On Being Both The Carpenter And The Toolsmith

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Nick Phoenix is a talented composer who has teamed with Thomas J. Bergersen in the company Two Steps From Hell. Together, they have done a ton of music trailers for big box office films and released a well-regarded CD “Invincible”. However he also is a talented sample library developer, who is responsible for EastWest’s terrific Quantum Leap libraries and virtual instruments, and partly responsible for Hollywood Strings and the soon to be released Hollywood Brass.

In the interest of full disclosure, Jay Asher now works for EastWest part time as their “Online Coordinator.”

Hi Nick, good to see you, thanks for doing this.

You’re welcome.

You seem to be one of a new paradigm, the working composer who becomes a library developer. So first, let’s talk a little about your background as a composer.

I studied classical piano for 12 years as a kid and never went any farther in school with it, just private lessons, but I had been playing in bands since the seventh grade. Sex Pistols, Devo, and in high school I was heavily into the Grateful Dead….

Oh, so you smoked a lot of pot.

Yeah, I smoked pot once or twice (they laugh). But the Grateful Dead is about much more than that. Its about making magic with instruments.

Most people associate you with your partnership with T.J. in Two Steps From Hell. How did that come about?

I met Thomas in discussions on the Northern Sounds forum. At that time there were not many strong orchestral offerings. There were some sounds from Roland, they had a decent orchestral library, and there was Advanced Orchestra, and then I had created Quantum Leap Brass, which was more of a big band sounds but tried to capture the orchestral sound a bit as well, to varying degrees of success. Thomas came on and posted some music and said something along the lines of, “Well, this is what samples should sound like.”

We had some disagreements but we had a similar mindset. At some point we needed some help promoting EWQLSO (EastWest Quantum Leap Orchestra) which had just been released. Doug and I thought Thomas would be an ideal person for that so I asked him to come to EastWest and work for a couple of months, make some demos, and do a couple of seminars with me where we would demo and show the libraries in places like Universal City, and he did that and then he went back to Norway. By that time, I had hooked up with BT and we started a trailer music company together. We put out 1 CD and it did pretty well but in the process I realized that he was really too busy to do this and it was not going to work out. So I had this company structure set up but not enough music to back it up. I wasn’t sure what to do. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but either I asked Thomas or he mentioned that he was thinking about trying to do some music for trailers and I said, “Great, let’s try it!” I was surprised at how quickly he locked into the genre, not that our stuff was that generic as some trailer music is, but he definitely figured it out very quickly.

How does this play out? You guys are on different platforms, use different sequencers…Do you work on the same pieces together, do you divide it up?

We write our own music apart. We kind of tell each other what we’re doing, where we’re going but we only rarely work on a piece together. We do record our music live together and master our music at my studio.

So by that point you were already a sample library developer then.

Yes, that’s been going on for a long time. I’m one of the dinosaurs. As I said, I was playing in bands and I came out to California from Connecticut a couple of times. We signed a record deal but then the lead singer went to jail (Jay laughs) not for what you would expect, he was involved in the savings and loan scandal and they made an example of him.

So I went back to school and finished up at the University of Connecticut and moved out to California because there were more good musicians to play with. I got a job at West LA Music selling equipment. I got really into samplers and synths and even though I was not a very good salesman per se’ because I loved the equipment so much I sold a lot of gear. I won a big Roland contest in fact and was given a lot of Roland SP 700 samplers, sample playback units. It had this great preview disk that came with it. So now I had this great little studio going. While I was working there, Hans Zimmer was releasing his guitars sample set ands I was really excited about it. As good as it is, it wasn’t what I was expecting, just different sounds. Obviously, there are so many guitar styles and sounds it is impossible to cover them all. So I started sampling with a couple of friends directly into the Roland 760, making different guitar samples. After a while, I realized I had a lot of stuff, enough to put out my own CD. I was now doing well with trailer music, and I had just quit West LA Music. EastWest was here in LA, so I brought my samples over there and said, “Why don’t we put out a CD?” That became Quantum Leap Guitar and Bass. We released it and it did very well. That was the start, about 13-14 years ago.

So it was all hardware samplers in those days. What was the first library you do for a software sampler?

Gigasampler. First we converted QL Guitar and Bass to it as it was in its development phase and Doug was involved with that, and it became one of the first Gigsampler libraries when it was released. We also did Quantum Leap Brass and a couple of others as multi-format and then Gigasampler.

What was the first Kontakt based library you did?

I think it was Stormdrum 1 and Hardcore Bass. Creating a virtual instrument opens up new creative doors and doing it as a virtual instrument in Kontakt also gave us some copy protection. We calculated that the ratio of non-protected sample libraries sold to pirated copies was about 1:10 so it was hard to make a profit. Just so people know, for a long time there was no team of developers, it was really just me and one or two other people editing some samples; my wife, my brother, a friend who needed work who I trained to cut samples, very small. It wasn’t until we did EWQLSO that we expanded. But even with Hollywood Strings, while there was a team to record it, the editing and assembling still comes down to about 5 0r 6 people.

So now we move on to Play Were you involved in the development of the sample engine itself?

Yes, Creating our own engine was Doug’s idea. Our libraries then as now always seemed to be a bit taxing on systems with all the multiple mic positions and big samples and we kept asking them to add features but so did other developers and to be fair, it wasn’t reasonable to expect Native Instruments to be able to satisfy every developer’s specific requests while pursuing their own development plans.

So Doug hired Klaus Voltmer to develop the Play engine and sampler with a small team. He had a lot of experience with this but I was actually a little scared in the beginning about the whole idea but to his credit, Doug said it was our path and we had to go ahead. So I made a list of things I thought were good about other samplers or things I thought would be needed or would be interesting for our direction. Play is very targeted and a lot of people focus on what it does not have because it is not a fully editable, full on sampler but there are a lot of interesting things going on under the hood that other samplers don’t have. Also, first and foremost, it does have very good sound quality the signal path is very clean so there is little degradation going on. This becomes very noticeable to me with large projects where the effect is cumulative.

OK. Moving on, when I first heard you were coming out with a convolution reverb, frankly my reaction was, “What the hell do we need another convolution reverb for?” (Nick laughs) We have a bunch of pretty good sounding ones out there, you mix it with a nice algorythmic reverb and it sounds good. And then I got a hold of QL Spaces and listened to material played through it and I thought, “Oh, now I understand. It is so much more transparent and sounds just great. May I assume that the composer in you heard this lack of transparency in others and was the driving force for you to do this?

It’s the composer and it is also the sound engineer in me because from the beginning of doing samples, I have always been working to increase my sound engineering skills. I have engineered all the Quantum Leap releases except EWQLSO, when Doug hired Keith Johnson and Hollywood Strings. Early on I figured out because I always had this “gear mentality” that a lot of people were using kind of crappy gear to record sample libraries and that if I went out and bought the best microphones for example that I could maybe make a better sample library and I’ve gotten better over time. With the music I work on, I always have felt reverb challenged, never really happy with my reverb. Going way back, I used hardware units like Lexicons, you name it, but I could never get as good a sound as I would hear on some recordings, I was never happy. So when Sony came out with their sampling reverb, the DRE S777 I bought it the first day. It’s a great unit. It has some great impulses that come with it. And THAT is the inspiration for QL Spaces.

I tried some software solutions like Altiverb because they are so convenient and the S777 is very inconvenient to use, but when I compared them to the Sony I was a little disappointed only because if I compared it to this, they didn’t sound to me as transparent or as clean. Altiverb, for instance, is great software, it gives you a lot of control over the IRs but all that great control comes at a sonic cost in my opinion, some degradation of the sound. And of course, like everyone else I have my own ideas of how the IRs should be recorded and they are different from the others. We just have a different philosophy. So I bought the sampling software with sweep impulsing for the Sony and just as a hobby started messing around recording some different spaces for about 7 years and started using them in EWQLSO

So this was a long time in the making.

Yes, a long time. We used Keith Johnson’s equipment to record the first really viable impulses. He had these custom speakers he had built, really hi-fi, if you bought them in a store they would probably cost about $30,000 pumping the sweep impulse into the hall so we could sample it. I realized then that the sweep impulse HAS to be loud. Keith said that when he records an orchestra, it has to “excite” the hall and he has some tricks of the trade where he actually re-amplifies an orchestra and if it is a soft bit he has speakers pumping it into the hall and recording the speakers to get the level up to where the hall is excited and you can actually hear the reverb. In real life, it is not linear, at low levels we do not hear much reverb, it is more of a curve. So he pumps it back in through the speakers for the reverb and that is his trick.

But you can’t get a really loud level without any distortion unless you use really good speakers so I was using these big ATC speakers, once again around $30,000, to record my impulses. You have to be careful, I actually blew the tweeters on Keith’s, they got so hot they melted down. (Jay laughs)

So once again, in accordance with what our philosophy has always been, if you are going to kill yourself working on something for months, you might as well get the sound really good. So if you take the same kind of gear a Shawn Murphy or a Keith Johnson would use to record a film or a classical record into the hall and record the impulse, that seems to me to be the way to do it. So I went for a low-noise, really beautiful vintage sound.

So now we come to Hollywood Strings and the ante is being raised up because now you guys bring in Shawn Murphy, one of a handful of the most renowned film scoring engineers. What led you to say we are going to bring him in or doing it yourself with what you had learned from Keith?

I wanted to engineer Hollywood Strings myself! But when we talked it over, Doug and Thomas and I decided we wanted to bring in someone who was known for a different sound, a real film sound. We couldn’t leave anything to chance. Thomas agreed to get involved with the project early on. I had asked him if he wanted to be involved but he had done enough of his own sampling to know that he never wanted to do that again. (They laugh)

Not the glutton for punishment you are, right?

Exactly! (more laughing) But at some point, he decided he wanted to be involved . So we contacted Shawn and he was interested because it was a different kind of challenge to him. He certainly didn’t need to do it, it wasn’t for the money, it was because he found it an interesting challenge and we all got along well, so he agreed to do it. He said that he has to deal with mixing a lot of samples in with the orchestra and has been surprised at how good some were but annoyed at how bad others were, so I think he figures that if he helps us record the whole orchestra it will be easier to mix the samples in on a project.

So watching him work, did you learn a lot? Any lightbulb moments?

Absolutely! I would have done the main Decca tree similarly but the whole mid tree, which actually is my favorite sound…

Me too, also Thomas’s I believe.

Yes. I didn’t even know what a mid tree was. So there definitely was a lot to learn from him and would be even more so on an actual scoring date.

It takes so much patience to do this kind of extensive sample recording that I am amazed that the players do what they actually do because it must be hard to get any real musical feeling like playing a great piece together.

Interestingly, what I discovered years ago when you hire the best players you possibly can, they generally LIKE sampling. You might think it would be the opposite but because their skills are so high, they get into the precision, it’s like a precision exercise. They say, “Oh, I haven’t done practicing like this in years.” They really focus in on it while lesser players get frustrated by it, because that kind of precision is very difficult. Even the best player in the world with the best pitch, like whoever you might say that cellist has the best pitch in the world, cannot play a set of samples perfectly in pitch, it’s impossible, it’s not musical, because you separate every element.

Also, string players are constantly listening to the other players and adjusting the pitch to match each other on the fly.

Right. One of the reasons we recently had a report that there were some out of tune violas we had missed in Hollywood Strings is because we didn’t tune the strings. The tuning was so good overall that we didn’t touch it at all, because we hired really amazing players. At the end of it we listened to every note and we had reference pitches and we were convinced it was perfect in a musical sense. Of course, it is not because it can’t be. I like the little tiny pitch inconsistencies that are musical, and that’s what they are in Hollywood Strings because it is a section playing together. That also why we didn’t do separate divisi recordings, because in my view, once you separate them into different sections, they are all going to tune to each other, and then once you put them together, it is not that they are going to sound bad, it might be great, but it’s just not the same thing as the whole section playing together because they would have these different pitch centers, and that is just not what we wanted to achieve. We have a new Hollywood Strings update coming out next week that fixes the violas and has some other grand improvements.

That may be already released by the time this interview is up actually.

How different was it doing Hollywood Brass? I am sure you learned a lot from doing the strings.

Sure. In retrospect, we made one mistake with Hollywood Strings perhaps. It’s a little bit too forward thinking, we went a little bit too crazy with trying to get every different bowing, different position on the string, 5 dynamics of vibrato, 5 dynamics of non-vibrato, etc. It’s great we did that, however, it’s just too much to access, too much information and with the current state of computers, there’s no computer than really handle all of that, it’s a little bit over the top. Even with the new version of Play coming out, which is optimized much better for a 64 bit system and is a huge step forward, you still can’t load 100,000 samples into it and expect the same performance as if you load 20,000.It’s not a Play limitation by the way, it you load the same into all other soft samplers, it will be exactly the same. I know that people get really angry and frustrated by that but I think people should try as best they can to realize that we were creating something that you will not have to replace any time soon, something you can grow with. We will continue to refine it we have had 6 updates already.

So we kept that in mind with the brass. Nobody wants a one million sample solo trumpet. They may say they do, but they don’t. But still, what we are doing with the Hollywood series is making something that can become a core library that you can use indefinitely. The bras recordings were 21 straight 12 hour days. Our French horns for example sound extremely good and they do most of the things that French horns do in an orchestra. You may want another library additionally because you like its timbre or for variety but you’re not going to HAVE to buy another French horn library because it has better legato, or because we missed this certain dynamic or articulation, etc. We also have a smaller horn section and a solo horn and they all do the same things, they all have the stopped mutes, legato, every imaginable articulation, and you can easily switch between them. We know we have something solid. We know this because Thomas and I are really aware of what is needed to achieve a film score sound. All of my projects have always come from personal need in the composing world and not out of some business plan. I think that this is what has given me some success, in spite of all my mistakes.

Finally, as a composer, without getting specific do you also still use some other developer’s libraries?

Sure, but not that much anymore because part of using libraries well is knowing them really well and it takes an investment of time to learn them as well as I know ours. But there are certainly some fine ones out there.

Thanks Nick, it has been fun.

You’re welcome.