Though Brian Trifon has been featured on Speakhertz before under his Trifonic moniker, my talk with him this time covered different ground since his colleague, Brian White, was included to discuss working at Finishing Move Inc. Their company provides music and audio services to the game/film world, and has already lent its talent to titles like “Halo 2 Anniversary” and “Massive Chalice“, so I had a chat with the guys to learn more about what they have going on.
– Hi guys. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. How did the two of you come to be associated with one another?
White: We met via a mutual friend. I was running a music production school at the time and we’d just lost one of our main instructors, so I was in the process of trying to find a replacement and Trifon’s name came up. He’d moved back up to the Bay Area and was looking for work after having finished his “Emergence” record. His music and production background seemed legit so I asked him, “Can you use Pro Tools? ”, and he answered, “Not really…”, so I said “Perfect, you’re teaching Pro Tools for me next month ”. We’ve been working on projects together ever since (laughs).
Trifon: I’d spent a year working on the “Emergence” album full time, so I was pretty much broke by the time it was done. When White called looking to hire a Pro Tools instructor, I decided to give it a try even though I barely knew Pro Tools. I worked at White’s school for a year and then started doing freelance production and composition as Trifonic’s reputation picked up. White and I kept in touch and worked together often. We finally decided it was time to level up and join forces, and that’s how Finishing Move Inc. was born.
– What are each of your music backgrounds and areas of specialization within Finishing Move?
White: We both have strong backgrounds in music production and can operate autonomously if we have to. However, combining our efforts always results in the best output by far. I’d say my specialty lies in starting and finishing, so getting frameworks and ideas into place, song structures, rhythmic foundations and generally roughing out the bones of a cue. At that point, Trifon will come along and go crazy with the little details; he’ll add bespoke sounds and sound design that takes things to the next level. Once I get the project back from him, it’s usually all over the place and needs to be brought back into a structure that makes sense for the project, with a proper mix and general tidying up. That’s where I usually pop back in as the finisher. I have a knack for taking all his unique ideas and pull them back together into a tight production.
Trifon: As White mentioned, I tend to dig into the details and try to push for memorable sounds and textures. I’m good at finding the emotional essence of sounds and crafting a unique sonic fingerprint, but I sometimes get lost in the details, which is why it’s great to work with White. He works incredibly fast and always has the big picture in mind. Furthermore, White is a world class mixer. We have complementary skill sets, or to use a word I dislike, “synergy.”
– What prompted you guys to get into music for film and games? Did Trifon’s solo career allow for that?
White: The game industry has grown from what was considered kid’s toys into a full-blown entertainment empire that rivals film and television. There are so many opportunities to be creative in new ways and expose your content to so many people, while still being paid a fair wage, which is a vital consideration in today’s entertainment economy.
Trifon: The work I do as Trifonic helped us because I’d already developed a my own sound, a niche following and some amount of credibility. The downside is that people assume we can only do electronic music that sounds like Trifonic. White and I both have formal music backgrounds and a large range of musical influences, so it’s exciting for us to work on projects where we get to break out of the box of strictly electronic music.
Nowadays, everyone has the same samples and DAWs, and everyone wants to be a composer or producer. Unfortunately, the result is that a lot of composer music sounds the same and it’s really hard to get noticed. Furthermore, people rip-off each other’s styles and everything begins to sound like a bad clone of whatever big score was popular two years ago. So having a unique sound and a reputation definitely opened some doors for us.
– How long does it take to gain solid footing and experience in this industry if one still feels like a newcomer after two years?
Trifon: Building strong relationships with your clients doesn’t happen overnight. The development cycle for games is frequently several years, so the time frames you have to think about are much longer than elsewhere in the music industry.
White: I think any segment of the industry has its moats you need to navigate through. However, unlike an artist who drops a hit single that can cycle through social media and have them headlining festivals within a month, working on collaborative projects like games is a much slower process. You have to get used to not being able to talk about or promote what you’re working on until long after the job is finished. A lot of the projects we work on have time frames that measure in years, not months, so even when working on something huge, no-one knows about it until it ships. We’ve been working continuously on game projects from the second we formed the company, but stuff is just starting to come out two years later. Sometimes projects get delayed, morph into other projects, or get canceled. You might have a year were you worked hard, wrote a ton of content and got paid, but the project took a pivot at a much higher level than your contributions, so you have to move on to the next thing without any fanfare or promotional buzz.
– Trifon mentioned that project management is another thing Finishing Move does. What does that entail? Have you managed any projects yet?
White: In addition to our role as composers and arrangers on the project, we also supervised and co-produced the soundtrack for “Halo 2 Anniversary” with Paul Lipson, the senior Audio Director at 343 Industries. It’s part of the “Master Chief Collection“ and is a re-adaptation of the original score from 2004. When it comes to the term “producer”, most people think, “Oh, that’s like a beat-maker or someone who writes music for an artist “. In games, a production role is generally much more high-level, and can involve things like contracting, quality control, managing budgets, making sure everyone gets paid and that stuff ships on time at the highest quality possible. A lot of times that means doing last-minute jobs yourself because there isn’t any money left to hire someone else. It could be anything from editing content to last-minute picture changes, to deciding what cues will be on the soundtrack, or even making sure someone working on the project gets picked up at the airport and has a hotel room waiting for them.
– Can you guys shed some light on how composing for film and games differs from an artist solo career or other jobs within music?
White: The main difference between writing music for film or games and writing music as an artist is people. There are so many people involved in a game or film project and you’re all working towards the goal of completing something that’s a packaged experience, and not just a piece of cool music. How you interact with other artists, how you receive and implement feedback, and generally try to be a pleasurable person to work with is a huge part of the job. You could be the hottest producer on Hype Machine, but if your attitude doesn’t allow you to adapt to working as part of a team, you won’t last long. Many times this involves adapting your own ideals to the greater good of completing the project and knowing when to choose your battles over such things.
Trifon: White is exactly right. You can’t have the attitude of a rockstar and throw fits, although occasionally you hear of people doing that. Ultimately, the project isn’t about you – it’s a collaborative effort between lots of creative people. It’s not the time and place to show off how great you are or how cool your aesthetic is. In many ways it’s the opposite of being a recording artist or a band, where it’s all about your vision.
– As the video game world continues to see growth and bigger revenues, is there’s an abundance of work to be had?
White: It is and it isn’t. The revenue streams in entertainment seem to be a moving target and people mistakenly assume what’s here today will be here tomorrow. Right now, games seem pretty good, but the film world appears to be splitting into either mega-budget comic book films or no-budget indie movies. bBfore you had plenty of mid-budget films with healthy score budgets, but now there’s a handful of summer blockbusters and a whole bunch of budget-restricted indie films that have little money for music. This is why you’re seeing more big-name composers move into game scores or TV for the first time, to fill the gaps in their film work. So that kind of competition is only going to get heavier.
Trifon: It’s very competitive and constantly shifting. There is no magic pot of gold and there certainly isn’t any easy money. If you’re going into anything music-related with dreams of big money, you’re doing it wrong. You probably have a way better financial outlook working your way up a Chipotle franchise or being reckless with other people’s money on Wall Street than anything related to music. That being said, if you have the skills and you run your business smart, it’s possible to make a living.
– Talk to me about some of your projects. How did you get to compose music for “Massive Chalice” and what was the process like?
White: We did some work for a developer called Double Fine on their “Dropchord” title, and they liked what we did, so we were asked to do a pitch for “Massive Chalice“, which is a fantasy game. We mostly do more modern-sounding electronic scores as opposed to “Lord Of The Rings” fantasy stuff, so at first we were confused. But instead of doing a bad approximation of a style we aren’t really into, we decided to go for a modern sound, thinking, “We probably won’t get the gig, but let’s show them what we’re good at for future reference”. Ultimately, we found out they didn’t want a typical fantasy-style score, so our strategy ended up working in our favor and we were asked to compose the score for the game.
The actual process of scoring the game was super pleasant. They gave us a ton of creative freedom and we ended up with a cool post-rock-meets-fantasy score with live guitars, bass, big drum kits, electronic elements, and some amazing viola performed by Nils Bultmann.
Trifon: “Massive Chalice” was an amazing project to work on because we had to think about music that isn’t locked into a particular time period. The game takes place over hundreds of years and many generations of families and bloodlines. We needed music that felt timeless and had the emotion that goes along with the passing of time. I’m really proud of how the score turned out and I think it stands apart from other fantasy games and soundtracks.
– Similarly, what was it like to work on the “Halo 2 Anniversary” soundtrack? In what ways did that differ from working on “Massive Chalice”?
White: “Halo” is a huge franchise, so the expectations on a project like that are extremely high. Because we were re-adapting the original 2004 score, it also meant taking a different approach to production. Instead of writing new music, we were re-orchestrating and re-recording nearly 200 minutes of the original “Halo 2” score that Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori wrote. Staying true to the original whilst updating the sound for a modern HD, surround-sound experience is no small task.
While it was a ton of hard work and long hours, working on a title like “Halo” is so much fun because it’s like the Super Bowl of game scoring. We spent a week at Skywalker Sound recording a 90-piece orchestra, a 40-piece choir, and a boys choir. We got to work with guitar legend Steve Vai and even brought in Misha Mansoor of Periphery to write a couple of new cues for the game. Both Microsoft and everyone on our team are super proud of the results and the fans are really loving the updated soundtrack.
Trifon: I worked on the “Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary” soundtrack a few years ago, so I already had experience recreating the ambient music by the time I worked on the second one. I wanted to make sure there was a consistency between the sounds that I created for both of those Anniversary editions. I also wanted to improve on everything I learned from working on the first one, so I spent a lot of time comparing and mapping Martin O’ Donnell’s assets from “Halo” and “Halo 2” to see which sounds and themes carried over best.
We worked with Paul Lipson, Tom Salta and Lennie Moore on “Halo 2 Anniversary”. I’d worked with all of them on the first anniversary game, so it was a reunion of sorts and it gave us all an opportunity to take what we had learned from the earlier title and push it further to make the quality of “Halo 2 Anniversary” soundtrack even better.
– What do you think is the full scope of your abilities as composers and sound designers? Are you looking to take on major AAA titles at the moment?
White: Uhm, yes? Bring us all your AAA, we got you covered (laughs). Seriously though, we have a proven workflow and can scale to manage both small and large projects. Composition, sound design, editing, mixing and implementation; the entire audio pipeline. We have the teams and resources in place to go from 30 minutes of music for a indie game to 300 minutes of music for a AAA title and deliver both on time and on budget.
Trifon: To misquote the game Zero Wing, “All your projects are belong to us”!
– This has been a great interview. Thanks for talking to me guys. What are your plans for 2015? Any projects lined up?
White: We’ll be busy on a few different game projects during 2015. Nothing that has been announced yet though, so stay tuned. I’m sure we’ll both work on our own artist stuff too, and hopefully release some new “music for music’s sake”.