Stories from a Pro: Justin Lassen

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As an artist, it's not easy to pigeonhole Justin Lassen. Justin is a composer with over ten years of experience in the music, film, and game industries.

He has produced remixes for artists like Madonna, Garbage, Blue Man Group, Lenny Kravitz, Robert Miles, Nine Inch Nails, Linkin Park, Evanescence, and many others. He's received critical acclaim for his dark chamber suite, And Now We See But Through A Glass Darkly, and for his unique computer art-inspired Synaesthesia series.

First of all, congratulations on the launch of your new loop library White Rabbit Asylum. We hear you used iZotope software throughout the creative process.

The library was a ton of custom sampling from all over the world. It's kinda Alice in Wonderland meets NIN meets Aphex Twin sprinkled in with some Danny Elfman. I used a lot of iZotope RX on that project, a tool that I don't think people really know the power of. I used it to clean up the samples but not take out the ambiance. I could cut out squeaking chairs – or other noises – but leave the sound of the place. Sometimes I would remove entire sets of frequencies on samples, which made more of a sound painting. That way you're not just supplying the public with boring content – it comes out sounding more musical. And Ozone, I used Ozone to master almost every loop in the library, mostly with presets. There were multiple stages of approval on that project and Ozone really helped me to get things to a place where I could get the professional sound approvals.I've been recording orchestras for years and have samples from just about everywhere. I usually let the "tape" run even after we're done just to see what happens. I know that I can use RX on the back end to clean everything up just in case something good happens. I really like running some of those scraps through iZotope Vinyl to give it an old gramophone sound.

Let's talk about your composing for video games. How do you feel about all the recent attention audio for video games has received?

I get that question a lot, and I never know quite how to answer it. What seems new and hot topic wise to some is just a way of life to me. I've been doing soundtracks for new media, games, mods and total conversions since before it was considered cool and trendy. I think it's great that it is in the spotlight. I'm glad the video game industry is starting to treat the audio with a proper budget. They are paying the programmers decent salaries – but the audio still suffers from having overall smaller budgets. There still really isn't enough money to pay for an orchestra on every game, but you can always get a sample library. It seems for publishers, the importance of audio in video games has not yet reached the audio in movies, but it's come a long way.I've just been doing this for over 10 years; I'm talking before colleges across America had novelty classes about game design and scoring. There's going to be an inevitable rush of young "game composers" rising in the ranks trying to get a piece of the game industry cake.

How does that make you feel as an established game composer?

Every year at the Game Developer's Conference they have a talk about how to get students into the business – but just like any other profession, you're never guaranteed work even after you spent piles of cash on that fancy degree. When game companies are hiring for projects, they mainly look at experience. They will look at the candidates for a certain job and usually take the person who has experience but not necessarily a degree in "gaming". It's a relatively small community that doesn't see much change over. It's really hard to find out where the opportunities are and for new people to break in.

Not much changeover… you must work with the same faces quite a bit.

It seems like everyone has worked for everyone else in the game industry; it's kind of an incestuous place. The interesting part is while the end user side of the industry is enormous; the developer and publishing side of the business is particularly selective. With that said, the game industry is "chatty", if you make a stink somewhere, word has a way of getting around. If you have a horrible meeting, I guarantee that eventually the other companies will hear about it at some industry party, meeting or BBQ. It's super important to make a good impression right off the bat if you're just breaking in. The gaming audio art programming side of the industry is super tapped into each other. We all talk.

So how do the newbies break in?

A lot of the time in this modern economy, the majority of video games don't have massive budgets anymore, so a lot of the most famous game composers opted themselves out of gigs, to maintain their perceived value. Their plan backfired and opened the doors for the massive onslaught of new fresh talent that entered the game to score everything from iPhone games to PSP titles all the way up to full console and PC titles. They were willing to score on the cheap to build a name for themselves.This has created an interesting juxtaposition of new creative work and a ton of generic work. While developers want to stretch budgets and publishers want to shrink them, it's usually the music that gets hurt. It's weird, both fortunately and unfortunately, I don't think there are enough standards in the game industry for audio and music… much like it is in the film world. Music becomes an after-thought tacked on later, after production is nearly finished on a title.There's also a lack of guilds and rights societies for this area of audio. There's no ASCAP or BMI protecting the composers. The composer will not see any performance royalties on their work once they've handed it over to the publisher if they don't specifically carve out those payments in their contracts. There are also no standards when it comes to contracts; everything is negotiable and seemingly all based on clout or friends. I'm actually on the advisory board of the Game Audio Network Guild, or G. A. N. G. It's the largest game audio community in the world started by audio guru Tommy Tallarico. Anyone who is interested in doing audio for games you should definitely check it out - great forums and community of seasoned veterans and industry noobs alike. It's a positive place to find helpful information about breaking in, collaborating, tips and so on.

What is your creative process like when you tackle a game soundtrack?

The process isn't much different in the onset than most types of scoring. Just like films, you are scoring to the emotions of the story and experiences of the characters, albeit in a more interactive manner. For me, the process is a lot of fun. Unlike films, where you are pretty much dictated to by the director and given exacting cues and tempo maps, in games I've noticed you get more freedom not only creatively but also technically. There is a fair amount of cinematic composing for games (cut scenes), which is very similar to film, but other than that, today's modern games build pieces of music like LEGO® bricks, and piece them together on the fly, depending on which action is going on in interactive music engines.

Can walk us through that LEGO brick building process and give us an example?

Sure. In a modern day FPS (First Person Shooter) there's an ambiance brick (wind, whatever the level feels like), a second brick for a musical/theme and then thirdly small bricks that come in and out as the player moves around. The musical/theme track needs to not be distracting and fit with the ambiance brick. They need to mesh together to bring the level to life so that the player feels comfortable in believing that where they are in the game is real. That third level is like a real-time sequencer that you just don't see. If danger is coming there is a danger loop which will play. Now let's say that danger turns into a battle sequence, that danger loop must flow into the battle sequence music, which will then stick around until the battle is over. All the while, these loops are playing on top of the ambiance and music/theme bricks so you have to make sure they ALL mesh. Once the battle is over, you'll have a victory brick that fades back out into the ambience and general music bed brick. There are so many possibilities and as a composer you need to make perfectly loop-able bricks that can interface with all the other bricks in the soundtrack.I'll put bricks together beforehand to make sure they fit…you don't want to waste the developers or programmers time. Each company has their secret engine that they use to put together the music in game.

Do you find composing for certain types of games easier than others?

Yes. Games that are ambient are easier to do. There's no set tempo for the music that you have to keep all the time. Ambiance and reverbs are super important in games. If it's a horror game, you better make sure all the pieces are very horror like, otherwise you might get some different bricks put together that don't fit the game's mood. Games that have beats or tempo driven orchestration, mostly games set in the future or fantasy games with big big orchestral scores are a ton more difficult. This is where the set tempo comes in that you have to keep up throughout the soundtrack. It can be quite a challenge to keep it going and not lose the game's feeling. It's an art.

What were your favorite game soundtracks to score?

Lord Retro, Out of Hell and Tortured Minds. Lord Retro is kind of a hybrid Opera/Orchestral/Anime/Robotic/Retro kind of score mixing these various worlds together to create a "concept album" for a game. Some of the pieces from it were also licensed for the world's first Unreal Engine 3 (UE3) game "RoboHordes" which was released with Intel's Pentium D Dual-Core processors world-wide in 2005. You can hear the video game concept album/score to Lord Retro's MySpace page. Out of Hell was a gem of a game to work on. The creator, Long Nguyen, gave me complete 100% creative freedom on it to bring his zombie apocalyptic world to life. It's not a typical score with mainstream thrills, scares and chills that you would expect in a horror survival game like that. It's a more honest, realistic score for a future of dread and loss… much more subtle and alive. I got to experiment with creative sound design, real world sampling and impulse design, working with a boys choir and mixing live and unimaginable instruments together. The entire collection became a 27-track suite that fit so well conceptually together with the game in a symbiotic marriage of perfection, bringing you through all of the mythology of different cultures' versions of what "Hell" really is. And as such, the tracks are named much more artistically to fit Long's vision, genius storytelling and ultimately very successful TC game. It won us Best Original Art Direction of 2009 and a million industry accolades! You can get that game for free as well at outofhell.net. Tortured Minds is perhaps one of my most personal game scores. It was started in a time, 1995/1996ish, when I was still using hardware compressors, drum machines, mixers, sequencers, keyboards, gates, EQs, samplers and all that stuff that I used to fill giant rooms of my house with. It was the old-school way to create music, and it was my roots and how I learned about music production. While today you can pump out a score with software extremely fast and efficiently, back then, things were more trial and error, and hoping the MIDI synced up with the software and other hardware units and fun tails of fury. To this day, that game soundtrack stands the test of time with my fans and alongside other fine scores of the day; for all that it has been through. You can now listen to it at the Tortured Minds MySpace page and special editions are being remastered from the original sessions. Those will be available soon.I've worked on a bunch of other stuff, from 8-bit music for mobile games and even stuff for flash games and other mods, total conversions and award winning interactive projects.

Other than your favorites, any soundtracks that you're particularly proud of?

An interesting collaboration that comes to mind was when I got to collaborate with one of my all-time game composer heroes, Jason Hayes (Blizzard), who worked on some of the best sound design and music I've ever experienced. I was asked to produce and remix the soundtrack to Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train, and I wanted to mesh the film and game world together in way that hasn't been done yet. I brought him in on the Clive Barker soundtrack that I was producing in 2008, and that track turned out to be a really sweet collaboration between Jason Hayes (World of Warcraft), Gerard Marino (God of War) and myself. What a great meeting of the minds and meshing of the industries.

What's in works now for Justin Lassen in the gaming world?

This spring I was working on a couple soundtracks for Konami in Japan. I grew up on Konami games, so it was an honor to work on something of theirs. I can't say the name right now, in fact I probably couldn't even say it if I saw the letters in front of me… I don't understand the kanji but from the videos it looks FUN! It will come out on Xbox 360 sometime soon. At GDC (Game Developer Conference 2010), I got to meet some amazing legendary Japanese composers thanks to some game industry friends, and I've always been fascinated with that market in general as well as composer collaborations.

What software/hardware are you using to make your music?

While I used to use tons of hardware, and definitely considered myself a "gear whore", I don't see the need for studios and 500K mixing boards anymore other than for looks, perceived value, or impressing clients. But that isn't saying big equipment is obsolete, because it isn't. They are useful for mixing down massive orchestral sessions, post production, live shows, choirs, multi-room, multi-mic setups, etc. However, most experienced composers and producers today can create broadcast quality music on a laptop with headphones at a coffee shop. It is an amazing time to be a musician, with things like iPods that have EQ/compressors built into them for on the fly recording of ideas to programming beats. I use iDrum to create all kinds of beats when I'm away from my setup. Power that used to take up rooms is now in small plug-ins that work in all kinds of hosts and platforms. I feel envious of the younger composers today who get all those amazing tools and didn't have to live through the hardware phase like me. I would have loved to skip all that, and get to the good stuff - being portable yet able to produce top notch recordings. I was just watching a commercial featuring Dr. Dre showing off his new laptop thing. It showed him in the studio "mixing down" something, but what was really going on, was that one channel on that giant mixer board was being used. Decadence! I watched another show recently where one of the artists recording at a "professional recording studio" in LA had all this gear. There was this giant mixing console, but it was being used as a table because they were just recording into a laptop from one channel! All that power in a laptop is the future! Bring it on!

You have been involved in a lot of different projects over the years, from writing your own symphonies to composing for video games, to remixing for artists like Madonna, Garbage, Nine Inch Nails and Evanescence. Some people might think there is no overlap between writing for a symphony and remixing Madonna, but you prove otherwise! What are some of the projects you've been working on recently?

So far this year I've finished the soundtrack to the enigmatically eerie and gorgeous cult-TC video game Out of Hell, which is a hellish concept album of 25 tracks. Good score for a dark night all alone at the controls, definitely not for the faint. It was compiled down from over 50 concept tracks and sketches and took a good few months to complete, but it was well worth it. It's pretty grim and yet kind of darkly spiritual. There is something in the soundtrack for everyone, and the creator of the game seems to have found a home for each and every track in the score. Each track audibly depicts different hells from different cultures. The tracks were uniquely named after most of the popular hells in history.

I also finished up the 3rd and final set of Synaesthesia compositions entitled The Darker Side of Synaesthesia, and they will be exclusively premiered worldwide in June in IT'S ART Magazine and the post-mortem will be in CGArena Magazine. They include about 10 new tracks built around the concept of the previous two sets from CGSociety (May 2006) and 3dcreative Magazine (October 2006), that your readers can still check out today.

I am also constantly working on new music and production work whenever I can.

How did you approach doing your Synaesthesia compositions, and how did the idea for these come about?

I've always been inspired by CG images, constantly surfing the net for galleries when I'm at a loss for any kind of creative inspiration. Yes, it's escapism, but it's very healing for me as a person and as an artist. There are so many talented CG artists in the world and the internet has created this enormous, kind and sharing community that enables artists to share their ideas, dreams, worlds and characters with the rest of us. I love bringing those dreams to life. Self-publishing is the revolution that we've all been living since the mid '90s and it is only getting better.

It wasn't until I started doing this for a few years that I noticed I was starting to hear music by looking at certain images. At first it was just recording after recording just sitting in my sketch folder. I showed the pieces to the CG artists who inspired them and they had a million kind words about how they sounded just like the picture and how I must have been inside their heads when they were painting. Then it hit me that I should do a gallery series based on this concept. Paul at CGSociety helped me to kick-start the whole thing as the first CG community to feature my series, or any composer to date, which was a very special honor to me. The CG community and a plethora of CG magazines really supported me in this conceptual series. It's all pretty magical how fast it took off. I give many thanks to all the communities, artists, websites and magazines whom have supported this project over the years.

I approach the pieces very simply. I place myself inside of the scene, listening for what is going on, and how the characters and scenery are feeling. There are a few basic technical things for me. For example, gaussian blur is reverb, darker colors are more textured tones, etc. However, the real magic is in that I don't really have to think about all of these things. Sometimes this is a blessing and sometimes it is a curse, especially when I see an image and have to run to my notepad to write down the score for it and I'm in a different room. It can be torturous, but mostly rewarding. I think it is a unique way to compose and, at the end of the day, it works for me.

We've heard parts of your soon to be released score for the forthcoming video game "Out of Hell." In it, you create these great senses of space. You also create some very disturbing grimy lo-fi elements. Do you have any secrets you'd like to share for creating these kinds of effects?

The secret is to not buy into the hype of learning "the right way to do it," and instead, just do it. Start with some free plug-ins to get acquainted with the idea of environment modeling before drowning in frustration. Sometimes having less gives you more possibilities. A cool secret is to sample your own environments and create your own impulses for convolution reverb plug-ins. Perfect Space [in Cakewalk's SONAR] is awesome for this, Sony's Accoustic Mirror is also a cool one. If you use these instead of typical Reverb plug-ins and presets, you are going to get much more realistic results. I carry a recorder on me when I travel to other countries and places, and sample like you wouldn't believe. I also create custom impulses with my portable laptop and a measurement mic. There are many ways you can do this, and most of them will give you an interesting result when paired with convolution reverbs.

You are a composer, but your technique is far from traditional. Listening to your compositions, it seems obvious that you think as much in terms of ambience, synthesis and effects as you do in melody and harmony. Do you think you would have wanted to be a composer 200 years ago, before DAWs and digital effects?

200 years ago, I think it would have been much harder for me to be a composer. Not by choice, but by class and "who you know." I'm not sure if my ancestors knew all the right musical people. I could have probably done well as a writer back then, due to my family connection being the Grimm Brothers. Maybe not though. I think composers like Mozart are amazing, but I also realize that they got to work on developing their talents because of the people around them that took care of them and nurtured that talent and gave them the tools they needed to truly blossom, be it a grand piano, harpsichord or an entire orchestra. The times have changed, tables have turned. Can you imagine how many amazing other composers in that time period that could have lived and thrived if given even an ounce of chance that Amadeus got? For every Mozart there are 50 other underground composers who never got the chance to shine, not because they weren't exceptional but due to a mixture of circumstances, financial status and pompously imposed societal status. Regardless, I would have tried to find a way to create or compose back then, with whatever tools and circumstance I was dealt.

On the other side of the coin, you've worked with traditional players in a symphonic setting. Do you find this way of working more demanding than working with a laptop? Do you ever find yourself wishing the cellist had an "undo" button?

On the contrary, I find a way to use whatever is recorded, in sometimes the oddest ways and sometimes for completely different projects months later. Perhaps a messed up cello performance could be a nice discord for the other pads and beds, or fit somewhere else in a score or game. The textures, tones and ambience you can make with cellos and other stringed instruments are pretty endless with the right environments, resampling and effects. You can resample it into a synth patch as a new kind of alien cello, or run it through Spectron for even cooler ideas and audible concepts.

As for working with live musicians, it might seem more demanding and intimidating (and to be honest, it sometimes is). You think to yourself, "wow, all these musicians are here, I don't want to waste their time, and I hope they don't mind working on my music." I've heard numerous composers think they will fall on their faces in front of a 50 piece. If you fall, you have to find a way to do it in style. But if you put your ego and the other players' ego aside and just get to the heart of the music and everyone focuses on getting it to a presentable stage there can be a compromise between the composer and the players to find a realistic and refined middle ground. If it needs it, mixing and re-arrangement can take over once the main points are recorded cleanly. Thanks to hard drives, you can pretty much keep recording and not worry about rewinding the tapes or require too many undos (if any). It's still a lot of work, for all involved in the process, but it is so worth it. I don't want to discount that.

In some situations you do your own mastering. How do you approach mastering dynamic, classical music as opposed to rock/industrial and remix work?

The major difference for me when mastering classical music and rock/industrial remix work is either pushing the volume or keeping it more dynamic. With a remix or industrial track, pushing the track to give it the most "umph" seems to work best for cars, clubs or wherever this particular rock or remix track is going to be played. With classical music, or any score or soundtrack-based music, I can let it breath more, give it more space. It can really tell a story that way. If you listen to symphonic classical recordings you will notice that sometimes they seem very quiet and then the audio crescendos to this big explosion of sound. Rachmaninov is a great example of very dynamic classical music. It's very exciting to listen to.

I thoroughly test tracks on headphones, crappy radio speakers, computer speakers, professional monitors (3 sets), and a 6.1 Behringer sub-woofer system. I listen to CDs mastered by my favorite mastering engineers as inspiration and references for volume and dynamics (like my favorite, Tom Baker, for instance). I am definitely not a certified mastering engineer in any sense of the word, so I still like collaborating with those kinds of people when I get the chance, however I can generally find a nice balance that works across that spectrum for the kind of music that I do with the plug-ins I have.

For me, the Sony Sound Forge 9's Mastering Effects Bundle [powered by iZotope] and Ozone 3 have been a huge help to me in mastering sketches, scores, compositions, mock-ups and a plethora of other stuff recently. The Mastering Effects Bundle is cool because the plug-ins are separated and I can experiment with odd mixing styles by layering multiple copies of it for bizarre effects or mastering individual tracks as opposed to a final-mix-down. Ozone 3 is great because it's all in one and can quickly get me started in the right direction, tweaking it all in real-time.

You split your time between Arizona, the UK and Hungary. Are you inspired a lot by your surroundings? Do you write music on the road, and if so how do you work?

I write plenty of music wherever I am with whatever I have to write it at the time. It could be a piano in a cellar or darkened stage, or my mouth for beat-voxing themes for a friends TV show [GadgetGossip.net], or anything else.

I am mostly inspired by surroundings, change of scenery, creative personal work space and environment. I honestly believe we are all a product of our environments, no matter how you slice it, and thus so is the music. I try to make sure the environments I am in work in my best interests and the music's best interests, though. Generally with stringed instruments, you want to give them as much space as they need to tell a story, and in others, you want to confine it. It all depends on an emotional choice of the story or scenario.

I like antiquated and historical locations. To actually live and work in these kinds of settings is sort of escapism meets idealism in the best creative way. I am lucky to have been given these kinds of chances.

How did you eventually decide to go to Budapest to work? You were working with an orchestra there and also doing some recording. Can you tell us more about this?

I seem to be addicted to living in new cities and working in different cultures. I have already traveled to, and lived in, the UK and Europe a bunch of times due to different opportunities that have popped up over the years and Budapest was yet another one of those cool opportunities that just fell into my lap. Any chance I can get to work in a new city with talented people is always welcome at any time in my life. Budapest is a really cultured, musical and creative city. It is classy and sophisticated and yet still warm and realistic. I love it.

Recording in Budapest was enormously therapeutic and revealing for me as a composer and artist. Absolutely stunning musicians and concert halls and gorgeous scenery and lifestyle to keep the inspiration high throughout all of the hard work, re-writes, sketches and additional side projects. It was for me, the third part in a 3-year culmination of work that would have been my second symphony. The work was nearly completed and coming together at an amazing pace. It should have been released December 2006. The only down side of the entire process of working with the orchestra was (as publicized and written about in my blog) my hard drive crashed upon returning to USA last year, and all of those orchestra sessions are still in limbo on the drive, waiting to either be recovered or lost forever.

I am much smarter now, with three sets of backups in different locations for present and future works. You don't take it seriously until it happens to you. I know I used to feel invincible. I'm now completely obsessed with hard drives and hard drive technology and concepts like future-proofing and shelf-life. I lost a large piece of myself and many years of work. I do hope the world will hear this symphony in the near future, I am working with a data recovery firm to attempt to save the recordings.

Filmmakers like David Lynch and Robert Rodriguez are starting to do their own sound design and music in addition to editing their own movies. Do you think your ambition as a composer will grow to the point of crossing over to making movies, animating or creating something visual to go with your music?

I have been mostly focusing on music these past few years, but to be honest, I eventually want to get back to my filmmaking roots, directing and writing as well. I'm still as fascinated with cameras and technology as I was as a kid. And yes, I want to score my own movies. I'm taking it one thing at a time for the moment though.

Before I was composing, growing up I "wrote and directed" so many live plays with the neighborhood kids, stunt shows, talent shows, animated with early forms of 3D software. I wrote video games, stories, and "movies" as a kid (usually about aliens and other sci-fi stuff), complete with credits (written in QBASIC) and music. You would be surprised what you can do with little to no budget and some help from friends, if your heart is really into finishing the project. I think it is money and egos that slow the entire "creative" process down.

Technology has made it possible for millions of up-and-coming Rodriguezs and Lynchs to do all kinds of stuff that people could never do before. The internet has made so many of our careers possible. Creativeness is no longer compartmentalized and production doesn't necessarily require huge teams of people stepping on top of each other to get a day's task completed. If you want to be your own camera man, your own composer and your own accountant, you can. And people do. I'm no different. When I need to learn something new, I read and learn about it from books, the net, magazines, figure it out and incorporate it into my own little hive mind. I can then begin using these new skills make even better projects, with ever-growing quality and experience. That's the beauty of technology.

To learn more about Justin Lassen visit www.empireofmodernthought.com.

To hear and see the Synaesthesia compositions, visit CGSociety's feature.

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