by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
My conversation with Maine-born composer Trace Callahan covered the gamut of her upcoming new musical to her involvement as a video game music composer and sound designer, to how being female relates to creative opportunities, and how she incorporates both suffering and joy within the creative process.
Our discussion will also post in two Podcast episodes; Part 1 is a more universally artist-focused dialogue about the creative process, how being a woman impacts that process, and a snapshot walk-through of how Callahan created her songs for her upcoming original musical, ‘Better Than Fine.’
YourCreativeChord Podcast episode, It’s ALL Okay—Just Do YOU Part 2 is especially relevant to game music composers and musicians, as Callahan talks more about her technical, technological, and creative process for her original sound design and game music implementation.
🎧Listen Here to: YOURCREATIVECHORD PODCAST Episode, It’s ALL Okay—Just Do YOU Part 1
🎧Listen Here to: YOURCREATIVECHORD PODCAST Episode, It’s ALL Okay—Just Do YOU Part 2
WHO Is Trace Callahan?
Trace Callahan and I met as co-admins of a Facebook group, Women Composers Collective. As I have a love for composing (and listening to) musical theatre songs, and studied voice and piano in my college days, I was excited to find that Callahan is also a composer and performer of musical theatre works.
Callahan spent her college days performing as a busker on the streets of Portland, in local bars and coffee shops, and as a member of the Maine Songwriter’s Association.
Expressing Spiritual Buoyancy with Creative Vision
Interacting with Callahan is a true pleasure. She has an infectious, frequent laugh, and her utter enthusiasm for creating music is disarming and contagious. Her zest for constant learning, drive for overcoming her self-perceived weaknesses, and her strong desire to use her art to persuade others to feel "it’s ALL okay," made a palpable impact on the quality of our conversation. If all artists could have Callahan’s humility, unstoppable cheer, and the compassion she’s gained through surviving her own share of darkness, the world would enjoy quite a glittery jolt of rainbow-esque spiritual buoyancy.
A Love of Video Games Morphs Into Composing
In addition to her original musical, Better Than Fine, currently in rehearsal in Tampa Bay, where Callahan now lives, her musical background has forayed beyond musical theatre into creating video game scores and sound design.
She began writing as a child in Dexter, Maine, where fellow students in the treble choir and jazz combo performed her original music. She studied opera and classical voice at the University of Maine while continuing to compose.
While composing her original musical, she was asked to write music for a video game. Since she’s an avid gamer and enjoys working with “the stories, emotions, and wild unpredictability that infuses the video game world.”* Callahan has since been composing video game music and branched out into sound design and creating effects.
She now balances composing her original game music, sound design, effects, and musical theatre works, while performing as an actress/singer in local and regional theatre productions throughout Tampa Bay. She approaches music composing through pairing stories and music, whether it be folk songs, musical theatre, or video game audio.
YCC: You describe your music as "melodic and emotional, influenced by your skills as a flute player and vocalist, and by the cold, stark beauty and neighborly ways of Maine."
You no longer live in Maine, though. You now live in tropical Florida. Does your new locale have an influence on your compositional style?
TC: It definitely has an influence on my process! I compose while riding my bike during my hour-long commute each day to my teaching job! It’s a long time for silence, so I don’t wanna lose that moment. Ideas come to me. I start with lyrics I’ve already written. A melodic idea comes to me while I’m pedaling home, so I repeat it, singing it aloud, over and over until the phrasing is smooth.
When I get home, I record my ideas into “Noteworthy” music notation software. Sometimes I record the idea by voice memo or save it in a file in a folder with notation.
Then I usually leave it sitting for a while. I need space away from it to decide if I hate it or not.
Next, I use my piano to experiment to find the right block chords for it while singing the melody. After that, I notate the chords in my notation software. I decide on instrumentation early on, so I know what instruments to start recording to flesh out the beat and accompaniment. When I decided to write my new musical, I was already clear in my mind it would be for two women, and I knew the instrumentation for it.
YCC: Tell us how you started composing for video games!
TC: I played games and was involved as a community staff member/storyteller for 16 years. I made friends with fellow gamers, and we wrote stories together. One of them formed a game company, built a game and needed a composer.
I got a text in 2017 asking for a few music tracks for their game. We batted around back and forth with a few concepts and decided it worked!
YCC: You are an avid gamer. Do you feel that not being a gamer is a disadvantage for someone who wants to compose music for games?
TC: Yes, but not a huge one. You can always go listen to the soundtrack to get ideas. But being familiar with games is an advantage because— that’s in your head.
Listening to the music while playing games makes you associate music with different game parts. If there’s a big fight, the music tells you there’s a big fight. There’s a structural thing absorbed as a player through being familiar with how music connects to the game.
Just like musicians have a language based on their musical training to communicate to others, being a game player gives you an edge of language to use with game developers. If you play, you have common reference points. A game dev can ask you to create something in the style of “X” game. You can go listen to that soundtrack, of course. That’s why I’m saying it’s not a huge disadvantage.
But, if you love games and can talk about them with devs, they may enjoy working with you more, and that may get you rehired more maybe than a non-gamer. But if you write good music, and can give them what they want, it’s not a deal-breaker in my opinion.
YCC: How is composing game music similar to or different from film music scoring?
TC: Game music isn’t linear like film music, but sometimes there are cut scenes in games that are like scoring a film scene. Music for a film scene is timed specifically to go from point A to point B and there are hit points within the scene where music plays a key role. But game music can be either extended or shorter, depending on the player’s actions.
But those hit points cannot happen until the player is there, so there’s a lot of repetition or looping in game music. It’s important to create looping music that’s not annoying.
YCC: How do you create game music that loops without being annoying?
TC: I think that a loop should be fairly long—2.5 - 3 minutes, for example. Within the loop, I make sure there are some variations like tonality changes. There are older games that do a lot of looping without much variation that worked; The Super Mario theme is short and highly repetitive. But that was for a different time and game style. It doesn’t work well for a 3-hour game!
So I try to make the music interesting yet unobtrusive, which sometimes means less melodic. That’s counter-intuitive for me. But it works for game loops. I do a lot of instrumentation changes! Sometimes that’s all it needs to remain interesting yet less redundant for the listener. For me, I think rhythmic changes within loops can be a bit too abrupt. I usually like to stay with the same rhythmic feel until a hit point.
YCC: Are all the musical instruments heard on your audio tracks from sample libraries, or do you perform any instrumental/vocal parts?
TC: Mostly virtual instruments. I add my vocals, but usually quite distorted as part of background or a layer on top of a synthesizer line, or used for sound design as voice-over work, like screams, breathing, whatever is needed. I sometimes do record my penny whistle for things like a tavern scene or a place like a street fair to add to the authentic ambience.
YCC: What advice would you give someone who’d like to compose for games, in regard to the most useful skills needed?
TC: Well, composition skills are understood. You’ve gotta have at least the basics of writing or recording musical ideas. I’d say that communication is a big one. Especially with indie games because it’s mostly done remotely—using Skype, Slack, or instant messaging platforms.
So you need to be open to clear communication. Be open to the ideas from the devs, coders and artists. They have their unique angles, struggles, deal breakers, and focus. You should always have that in your mind, and prioritize them over you.
If you disagree, you must be able to express your viewpoint clearly to show them where it’s coming from. My team has completely different game archetypes, so our viewpoints sometimes aren’t the same. It’s important not to reject their viewpoints—or, if you do, communicate to clarify and backup your opinions.
YCC: How did you learn the technology needed for composing for games?
TC: I’m learning everything from my DAW (digital audio workstation), which is Reaper, to the Discord server (a gamer chat) or Slack (team communication tool) to share mp3s with the game team, to indie game middleware like Unity and Wwise, and even a C++ (programming language) class to learn coding.
I just did some Google searching for these courses. I’ve learned to implement sound effects directly into games using the indie game software - Unity. I’ve learned mainly by playing with the software, and relying on Unity’s help docs. The online classes on coding, and Unity were through Udemy. Wwise has great tutorials on their website.
YCC: What technology or music gear or skillsets do you feel are essential to your music-making and sound design for games?
TC: I’d say at this point, learning C++ is not essential. Knowing how to use Wwise middleware for games lowers frustration. Wwise may be useful for landing more game composing jobs due to it being advertised as a required skill.
I think my essentials for game composing would be; some kind of notation software, DAW, gaming platform and middleware software.
YCC: How much of the production side do you handle with regard to the video game music and sound design?
TC: I do most of it. But, I like having an extra set of ears for mixing. When I’ve had others mix, master, or even edit my music, it turned out much better. I have a need to get away from it. After working with a music piece for a while, it just sounds the way it sounds. Space away from it helps.
Original Musical Features
Strong Women In Opposing Stories
YCC: Your new original musical, Better Than Fine, is currently in rehearsal in Tampa, Florida. Tell us about the story, and how you created the music, lyrics, script and book.
TC: It’s a small cast and story about two women at completely different points in their lives. One of them is infatuated after a first date, the other is going through a divorce. They’re friends, and they sing about their journey, supporting each other in those places. Cora, a character who does a lot of freaking out on her rollercoaster from first date to engagement and beyond. Emily divorces her husband, reacts to his sudden dating immediately following their separation, gets stuck in darkness, and works to break herself out of that to a new view.
YCC: What’s the central message of your musical?
TC: I started writing it with the idea focused around the things you feel or think but don’t say. Like—to not seem overreactive or hyper-sensitive, we sometimes walk away from a person or situation with repressed emotions. Yet, we have those thoughts and feelings in the conversation inside our head. And it’s okay. I want to get across that all your crazy things you’re feeling or thinking are okay.
YCC: What inspired you to create your musical?
TC: It was a kind of perfect storm combo of things. I was inspired by my involvement as a local actress/singer in local theaters, seeing a lot of men getting cast in big roles, and many, many talented women waiting to be cast for smaller roles. I wanted to see some more meaty roles for women. I love the small theatre community and its inspiration.
I have a fantastic show partner, actress/singer/director, Beth Phillips. We’d done several fun women-based shows together. Recently, I performed in Sister Act while she directed it. I thought, I wanna write a show for women! Hey, I know some talented women! So, I decided to write it.
Beth plays Cora, which suits her so well because Beth can play weird and funny really well, but doesn’t get to do that kind of role often.
YCC: What was the process of creating your musical?
TC: I had the basic storyline of opposite experiences/life stories first. I thought it’d be neat to have friends talking each other through those different situations, as women do, supporting and understanding and helping each other through it.
Then, I wrote lyrics to the songs, but not in order of the story, which was frustrating to have to go back and flesh out all the story gaps with songs.
Once I had the lyrics, I came up with the music for the songs, then fleshed out the instrumentation to create learning tracks for us to use in rehearsal.
YCC: Take us into your creative process to describe a snapshot scenario of how you composed a song for your new musical or an instrumental piece.
TC: Vocal music is always inspired by the lyrics for me. The rhythm of the words.
The song from my musical, Robot Wolves, was composed while riding my bike! It was a bright, sunny day, and I was thinking of writing a song about Cora, who’s worried her new boyfriend hasn’t called back after a first date. That was the seed or idea that started my creative process. I kept saying aloud, “He hasn’t called yet. Whatever.”
I kept repeating that line in a particularly rhythmic way, until it led to a verse. I sang it over and over while riding my bike until the phrasing sounded fluent to me. Then, I went on to the next lyric and repeated that process, singing aloud repetitively on my bicycle.
That’s how I composed the verses, then the chorus for that song. When I got home, I placed the melody and lyrics in my notation software program.
Once an idea comes to me, the melody is strong in my mind. Next, I hash out some piano chords to fit the melody and record that in my DAW. I already have the instrumentation pre-thought out, so it’s just a matter of adding a beat, a bass line, then the instruments.
For instrumental music, I find ideas a lot in white noise, like the sound of my computer, or the washing machine. I hear the overtones in that noise and it generates an idea.
I did a “21 days of video game music composing challenge” recently that required I compose two to four measures a day. I used my ideas as song sketches, writing about 16 measures, enough for a strong call-and-response melodic idea.
I was listening to the washing machine, it had shoes or something bouncing around with a rhythm that was catchy. I started listening to that, then singing it aloud and decided, “Ok! That’ll be what I use for a string ostinato today!"
YCC: Describe your strengths as a creator.
TC: Intense humility. And emotional honesty. The whole point of getting this out there is to foster communication of emotion.
YCC: Do you have resources (besides gear) that you regularly as a creator?
TC: I write using my computer. Sometimes I write to get an idea out with writing. It’s a musical idea that needs to get out but sometimes I need to get the nonmusical stuff out of the way. So I write a scene out or something. This opens a new angle for the creative process. I write a page story or setting or a moment in my mind to explore it through text. Creativity is about sometimes needing to say something—however it births. I guess.
I also read a lot of fantasy fiction like Tolkien. And I read a lot of personal development, and stuff about runners and training philosophy.
YCC: Do you feel that being a woman has any influence on your composer process?
TC: Definitely. But more in relation to game music than musical theatre because I’ve been immersed in theater for a long time and it doesn’t affect me as much.
But with game music jobs, I tend to look at a job offer post and count off how many technical skills they’re asking for that I don’t have. Instead of just diving in, I hold myself back a lot.
Someone was encouraging me about applying for game music jobs recently, saying I should apply for more of them, and I responded that I’m not ready because of my lack of technical skills. They said, “Oh, Hold up. You’re a woman. Read this.”
They sent me an article, that I shared in Women Composers Collective, that was about how many women hold themselves back from job positions until they’re 98% confident of their skills. Versus men applying with only 40% capability for the job—and they just dive in to figure things out once they get the job! So, that.
YCC: Do you feel that being a woman has disadvantages in regard to creative opportunities?
TC: I haven’t personally experienced that. But I noticed how much I’ve held myself back from opportunities. I’ve talked to enough women, so I know other women who’ve experienced sexism in the music/media industry.
It kinda stinks in musical theater. For every role, 17 women will audition and maybe ONE man. Casting calls have these amazingly talented women show up but they have to search for men. That’s frustrating ‘cause the bar to entry is higher for women. Male-centered musicals have lots of male roles but far less women roles.
That’s why I decided to make a show about women.
YCC: What influences your creativity positively?
TC: I’m gonna say something that doesn’t sound positive, but it is. My twenties were hell. Lots of depression, several mental health and serious life struggles. Once I came out of that, I started focusing on my life and my future in the world. Like, ok, I’m still here. Now what?
So I get real soap-boxy about joy and sorrow mixed together in my creative work. What I write is an oddly blended mix of extreme struggle and the feeling that, there’s still gonna be a tomorrow, so it’s ok. I write to show you can feel sadness yet have hope at the same time.
That life experience of depression gave me my reason to create. I use my personal experience to put forth this combo of emotions. And it reinforces itself when I create. I express that it’s ok to allow yourself to feel the darkness and know there’s still a silver lining; tomorrow. This outlook is a kind of superpower for me. My goal is to always have both joy and suffering present together.
YCC: What hinders your creative flow?
TC: Time! I get kinda like a squirrel—I wanna write and I actually may have a few hours of a window, but I start to think of other stuff—and there’s always so much to do. Clutter and so many options make me feel overwhelmed and lose focus. So I have a ritual; I spend 10 minutes cleaning the clutter— to create empty space for creativity.
YCC: Please share anything else that you feel is relevant to others interested in composing professionally and share with us your goals for your musical future.
TC: I’m 40. I started composing for games only two years ago, which is late by many people’s terms. And I came at composing in a roundabout way. I didn’t study composition in depth, I didn’t get a degree in it. And, that’s ok.
Lucille Ball and Jane Lynch created material for themselves after age 40. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote material for himself to create musical theater opportunities lacking for Latinos.
So I think whether you’re 20 and in school, 20 not in school, 40 or 68, it doesn’t matter. Just do it. Don’t let limitations stop you from your creative process. Age is no block.
As for my future, there’s always something new to learn, whether it’s software, DAW or production skills, musical forms, gaming tech. There’s so much next that it makes it hard to say what’s next other than a lot of experimenting! A lot of breaking things, and then learning how to recover from that.
FIND Trace Callahan at:
🎧Listen Here to: YOURCREATIVECHORD PODCAST Episode, It’s ALL Okay—Just Do YOU Part 1
🎧Listen Here to: 🎧YOURCREATIVECHORD PODCAST Episode, It’s ALL Okay—Just Do YOU Part 2
*Excerpted from TraceCallahan.com
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