seven days to turn it over. I spent four days writing, so I had to stay up all day and night for three days to deliver the final product.
What are you working from in terms of visuals? Where does your direction come from?
We [the music team in Los Angeles and the production team in Vancouver] spot the movies via the Internet using iChat. We're online once a week, and we talk about it [while watching the visuals] with the executive producer, the editor, and the director.
Isn't there a delay with iChat?
It's about two seconds.
I've heard that when using iChat, people feel a need to have their ideas and comments well organized so that they can speak rapidly to compensate for the delay.
It does make a big difference in the respect that if you are all in the same room, it could take three hours to spot a 90-minute show. With iChat, it takes maybe an hour and a half. It goes like this: “Is there something wrong with this? No? Then let's move on.” The conversation moves quickly as opposed to us getting into long discussions.
So when you spot, you're looking at the visuals. What else helps you decide the areas in which you need to write music?
There's a temporary score that Stephen and ABC have already signed off on. That score has been rendered by an assistant editor using my music and other resources.
You are currently working on the score for Episode 9. For the first episode, was there much more music for you to create?
Kingdom is my first series; up until now I'd done predominantly feature-length projects or miniseries. But in creating the music, it's like working on a giant feature, where the theme writing happens up front. I had enough time to write some of the themes and to get the producers and the studio to sign off on them. Then the schedule gets so tight that there's no more time for feedback except for “That sucks! We have to redo it!” Fortunately, that doesn't happen very much on this project.
Now that we are on Episode 9, there are issues here and there. But generally speaking, it's easier. Some composers feel that temporary scores can be daunting. And they can be, but in a lot of ways it's good to have a reference. Especially if you have a client who really doesn't understand music, it's much easier to deal with. You can have someone say, “I like this,” rather than “I want some sort of rock thing,” and 20 versions later, they decide it's still not right.
It's not like that on Kingdom. I've worked 5 times with this executive producer, 4 times with Stephen King, and 13 times with the director.
Those kinds of relationships must make the work a lot easier.
Return work is the heart of film music. The clients have confidence that when there's a music moment, it's going to be good, and that's always an asset.
Do you ever work with Stephen directly?
Not really, he's kind of aloof to the process. But I have the original scripts, which are great. There are occasional specific requests, but these are usually passed to me through the director or the producer, who are in direct and constant contact with Stephen.
People often ask me how I like working for Stephen King's horror genre. To me, King uses horror like other authors use war — as an external force that directs people. It's about the resolve of the characters. The horror device forces the motivations and exposes the kind of person that he's trying to examine in the story. So there's a lot of musical meat in there for me. Stephen King is an evocative fellow for this day and age, one of the major storytellers of our time. I am pleased to have worked this much with him.
What's your technical setup?
I record to Pro Tools, and I have two computers on one monitor, with GigaStudio on one and Acid on the other. Acid, in my opinion, is the pivotal change that has allowed me to use these modular instruments again.
Because you can make sounds and digitize them into Acid?
One of the beautiful things about Acid is that when I get an idea, I can database my patches. Instead of waiting for the moment when I need something and trying to create it then, I can come up with something in the middle of the night if I want and throw it into Acid. It's a lot of fun, because it's completely plastic. I just construct it in Acid, it sounds great, and then I go on. No more sync insanity.
What about traditional orchestral sounds? I hear some of them in the Kingdom soundtrack.
A lot of them are from GigaStudio, especially the strings, which are from the Vienna Library. I use the Synclavier, which still sounds fantastic, even now. But I also have a lot of live performances stockpiled in Acid. Many were written and recorded by me — along with various musicians — for the show. Acid has also enabled me to use a lot of these live performances differently. I hardly ever record with a click anymore, because I can synchronize what I've recorded. I'm just looking for the musicians to play as musically as they can, which is rather a wild way of doing it.
To sync up after the fact?
Exactly. I can have people come in and actually perform in the tempo that's comfortable, and then I stretch them into synchronization later.
The click doesn't have to dominate the composition process anymore.
With sequencers, the click ruled. As soon as you start thinking about the click, you erase a whole palette of creativity. You're too busy figuring out, “Now, when this comes down, how does it coincide with the other part?” Not having to think about the technical crap while playing is fantastic. So I thank Sonic Foundry for Acid. It's an amazing program that allows me to take gestures — musically valuable entities — and integrate them into pieces of music.
With so many tools and sounds available, how do you decide where to start for any given cue?
Fundamentally, I'm a thematic composer. I learned this working with [director] John Frankenheimer, who loves melodies. He asked me to score a Civil War movie, and suddenly all of the technology that I'm used to working with disappeared, and we were in choirs and orchestra. That's when I discovered that I'm good at thematic writing. When the themes are right, the show shines. There are other functional pieces of music, of course, like action and suspense. But I love it when music paints subtext in a scene. It's like whispering into the audience's ear while they're watching the show.
Do you record much at your home studio?
I record and mix everything at home, with the exception of orchestral scoring sessions.
There's a piano in the living room, and with an Apogee Mini-Me [preamp and A/D converter] and my Schoeps M/S pair [mics], I record piano parts or sound effects into my laptop. I have a guitar speaker cabinet and a Leslie [amplifier] in isolation rooms above the garage, so I can crank it up late at night. The studio is floating double wall-ceiling construction. I've recorded drums at 2 a.m. without the police knocking on the door.
I have instruments all over the house: a 52-inch pow-wow drum in the living room that I sampled for Episode 2, and tons of ethnic hand percussion. I call it guerrilla recording — finding sounds and little gestures, and then recording and compiling them to make new composites. I'm not interested in libraries with 5,000 drum loops. I like to make the sounds myself.
For example, for one of the episodes I created an eerie brush loop. Drummer Billy Ward, who lives in New York City, is a friend who I've worked with for over ten years. He puts together a bunch of random parts and sends them to me on CD. For the brush loop, I took something he played and heavily futzed around with Amp Farm and delay. Once you become proficient at making your own sounds, it's just as fast as trying to thumb through 2,000 drum loops in a library. And — best of all — it's unique.
Are you trying to send the mixers a “straight-line” mix — where they just put all the faders at zero and they get your mix?
What are some other pieces of gear that you're using a lot lately?
M-Audio's Octane [preamp and A/D converter] is the perfect input device for the 5-channel input of the Wiard. Instead of 12 feet of XLR connectors to get to the patch bay, I patch to the Octane, which then connects all eight of its channels via Lightpipe (see Fig. 4). It also has a built in M/S decoder, which is handy for my Schoeps M/S pair.
Peter Grenader [synthesizer designer and composer] has created the Milton, a 16 × 4 analog sequencer that pays homage to the Buchla 200 Series sequencers. That is another fantastic limited production analog synthesizer module in my Wiard setup.
The Apogee Mini-Me is fantastic because it has mic or line inputs and AES or S/PDIF outputs. I just take my laptop somewhere, record a sound, and turn it into Acid fodder.
Last, but certainly not least, is the TC System 6000. To me, that reverb is like what a Dumble Amplifier is to a guitar player. It makes my electronic music sound live. The 5.1 multiband compressor allows for very subtle mix control — for instance, like bringing out a French Horn melody from a dense orchestral texture. It's an essential tool in my book.
How do you feel about surround sound?
All of Stephen's productions have been in 5.1. Unfortunately, on primetime TV, everyone — except those viewing on HDTV — hears it in stereo. It will, however, be recorded in 5.1 for the DVD. I'm a big advocate of surround. But what I see right now is that 5.1 audio, except in film, is an elitist hobby.
Do you have any parting thoughts about being a composer in 2004?
If you just want to make money, go to business school. This is a terrible business to make money. People tell me I'm nuts, and that they would never work as hard as I do. But the truth is I adore what I do — all of it, from composing, playing, and patching things in to working with new gear, creating sounds, engineering, and mixing. I raised my family doing something I absolutely love, and I feel very fortunate.
Maureen Droney, whose engineering credits include projects for Carlos Santana, George Benson, John Hiatt, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin, among many others, is the Los Angeles editor for Mix magazine.
(featuring music composed by Gary Chang)
Kingdom Hospital, ABC series, 2004
Word of Honor, TNT feature, 2003
Path to War, HBO feature, 2002
Rose Red, ABC miniseries, 2001
The Crossing, A&E feature, 2000
Storm of the Century, ABC miniseries, 1999
George Wallace, TNT miniseries, 1997
Andersonville, TNT miniseries, 1996
The Island of Dr. Moreau, New Line theatrical feature, 1996
Against the Wall, HBO feature, 1994
The Burning Season, HBO feature, 1994