Games are always a combination of skill and luck, with the ratio of both depending on the game. Well, Bill Brown has both a knack for making the music that gamers play games to (skill) and for leveling up in life (luck?).
The composer/producer of music for games, films and TV shows such as CSI: NY (full series) and Syfy’s Dominion (season two) caught a couple of breaks in life that could be called lucky.
As a young man newly arrived in L.A., Brown worked in sound design, editing and mixing for a couple of years to pay the bills, when an introduction to Scott Gershin at the audio post house Soundelux got his foot in the door. He made two music demos for Soundelux for two AAA games, that is, some of the highest-budget and most-anticipated titles. Both demos were accepted, and that led to the next nine years of Brown’s life working on several games a year at Soundelux while scoring small film and TV projects on the side.
Soundelux was a great place for making connections, and in 2004 when Brown got the chance to try out for CSI: NY, he again made some demos and got the job straightaway. Boom; another nine years of his life was in the works—no gap in the resumé.
Now, many people like to say you make your own luck. Bill Brown makes music—lots of it, and well. So if luck had anything to do with it, that’s not for lack of output.
“I was working on four AAA game titles simultaneously back in 2004 when I got the call to interview for scoring CSI:NY,” Brown says, “and that changed the course of my career.”
A lifelong fan of games, movies and TV, Brown wasn’t really steering himself toward one medium and away from another. He just loves to make music and was following great opportunities that arose. He’s continued to sprinkle in music for games while TV scoring dominated most of his year. For example, he did the music for the Captain America: Super Soldier game in 2011 and is currently working on a yet-to-be-named Chinese MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game).
Yet Brown definitely appreciates some key differences between scoring for games and for TV/film.
“The important thing to remember with scoring games is that players are steering it, like a director,” he says. “And they might have to live with the score for longer periods of time as compared to film or television; you have to create a score that will work for each different scenario. Film and TV are the same each time you watch them, so I have the opportunity to get specific to picture. The music has to have a soul regardless.
“There is something exciting about finding a new layer in a scene or a game level and expressing something musically/emotionally that connects the audience on a deeper level. It’s really the same working on game projects, television or films: I can write cinematic, complex, emotionally nuanced music that connects the audience on a visceral and emotional level.”
With the beginning of CSI: NY, Brown built himself a home studio, where he’s become quite the one-man gang. He plays keys, guitar and bass, and he writes, arranges and records the music.
Stylistically, he’s hard to pin down, as well. He has about seven demo reels, from horror to romantic comedy, for a reason. When working on a Lord of the Rings game or other project, he can nail that whimsical fantasy sound that’s probably the leading source of employment for flutists. The cinematic, heavy guitar riff-based instrumentals of the Command & Conquer: Generals titles were famous in the game world. And on one of his latest and greatest efforts, Dominion season two, he demonstrates mastery of the “epic” score: big, punctuating drums, sweeping strings and passionate background vocals singing longing sustained notes in a vaguely Middle Eastern style. Yet he can work huge synthesizers and guitars into the mix, as well, without them sounding out of place. It’s a good thing, too, because one of his most prized possessions, a recent Moog modular synth, isn’t going to pay for itself.
Brown even mixes and masters most of his own work. The exceptions are when he gets to work at larger facilities and use engineers. However, tight budgets don’t always allow him that, so he’ll often bring single musicians—such as cellist Tina Guo and guitarist George Doering—into his own studio to liven things up.
For recording solo stings, Brown uses AKG C414 condenser mics going through Avalon Vt-737 preamps, no compression, some noise reduction and Lexicon reverb. He tends to record electric guitar direct through Avalon DIs to Apple Logic, using Logic’s amp simulators. Doering still uses the Line 6 Pod for his guitars with great results, and Brown loves the Strymon effects pedals and all the Moog Minifoogers and Moogerfoogers.
Of course, if you can’t always record an orchestra, you have to go for sound libraries, and Brown loves the Spitfire Audio sample collections, as well as the ProjectSAM, Heavyocity and 8Dio collections, for all of which he participates in beta testing. “I was using 8Dio’s newest strings and choirs on Dominion season two months before they were released to the public,” Brown says. “So cool!”
“Even though I’m not a beta tester for them, I’m really excited about Spitfire’s newest additions,” he continues. “I always find their stuff inspiring.”
“Luckily” for Brown, he’s on the inside of the business looking out, and not likely to be hard up for work anytime soon. But he does see the competition for scoring work heating up at the same time that more and more great content comes out every year. For younger people just getting started, he has a different idea than getting into sound editing like he did.
“I would instead recommend young composers try to get assisting gigs with established composers to really learn the ins and outs of the trade,” Brown says, “and maybe even expand the relationship into a partnership at some point if you’re really humble and great at what you do. Or if you’ve established relationships with young directors, producers and/or developers early in your career, just make it happen yourself. With enough education and the right connections, it’s definitely possible.”
Also, new game composers don’t necessarily need to know how to use the standard Audiokinetic Wwise sound engine and audio implementation tool for games, but in keeping with Brown’s spirit of learning, knowing and doing everything, he says, “It can be useful for sure. I always have a team doing the interactive programming for me on game projects, so I can focus on writing the best score possible. For me, the quality of the music is first and foremost, but knowing how the implementation tools work—how the score becomes reactive/interactive within the structure of the game—is also very important. So basically, do everything!”