Though Brian Trifon has been featured on Speakhertz before, under his Trifonic moniker, my talk with him this time covered different ground, particularly since his colleague, Brian White, was on board to talk about their work at Finishing Move Inc. Their company provides music and audio services to the game/film world, and has already lent it’s 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.
Can I start by asking about how the two of you came 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 had 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. Trifon had moved back up to the Bay Area and had just finished up his “Emergence” record and was looking for work. His music and production background seemed legit so I asked him, “Can you use Pro Tools?” he said “Not really…”, and I said “Perfect, you’re teaching Pro Tools for me next month”. We’ve been working on projects together ever since (laughs).
Trifon: I had spent a year working on the Trifonic “Emergence” record 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 started to picked up. White and I kept in touch and worked together often. Finally we decided it was time to level up, join forces and conquer! That’s how Finishing Move Inc. was born.
Tell me about each of your music backgrounds and areas of specialization within Finishing Move.
White: We both have strong backgrounds in music production and can generally 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, the “special sauce” if you will. 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 the really cool and unique ideas he throws out there and pulling them back together into a tight production that fits the specification of what we are working on.
Trifon: As White mentioned, I tend to dig into the details and really try to push for memorable evocative sounds and textures. I’m good at finding the emotional essence of sounds and crafting a unique sonic fingerprint. I can sometimes lose perspective and 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 doing music for film/games? Did your other pursuits, such as Trifon’s solo career with Trifonic, allow for that?
White: The game industry has grown from what was once considered kid’s toys, into a full-blown entertainment empire that rivals film and television in terms of market share, franchise recognition and fan base. 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 for your creativity, which is a vital consideration in today’s entertainment economy.
Trifon: The work I did, and still do, as Trifonic helped us in that I had already developed an identifiable sound, a niche following and some amount of credibility. The downside is that people assume that we can only do electronic music or that we only do the “Trifonic” sound. White and I both have formal music backgrounds and a large range of musical influences and abilities. 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’s music sounds the same and it’s really hard to get anyone to notice what you do. Furthermore, people rip-off each other’s styles and sadly 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.
Trifon had mentioned to me that you guys still consider yourselves “new on the scene”, though you’ve been around for two years already. 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 and trust with your clients doesn’t happen overnight. The development cycle for games is frequently several years. The time frames that you have to think about are much longer than elsewhere in the music industry.
White: I think any scene or segment of the industry has its walls and moats you need to navigate through to enter the castle. However, unlike an artist who drops a hit single that can quickly cycle through social media, build buzz and have them headlining festivals within one month, working on huge collaborative projects like games is a much slower process. You just have to get used to not being able to talk about or promote what you’re working on until long after you’ve finished the job. A lot of the projects we work on have time frames that measure in years, not months, so even though you might be 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 to the world 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 individual contributions, so you have to move on to the next thing without any fanfare or promotional buzz.
Trifon had 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, with Paul Lipson, the soundtrack for “Halo 2 Anniversary“, which is part of the “Master Chief Collection“ and a re-adaptation of the original score from 2004. When you think of the term “producer”, most people think, “Oh, that’s like a beat-maker or a producer who writes music for an artist“. In games, generally speaking, a production role is much more high-level, and can involve things like contracting, quality control, managing budgets, making sure everyone gets paid, making sure stuff ships on time and 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? What kind of adjustments have you made in this field of work in order to make progress?
White: As artists and musicians, we are extremely passionate and opinionated people, so the biggest adjustments by far, much bigger than any stylistic or technical adjustment, would be to attitude. The biggest 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 a greater goal of completing something that’s a packaged experience, and not just a piece of cool music. How you interact with other creatives, how you receive and implement feedback or criticism and generally just 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 aesthetic 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 and have meltdowns, although occasionally you hear about people doing that. But 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 your vision and your party.
As the video game world continues to see growth, bigger revenues, and expanding markets, do you guys feel like there’s an abundance of work to be had? Is it a fruitful business to be in, or is that kind of assumption misleading?
White: It is and it isn’t. The revenue streams in the entertainment world seem to be a continuously moving target and the mistake people make is assuming that 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. Whereas before you had plenty of mid-budget films with healthy score budgets, now there are a handful of summer blockbusters and a whole bunch of budget-restricted indie films that have almost no money for music. This is why you’re seeing more big name film composers moving into game scores or TV for the first time, to fill the gaps in their film work. So the competition from that angle is only going to get heavier. But like I said, it’s always a moving target, so you have to stay nimble, keep your overhead under control and your skills fresh.
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 had done some work for a developer called Double Fine, on their “Dropchord” title, and they liked what we did, so they asked us to do a pitch for “Massive Chalice“, which is sort of a fantasy game. At first we were a little confused as to why they thought we would be a good fit, since we mostly do more modern-sounding electronic scores, as opposed to your typical “Lord Of The Rings” fantasy-style stuff. So instead of doing a bad approximation of a style we aren’t really that into, we decided to do our pitch with 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 that they didn’t actually want a typical fantasy-style score, so the “just be ourselves” 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 to shape the sound and really let us capture a vibe that we are proud of. We ended up with this cool post-rock-meets-fantasy score with live guitars and bass, big drum kits, carefully crafted 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 and the repeating cycles of life. 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 pressures and expectations on a project like that are extremely high. Because we were re-adapting and re-recording the original 2004 score for the anniversary addition, it also meant taking a radically different approach to production. Instead of writing new music, we were breaking down, re-orchestrating and re-recording nearly 200 minutes of the original “Halo 2” score that Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori wrote. Re-doing something like that in a way that stays true to the original, but updates 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 huge 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 that there was a consistency between the sounds that I created for both of those Anniversary editions. I also wanted to improve on everything that I learned from the process of working on the first one. I spent a lot of time comparing and mapping Martin O’ Donnell’s assets from “Halo” and “Halo 2” to see which sounds, cues and themes carried over and how to best tie everything together.
We worked with Paul Lipson (Senior Audio Director of 343 Industries), Tom Salta and Lennie Moore on “Halo 2 Anniversary”. I had 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! Seriously though, we have a proven workflow and can scale to manage both small and large projects, end to end. 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”!
What do you think is the most valuable thing you guys can bring to a project? Is it the technical knowledge of music, experience from other projects, or something else?
White: I think we bring several things to the table, both artistically as well as procedurally. If I had to pick one though, I’d say it’s our unique aesthetic and our ability to bring a real artist approach to a score. Playing Omnisphere presets to picture is cool, but if you really want to connect with the audience, you have to get your hands dirty. Record some real sounds, move some air, make your own instruments and kits, not because they’re necessarily better, but because everyone would otherwise have the same sample libraries you’d be using, and those are no longer unique.
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”.