Interview with Pieter Schlosser

By Markus Thiel – June 14, 2019

Without particularly crafted musical pieces, something very crucial would be missing in today’s medial world. It transports emotions beyond the visual stimuli, and it complements cinematic pictures like nothing else. Whether it’s movies, series or computer games, properly targeted and artfully implemented musical content holds the power to pull you into the plot via your auditive senses long before a scene fully hits the eye.

LA-based composer Pieter Schlosser’s scores already supported blockbusters like Transformers – Dark of the moon, computer games such as Forsaken Destiny 2 as well as the highly acclaimed and the dark humor series You, Me and the Apocalypse. We talked with Pieter about his path to Hollywood, modern production workflows in the film industry and tools that sometimes even save the day.

Was becoming a movie score composer some kind of original plan?

After being an international student at Berklee I got to LA in 2003 for my OPT (Optional Practical Training) that allows you to extend your student visa for another year to work in the industry that you went to school for. During that time, you’re only allowed to work in the field that fits your profession. This means you can’t go and work at Starbucks or something like that. So pretty much from the start I had to find a job somewhere in the music industry. After sending a bunch of resumes via fax to mostly recording studios, the one that I had an interview with and ultimately hired me was The Record Plant — one of the legendary studios in Hollywood. I started out as a mere assistant making coffee, delivering messages, getting food orders — that kind of thing.

When did you develop your first interest in composing music?

I didn’t know until I went to Berklee that it was necessarily what I want. But I was always drawn to it — one way or another. My mother always said about me that I would steal whatever she was listening to at the moment. She was a big fan of classical music like Beethoven or Mozart. So, I stole it, took it to my room and listened to all of it.

Then again, I turned the radio on and listened to artists like Marvin Gaye. That was during the time when I was a kid in Guatemala where I was born. When we moved to Austria, where we stayed for about three years, I started to take piano lessons and sang in a choir at school.

After moving again, this time to Panama for another three years, I couldn’t find a piano teacher, so I continued singing in a Swedish choir. During the holidays we did the whole Santa Lucia thing! One of the acts we played with at a concert was a woodwind ensemble from a classical orchestra. By chance the bassoon player also played saxophone and she brought hers to one of the rehearsals and from the moment she opened the case it was like: oh my god, I want to know how to play this!

In the end she started giving me lessons, and when I moved to Costa Rica, she handed me over to a friend of hers who she went to school with in Indiana. Over time I really fell in love with playing and rehearsing and became better and better in music while getting worse at school.

Sounds like a typical musician’s career!

Yes! Some universities came down to Costa Rica as guests, organizing master classes followed by concerts. Mostly jazz — a thing I was really into myself, strongly influenced by my father, who was a huge fan. That’s when I found out that I really wanted to study music and get serious about it.

I was always in awe for the people coming from Berklee, so I said to myself: OK, that’s where I want to go myself! I called them and asked to send me a sticker of the university logo, so I can put it up on my saxophone case as a reminder. In the end Berklee was the only school I applied for — that was really short lived! I mean I had some kind of backup plan going to a jazz-school in Graz, Austria, but after ultimately being accepted at Berklee there was no need for it.

So, an all-in decision! And you continued to play and compose jazz?

Because of the saxophone being such a relatively new instrument, most literature I played was naturally jazz. Even before heading to Berklee I knew that I wasn’t going to be a performer after all, because there were a lot better players out there than I was. After woodwind band rehearsal — think of it as a marching band without marching, just a wind ensemble with percussion — I used to hang out watching the whole symphonic orchestra rehearsals for hours and hours moving through all different sections from violins to cellos to percussion.

Beside looking in the literature I used to talk to the musicians asking questions and trying the different instruments by messing around with them. That way I really fell in love with orchestra music — there were so many things you can do with this. When I applied to Berklee I realized that I could study film music and music production. And so I got a double major in those two, ending up dropping film music — that’s kind of interesting!

What was your first contact in the movie scores business?

That was actually at The Record Plant although it is mainly a studio for pop and rock productions. I remember John Powell was recording music for the movie The Italian Job together with longtime producer Alan Myers also from the studio. I — not knowing either of them at the time — was getting food orders again, bringing the coffee and always catching the chance to introduce myself. When I got home, I realized while looking through the CDs I was listening to for years, that Alan Myers was literally all over them. I stayed in touch with him from there on.

One of the owners of The Record Plant also owned a dubbing stage to mix movies, which is no longer in existence. Alan told me to go there because it could be a thing I’m interested in. So I did, even though I didn’t know if it was what I actually wanted. There was still no composing involved for me because I attended as some sort of technical guy — again. But somehow I felt that this wasn’t bringing me on, so I got in touch with Alan and activated some Berklee connections and got into contact with Media Ventures that was renamed into Remote Control Productions under the direction of Hans Zimmer and ended up becoming an intern.

Actually this meant still bringing in food and coffee and taking out the trash but now amidst a bunch of real composers! There I met Steve Jablonsky who had worked with Harry Gregson-Williams and was on his way up with some own projects at a studio at Remote, getting busier and busier and fortunately hadn’t an assistant so far. Therefore, I basically bugged him and said: “Hey you should hire me!” I was very, very persistent and he eventually did! It was somewhere close to the point when he got the show Desperate Housewives. Everybody was wondering what this is about because it sounded like a really bad reality show. This was my first actual job working in the film business.

And I guess you used your time at best by looking over the right shoulders.

Yes, for sure! I mean, being around at Remote was in fact the best school I ever had! Hans has a compound bunch of different composers, so from TV shows up to movies there’s a lot going on there. And it’s not only that, it’s the marriage with all sorts of technical and musical stuff that makes this place absolutely unique.

What is your approach to new film-music projects?

It depends. Often, I try to narrow it down by sending them music I think might be appropriate, especially if they don’t have an idea. I might also send them existing material or write something from the beginning to point in a certain direction. I really prefer to send them a bunch of music to choose from ahead and start using it right away instead of making me sound like somebody else afterwards. So, it’s great if everything comes in as early as possible, so I can tell them to use my music and to call me if something misses, and I’ll be glad to write it for them.

So you’re relying on your own big score-library of different compositions?

I always try to tailor the demo for the upcoming job as close as possible. When people like it I can be sure that they were drawn by something I sent. Sometimes it’s really a taking-this-from-there-drag-that-from-here kind of thing I’m sending out and then wait for some response.

Do you work a lot with orchestras? Do you conduct yourself?

Yes, I also conduct. I went to Nashville some years ago to work with a great orchestra for a TV show I did for NBC. Any time I get the chance to conduct and stand in front of an orchestra it’s the ultimate goal that reminds me why I do what I do! Facing all these people waving my hands — if they’re looking or not is a different story — but bringing all of them into my music is a true magical thing. Once you have your music right in front of you in form of the orchestra, it’s like: Oh, that was what I meant! That’s what it’s supposed to sound like!

What are the main differences between your studio pre-version and the actual orchestral recording?

Everybody talks about the mockup, the demo — they even use quotation marks. I never believe that it’s a demo, it’s only a demo in the sense that I show it to someone to say: Listen, this is what I wrote! But I always produce and polish it as if it would be the final thing that could end up on a record, in a TV show or in a movie.

That also helps me to sell it a lot better. It’s kind of a romantic notion to imagine me sitting with the director in front of the piano like: “Imagine this! Oh let me play it for you!” Most of the time there isn’t really time to do it that way and producers and directors want to hear a version that sounds as close to the final thing as possible. In this way I don’t treat it any different whether it’s coming straight out of my studio or if we are going to record. On the other side, when I’m going to record I pay a lot more attention to what I write, because I know I’m writing for people! I need to be really aware of what’s going where while leaving as much possible freedom to the orchestrator.

Sometimes you’re just not thinking about everything or the sample library I use is limited in certain areas where an orchestra offers a lot more possibilities. The last thing I want is to step in front of an orchestra and everybody’s going like: “What is this garbage?” So, I want to save myself from embarrassment delivering the best job I can do!

Sounds like an optimum to achieve!

Definitely, and even if we’re replacing everything from the library version with a real orchestral recording in the end, I try to make it as natural-sounding as possible in the first place. Besides from helping to sell it to the producer, my intentions will also become much clearer to the orchestrator.

So, how much of your so-called demos end up being the final version for the movie or serial?

Actually, a lot! I would guess that it’s close to 80 percent at the moment. We all know the budgets nowadays are not what they used to be a couple of years ago, but it’s not only the budgets, it’s foremost a question of time. If you’re going to record your work it’s not just like double the work, it’s about up to four times the expense. First you need to get it out of the sequencer onto paper and then into the studio and from there back into the DAW for the mix before it finally goes to the stage. I mean I record as much as I can — even if it is just one person — it will make a big difference in the end.

What does your studio setup look like?

I have two Macs equipped with Cubase running for years now. In detail I have one Mac Mini with some samples in it and one I usually use only for picture — means every video is running on that one. I really got rid of a lot over the past couple of years so there’s not much outboard gear left. I try to keep things as small as possible.

What are your most crucial tools in the studio?

I have an iPad with a bunch of different faders and keyboard shortcuts which has become pretty essential to my work setup. I spent some time on tweaking this thing because I’m really into nerdy stuff like this.

I guess you’re using a lot of macros, too?

Sure, there are definitely some macros and a lot of solutions for things I need several times during production. It’s all about getting rid of complex routines, making things easier and more simple.

You just upgraded to the latest version of Iconica, right? How do you like it?

In fact, I wasn’t surprised at how good it is, as the guys at Steinberg are really very, very meticulous at creating their products. I’ve been a huge fan of their software for a long time now and I feel that Iconica has the potential to become a new standard in my setup. You can dig really deep into it and mess around with sounds and mixes, but you can also just use what’s there — and I’m the latter kind of guy who only wants to write music.

It’s the same with me and synthesizers, I just want to load a patch and play rather than playing around, especially when it comes to writing. I’ve also used Absolute now for a while and really appreciated the latest update for making things even more invisible in the sense that I don’t even think about it during work. It’s the same case with Cubase. I never think about Groove Agent, Dark Planet or whatever. A lot of times they are just there. They are true standards of my setup.

It all feels very natural to you?

Yes, for sure! And that is exactly what tools need to do! They need to perform well without standing in the way. There are so many inefficient and hard-to-use tools in the market that you never want to have in your process. With products like Absolute it’s really easy to find new treasures every day. Simplicity is also a big subject when it comes to music itself. You can get carried away with big arrangements much too easily ending up adding too much things. Sometimes it’s far more important what to mute than what to add. It’s about recognizing when a hole just doesn’t need any filling.

Visit Pieter Schlosser on his website.