Interview with Composer, Sound Designer & Course Creator, Alex Pfeffer
By Jenny Leigh Hodgins
Germany-based Alex Pfeffer is an award winning composer and sound designer who has composed music for games (Crysis 2, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Risen 3, Battleforge etc.), movie trailers, production music (Pacific Rim, Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes etc.) as well as audio content and official sound library demos for many world class sample library developers! He’s also an audio editor on the 60 million EUR show “EQUILA” which is currently being performed in Munich, Germany, and arranged for Frank Peterson (Sarah Brightman, Gregorian, Andrea Bocelli)! Pfeffer has a sample library store, String Theories, and offers an online blog and courses for audio production creatives.
To learn more about Alex Pfeffer, check out his music and sound library links here:
Here is YourCreativeChord’s interview with Pfeffer:
YCC: As a creative professional with 10 years of sound design and successful professional composing experience, 30+ years of guitar playing, and your constant thirst to learn more with recording gear, plugins and hardware, you have a lot to offer music and sound creatives!
Your personal story is equally inspiring. Please tell us about your hearing loss and your family’s experience with your daughter’s health, and how these personal experiences moved you to create your online blog and courses for creative professionals.
Pfeffer: First of all, thank you for having me! When I was three years old I suffered from a cholesteatoma, which is sort of a destructive and expanding growth inside the ear. The resulting and necessary surgery left me deaf on my right ear for the following ten years. At around the age of 13 I had another surgery resulting in bringing back some hearing to around 30%.
This may have been responsible to dive into the audio world to somehow compensate what happened to me. When I was 14 years old, I started to play guitar and took private lessons.
Fast forward, when my daughter was born, it was pure chaos. No one had any clue or could say how she would turn out and besides that there wasn’t a lot of sleep going on. However, I made sure to approach the whole situation as positively as possible.
Throughout the years, as she grew older, I was amazed by how mindful, peaceful and funny this little girl was. Even though she suffers from epilepsy, can’t walk or talk, she seems to be happy to be alive and enjoys every single day. I learned so much from her and became aware that this was the only way to work it out!
I researched, learned and worked a lot on myself. I looked back and noticed what a confident man I have become. I am someone who, no matter what, wouldn't want to miss a second of anything that's happened in my life!
Around this time I really noticed how many people really are suffering from everything the audio industry brings along: Impostor Syndrome, Stress, Lack of Self Confidence, Existential Fear, you name it.
So I decided to do something about it. I started my blog and my courses to contribute to the audio industry.
YCC: What was pivotal for your interest in creativity and life boosters as a specialty?
Pfeffer: When I came back from studying music in Los Angeles at the Los Angeles College of Music, I started to work as a guitar teacher and got hired as a lead guitarist in a rock pop band.
Throughout that time I really enjoyed what I did but, especially while recording our album, I was fascinated by the work “on the other side of the studio console." From then on I tried to compose more. A few years later, I was able to land my first gig for a video game, called Railroad Pioneer.
YCC: What was pivotal for your interest in creativity and life boosters as a specialty?
Pfeffer: I really like to break things down, no matter if it's a problem, a new skill, or why a human being behaves like he/she does. There are so many tutorials, courses and lessons around that deal with the topics of studio gear, plugins, songwriting, music theory, getting rich and successful. But you hardly ever find anything about creativity and mindfulness tailored towards the audio industry.
You can be the best composer on this planet, make tons of money and get one well paid gig after another, but creativity and mindfulness are the driving fuel to make music. We all know what happens when your car runs out of fuel or your smartphone’s battery is low!
YCC: Describe one of your favorite aspects of your job.
Pfeffer: Of course, in some way we always work for someone, but I really appreciate that I can make money by doing what I love. Not just that I have a specific love towards music, but the fact that I can work by doing what I love. To me, this is the driving force for investing more time, being eager, more focused and truly dedicated to each project.
YCC: Describe your strengths as a leader on the topic of creative process.
Pfeffer: I think we both know that there aren’t many websites, courses and people in general who care about the well-being of people working in the audio industry.
Of course, if someone is interested in meditation, breathing techniques and becoming more mindful, that person can research and strive to achieve those skills.
But, most of the time I see people posting around on social media complaining that they don’t feel very well. Most of the time it is about topics such as the Impostor Syndrome or insomnia. As for me, personally, it was time that I try to do something about that!
YCC: Describe your typical day as a composer, sound designer, creativity educator.
Pfeffer: The night before, I roughly make a plan of what I want to work on the next day. I don’t have a specific structure. But I try to make sure to either take a walk or do some exercising, and most importantly, do at least 10 minutes of meditation.
There is nothing better to reset your brain, especially since it is the “main tool” we need to compose music or write a blog post.
YCC: Tell us a bit about what is covered in your LifeBuff Pro courses and your teaching approach toward creative professionals.
Pfeffer: My LifeBuff Pro course consists of three essential things: Building blocks that deal with the topics of stress relief, becoming more mindful, improving your self-confidence, worrying less, and getting into basic psychology.
These topics are essential to work on the topics in more advanced blocks, like dealing with customers, achieving your dreams, overcoming impostor syndrome, self doubts, writer’s block and so on.
Besides the building and advanced blocks, my courses include general blocks on topics such as your body & mind, sleep, nutrition, your workplace, meditation lessons tailored to audio people, some exercises that can be done in your studio or workplace, and much more. All in all my full course features around 100 lessons. There will be one new lesson each week from now.
YCC: Who would be eligible to participate in learning from your courses?
Pfeffer: Generally every creative person. Even though I talk about the audio industry, you could simply replace "tracks" with "graphics" or "videos." But in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are a composer, singer, musician, songwriter or a graphic designer, writer... The course is especially for creatives.
YCC: What are some of the best tips toward successfully tapping creativity that you’ve gleaned from your career?
Pfeffer: To be able to know when to stop and breathe for a moment.
We tend to solve problems at night, we work as long as possible because we think this is the most productive way. We try to be more efficient when it comes to work so we also try to trim down our spare time.
Then we get back from holiday or have two days off, and suddenly realize how refreshed we feel! What really made me wake up is becoming aware of this and realizing that, with decent breaks, some meditation and fresh air, we are capable of getting more done in less amount of time.
YCC: What role does technology play in your exploration of creativity?
Pfeffer: A very important one when it comes to researching creativity and how to learn about all the different methods on this planet. There are some great games, shows and other tools which can boost your creativity.
However, when it comes to maintaining your own creativity, it is important to not forget that we are human beings. When our brains are too exhausted by using too much technology, even if our body isn’t tired, this creates problematic imbalance.
YCC: What advice would you give someone who wants to make a living as a creative professional?
Pfeffer: To be successful, you really have to work your butt off. You truly have to invest a lot of time and money, believe in what you do, and absolutely focus on it.
I’ve experienced so many people giving up too early. A truly successful professional has probably failed more times than someone else has ever tried.
However, you have to find a balance between spending energy and recharging yourself. The most essential thing someone has to learn is how to convert negative stresses into positive challenges, and learn to take care of the body and mind.
YCC: What are the three most important skills you recommend to pave a path as a creative professional?
Pfeffer: A strong belief in yourself, focus and consistency!
YCC: What are your goals for your future with regard to creativity?
Pfeffer: I take care to maintain my creativity because it is my daily fuel, whether it is writing blogs posts, creating worksheets or composing music. A balanced body and mind are fuel for creativity. We all know what happens with a car when it runs out of fuel!
I will keep researching, experimenting, finding solutions, writing blog posts and creating course material on how to maintain your creativity and keep a sane mind in the audio industry.
Click here to learn more about Alex Pfeffer’s courses on creativity for audio industry professionals.
CLICK HERE for a list of piano and music-making resources I use and recommend.
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By Jenny Leigh Hodgins
HAVING A MENTOR
During our Skype interview, Denver-based composer Jonathan Price spoke affectionately of his music mentor, R. J. Miller. Rightly so, as Miller is a master of orchestration and scored music for the digital re-release (1993) of the original (1920) The Last of the Mohicans, among other films.
Miller is also author of Contemporary Orchestration: A Practical Guide to Instruments, Ensembles, and Musicians (Routledge Publishing/Taylor & Francis Group, 2014). Price’s already respectful, friendly demeanor grew exponentially as he described how his friendship with R.J. Miller developed.
Their discussions sprang from a mutual love of film scoring and soundtracks. Later, Miller developed what is now the film scoring program at MSU. He taught Price how to “present melodies with harmonic structure, options and the orchestration that enhances them.” It was Miller’s confidence in him that motivated Price to leave college to pursue his career as a composer.
When asked what was in his initial marketing arsenal, he laughed, “a smile and a good personality.” He had no website, CD or IMDb credits. Price applied the honest feedback from his family and friends to develop himself.
When they commented that his music demo “didn’t feel right,” he would rework the music until it was “something they could understand.” He knew audio production “from running sound in bands,” but it took him 3 years until he “felt comfy with audio production skills for film.” He gained experience scoring student films and other zero or low budget projects.
Boosting Production Quality
He further honed his production skills by preparing MIDI mockups (manipulating digital parameters of virtual instruments to emulate a recorded orchestral piece) of John Williams’ scores. Tampering with instrumentation, EQ, compression, reverb, and panning to emulate Williams’ music enabled him to develop both orchestration skills and a faster workflow.
Price discovered that his sound improved as he invested in “decent speakers (not just headphones) that showed all frequencies, reverb, bounced off walls, air. I first started on…Bose speakers that were factory-preset for mixing. But my mixes didn’t sound right.” When he upgraded his studio with abundant RAM, hardware, a good audio interface, analog speakers, plugins, and sample libraries, it dramatically boosted his production quality.
Pitch Like A First Date
As a rookie, he found that pitching to potential clients for music work was the same process as a first date. “If a guy shows up in PJs on a first date, you don’t wanna go out with him…Appearance, packaging, body language and psychology are critical in pitching to directors.” He determined to never offer anything less than his best quality.
A Hollywood scriptwriter/director Price met through a friend told him his music was “too good to not be paid for it.” The director had just finished a Hallmark film, and told Price he wished he’d met him earlier so he could have hired him as the composer. That encounter, coupled with his mentor’s confidence in him motivated Price to begin charging for his work. “Once you start charging full value, directors start taking you seriously.”
Price threw himself into networking at local meet-ups, film network functions, and social media groups. In particular, he launched with a vengeance into attending face-to-face filmmaker events. He rarely pitched his composing services.
Rather, he focused on creating friendships to learn as much about each person’s work and passions as possible. He paid attention to the body language and psychology of the filmmaker. Anything he delivered, pitched or said to clients was “very calculated” toward matching his music with their vision.
His networking paid off as his demo qualities improved. Price sent his five-track demo of 15-second music samples via emailed MP3s or Soundcloud links to his growing network. He has enough composing work now that he doesn’t bother marketing anymore.
Film Scoring Career
Since 2003, Price has been scoring professionally, including projects ranging from production house music clips, web-series, audio dramas, podcasts, to short and feature films. Although he has scored everything from drama to horror, romantic drama is both his favorite genre and specialty. His IMDb credits include the comedy, Army & Coop (Director Dennis Hefter), and the sci-fi, River of Time (Director Gss Santosh Kumar). Price enjoyed the variety of composing 10 different styles for Army & Coop.
Some of his IMDb credits are waiting for the directors to complete festival or YouTube campaigns. Many of Price’s clients just wanted to make a film for family and friends, as a hobby. As a result, some films scored by Price never saw the light of day, due to those filmmakers being uninterested in publicly promoting their work.
Recently, Price composed two short films; Pure (Director Stephan Eigenmann), the sweet story of a young cancer survivor, and Exit (Director Stephen Mathis), a story about transferring consciousness to another to help the mentally ill or someone with sensory problems by replacing and reprogramming the troubled mind with a healthy brain.
He is currently composing for a web-series turned episodic TV show meant for distribution to university film schools. The 10-episode PBS-style documentary uses a cinematic storytelling approach to teach scriptwriters.
Price’s marketing arsenal still does not include a website. He has had more success landing work by emailing his resume, music and video samples directly. Due to parenting three children, he turns down certain projects that he doesn’t consider morally acceptable, to focus on romance, drama, and fantasy-adventure.
Studying The Masters
His ensemble experience heightened his grasp of the recorded orchestra sound. “Once you realize how flutes are playing with the violins, and so on,” he explains, the orchestration “fixes everything in the mix.”
Listening to a score by great film composers like John Williams, Alexander Desplat, or Alan Silvestri, has taught him both orchestration and production. Through listening and creating MIDI mockups, he learned to pay attention to which instrument or section was being highlighted. He says his favorite film scores “are such delicate, careful orchestrations, that they stand on their own. They don’t need any production—which is why they stand well on concert stage.”
His ensemble background gave him the advantage of knowing how instruments are played, interact with each other, and how both those aspects change the orchestra sound. This foundation helps him understand how to emulate the music of his favorite film composers.
Tips For Composers
Price joined the Facebook group, Film Scoring & Orchestration Applied to practice film scoring “for fun and skill development, to learn from other composers and hopefully give my two cents worth. I would love to help out and do whatever I can do to help people get where they need to be.” He has contributed weekly video tutorials to the group, showcasing his film scoring process.
He explains that he watches a film “as much as I can til I’m sick of it.” Then he takes a break from it, plays piano, or takes care of his kids. Meanwhile, he is “always thinking through the orchestration in my head, always singing melodies and recording into my phone—so if I get really stuck, I use something recorded.” Later he listens through his recordings to find something to start with, records a piano version of it, and starts transforming that into orchestration.
Price encourages budding music-makers to detach from their work, as “something you created but…not who you are. It’s a product.” He built his rapport with clients on two things; treating his music as a product to serve the client’s creative vision, while interacting with a balanced blend of confidence and humility.
Price’s insatiable hunger for learning, coupled with his humble, contributive attitude betrays his vast experience and production skills. “If you stop learning and you think you’ve reached where you wanna go, you are done.”
Price is currently working with writer/director Dennis Hefter on a romantic drama film, and has a screenplay show coming up with director, Rick Ramage. He is also having fun composing and covering audio for an Atlanta church audio drama series.
Price grew up singing, playing piano and trumpet for 10 years. He learned cello and woodwinds. He was determined to learn many instruments, so he could orchestrate them. He studied composition with R. J. Miller at Metropolitan State University, CO. Once he knew the basics of music theory and composition, Price was encouraged to pursue a composing career instead of finishing his degree.
Price on NETWORKING:
DAW: Logic Pro X
2009 MacBook Pro
4T HDs in drive bays
42” 4K monitor
Metropolis Ark 1,2
Olafur Arnolds Toolkit and Evolutions
Impact Sound Works
Pearl Concert Grand
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Price juggles work with being a stay-at-home parent of three children. He says he gets a good amount of cardio from chasing his “2-year old most of the day.”
6am - Rise early, breakfast and Bible study
8am - Client communications, composing
Afternoon - Composing, marketing, studying, mixed with household chores and toddler-tracking
Family Dinner - NO EXCUSES!
Evening - 2+ hours composing
Night Routine - Quality time with wife