Composer Profile: Kusiak Music


John Kusiak in his studio

Photo: Laura Barrett

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It all starts with a love for music—and John Kusiak, owner of Kusiak Music (Arlington, Mass.; is no exception. He began his foray into the music world as a performer, playing in rock and jazz bands. Gradually, he transitioned to being on the other side of the glass as a recording engineer. A friendship with Northern Light Productions'' owner, independent filmmaker Bestor Cram, landed him his first gig composing for film. “He got me started. I was developing a family at the same time, [and] it seemed like an appealing way to get off the road and work more in the studio,” Kusiak recalls.

EM phoned Kusiak a little more than a week ago to talk about his home studio setup, his composition chops, and his latest work composing music for the soon-to-be-released PBS documentary The Fall of the Wall.

Have you always worked out of your house?
For the last 15 years I''ve had a studio in my house. Prior to that I had worked in other studios in the Boston area, one of them Silver Linings Inc., an audio production studio. But at this point I''m working in my home, so it''s great.

How is your studio set up?
It''s a walk-in basement, which makes it appealing in that I don''t have to have clients going through the house; I have a separate entrance. There''s a full bath down here, and I have a recording area and a separate control room. What''s interesting about the house and one of the reasons why we bought it was that the ceilings in the basement are eight feet, which is unusual sometimes for basements in the area; often they have very low ceilings. So it makes it easier to build a control room and recording area if you have height. I had a sound room designer, Michael Blackmer, help me in the design and construction of the room.

The main area is a 13x21-foot control room; that''s where I have all my keyboards, synthesizers, sampling units, and it''s conceived on a live end/dead end setup where the speakers [Dynaudio BM15P with a Bryston 2B power amp] are up in the front—it''s very dead up in the front—and then in the back it''s live, and I can record instrumentalists right in the control room if I want to. I have a small recording room where I''ve had string quartets, woodwind groups, and bands; if I need to record something larger like an orchestra, I''ll go to an external facility.

What sort of audio goodies do you have in the control room?
I have a Yamaha DM1000 56-input digital mixer—it''s really fantastic—and I have a Kurzweil 2600XS full 88-keys keyboard. I have all of my computers in a separate machine room outside of the control room so there''s no noise in here. What I''m doing is a modular setup: I use Digital Performer for the most part, along with Kontakt, Vienna Ensemble, Gigastudio. I have multiple computers that handle a lot of the sounds. I do mixing inside the box to a certain extent with plug-ins, and then it''s routed through a couple of standing effects racks, where I have a Lexicon reverb and some actual boxes, like a Roland 5080 and various other processors—a Crane Song HEDD 192, a TC Electronic Finalizer, an Aphex Trac 2 mic preamp/converter—these all sit in these racks on the side. I can send signal out to them and back into the board and then back into the computer. I still work in a somewhat combination “in the box” and “out of the box,” and I find that the most flexible. I don''t really like to work totally inside the box.

Is your hybrid way of composing based on the types of projects you work on?
I would say that it''s a combination of the way that I like to work and the way [the gear has] developed over the last 20 years because, obviously, 20 years ago there was little inside-the-box type of gear. I was using Performer 20 years ago, but mostly the sound was coming from hardware samplers and modules outside of the computer. As technology has developed, I have gotten a more balanced hybrid setup. I use Digital Performer, which [lets me record] live instruments and MIDI samplers and combine them. A lot of the soundtracks that I do are usually a combination of live and sampled instruments.

You also have an associate, P. Andrew Willis, and an assistant, Robert Jaret. How does workflow occur between the three of you?
They sometimes work in the studio, but they also live in the area and they have their own home studios, so we collaborate. They''re not direct employees; they''re more like subcontractors. Andrew and I have been working closely together for 10 years now; he''s a very competent and qualified composer on his own.

The work comes in through me. For example, right now I''m working on two or three projects simultaneously, and it''s more work than I can handle myself, so I organize a certain number of cues for a film that I can sub out to the guys to help me. Rob is also quite good at orchestration and score preparation, so when we have musicians coming in—from the Boston Symphony Orchestra or various other musicians—he puts together the scores for them.

Most of your work seems to be music for documentaries. Is this your forte?
Yes. People will often contact me early in the [documentary filming] process and want me to get involved as they''re editing and acquaint me with the subject. I may compose a couple of themes or tracks to get started, even before the film has been edited, so I work very closely with the filmmaker. Doing documentaries is a different style of composing than feature work because there is often a lot more talking, where people are trying to communicate directly, as opposed to sometimes in features there''s just action—there''s not much dialog, so the music can take over. Whereas in documentary work, it''s more underscore and complementary.

I really love this [type of work], and I learn a lot. For example, I just did a series on the history of Native Americans for PBS, a five-part series [American Experience's We Shall Remain]. I''m interested in history, so I found it very intriguing to work on this project and learned a lot as I was getting the opportunity to compose music for it, too.

Tell me about composing music for The Fall of the Wall.
We''re in the process of working on it now. I''ve written a number of cues, and they''re supposed to give me the final locked video [in a few days]. Then they have to deliver the film in April. This first half is an hour film, and then there''s going to be a second half that they''re going to finish in the summer.

It''s a film about the fall of the Berlin Wall that took place in 1989. They interviewed a lot of famous people like Gorbachev from the Soviet Union, George Bush Sr., Helmut Kohl, and then they have a lot of very interesting interviews with people who lived in East Germany who either tried to escape or were involved in some way.

The first thing I did was get together with the filmmaker and have discussions about what the film is doing and what the music will do. Then I went over to their studio and watched the film with the editor and the director and took notes as we went through the film—cue by cue and section by section—and talked about where the music should come in, where the music should go out, what the mood is, what we''re trying to convey. They often [had] temp music, and we''d talk about whether the temp music was working, whether I should try to make something like it or whether it should do something different. I went back to my studio and worked on the rough cuts they had given me and started composing music to picture straight from my keyboard. I watched the film over and over and would see what came out. There''s a certain part of it that I''m not sure how I do; it''s intuitive and I see something and I react to it—certain melodies or chords—and then it generally evolves from that.

There are some dark, foreboding types of music when they''re talking about the construction of the wall and how it was meant to prevent people from leaving. There''s also some tragic or very sad music about people who died in trying to escape [and] some very exciting and uplifting music that needs to be composed for a section where they''re talking about the wall coming down. There''s a real variety, and that''s something all composers for film are required to do: be eclectic and have a real variety of styles that they need to write in, because any movie—dramatic, documentary, or what have you—has various ups and downs, and you have to do a lot of slow music, fast music. It depends on what the image is and what the filmmaker is trying to convey.

Once I developed the music, I sent it to the director to get either approval or his changes. When they have the locked video, I will produce a finished piece of music that is done totally with synthesizers and samplers. Then once it''s been approved and the film is locked, then I''ll decide—either myself or with the filmmaker—about which instruments would be good to replace [the samples]. If there''s a budget to use real instruments, we''ll go through the film and make these decisions about what should be replaced, and we''ll create scores for musicians and have them come in and record them. Once we have all that done, it''s time to actually get down to mixing for the film, and that''s a whole complete process unto itself. [Laughs.] I have an FTP site where I''ll post my mixes, and then they will download it and the editor will sync it up to the film. I''m posting MP3s for demos, but the finished work is Broadcast WAV 48/24 files.

Are you doing any mastering to the WAV files?
I have the TC Electronic Finalizer, and we also have plug-ins [PSP, Waves] that we use on the files sometimes, depending on what we''re trying to do. Especially if we''re doing commercial projects, you''d handle the mix differently than something for a documentary.

Is the director or picture editor giving you specs on what levels you need to deliver your files?
They don''t do that. I try to get the files for a documentary in a relatively hot form, so that I''m using as many of the bits as possible in doing the recording. But I don''t necessarily make them all exactly up to zero—you''re not looking for that extreme compression of dynamics that they do in preparing pop music or commercial spots to go on radio or TV. I have to also think about the fact that the mix engineer for the film may be doing some reworking to the files, so I don''t want the music to be too processed.

So while you''re waiting on the final locked video, what else is on your to-do list?
I''m working on a really interesting project for Errol Morris called Reality TV on Showtime. The pilot is an hour-and-a-half film, and it''s his own unique style of documentary. At this point, it''s supposed to go to Showtime, and they''re planning to do a series. So I''m looking forward to that.

Check out more of Kusiak''s Reel-Exchange profile at