It's a relatively typical story: Musician lands day job but spends most waking hours trying to book his band. However, for Los Angeles-based composer Tom Zehnder, the day job turned into a music career that put him on the ground floor of the boom in game audio production. Sixteen years later, he has a new studio and zero regrets.
“I've watched the game audio biz completely blossom to be on a par with film,” he says. “I just rode that wave. I remember doing 7k/8-bit files, but the A-list game titles now have huge budgets, just like big films.”
Tom Zehnder seated at his custom-built workstation desk in Vapor Trail Productions, his studio in Culver City, Calif.
Photo: Mike Boggio
A singer, songwriter and guitarist since childhood, Zehnder majored in music composition at UCLA and graduated summa cum laude in June 1991. Soon after, he got a job as a part-time program tester at Davidson & Associates, a start-up developer of children's educational software. Looking ahead, the company eventually built an in-house studio and asked Zehnder to take charge of it. “I basically learned by doing,” he recalls. “I didn't have a lot of supervision. I was in a position of purchasing gear, and it was great to spend someone else's dime. I was also doing independent band stuff in real studios and watching the engineers.”
By 2003, following some corporate acquisitions and mergers, Zehnder was lead composer in the audio department for Vivendi Universal Games, where he scored two titles that were honored in 2005 by the Game Audio Network Guild: Van Helsing and Barbie — Princess and the Pauper. Then, in June 2004, VUG eliminated its audio department as part of a cost-saving move. Zehnder negotiated to buy the company's studio equipment. “I got the entire setup — stuff that I had hand-picked over 10 years — for really cheap,” Zehnder says. “I paid more than a liquidator would pay, but way less than retail. To top it off, I got to pay it off through work over a two-year period.”
Confident on his own, Zehnder built Vapor Trail Productions (Culver City, Calif.; www.vaportrailpro.com), a one-room, 280-square-foot studio within a 482-square-foot guesthouse on his property. He is currently working on projects for Ubisoft and Ogilvy & Mather, as well as two documentary films. He also scored music for recent Disney DVD releases and Yahoo Web shows Snap and Cheap 'n' Easy.
In building his studio, Zehnder consulted Chris Pelonis, who designed and built the studios at Davidson and VUG. “I had to build the room around the [custom] desk,” Zehnder says. He paid meticulous attention to acoustic treatment and isolation, constructing an isolated machine closet and dividing the room into dead and reverberant spaces. “I had to use lots of drywall and soundboard, and design acoustic doors,” he says. “I made sure I had big bass traps and hard surfaces, as well as [Fiberglas] foam. I ensured that there were no parallel surfaces. I spent lots of money on the [two] dual-paned Mylar windows.”
Vapor Trail has a dual-core 2GHz Mac G5 and Pro Tools HD3 system with one Digidesign 192 I/O interface and one DSP expansion card. A Compaq PC hosts Tascam GigaStudio. “I use Pro Tools as the sequencer, which really surprises other composers,” Zehnder says. “But I just track everything. I get the performance out of GigaStudio and then record that performance.”
Zehnder has outboard gear from TL Audio, Joemeek, dbx, PreSonus, Lexicon and Studio Technologies, and mics from RØDE, beyerdynamic, Electro-Voice and Shure. For monitoring, he relies on Tannoy System 1000 speakers, a Tannoy PS350B active subwoofer and Audio-Technica MMS337 multimedia speakers. He also has a Mackie HUI MIDI control surface; his synths comprise a Kurzweil SP88, Korg MS2000R, E-mu Orbit 3 and Roland M-GS64. Plus, he owns a wealth of stringed and percussion instruments.
Tracking live performances is central to Zehnder's production process, and he creates his own sample libraries from scratch, often tailoring them for individual projects. “It's funny that I go into digital but love that human, breathing thing,” he says. “I find that people still will come back to the sound of a live orchestra and a live guitar. A film composer will say the best soundtracks are the ones you don't hum; they [provide] the right emotion. The underscore has to feel right, and often those feelings are connected to a ‘real’ instrument. It always comes down to your ears — that's your biggest asset.”
Over the years, Zehnder has developed ways for integrating his acoustic, performed compositions into the nonlinear realm of computer games. “I sit with the game designer and the producers and talk grand-scale about the music and interface with the programmers to see what we can do. Every game is like a new venture.”
Matt Gallagher is an assistant editor at Mix.