music, technology & life in pasadena, california

In The Studio

One of the things I like best about being a musician in Los Angeles is that every day is a new challenge. When you’re driving to work for your next call, you never know what style of music you’re going to be asked to play or what level of difficulty the music will present. You might be asked to play something that sounds like a hit song from the 70’s, play classical guitar or mandolin with a studio orchestra or even help create new electronic sounds that will blend in with a soundtrack.

If I’m working in a large traditional recording studio, a lot of my equipment and instruments are delivered ahead of time. This way, no matter what instrument or effect the composer wants to try, I can be ready. But more and more these days, composers are working in their own home studios (especially those working in television) and are more likely to call directly to talk about what they’re looking for. So I’ll throw a few instruments, an amp and some effects into my car and head off to work.

Last March, I made another visit to the studio of Emmy Award-winning (HBO’s The Rat Pack) composer Mark Adler. He was scoring a Discovery Channel documentary entitled Living With Wolves and needed a steel string acoustic guitar to accompany a score that would eventually include strings, woodwinds and percussion. He already had a fully realized synth mockup and easy to read, excellently notated parts. We were able to complete all the guitar tracks in 3 or 4 hours. Although I brought my classical guitar as well, we ended up not using it because the steel string worked so well for the film. Mark’s music reflected the spirit of the film perfectly and it was a lot of fun playing the intricate guitar parts he’d written. The show recently aired on Discovery and was also featured on NPR. Check your local listings, or program your Tivo wish list, so you don’t miss the replay of this really good nature doc.

While I was in Las Vegas this spring, I got a call from Gary Chang, a brilliant guy and a very busy composer. Gary’s responsible for the scores to HBO’s The Path To War, Stephen King’s Rose Red and Kingdom Hospital, The Island of Dr. Moreau and many others. He was going to be scoring an independent film for a first-time film maker and was exploring the possibility of writing an ambient guitar score. Gary told me that he had wanted to write a score in this style for years. Was I interested? Well, I jumped at the chance to work with him for the first time and when I got back from my trip we reconnected. In the meantime I did some research into the whole “ambient guitar” movement and style of players like Bill Frisell and David Torn. Even Pat Metheny had explored this territory lightly in earlier albums (back when they were actually called albums) and his partner, Lyle Mays, touched on it as well.

After talking to Gary and solidifying a recording date, he started to email me MP3s of his demo tracks along with PDFs of the actual score and guitar parts. Most often, studio musicians don’t get to see music ahead of time, so this was a pretty novel way of working. It was a real advantage to hear the music as Gary was composing because I was able to see exactly what his intentions were. The session ran smoothly and although I didn’t get a chance to view the movie in its entirety I could see that it was beautifully photographed and that Gary’s score had captured the somber mood of its subject. The film, ESL, which tells the story of several Mexican immigrants trying to make their way in a hostile Los Angeles, doesn’t have a release date yet but I’ll try to post more info as I hear about it.

Boy, I love this job.

June 30, 2005 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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