Interview: Pyramind Creative Director and Senior Composer – Clint Bajakian

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Clint BajakianClint Bajakian is currently working at Pyramind Studios in San Fransisco, but his career has seen him work at conglomerates like Sony to esteemed companies like LucasArts. With Pyramind’s growing name as a destination for music education and contracted audio work for games and films, getting to chat with Clint about his work and workplace was great opportunity.

Hi Clint. Can you tell us about your background and experience in the music industry? We know that you have an extensive history at places like LucasArts and Sony. What’s it been like working for such companies and how did those opportunities come about?

I took up guitar in high school, where I met  a guy called Michael Land, with whom I became close friends and band mates.  Thanks to a phone call from a liberal arts program at Northwestern University to my parents in 1981, my dad gave me a shot and supported my study at The New England Conservatory in Boston, where I earned a double degree in classical guitar and music theory in 1987, with a focus on composition.

Timed well with the completion of my masters degree at The U of Michigan in 1991, my old friend Michael Land, who was audio director at George Lucas’ then young video games division, LucasFilm Games Division, gave me a call explaining that the new PC sound cards necessitated several hours of music per title, as opposed to only several minutes up until that time. I took a contracting job at LucasArts in San Rafael, California and my fiancé, Deniz Ince, and I moved here permanently, embarking on a 9-year career at LucasArts composing music, designing sound, and working with Michael and Peter McConnell to build out and co-lead the sound department.

Working at LucasArts was an adventure, pun intended, in that most games we scored with sound and music were of the classic adventure game genre.  Titles like Star Wars: TIE Fighter, Dark Forces, Monkey Island, and Indiana Jones, required a great deal of thought, experimentation and hard work to get right. It was the “wild west” era of game audio, where you gained 10 yards using a motley combination of proprietary and off-the-shelf tools, and lost 7 yards to crashes and inefficiencies, for a net gain of 3 yards.  The 7-yard losses would sting, but the 3-yard gains would always inspire you to come back for more.

In 2000, Michael and Peter departed LucasArts to pursue a start-up of their own, and I was appointed director of the sound department.  However, only three days later, I resigned, seeing the writing on the wall that the administrative requirements of my new management position would likely prohibit me from continuing to focus on creativity. I founded my own company, CB Studios, that later went on to become Bay Area Sound when I partnered with long time LucasArts veteran and colleague, Julian Kwasneski.

In 2004, I approached Chuck Doud, director of the Sony PlayStation music department at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), seeking to demo for one of his projects.  He informed me of a new position he was creating for someone to come in a help revolutionize Sony’s approach to original score production and game scoring. Our talks culminated with my joining Chuck to help build and lead what would over the ensuing 6 years become an 18-person staff around these game music production values.

In 2013, after nine invigorating and productive years, I departed Sony to rekindle my focus on music composition, joining Greg Gordon and the music and sound team at Pyramind Studios in San Francisco. Since joining I’ve written much music including a portion of Blizzard’s upcoming World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, along with other projects I can’t yet discuss.

Looking back, I’ve found it interesting to look at my career as having unfolded in “stripes”, that is, first nine years at a corporation (albeit a smaller one), then four years in a smaller independent production company, then nine years at a mega-corporation, and now another stint at a smaller independent production studio. I’ve really enjoyed this alternation.

For those who don’t know, could you fill us in on what kind of institution Pyramind is exactly?

Pyramind is a San Francisco-based corporation comprised of two divisions: Pyramind Training, which provides immersive learning for emerging music and audio producers and Pyramind Studios, an award winning audio production company that specializes in sound and music for AAA and mobile games as well as emerging forms of interactive technology. Students come from all over the world to study at Pyramind, and Pyramind Studios provides creative services to many of the biggest names in the video game and high tech industries.

Can you talk more about how Pyramind Studios differs from Pyramind Training? Does your work cross-over between the Studios and Training departments?

Pyramind founder Greg Gordon and business partner Matt Donner have been refining this model for over ten years now. Pyramind’s facilities occupy two buildings in the heart of Soma, San Fransisco. The majority of the training operations are run out of the 832 Folsom Street space which houses a large multi seat training lab, event space, recording studio and administrative offices. The other building, 880 Folsom St., houses our professional services team with sound design and composition suites, additional administrative offices and three studios designed for music production, sound design and post production mixing and mastering: including a 7.1 Meyer Cinema Surround Mix theater and sound stage.

One of the most exciting ways the two divisions interrelate is the fact that students come to the school to learn about and hone their skills in music production and right next door, a collection of professionals are doing just that professionally, so it has a built in real-world example of their field of study. This provides a valuable resource to the students, even ones who’s goal is to develop into a musical artist, as they get access to these professionals and can increase their knowledge through internships and observing or talking to them. Another key way in which these two divisions relate is the formal expertise on the training side as all of the teachers are practicing professionals themselves, not just teachers. They possess thorough knowledge and expertise in state-of-the-art software and hardware tools and techniques of music production, serving as an invaluable resource to the production side above and beyond their students.  The two divisions literally strengthen each other.

What made you decide to move from a place like Sony to Pyramind? From an outside perspective, most people wouldn’t be able to make sense out of moving from arguably the world’s biggest video game company to work at a music school/production studio. What was the motivation for you?

In short, this is a return to my core focus of music composition in the context of a great company with phenomenal people. After nine great years at Sony, despite helping to build and manage the music production team, working on blockbuster projects like Uncharted and God of War, and producing scores in exciting recording venues all over the world, it was always the music of other composers. Considering my creative roots and over a decade of formal conservatory training as a composer, I’m thrilled to have made the transition back to composition as my main focus.

This isn’t the first time this sort of move was made – when I was appointed director of the LucasArts sound Department in 2000, I left the company 3 days later to maintain a principle focus on original creativity rather than administrative management. Additionally, a passion for me has always been to help build and lead great teams and promote imaginative, quality work, something I accomplished at LucasArts, Bay Area Sound and Sony. Pyramind is a perfect fit, a premiere creative services company in downtown San Francisco – a growing company where I can contribute exactly this expertise as well. I’m excited to be composing music, and to be working closely with president Greg Gordon to continue to build the team and grow the company into the future.

What was it that someone with your kind of experience and ability was able to bring to the Pyramind team? Was there a particular void that the company was looking for you to fill?

My 23 years of experience composing and producing often award-winning music and sound in the video game industry was a leading factor in my being welcomed to the Pyramind team. Moreover, I gained a majority of this experience working in-house at leading developers and publishers, giving me an inside track in understanding how developers operate, an important thing to understand for an external creative services provider like Pyramind. Beyond my game development experience, I have been active in many other aspects of the game industry, as a founder and board member of the Game Audio Network Guild, for example, and as a frequent lecturer at schools and conferences. I’ve gotten to know many influential people throughout the video game industry, film music business, musician and education communities, which is a strategic plus to the organization. And of course, my creative strength as a composer helps Pyramind deliver great music.

Can you tell us a bit about your daily tasks and what kind of routine you have, if any?

One of the great things about this line of work is that no two days are ever alike! I work closely with my composition colleague, Jeremy Garren, a fine composer, sound designer and mixing engineer, at times sharing in scoring projects, at times working separately. I also work closely with Mike Forst, our production manager, to help set strategy for managing the several concurrent projects in regard to production, scheduling, budgeting and client communications.  My work with Greg Gordon, president and director of production, has mainly been in music production and business development strategy. Every day, we all communicate with at least a few clients about projects, and every day, we engage in original music composition, sound design and voice-over production and post-production. Much of our workflow resembles that of an in-house sound department at an entertainment studio, and part of our mission is to serve as an extension to companies with audio departments, or as the de facto audio department for companies with no internal audio production resources.

What does the “Creative Director” part of your job entail? In what way do you have to be creative on an audio team?

We’re a fluid team where responsibilities and roles shift a great deal from person to person as project priorities fluctuate, actually similar to how the teams operated at Sony and LucasArts.  The title is really just a combination of two qualities, creativity and seniority. I can help provide leadership and know-how in the field of game audio development. Ultimately though, given how talented and capable everyone is at Pyramind, there’s really no need for me to “direct” them in matters creative – instead we offer each other creative feedback regularly in the course of our work.

Can you tell me a bit about the audio and music infrastructure that Pyramind Studios has at its disposal, and how it’s been used of late for projects?

As I mentioned earlier, there are numerous mixing and editing suites at Pyramind, but the main room is Studio A. It’s a 1000 sq. foot control room with a high ceiling, 22-foot projection screen, D-Command virtual desk, a host of high-end outboard gear, and a Meyer Sound 7.1 surround software controllable sound system. The room was tuned by master acoustician, Bob Hodas. The recording space in A is 500 sq. feet with a luxuriously high ceiling and Foley pit – perfect for drums, bands, and smaller chamber ensembles.  Recently we recorded several bands, for Microsoft and Insomniac’s anticipated game Sunset Overdrive, in Studio A featuring original songs, many written by our director of production, Greg Gordon. 150 minutes of original rock and electronic music were produced for that title.

All the music I recently composed and contributed to Blizzard’s upcoming title World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor was mixed and mastered in Studio A and other mixing suites at Pyramind. We recently recorded a chamber ensemble for Doublefine’s Broken Age in Studio A, along with a collection of soloists for the indie Turkish feature film, Panzehir (The Antidote). All the mixing and mastering for Sunset Overdrive was also done in Studio A. We also have a vocal booth in which a massive amount of voiceover is produced in Studio B, for both the video game and high tech industries.

As someone who would be considered a veteran in the industry, with quite a sizeable resume, what would you say has been your key to longevity in an industry where so many people are struggling to find even freelance work, how much more fixed employment at a studio or company?

I’d say ‘steady as she goes’, brick by brick.  Really, there’s no secret. Do what you love and keep on doing it.  It’s allowing your passion to drive your insistence on quality. It’s about working hard and steady for many years with a total commitment to imaginative depth and product quality – and working well with others. Let your appreciation for other people and their ideas guide your need to develop good rapports with them, not the other way around. Let passion and imagination be the engines of your hard work, and allow the true enjoyment of people and collaboration form great relationships effortlessly.  When these parameters are all up and running, over time, it gets to feel more like fun than work, which certainly helps longevity.

Can you share any interesting stories about your past work with LucasArts? Was there anything in particular about working on Star Wars and Indiana Jones Games that was special?

There’s so much to say on the copious amount of work we did in the Star Wars universe. Suffice it to say, musically, we naturally looked to the masterful music of John Williams. We relished creating original music in that style, borrowing scoring techniques trying our hand in the master’s own idiom. We also learned so much from editing Williams’ film score from the soundtracks, often with such granularity as to allow for an adaptive score, comprised of hundreds of music clips assembled seamlessly in real time as the game situation unfolded. Williams’ music is so gestural, that these rapid edits are possible – I’m sure many were done in the films that no one even suspects to be edits.

In sound, we occasionally interacted with sound designer Ben Burtt, especially on The Phantom Menace. As the game was released simultaneous with the film, we needed to gain access to Ben’s sounds as he created them for the film, which was a fun and rewarding collaboration.

Indiana Jones has a special place in my heart, as my first meeting in the video games industry was with Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis director, Hal Barwood, after which I hurried to the then fledgling iMUSE system and wrote my first cue in game audio – the Crab Raft.  Peter, Michael and I shared the composition on Fate of Atlantis. While I loved doing the entire score for Indiana Jones and The Infernal Machine, my favorite score was Indiana Jones and The Emperor’s Tomb that I scored in Seattle with the Seattle Sinfonia while at Bay Area Sound. An important move there was to leverage almost my entire creative fee to hire the orchestra and orchestrator, as LucasArts had minimal budget for musicians. Something went right, as the score went on to win four G.A.N.G. awards in 2003, including Music of the Year. Creatively, working on Indiana Jones music is in line with Star Wars in its musical style of John Williams.  His control of musical syntax and grammar, and insistence on memorable melody and imaginative harmony, are key inspirations of my work to this day.

What’s been the most extensive project that you’ve worked on in your 6 months at Pyramind?

The choral orchestral music I scored for Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor would be the most significant project I’ve done in the past six months. I contributed 21 minutes of original score and 65 minutes of derived score as a member of the composition team assembled and led by Blizzard director of audio and composer, Russell Brower.

Can you tell us anything about your current projects and what you’re working on?

I’m especially excited these days about two projects in particular, both of which I can’t say too much about yet. One score Jeremy Garren and I are sharing is for chorus and orchestra in a fantasy genre, probably my favorite genre to write in, and another is scoring for a famous property that I’ve always loved – I still can’t believe I have the privilege to write music for this iconic universe!

SamInterview: Pyramind Creative Director and Senior Composer – Clint Bajakian

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