Composer Jeff Cardoni caught up with us at Umlaut Audio for some Q&A about his creative journey, studio setup and workflow as well as 3 essential tips for aspiring composers.
Hey Jeff. Good seeing you. Tell us, what are your musical influences?
What styles did you gravitate for as you found your voice as a composer?
This is always a tough question, because so many of us will say John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer etc. And they’re the masters, so let’s just assume we all are influenced by them. So, as far as some other influences for me - a really early Thomas Newman score (“Less Than Zero”) really connected to me and drew me into his unique sonic world, even so early in his career. I love Elliott Goldenthal and “Interview With A Vampire” still blows me away. And for me, James Horner defined lush emotional movie music and was a huge influence on me. I also love Sigur Ros, Explosions In The Sky, and all that trippy verby post-rock band stuff, since I spent many years in that whole world, although always say failing in rock and roll was the best thing that ever happened to me.
It's a creative journey to find the right theme for any project. Can you bring us "behind the scenes" and talk about your process on one of your recent movie "Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life" ?
Interesting question these days. I usually determine at the start if a project is what I call ‘sound’ based, or ‘note’ based. If you know something is purely orchestral, then you’re worrying about the melody most and the counterpoint, etc. So I will usually sit at the piano and record melodic ideas into my I-phone. If it’s something more modern and subdued, then the sounds and textures are sometimes more important than the notes. The old fashioned part of me likes the ‘note’ based ones a lot. “Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life” was a combination of both, since it was a kids’ movie it had to have some hipness on some of the cues. But the heart of it was old fashioned, so I sat at the piano and came up with the two melodies, the family melody which is in the cue here, and Principal Dwight’s’ theme which was played on horns in the orchestra cues.
You've worked with Umlaut's PADS on this project. What did you use it for? How did you incorporate it into your work?
I love PADS because it’s subtle, organic, and just sounds like more of what I’m drawn to. It doesn’t have that super clean ‘digital’ synth sound, that isn’t really my thing. I find I can experiment with multiple sounds and combine them and get pretty close to something usable in a short amount of time.
When you’re searching for new sounds to add to your library or workflow, as a composer and storyteller, what makes your ears perk up?
I’m someone who doesn’t buy new libraries all that often. I think there are so many ‘press one key and it’s a cue’ type of things out there, that I kind of tune out. It’s too easy. And I’m skeptical of anything titled ‘Cinematic’ or ‘Epic’ :) I think we have almost infinite sounds at our fingertips if we just learn to use what we already have and work at it a bit. I personally have never been much of a purely synth guy. I’m more drawn to instruments that are based on organic textures. So for me, trying to find new things that might help in that world and expand what I’ve already got, that interests me. That’s why PADS was a must buy for me. I will say, I’m also drawn to small libraries by smaller developers that might have one unique instrument that not everyone else has. Because if everyone’s got the same sounds and using them in the most basic way, then what will make any of us stand out?
Can you tell us a little bit about your setup? What is your workflow?
My setup is pretty damn simple. I’m not one of those guys who has 20 computers and geeks out on all the tech. I like to keep it small and manageable. I’d rather worry about writing a cue then spending a week on the ultimate template or something like that. I’ve got a Mac trashcan running Logic X. All instruments are inside Logic. I got rid of the slave machines and VE Pro and Bidule and it’s so much easier this way. I have a 2nd machine that runs Protools that hosts the video and I use that session to keep all the current demos of a show or film that I’m working on. I pretty much do everything myself in Logic, all guitars,bass,piano,drums,etc. are recorded straight in. If we have an orchestra, I’ll take the PT session and then import it back to Logic. I work with a scoring mixer (Oren Hadar) who’s awesome. And we’ve come up with a really cool workflow. As I finish my demos in Logic, I export all tracks as audio to a shared Dropbox. If the cue is approved, then it’s already there and ready for him to mix remotely at his studio. It’s a huge timesaver and saves from having to open every cue, export tracks, bounce midi, etc. It would take me 5 times as long going back to that, and I honestly don’t think I’d be able to do half of what I do if it weren’t for this workflow.
What’s the biggest challenge you face with your work?
The biggest challenge for me is juggling multiple projects. I, for better or worse, write every note myself, which obviously takes a lot of time. I play a ton of live instruments on my stuff, so haven’t really found a way of being able to have someone help me out and play things the way I would with all of my horrible idiosyncrasies. But look, I love writing music. My goal has never been to have a huge team and just kind of oversee everything. I love the details, I love how every cue in a film or show is related and I find incredible satisfaction knowing that it’s all coming from my warped head. But different strokes for different folks.
If you had to sell your studio but could keep 3 things that are most valuable to you, which gear would you choose?
Funny, I’m not that attached to anything or have a favorite guitar or something. Three things, hmmm. One, probably my Steinway, just because nothing like a real piano. Two, probably this hideous Moog guitar that I use a lot. I don’t know if they make them anymore, it’s got infinite sustain on all the strings so it’s cool for making soundscape type sounds without using any synths. Third, probably my Guitarviol bowed guitar, if only because it would take a year to wait for Jonathan to build another one, they’re so backed up.
What advice do you have for aspiring composers? 3 Essential tips?
This is always an interesting question too because so many of us come from such different backgrounds.
Tip 1: Work on your music every day. It’s easy to get caught up in the business side and finding gigs. But remember your product is your music and that’s why you’re doing this. You have to build a body of work from which to sell yourself. If you’ve only got a few tracks to put on a demo, you’re really limited. So hone your craft and keep working at it, because you never know when the call will come and you’d hate to not be ready.
Tip 2: Meet people as people. Don’t think of every person as what they can do for you. Try to connect with people on a human level and give things time to develop. If you come on too strong, people will be turned off. All of the ‘buyers’ in this industry are constantly bombarded by people selling and will very quickly put up their walls if you come off as just trying to get something.
Tip 3: Oh man, just don’t listen to anyone. I read every book and tried to figure out what to do. But the bottom line is, so much of this is so random. If I could set the clock back, I’d probably get a European name and bang on the door at Remote Control and try to get coffee for a few years. That seems to be a smart career path. But I never had that, I came out here with really no big connections or expectations. I just worked really hard for a long time and things slowly started to happen. It’s terrifying and frustrating, but usually those darkest times are right before something good happening. So just believe in yourself and get up each day and try and make a little progress. I’d say, if this is something that you ‘have’ to do and there’s nothing in life that you’d rather do, then put on the blinders and tune out all of the naysayers, and you’ll get there, your own way.
A fun question to finish off! If you could have a drink with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why?Wow, that’s a tough one. I could go with a funny choice and say the younger single me would probably pick someone different than today. Or the proper ‘musician’ type of answer and say Bach or Mozart. Ok, let’s just wing it here and say…. Freddie Mercury. Why not. There are very few bands that even after hearing a song a million times, that I’m still just shocked at the pure genius of creativity. I’d like to hang out with Freddie with a piano and a guitar and a couple of pads of paper and just see how those crazy ideas came out of his head. Gone too young!
Jeff Cardoni is a composer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter scoring music for film and TV. He is best known for his work on television projects such as CSI: Miami, Silicon Valley, The Defenders, The League, and film scores, such as Step Up:All In, The Vicious Kind, Just Friends, Firehouse Dog, and many others.
Recent scores include Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates, Jerry Bruckheimer and Antoine Fuqua produced Training Day Series for CBS, the ABC comedy Speechless starring Minnie Driver, and the romantic drama feature Smitten, directed by Oscar winning screenwriter Barry Morrow (Rainman) as well as the TV Series Girlboss.