Sometimes A Road Sings In the Mind of the Darkly Inclined
Composer, producer, remixer & musician Justin Lassen
By Randy Alberts
“For me it all started with Cakewalk, a keyboard, and a lot of free time,” laughs the globetrotting Justin Lassen, a one-of-a-kind visionary 27-year-old film, game and music soundtrack composer based in Southern California.
A designer, multi-instrumentalist and self-described “heavy Sonar guy,” to boot, Lassen is also one of the most creative composers, remixers and producers in the film, game and music industries today. He’s a talented film soundtrack remixer who recently reworked the score of Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train, a dark film take on the producer’s 1984 short story of a photographer tracking a serial killer, into a full length companion album to the movie. Lassen has also produced music remixes for Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Garbage, Linkin Park, Lenny Kravitz and Blue Man Group and he’s consulted on numerous game and technology projects for companies like Interplay, Novus Delta, Intel and, of course, Cakewalk.
Interviewed by Playboy, Mix, EQ, GearWire, PC Gamer and other arts and trade mags and sites, Lassen’s a darling of the computer-generated graphics art world, as well. A rare musical subject for numerous CGI trade magazines such as Post, It’s Art, The Escapist and CG Society Magazine, he literally can translate the inspiring, hauntingly beautiful visual art he sees into his own musical performances, arrangements and remixes. It’s a phenomenon of the senses called ‘synaesthesia’ he’s personally well acquainted with: Seeing sound, hearing scents, touching words, smelling colors. If the set and setting are just right, what Justin views through his irises can literally become real-time music from his fingertips.
“I’m a visual artist, designer and programmer,” he adds, “who just finds music much more fulfilling.”
Smells Like A Symphony, Tastes Like Sonar 7
Lassen, who happened to be Cakewalk’s Featured Artist of The Week for August 25, 2008, released his own CD, And Now We See But Through A Glass Darkly, in 2003 to acclaim from leading international CG artists, film, game and music professionals. This disc of his own uniquely composed and produced dark chamber symphonic suites has already reached 5.5 million copies in circulation. His debut CG release in 2006 of Synaesthesia then melded Justin’s two worlds of “beautiful dark symphonic” music and CG artwork again to critical peer praise, and earlier this year while in Europe he wrapped up the final release: Synaesthesia Encore, a new collection of pieces that musically addresses Justin’s own personal experiences with the phenomenon.
“Synaesthesia is something that has taken quite a hold of me over pretty much my entire musical career and life,” explains Lassen. “I have had some of my best compositional and performance moments in these types of situations, where I can actually feel an image playing the song right before my ears, completely and naturally. When I see visual work like this that really inspires me in this way, my fingers begin to play music very magically.“
Remarkable. Much to his liking, Justin’s successful role in creating the remixed soundtrack CD for Barker’s wide-released Midnight Meat Train is now attracting interest from other film, music and game audio producers, as well. An always-on, busy musician, remixer and symphonic arranger who travels for his music extensively and just returned from an exhaustive trip across the EU and back to his home studio in California, nothing would please the affable Lassen more than to score more symphonies and movie soundtracks for a living.
“I use Sonar 7’s notation features to clean up my arrangement ideas for orchestra, choir or other performers I might bring into a given session,” says Lassen about his go-to laptop DAW.
“I recall this one time in Paris when I was asked by Intel to do the soundtrack for a new high-tech game for a new platform. There was a pretty tight schedule of just three weeks, and I didn’t have a lot of gear to experiment with. So, I just used FL Studio on a laptop to jot down some ideas that later I would evolve and finish up back in L.A. and Phoenix. I then took those sketches and beats and brought them into Sonar and added many of the orchestral and electronic elements, as well as tracking all the guitars and vocals and doing the final mixing and mastering. I then cleaned it all up and converted the files over to OGG format, for the Unreal Engine 3 the game uses, all quite easily and well before my deadline.”
We caught up with Justin at the end of his recent trip to talk about his unique approach and philosophy on the creative and technical sides of his music, remix and film soundtrack productions:
You’re a longtime Sonar user now using Project 5, as well, right?
Yes, this whole past couple of years when I want to jot down some ideas and sketches I’ve begun using Cakewalk’s Project 5 for that—but not as it’s intended to be used. I use Project 5 as an all-purpose notepad of sorts for capturing my music, to quickly get some musical ideas down and saved. I don’t always want to open up a giant sequencer software every time inspiration hits me. Project 5 is incredibly easy to use to just start-up and begin layering instruments, plugins and ideas. Just this week, in fact, I’ve jotted down at least 14 different new musical sketches, and so far I’ve re-composed some of them in my main sequencer Sonar 7. Then I’ll have the live orchestra later perform the parts that I’ll record with Sonar. From laptop to orchestra, that easily: If only Mozart were alive today…
Do you think Mozart would’ve used Project 5 or Sonar, too?
I don’t know, but I use Sonar because it is what I’m familiar with and what I feel good using. I’ve used Digital Performer, Pro Tools and other DAW software packages in countless different studios around the world, but somehow Sonar continues to stay my style and to grow with me as a composer. As far as software, I think you should use what you are familiar with and what you can be most productive within. That is what Sonar 7 is for me. Sonar is incredibly versatile—whether I’m doing orchestral work or remixing bands, I can quickly change gears all within the same session file.
Anything else you’d like to add about Sonar?
The Sonitus FX plugin package that comes with Sonar is worth the price of Sonar alone! Those are some super killer plugins. I find that I use the Sonitus plugins more than any of my other plugins now, in particular the Multi-Band Compressor and Reverb, both of which are my favorites right now.
Let’s talk about your approach towards and philosophy on remixing.
Remixes, and remix culture in general, are two things I’m really passionate about. To me, remixing is just something that comes natural. I could remix anything from a hit song into something weirder, such as by throwing in strange noises I’ve recorded in a forest, for example. There is so much potential in what remixing has to offer the world that still isn’t tapped. Many people are turned off by remixes because they immediately think of dance and techno remixes. But to me a remix can be ambient, too, or it can be turning a heavy Rammstein track into a country song! There are just so many unbelievable ways to remix a track for an artist. There are still many rock artists who are afraid of giving the remix world a chance, due to bad past experiences with DJ’s or inexperienced remixers. It’s a shame, as remixing can build an entirely new fan-base for your music in a new market, and remixing is the connecting glue for such a development.
Give some more examples of what a Justin Lassen remix might sound like.
I prefer more introspective, downbeat, trip-hop, IDM styles of remixing; Atmospheric and Epic. The remixes I like most are the ones that add so much new material to the original song that the remix itself becomes a new song altogether. I love throwing in Easter-eggs and fast turns, as well, that catch you off guard at times. This is what I strive to do as a remixer. I think everyone has the right to listen to music any way they want, whether they want to splice it with a food blender on stage, or record the dogs barking next door and then pitch that to the keyboard and replay it through some odd configuration of stomp boxes in the studio—to do it until you have the perfect, distinct and distant relative of the original song you began with.
Remixing is more than just bands for me. It can happen in the visual world of photography and painting, such as in my photo shoots. I find truly unique and amazing artists to “remix me,” visually; in a sense, and I love to see what they can come up with as painters and artists. In this sense, they’re also remixing. It’s an audio and visual culture and I like to bring those two experiences together. In the past I’ve given artists my symphony and asked them to think about working on a piece for me; some are reluctant but later turn in something that just blows both of our minds! I think the best thing is to let them do what they want to do with a visual remix. That’s how I prefer it, too, for a musical artist to let me create, as well. If they just want a “Justin Lassen remix,” then they’ll just have to trust me that it’s going to rock. Not by any plan, but I’ve become known the past ten years as this sort of “rock remixer” who’s been featured in places like Playboy for my remixes with NIN, Linkin Park and Opiate.
Where are you at with the new Synaesthesia CD release?
So far, I have mastered 16 of the 17 tracks for the re-release of my first symphony, And Now We See But Through A Glass Darkly, which I originally released in 2003. I’m just stuck on this one last track for now, trying to smooth over a section that had some digital distortion in the masters on two parts of some of the live strings tracks. I’m using some state-of-the-art new iZotope plugins in Sonar to fix it, but it’s tedious because I want it to be just perfect for my listeners. I’m almost doctoring the little section, one bit at a time, so that no mistakes or carelessness is made. Finally, the next two weeks will be devoted to mastering all 38 tracks for the new 2-disc Synaesthesia Encore release, which is turning out to be an exciting and lengthy process.
Discuss further how you approach your productions, songwriting and remixes from a creative standpoint.
Frame of mind is very important for me. I need the environment to feel like the place I am composing or remixing for. When I was working on the Clive Barker Midnight Meat Train original soundtrack album, for instance, I couldn’t actually set up a studio in a subway train in the middle of the night in NYC, as the storyline goes. I had to improvise, so I found the biggest poster artwork I could find, set it up as my backdrop and just kind of dove into the writing in Clive’s book that the movie is based upon. I found tons of inspiration in the story itself, and when picking the bands I wanted to remix for the album I made sure they fit that same lyrical vibe of either the Butcher character or the lead character Kaufman in the movie. This worked well for that movie project, just perfect with each artist being quite happy with the results of my remixing and added composition and sound elements. We’re all so happy that the project is done with and are excited to share it with the world. When doing music for video games, I tend to immerse myself in this same way into the scenes and videos and storylines.
Tell me more about the Synaesthesia sound and your own style of music.
I think the most important thing about my dark chamber symphonies is the mood, the density and the ‘verb in which the music is presented. There is a certain power to natural room ‘verbs, and recording the dense quietness of places with heavy history and deep undertones. You can feel it in the walls, in the instruments, in the people, and in the settings and places you make your own. When I write and when I record, especially in places where I can feel the walls talking, the music just flows out of me in a very supernatural way that sometimes scares me later when I hear what I’ve performed or composed played back. I believe that the environment is the instrument. I think that this mentality helps me to compose in very unusual and interesting ways. Yes, I could record in a high-end, multi-million dollar recording studio and recording hall where my symphony would sound “perfect” in that Hollywood or classical sense. However, I find that the imperfections in the recording process are far more fascinating and that the best performances come when you are not waiting for a cue light to click on. Rather, when you’ve just come up from the cellar and you’re freaked out that something is going to pull your foot down under the stairs; or the dark figure in the window that you keep tricking yourself with; or the eye balls in the painting that somehow keep changing where they are looking! That adrenaline, or those memories that you keep to yourself, seem to reflect a more realistic and colorful dissonance that a lot of people in the world seem to dive into sometimes. I’m happy to be working in a niche genre like this, and to get the kinds of feedback I get; I know I’m helping a lot of people. I know what I’m good at, and I’m perfectly content to let this process happen naturally. I usually say don’t expect anything except the unexpected. Besides, if you think about it too much, it won’t make sense anymore.
What types of instrumentation do you usually have on hand for your productions?
I play piano, guitar, bass and have been teaching myself drums, violin and various other homemade instruments, too, much like how Blue Man Group—one of my heroes of recording—build their own instruments. I also studied trumpet for two years. I think the everyday sounds around us are just as musical as traditional musical instruments. Everything from dripping faucets to creaking doors to footsteps on a staircase or a train in the distance, or perhaps mixing in some famous speech recorded decades ago. With the right mind-frame and the right perception, these all can be cut up and made into something musical. I try to make everything in these various environments and locations I record in to somehow fit within the composition I am working on there. It gives the music additional personality that in the end seems to make more sense.
Describe more about how you channel your moments of synaesthesia to source many of your music compositions.
Anyone who has ever been in the same room or studio with me while I’m experiencing it has said what a magical and epic thing it is to watch me perform like that right before their eyes. This is weird for me to admit and it doesn’t feel right because I, of course, do not like to toot my own horn on this matter and leave that all up to personal interpretation. But when I’m performing on the spot, or feeling the density of the content in such a way like that…well, magical stuff happens. One of my favorite and most productive times with synaesthesia was in my home studio in Phoenix. I am always keeping my eyes out for the coolest and most obscure visual artists, and I put their artwork up on my dual-screen PC setup at home and then just play the music from the picture in the same way that a pianist would play from a sheet of notation music. Oddly enough, I was also the first-ever composer to be featured on a website that mostly features 2D and 3D professionals from ILM, Pixar, Blur and other high-end video and CG FX firms and studios. That, too, has been a blessing that caught me off guard. Several of the pieces in my new symphony have been inspired by some of my favorite visual artists.
What kinds of film projects and scoring or remixing have been your favorites, and what interesting projects should we know about?
I have been making my mark in smaller budget, shorter films in recent history. A while back I scored a short film for IFCO’s Braden Cannon, called Mujo. The film really only needed one track, but I composed about eight pieces for it that could one day be a companion album. That was a lot of fun, and he’s one hell of a creative filmmaker, storyteller, world traveler and inspiration to me. It was shot in 16mm and explains in awesomely sketchy details, “the bittersweet impermanence of all things.” It really helped kick start my interest in short films. I also got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do some score remix work for the brilliant writer/producer/filmmaker Mark Osborne, inspired by and for his legendary film More. I get loads of fan mail about my remixes for it! And another film that used some of my music was Schwarzer Mann, a German short about an elusive killer by long time friend and collaborator Beren Baumgartner, whom amongst other things is a brilliant digital artist and storyteller. We also worked together on the perhaps-legendary video game mod ‘Eden Eclipse’ several years back. I like experimental film/game and non-traditional filmmaking/gamemaking like this.
I’ve also made sure to enter in TCM’s young film composers’ competition from time to time. I get a lot of really nice feedback from that competition. I haven’t won yet, but that won’t stop me from persisting. I love the idea of scoring old silent films, too, which is one of the most creative ways to score, and the most difficult. I love the challenge. I’ve done a lot of sound design on various independent films, and Foley work, which has been invaluable to learn. I‘ve done a lot of video game scoring, too, but I want to sway from that a little into feature films if I can help it. I’ve also made friends with up-and-coming filmmaker Chris White, who fell in love with my darker horror composing and has asked me to provide the soundtrack to his film Last Stop, which has sort of a Se7en-meets-Dark City vibe. I loved the script and I signed on immediately. He is the kind of producer/writer that really lets the composer have creative control on the vibe of things: Another example of why I want to continue to work with teams and likeminded positive people. There is nothing more satisfying than finishing a project with a group of people and patting each other on the backs afterwards. I think that it is important to have a solid team that believes in each other all the way until the end.
Looking ahead, Justin, what’s coming up for you in 2009?
I’ve been living my dream and I hope to continue doing what I love for a living. I definitely want to get into more film scoring, especially for the darker and epic films. I get all kinds of offers now from various bands, artists, projects, filmmakers and studios asking me to score or produce random things, and I have the difficult position of picking the right projects that both challenge me and represent me; I am hopeful that the right things will come along in due time. There will definitely be more travel, recording and composing in this next great year ahead of us. I can’t say much at this point, but what I can say is I do have several wicked projects in the secret-vaults I can’t talk about yet. I fully subscribe to the “don’t tell until it hits the market” mentality, and loads of friends to help pull that off. Expect to see and hear some of my stuff pop up every now and then. I’m in this world and in these industries to stay, and I plan to keep it that way.
I also want to continue working with innovative technology in the video game and software worlds. On the side I do a lot of graphic design, pitch documents, meetings and team building to produce and finish projects from concept to completion in relatively short periods of time. Most of all, I want to help the visual artists around me with funding and direction and for getting their projects off the ground. I have such mad respect for these kinds of people, and whether it’s for film, games, galleries or shows, I want to see others succeed. I’m excited to share with the world my two CD’s that are coming out soon: I hope that my limited edition release, Synaesthesia and the high quality re-release of my first symphony And Now We See But Through A Glass Darkly will do as well as the articles and features did. Only time will tell!
Both of Justin’s Synaesthesia releases can be streamed freely from these online CG magazine story links:
Synaesthesia 1 (CGSociety: May 2006)
Synaesthesia 2 (3DCreative: October 2006)
Synaesthesia Encore (CGSociety: August 2008)