Peter Alexander is Film Music Magazine’s award winning technology journalist. On August 1, after three and half years of writing, he’s stepping down and will be replaced by Jay Asher, Certified Level 2 Logic Trainer and author of Going Pro With Logic Pro. Given Peter’s background in both marketing and music, we asked him a few questions.
FMM – So what’s behind your stepping down after three and a half years of writing for Film Music Magazine?
PA – I’m a polio survivor and a while back I came down with post-polio which is a resurgence of the virus. I lost my ability to hold a pencil and play keyboards. But the Lord has been faithful in healing and restoring me. Now I’m back to a point where I can hold a pencil and play keyboards. So while I’m still young enough, I want to write music instead of writing about people writing music.
FMM – How long did it take to come back?
PA – Close to a decade.
FMM – How has this impacted your approach to writing and sequencing music given the time it takes to do it?
PA – Even though I’m able to work pretty much a whole working day now, I still have to be “obsessive” in a healthy way about time management. So I’ve zeroed in on a collection of libraries that do what I want musically and enable me to work very efficiently with my time.
FMM – How did you arrive at what you wanted musically with so many libraries out there?
PA – I did for myself what I teach my students and hopefully got across in the column which is testing a library against real music to see what the library will and won’t do. My teaching principle is that, “The music never lies,” which means that when you test a library against a recognized score, you know what the library will or won’t do beyond the demos.
FMM – What music did you use for the basis of your testing?
PA – My own books in the Professional Orchestration series, especially volume 2A, Orchestrating the Melody Within the String Section, and then selected scores from Vaughan Williams, Ravel, Debussy and few others.
FMM – What are you looking for when you’re testing, for example, with strings, since those are the “hot” libraries?
PA – No doubt some will argue with me on this, but from an orchestration perspective part of what we call the “Hollywood sound” from a live player perspective is the deft use of unison and octave combinations. The next aspect is vertical harmony in two or more parts, then divisi. So when you’re testing a string library, you’re looking to see if the octave combinations sound realistic without the dreaded organ/accordion sound, and whether or not unison combinations sound like they’re supposed to vs. sounding like a big layered synth. With vertical voicings, do you get the organ/accordion sound? Beading? Those are the musical questions I wanted answered.
FMM – What’s the big lesson you learned from all this testing?
PA – That you’re never going to replace a real string section. Just go to a concert, score in hand, then go right home and play your string libraries. You’ll know. And once “you know” sample libraries are then put in a much more realistic perspective.
FMM – What are some of the projects you’re working on?
PA – I have several works of Debussy I’ve orchestrated that I’m releasing probably in 2011 at this point. I have two historical fiction works I wrote I’m producing as audio books and doing the underscore for, along with pitching the stories for made for TV movies. There’s the continuation of the Professional Orchestration series, and other titles I have lined up. I’m also midway through a new translation and setting to music of the Beattitudes from the Sermon on The Mount. So I have a very busy music production schedule ahead of me, and I’m ready to get on with it.
FMM – What was some of the marketing background you brought to the column?
PA – Jingle production lead me to the ad agency business and working with media. So I actually have my own TV commercial reel. I was also fortunate to work with radio programmer Jack McCoy’s company, RAM Ratings, a competitor to Arbitron, when I was doing high level media research for the Pepsi bottlers. Working with Jack’s organization enabled to apply some concepts I learned from Time-Life which enabled me to develop radio/artist ratings geodemographically by zip code which eventually became Arbitron Information on Demand. So I definitely had hands-on with the other side of the music business, which is what happens after the album is pressed.
FMM – What did you learn from that experience?
PA – Well, even then, for radio song playlists were being developed and organized by computers and highly detailed logs which definitely shows you song rotation and how that impacts broadcast royalties at the radio level. I learned that there are a lot of music styles that barely or rarely get airplay. And one thing I definitely learned from Jack’s people and their song rating service is that within less than 30 seconds a listener could tell you if they liked a new song or not.
Learning that was quite useful. But from a writer’s perspective, it reinforced that people are still looking for passion in a performance and a strong melody. It also reinforced the importance of TV broadcast income since so much music rarely gets radio airplay. And for today, it certainly speaks to the alternative broadcast income potential from the Net, if you can get it.
FMM – Is there a message there for film composers?
PA – Yes, because of music technology a composer should think of him or herself as a recording artist, not just a hired hand, since they have the tools necessary to produce almost anything. If you can bring your attitude to think this way, then the real message, which has been true, now, for several hundred years is that a composer is an entrepreneur and must approach the world accordingly.
FMM – Where does a composer who hasn’t been to business school learn this?
PA – Well, I never went to business school. I graduated from Berklee. But doing work in the ad agency business taught me the importance of the Sunday New York Times Business section, which you can now read online, at least today, for free. And I’d read every article whether it had to do with music or not. Then I’d read the arts section. Then there are plenty of books like This Business of Music. The Trump Organization has a lot of entrepreneurial titles, too, that are all quite good. And I think Jack Welch’s Winning is really a must read.
I will say, however, that I have to pay homage to the publisher of Music Connection magazine who in a seminar I attended when I first got to L.A. for expressing this so neatly, taught that many people in music believe that success comes from lightning striking, as opposed to doing basic business career planning. I once heard Dolly Parton talk about how she sets five year goals.
I’ve found that if you discuss business or goal planning too loudly other composers will define you as a suit, diss your outlook, and not really think of you as an artist. Like it or not, we are entrepreneurs, we are the CEO’s of our career, and we do run a business the purpose of which is to merchandise our copyrights and creative works.
FMM – How did your business outlook impact how you wrote reviews?
PA – For product reviews, my objective was to write musical applications reviews that answered the question, “If I buy this product can I really make music and how long will it take me to learn it?” As a writer, that question is prime on my list.
FMM – You didn’t do a lot of the customary technical reviews over the years.
PA – I didn’t do any! And I didn’t see a need to since really Sound on Sound edited by Paul White and Virtual Instrument magazine published by Nick Batzdorf already do an excellent job of that. Since most FMM readers were already reading those pubs, I thought, “Let’s go in this musical direction instead, and talk more from a performance/orchestration perspective.” As the CEO of my career I run a music production house. So I want music production input to guide my buying decisions since what I buy impacts how and what I produce.
FMM – How did Alexander/TrueSpec being a dealer help you in writing the reviews?
PA – When you’re a dealer and customers aren’t happy, you hear it first. You ask them what their system specs are and so you start building a database of insight as to what’s going on in the field. That’s helpful. The next step is going back to the developer and pointing out the problems. Most work with you, some go, “it’s their system it’s working fine here,” but you still set them up best as possible with tech people who will help them get the issue resolved. So I would say that the “help” aspect was having the big picture to see what’s going on at multiple levels.
FMM – What’s the #1 customer service problem?
PA – I think there are two. The first is having a realistic machine to run the library and the second is system integration. Again, for today, these are critical business issues when you’re the CEO of your own music production house. This is not rocket science. You cannot be writing and producing when you’re screwing around for hours or for days with system integration issues.
FMM – What did you see that FMM readers needed to know, then, about computers?
PA – The business question everyone, amateur or pro, needs the answer to is, “What are the true specs of the system needed to run the software to achieve its advertised results?” Getting this question answered costs an inordinate amount of time for any composer or their tech. And time is money. Just read the various forums to see how much space is devoted to answering that question. What you’re seeing now, as a movement within music technology, is customers relying on each others testing and reporting test results to arrive at a kind of group consensus as to what the true specs really are for a system or a certain product or product line. That’s a “peoples use” of the Web, but it can pose problems for both the manufacturer and the customer if the customer testing isn’t really solid from an empirical perspective. I think this problem can be more easily dissolved if the manufacturer provides three system specs of good, better, and best to set customer expectations.
FMM – How do complaining customers offset sales and what should developers do about it?
PA – Complaining customers inject fear into buying that can delay purchasing. Remember, with rare exception, you can’t test drive a library like you can a car. There are no “lemon laws” for sample libraries. So once the package is open and the seal on the software broken, that’s it. It’s yours, legally. So the customer is going to hold back on that purchase until the “all clear” is sounded, usually on the public forums.
FMM – And what should developers do about that?
PA – As best as possible, get someone from within the organization who writes in a friendly manner and have them start asking the basic system questions on the public forum. Find where the issue is. And then remember, being banned from a forum is now a badge of honor. So it’s even more important to establish the technical issues, which also demonstrates tangibly true customer care.
FMM –Do you think developers in music technology ship product too early intentionally?
PA-Overall, I think it occasionally happens. But I’ve beta tested for several large companies, and a real battle developers face, and it’s a tough one, is finding qualified beta testers. At one point, you could get a pretty good crew when libraries were more expensive, and, when there were fewer developers. Back then a composer/beta tester could justify the participation time. But as libraries keep coming down in price, and the number of sample library developers keep going up, a working composer cannot as easily justify the time spent beta testing. It takes an astronomical amount of time to thoroughly test a library.
FMM – For over a year now you’ve been writing that the 8-core Mac Pro is the desired system. How did you come to that conclusion?
PA – Again, I’m the CEO of my career, and readers of FMM are the CEO’s of their career. Buying a system is a business decision that also involves depreciation, property taxes to your local city, and other tax issues typical reviews don’t cover. So with that in mind, I want/need to make the decision right the first time since I’m making a multi-year purchase. There are no “tea leaf” readers for music technology. So what I did was look for what the developers and producers were posting on the various public forums about their systems. When a developer, for example, posts that their product runs flawlessly on a Mac Pro, I look at that as the true system spec. Not that the product won’t run fine on other systems like an i7 Quad, but that’s the system they said the software worked flawlessly on. So that would be the one I’d look to get on the Mac side.
Now, since sample libraries are dual platform, then on the PC side, that Mac Pro 8-core compares to a Dual Xeon 5520 CPU. So you have a starting point. After that it’s find a motherboard that can handle a bozooka amount of RAM. Then, fast hard drives, because fast hard drives means more polyphony which makes maximum advantage of RAM, unless you’re going to load the library into RAM. My personal opinion is that for the PC, getting a motherboard than can’t handle at least 24GB of RAM is a very unwise decision.
Now, one more point on CPUs. Keep in mind that it’s really difficult to come out and make definitive statements about one CPU vs. another because music technology lacks a Consumer Reports or Tom’s Hardware who have the money and the machines to chart the variables and do the necessary testing to give buyer guidance. So from my perspective, any comments I read about CPU performance on a forum I view as anecdotal information.
FMM – Your take on 64-bit technology?
PA – Simplified production. The clear advantage is simplification by consolidating down to just one or two, or maybe three systems. Three companies that I’m aware of today for producing native 64-bit libraries that read all the RAM in a system are Native Instruments with Kontakt 4.1, Spectrasonics products, and the Vienna Instruments and Vienna Ensemble PRO. So for a new system, to me, the best investment is going to an all 64-bit native system restricted to 64-bit native libraries.
FMM –What trends do you see with sample library development?
PA-I see two. First is the continuing rise of the composer/developer. It’s easy to rattle a quick list: Audiobro, Cinesamples, Cinestrings, the guys who made Heavyocity, Project SAM, Sonokinetic in the Netherlands, Spitfire Percussion, Tonehammer, Wallander Instruments, and others. Most of these companies are selling direct to customer and some through a select dealer list. The customer result is a sharper price because they’re bypassing going through the big distributors around the globe. Some do have that large company distribution. But mostly they’re developing their own customer base so that they can control their own distribution.
The second trend is that sample library sales will continue to sag at the retail level in favor of direct digital downloads and direct sales from developers to customers.
FMM –Unlike other reviewers you wrote quite a few business articles. Why was that?
PA-Again, given the blessing of the marketing background I’ve had I wanted to give back a bit by mentoring through print. Right now, and I hate to say this, but film and TV composing has devolved down to commodity pricing. When I got in L.A., composers were getting $25,000 fee just for the score of Murder She Wrote and other one hour shows. Back then when real estate values were really low compared to today, you could get two to four shows a year and have a very comfortable life, financially. But with electronics and package deals, that’s changed. And unfortunately, because the industry is dominated by publicly traded companies, composers just don’t read publications like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal to understand early how part of their financial fate is being decided by Apple, Comcast, NBC, GE, and a whole host of other publicly traded companies.
FMM – Do you really think it’s that important for composers to read the Wall Street Journal?
PA-I’ll respond with a series of questions. Who determined the financial value of an MP3 of an individual song or track? Who determines how much a composer gets on an Internet viewing of a program? Who determines how much a composer gets when I watch, say, the movie Thirteen Days for free on Netflix? Or programming on Hulu? Or Fancast? And where do you read about it first?
FMM – So what you’re advocating, if I’m hearing you correctly, is that composers need to read outside the standard industry publications.
PA – Absolutely. I mean, look. New York Times, online for free so far. Los Angeles Times, online for free so far. Bloomberg, online for free. Business Week, online for free. Fortune, online for free. Fast Company, online for free. CNBC, online for free. Reuters, online for free. At news.google.com, you can set up your own customized news feed! There’s plenty of opportunity out there to learn business from a huge variety of online sources, that for now, are free.
FMM – You had good relationships with both Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith. What did you learn from them you can pass on to Film Music Magazine readers.
PA – The importance of developing strong themes, mastering two- and three-part counterpoint, and contrapuntal imitation.
FMM – A lot of the younger composers aren’t going to agree with you.
PA – Craft is the rudder of your career.
FMM – So true. Peter! Thank you! It’s been a great run.
PA – Live long and prosper! Thanks for the opportunity. I’ve enjoyed it.