Interview with Splinter Cell Conviction/Blacklist composer Michael Nielsen
(I became acquainted with my friend Michael Nielsen a few years ago. I can tell you he is the nicest guy, and along with his writing partner Kaveh Cohen, he creates some really fantastic music. He is in the most literal sense an industry heavy hitter, especially with regards to writing music for movie trailers. He also composes for other media forms, most notably video games like Splinter Cell: Conviction…which is where I first heard of him. It doesn’t hurt that he is a fellow UCLA Bruin like me🙂 I now present to you an interview with him. Enjoy-Derek).
Derek Kortepeter: I truly appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. So tell me how you and Kaveh became writing partners?
Michael Nielsen: Hi Derek. It’s my pleasure. Kaveh and I were friends long before we started Ninja Tracks together. At the time, Kaveh was doing a lot of scoring work, and I was doing record production. We had a very complimentary skill set.
D.K.: How did you decide on composition as your avenue of music involvement as opposed to something such as performance or academic disciplines like musicology or music history? What is your background with music?
M.N.: I was in a few bands out of college, but I was never very comfortable in that role. I always felt much more at home in the studio. I like the complete control over every element that you have in the studio. I’m very passionate about the hyper detailing, layering and texturing that you can do in the studio. That’s not to say trying to get everything ‘perfect’. The really interesting stuff is getting the right balance of perfection vs. live human feeling, or precision vs. chaos. I never really considered an academic career in music. I always felt pulled to create something music or art.
D.K.: This blog is known to give quite a bit of attention to music from video games, as a composer and academic it is something I am very passionate about. I actually became acquainted with your work via Splinter Cell: Conviction (Splinter Cell is one of my all-time favorite game series), can you talk about how you became approached to do the score for that game? Also what was the overall experience like working on such a celebrated franchise?
M.N.: We were very excited to be a part of the Splinter Cell franchise. Both Kaveh and I were fans of the game since the original Splinter Cell came out. The team we worked with at Ubisoft was amazing, had great ideas, and they were really open to our ideas as well. They wanted to make a very cinematic game, and we wanted to create a score that pushed that to the next level. We recorded the orchestra for the game at Warner Scoring Stage in LA.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist was just released, and we scored the Spy’s vs Merc’s. It was a really nice opportunity to expand upon the Conviction theme. We were creating a distinct soundscape for each side. So the Spy’s had a more organic palette with a lot of GuitarViol. That’s handmade custom instrument that’s a hybrid cello / guitar. It’s a very emotive instrument. The Merc’s had a much more tech and electronic distorted palette.
Conviction had an emotional story with a lot of stealth, juxtaposed with intense bursts of action. Blacklist Spy’s vs Merc’s is all about the tension, and racing against time, and waiting for someone to attack you from a shadow, or from above.
D.K.: What is a typical day as you work; do you choose separate sections of a piece to work on? How do you come to the conclusions artistically with portions such as melody, harmony, orchestration etc.?
M.N.: I like to get in pretty early and dive right in, coffee in hand, ha! Kaveh and I have worked together for so long, that there’s very little ego in deciding who will do what. Sometimes it’s decided by who’s most excited about taking a particular piece, sometimes it’s something that plays to one of our strengths. Other times it’s based on scheduling… and if we really can’t decide, we’re always fine to work on it together. As it is, our control rooms are right next to each other, so when we work with the door open, or if you walk by, you get to hear how the cues are coming along. It’s funny. Sometimes, I’ll hear something from the other room, and will just yell over something like, “OH! THAT’S COOL! I don’t know what you’re doing next door, but keep doing it!”
Kaveh and I are usually very aligned in terms of vibe and sensibility. So if we have a melody or theme that we’re working on we both like, we’ll run with it. It will usually become clear if we nailed it, or if we need to keep exploring. It’s more of a feeling. If you come in the next day, and you’re still excited to hear it, that’s a pretty good sign. We recently scored the Spirit Guard Udyr comic, and title theme for the League of Legends online game. When we started, we didn’t have a lot to go on, as we were all still doing a bit of sonic exploration. So we worked up a couple short theme bits and settled on a concept. Later we felt like the theme needed more gravitas and emotion, so we composed a big orchestral theme for Udyr. Finally, the Udyr theme ended up being a combination of the original idea, the epic emotional theme, and a more aggressive movement… he’s a warrior after all. Udyr is a complicated guy!
D.K.: You guys do quite a bit of trailer music (for films such as The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Bourne Legacy, The Avengers, and The Amazing Spider-Man), what are the challenges in composing for that genre? Is there more freedom artistically?
M.N.: There’s a lot of freedom in most of the trailer work. That said, you still have to win over music supervisors, editors, producers, studio execs, and test audiences. So while you’re working on a particular project, it’s important to maintain the integrity of the music while still addressing the needs of the client. You’re squeezing in a LOT of story into a 2 minute trailer, so while picture is being manipulated, sometimes you have to alter whole sections of a melody, or you’re have to deal with strange meters. Sometimes you are given very unmusical requests that, as the composer, you have to translate into something that really works.
D.K.: With the different forms of media you write for (film, TV, video games), what would you say are the biggest differences in composing for each?
M.N.: It’s hard to generalize about each, because each project is so different. The commonality between them is that you’re trying to subtly, and sometimes NOT so subtly, guide the viewer or gamer to an emotional reaction. Each project presents its own challenges to achieving that.
D.K.: What music would you say has influenced your writing in the past, and what music influences you now?
M.N.: I’ve always been a fan of popular music, and I’ve always loved soundtracks, and scores. My music has always been a combination of those influences. More recently, I’ve been trying to discover ways to simplify my music, while still keeping the same impact. That’s a tough thing to do. Sometimes more IS more! (smiles)
D.K.: What type of gear do you two utilize for composing, recording etc.?
M.N.: We have very similar rigs. It’s important for us to be compatible with each other. I recently did the upgrade to Logic Pro X, which was a bit rocky at first, but after a couple updates, it’s coming together nicely. We’ve been Logic users for many years. There are tons of libraries, including many gigs of custom sample recording that we’ve done for ourselves. We have a large rig of Apogee Symphony i/o, Barefoot monitors, Lexicon and Bricasti reverbs, and tons of outboard EQ’s, compressors. Tons of plugins. I’m very fond of UAD and Waves. But it’s a great time for software. There’s so many good plugins.
D.K.: Are there any standout experiences you have had as industry insiders that made you take a step back and say “wow, I really get to do this for a living?”
M.N.: Every time we record live orchestra is a really standout experience. To have 100 world class musicians performing your music is a spectacular experience; to say the least.
D.K.: Do you have any particular musicians or directors that you would love to write for? Kind of like a dream list?
M.N.: Dream list… I’d love to be a fly on the wall when John Williams is composing.
D.K.: To all the composers out there (myself included even though I have asked Michael once about this), what advice do you have? What does it take to get work in such a cutthroat and often unforgiving industry?
M.N.: I think you have to be able to do everything well. You can’t just write nice music and expect to be able to compete. You have to write, produce, engineer, plus manage your career. You just have to be ready for anything and everything they’ll throw at you. There’s even a lot of free plugins out there, that may not be as pretty looking as a UAD plugin, but they have tons of character and sound great.
D.K.: Any upcoming creative projects you guys have lined up that you want to talk about?
D.K.: Before we close this interview is there anything else you would like to say to the readers?
M.N.: It’s easy to forget the music behind the visuals… so, thanks for listening!