By David A. Ellis.
Fifty-year-old Mike Hall is a film composer who lives in Le Claire Iowa. He grew up in the small town of Tipton. He has over twenty-five years experience in sound design, composing for films, TV and record. For a few years he performed in several bands, including Helmsplitter, which the Spirit of Rock ezine called ‘Extreme metal that takes you on a roller coaster.’
He has has also produced and engineered for a vast variety of musical styles. Mike has worked in many forms of media, which includes vinyl, video and gaming for projects world wide. He has written a number of scores for the horror genre, working closly with the director. He says with horror, the director may want something in the Hitchcock style. He added, “Sometimes silence makes an impact.” Hall mentors and guides young up and coming musicians on their musical journey. His films include: The Reapers, Reflection, Then the Night Comes, Pipe Wrench and Father of Lies.
Was music a passion of yours from an early age?
I was young. My dad always had old time rock and roll playing around the house. He set me up with my first stereo. It was an old eight track tape car stereo powered with a motorcycle battery. I thought I had it all back then.
Did you learn to read music as a child and what instruments do you play?
I was in grade school band and played the cornet and trumpet. I learned the basics of music but I had a music teacher that wasn’t very encouraging. One day I went in the band room where they had an old Fender amp and an old electric bass guitar of some kind. I would sneak in there during lunch and play old Black Sabbath riffs until the teacher caught me and threw me out, saying I didn’t know what I was doing and that I might break the instrument. I always thought that would have been a very good moment to get a kid more interested and motivated in music. I ended up quitting band. Since then the academic side of music left a bad taste in my mouth and I preferred being an artist instead.
What did you do after education?
I was a daydreamer so I never worked very hard at getting good grades, so I didn’t go to college. I ended up working in factories. Musically I was into my rock and metal bands. From there I really got into recording. With the steady pay checks I was always buying studio gear and creating a better studio space.
What is your favourite type of music?
I was always a rock and metal guy, but as I’ve gotten older I really love old jazz and classical – basically all the stuff my younger self would never think of listening to. Also, working with composing for film and TV projects, not to mention producing other artists. You really get to work and get close to all kinds of music, which has been very inspiring, not to mention educating.
I see you played in in several bands. Did you write most of the songs?
Yes, I was in several metal bands where all the music was originals. I never saw the reason to ever play covers in a band unless you were remaking them to be your own.
A German film maker approached you wanting one of your songs for his film. What was the film and the name of your song? Was it this that inspired you to carry on with film music?
The film was called Hardcore Poisoned Eyes. The director wanted to use one of my metal songs for the end credits. From that film I really started working with more and more directors, and I was always very comfortable doing the horror and suspense style of music, so it really took off before long.
You have a number of skills, including recording sound. Where did you learn these skills and have you several years experience in these?
I started being really interested in recording, and since my bands could never afford to record in ‘real’ studios I chose to do it, of course not knowing what I was doing. From there I learned mixing and eventually mastering. I soon started recording other bands and then doing mastering for record labels. It was before the internet, so I was buying whatever recording how to books I could find. It’s an art like all arts, where you never stop learning.
Do you play on some of the films you write for, or does the company always bring in their own musicians?
Most of the time I perform on all the tracks or line up other musicians to perform the music. Often I will collaborate with other composers on the project, which is always a great opportunity to grow as an artist for both composers.
Do you arrange/orchestrate as well as compose and do yo orchestrate some of the music for the films you write for?
Yes, I’m usually in charge of it all, but it all depends on the budget or what the director wants. Often it may be a location issue where if the project is overseas it may be easier for them to use their own musicians and studio, where the director can work more closer to the music. I am very open to whatever is best for the project.
Do you now just concentrate on composing, or do you still make use of your other skills, for example engineering in the studio?
I enjoy doing it all. It keeps things interesting. So today I may be creating sound design for a sc-fi film and tomorrow I am editing a voice over for an audio book and then maybe mastering old recordings from the twenties and thirties, then on the weekend record a death metal band.
Would you tell me a bit about sound design?
Well, I really like it because literally anything goes. You can create the most giant sounds from almost anything, if you twist and mutate the sound enough. The best is creating sounds that your colleagues can’t figure out where it came from.
Do you carry a digital recorder to put down tunes that come to mind before you forget them?
When writing songs on my own I have several little digital voice recorders where I will record a guitar riff or lyric line or melody, and then it is safe for me to forget it and work on the next riff. I have one in the car, but also use my phone. Inspiration always strikes when you least expect it.
Do you find that new melodies come easily to you and have you written some in a very short space of time?
I have always been able to create quickly. I always have ideas for future songs and projects. I have album projects lined up for years. The trick, if you need something fast, is to find where you get that inspiration for what it is you are going to create and go there. So know where and what triggers the inspiration you need when you need it.
Do other singers and musicians record at your home studio and is it all digital or do you have analogue as well?
I learned and started out in the old analogue days, but it is all digital and I still record artists here or travel to other studios and rehearsal spaces to record other artists. I also collaborate with others through file shares. I’ve made records with other artists from the other side of the world who I’ll probably never meet.
Would you please describe your studio – can it accommodate several musicians?
I’ve downsized it quite a bit, but it can hold several musicians doing whatever they need to do. Generally these days I just work by myself and so most of the time my creative space does not have to be that big any more. I am also willing to travel anywhere to record, which is very nice too. Sometimes we are not only recording the instrument but also the world around it.
If your work is being recorded elsewhere, do you go and supervise the recording?
Sometimes, but if another artist is recording my work I want them to be the artist that they are. I don’t want them to feel like I’m holding them back by lurking around. I want them to be completely the artist and give freely their own style and interpretation of the piece.
I see you have composed for a number of productions, what have you got lined up for the future?
I have got a few other artists from various places all over the world who I am wanting to do projects with, either for film or record. I’ve got a few smaller film projects coming up in the next two months. Always something to work on.
Do you write lyrics as well as music?
Yes, both. I am always jotting down song titles or lyric lines on ripped up pieces of paper. I have old jars around the house that are filled with these waiting to be used someday. I find it much easier to write lyrics to music than it is to write music to lyrics.
Apart from film I see you compose for TV. Do you also compose jingles for ads?
I have not done many jingles. I always thought that was where the money was, but I never really got much of that sort of work. I record and produce a couple of records each year. Most of my work is film, but I really enjoy making records. That was really the whole original idea of getting into music for me.
How do go about composing a piece for a film. Are you sent a script, which gives you the idea, or do you sometimes see a rough cut of the film, which inspires you?
Each project is different. Sometimes I can get music ideas just from reading the script. Sometimes they send scenes or the final edit. Often I can get ideas just by talking with the director. There are even times where I will create the music and never actually see the film until it is released.
Do you work on several projects at the same time?
Usually I am working on a film as well as working on a record. Usually the deadline dictates my work schedule.
How old were you when you composed your first piece?
Probably when I was twelve. My grandparents got me a cassette tape recorder, so from then on all I wanted to do was make songs. I had nothing to create songs with. I think I just sang into it and hummed the guitar parts.
What is your latest project?
I am working on a record for an artist from Brazil. I’m creating all the music and she records the vocal and sends it back and I mix and master. I am also starting to frame up some music for a few more films.
Now you are known, do film companies approach you?
Sometimes. For composers it is usually working with someone, and if the director is comfortable working with you, you are the only person they will work with. It’s a task they no longer have to worry about, so they just continue to use you. I actually think film makers should use and take advantage of all the various artists and sound out there. You can never have too many sound flavours. Plus it spreads the word around.
Have you a favourite composer?
So many,but for current films I really would say Thomas Newman. He can make the softest sounds leave such a huge impact. I really dislike how everyone feels they have to have these overly loud ‘Epic’ scores. Instead you can rip your heart out with just a soft distant piano melody.
Would you give me some detail about the style of horror you work in and how are your scores unique for the genre and in general?
Well, there are many styles within each style it seems. With horror, the director may want something that sounds like old Hitchcock, or I’ve got a director who makes horror films in the eighties slasher style. Unless specifically asked for I like to make my horror scores using more sound design. Sometimes silence in a scene can have the most impact.
Have you a number of compositions in the can waiting to be published/recorded and how many tunes have you had published for film and record?
I have an entire production library of material that I license out. I think there are nearly three thousand tracks and counting. I always have a ring of projects to work on.
Does your composing cover different styles of music?
Yes, which is really why I enjoy it so much. If you play the same music all the time it becomes stale. You may not like a particular style but when you dissect it and learn how to make it, you really start to appreciate it. Then you can start mixing styles to create something new.
Do you prefer composing to any of your other skills?
I really like creating. Writing to me feels like accomplishment. I’ve built something that will out live me on earth.
Finally, did you ever want to do anything else apart from things connected with music?
I remember in 1977/78 Star Wars changed my world. I always thought it would have been the coolest job in the world to work on Star Wars. In recent years I have talked with some of the people who have, and damn it, I still think it would be a blast.
David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the books In Conversation with Cinematographers (Rowman & Littlefield), and Conversations with Cinematographers (Scarecrow Press).