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TAXI member Steve Barden
TAXI member Steve Barden

Do you ever watch the TAXI TV episodes?
I do when I can, especially when the topic is something that can help me. It’s nice that the episodes can be played later on-demand.  I remember several years ago before this streaming technology was available when Michael [Laskow] was looking for volunteers to bring in video recorders to film him answering questions to be later posted on YouTube. Oh how far you’ve come!

I can’t believe that he has the energy to do one of these episodes every week. Talk about a commitment to his members.

Any sage advice for people about making the best use of the TAXI Road Rally?
For me, the annual Road Rally is the primary reason I continue to be a member of TAXI. I have made more contacts in the industry and made several deals from people I’ve met at the Rally. Not to mention the friends I’ve made.

Of course the classes are very informative – something for everybody – and the panels in the ballroom are the best. I even got to meet one of my idols, Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. What a great guy he is!

I live in Los Angeles, near where the Rally is hosted. At my first Rally I went to the classes during the day and drove straight home afterward for dinner. I learned that there is great value in hanging out in the lobby/bar in the evening and getting to know people, going to the open mics, and general good times. You can’t get that online. So ever since then I’ve booked a room at the hotel so I can make the most of everything that the Rally has to offer.

It’s hard to describe in words. You just have to experience it for yourself. When you start hearing people on the forum talking about the upcoming Road Rally – months in advance  – you begin to understand why people go through withdrawal anticipating the next Rally.

“I hear people say, ‘Hey, they asked for an apple and I gave them an apple and they rejected my song!’ Later, if you really looked honestly at the listing, you’ll understand that it was asking for a red apple and you gave them a green apple. They’re both apples, but you didn’t really understand what the listing was asking for.”

-Steve Barden

I remember that you said in the pre-interview that you’ve begun to move beyond doing a lot of Dramedy cues – which you’ve been quite successful at for the last five years – to doing music that’s more targeted specifically at Film Trailers. Why are you moving in that direction?
I think it’s just time for a change of pace. I’ve been writing dramedy cues for several years now. I’ve had a good amount of success with the cues I’ve written and they continue to generate income for me and probably will for some years to come.

I’ve wanted to write trailer music for several years actually. But because of how important it has been to continue working on dramedy, I have had to put it on the back burner. I think what really set the wheels in motion was seeing Nick Murray’s explanation of trailers in the ballroom panel at last year’s Road Rally.

I already had a good understanding of the compositional style for trailers but had no clue about the three-act structure. I’ve been an orchestral composer for many, many years, but modern trailers are considered hybrid-orchestral, meaning the orchestral instruments are embellished with synths and other sound design. This frightened me.

Tell our readers who think they might be good at doing Trailer music because they’ve got some awesome string samples or Kodo drum samples, why there’s a lot more to it than might initially meet the eye, or “ear,” as it were.
Learning about hybrid-orchestral trailer writing was like going back to college. So much to learn! I’ve never been much of a synth guy, so learning about how to integrate synths with the orchestra was really outside of my comfort zone. I had to learn about risers, downers, whooshes, impacts, braaams, etc. (Awesome terminology, right?)

I learned that trailer music falls under the “Epic” music genre. I didn’t know that is what it was called. Epic music implies hugeness. Hugeness in the brass, hugeness in the percussion, hugeness in the strings, choir, sound design, and so on.  Trailer music is Epic, but Epic music is not necessarily Trailer. Trailer music can be considered a sub-genre of Epic distinguished by its three-act structure. Pure Epic music does not have to adhere to this structure, it just has to be, well, epic!  I was also surprised to find out what a huge fan base that Epic music has.

How much listening or studying other people’s music do you do?
I think if you want to be good at something you need to really put in the time and study it. I have spent a considerable amount of time researching everything there is to know about how to compose music for trailers. I’ve come a long way but I know that I still have a long way to go.

There is a gold mine of information available on YouTube. Not only can you watch every trailer available, you can even find channels that showcase just the music used in popular trailers. This is extremely helpful because you are not distracted by “In a world…” voiceovers and other sound effects.

I’ve learned who all the big trailer companies are and who the composers are that write the music. I’ve even gone so far as getting in touch with some of the composers and have gotten invaluable feedback and suggestions from them. I was getting consistent comments like, “It needs to sound bigger!”  I got tired of hearing that after a while so I learned how to get bigger sounds by imitating those guys.

When I’m not watching YouTube videos I’m listening to the albums of these trailer companies and composers, many of which are available on Amazon Prime. This is a great service for Prime members.

“I think if you want to be good at something you need to really put in the time and study it.”

-Steve Barden

Can you make some specific suggestions as to how people that have some chops with their instruments and gear, but don’t yet know the “rules” of composing, can learn those things?
The best way to learn is to imitate. When I played in Top-40 bands I had to transcribe all of the songs. Not only did this improve my ear, but I really learned about song structure, arrangements, style, etc.

One trick songwriters can use to learn about form and structure is to mimic a popular tune by using the same chord progression and arrangement, say vi-IV-I-V (Am-F-C-G) and add your own melody and lyrics. This proves that if you can create a great chord progression then you’ve just eliminated that obstacle.

I’ll go back to my YouTube example and say that there is a wealth of information out there, from learning how to play an instrument to learning how to mix and master your recordings.

Have you gotten to the point where it’s hard to listen to music recreationally because now you’re listening to what makes it work, and/or work in a certain context?
Sadly, yes. I’m constantly studying music. Whether it’s to learn a style like trailer music or to study orchestration I’ve always got something that I’m working on. I don’t often listen just for enjoyment because I’ll just end up analyzing it. The only thing I seem to enjoy listening to for pure satisfaction is the Beatles. Maybe there’s a 12-step program out there for people like me: “Hi, my name’s Steve and that was a dominant 7th flat-5 chord.”

Do people who want to create cues, especially simple ones, need a lot of gear to jump in, or can they start with a somewhat modest home studio setup?
Current technology is amazing. You can accomplish so much with a very modest investment. All you need is a computer (everyone has one), some software, and a microphone. I cut my teeth on reel-to-reel multi-tracks with tons of outboard gear. Kids today have it so easy with their DAWs and their plugins and their parallel compressors!

Seriously, it’s quite astonishing what you can do with this stuff. And it keeps getting less and less expensive and more and more powerful. You can do today with just a few thousand dollars what would have cost $50,000 (or more) about 15 years ago. When I started, the only way you could hear your orchestral compositions was to have it performed by real musicians playing real orchestral instruments.

Once they’ve mastered the more simple cues – let’s say acoustic guitar and Dobro swampy-style cues – and they want to move into doing more complex orchestral cues, what are some recommended first steps?
First you need to decide what type of orchestral writing you want to do. There are many, many orchestral sample libraries available now. They range in price and abilities. But no matter which library you choose to use you are going to need to learn how to write for the orchestra. Every instrument has its own set of articulations, or playing styles. For example, violins can bow (long and short), finger plucks (pizzicato), etc. It’s not as simple as just selecting which articulation to use, there is a bit of effort using the various controllers and dynamics in order to achieve a realistic performance. Again, check out YouTube.

Orchestration is an art. I don't know if you can ever truly master it. There is always something new to learn.

And finally, I’d like to ask you if you have any advice for people who’ve wanted to get into the Film and TV instrumental world, but are intimidated by the TAXI listings… people who feel like, “It’s too much work to get that good and give those companies what they need.” What advice would you give them?
I would suggest spending time developing your skill as an instrumental composer by studying the listings, listening to the suggested “a la’s” and write, write, write. And this is where the TAXI forum comes in. Share your works-in-progress with other forum members. Those with experience in the genre you are writing for will help by offering suggestions ranging from composition, mixing, and appropriateness to the listing.

You will need to submit to the listings in order to get the screener feedback and face rejection. It’s inevitable. Learning how to read the listings is a challenge in itself. I hear people say, “Hey, they asked for an apple and I gave them an apple and they rejected my song!” Later, if you really looked honestly at the listing, you’ll understand that it was asking for a red apple and you gave them a green apple. They’re both apples, but you didn’t really understand what the listing was asking for.

Believe me, we’ve all been through this. It’s a journey.

Writing music for film and TV is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It does require that you pay your dues. It can be a very lucrative endeavor, but it takes time. Some people get there faster than you or me. It’s not a contest. Really. Just keep making music!


Hear Steve’s Music:

See Steve’s Credits:

Don't miss Part Four of this Interview in next month's TAXI Transmitter!