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An Interview with Video Game Composer Marcus Zuhr

Updated on August 22, 2017
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Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!

Marcus Zuhr
Marcus Zuhr

Marcus Zuhr took some time to talk to me about how he’s made a career out of his passion for music by composing for video games, movies and advertising. He didn’t start out with an interest in composing. He says, “I’ve always been passionate about music and I always knew I wanted a career in music, but I didn’t start writing music until I was about 22 years old. I was in a lot of bands and I was kind of the resident singer and guitar player at college. Once I finished college, I realized that I didn’t want to tour or travel. I had a lot of friends who got into drugs on the road. Nothing about that life is easy.”

At that point, he went and talked to his friend Justin Moreh, a DJ and member (along with his brother) of Shiloh. He says, “I owe him a lot. He toured the world many times over and had a humble little studio set up. I asked him to teach me how to mix music using a computer. I needed to learn the very basics. DJs have always been at the very forefront of all of it. They were using computers to write music before anyone else did.”

Not only did Justin teach him, but they started a game music company called Moreh & Zuhr. He continues, “We were not successful. We thought it would be easy for some stupid reason, but we wrote some good music and we did a couple films as well. We cut our teeth in the industry but he got caught up in a lot of other business, so I told him I’d try it on my own and see if I could do this.”

In Marcus’ view, the best game music composers serve the needs of the game before anything else. He explains, “I don’t really have my own needs creatively. I left that long ago. I think any professional composer should say the same thing. If you’re working with the intent of making the best music for yourself, not the game then what are you doing? Go make an album. That part’s not hard. What’s hard is finding the right direction for the game!”

One recent project on which Marcus was able to stretch himself as a composer is the game Grimoire. He points out, “I’m very proud of this game, it’s from a very tiny developer called OmniConnection. They came to me and said, ‘Do whatever you want, man. We just love all your stuff and whatever you make, we’ll be totally happy with it!’ I just went bonkers on it. I had the choirs and the big bombastic things that I usually can’t do. It turned out great and I’m so happy about it!”

When Marcus starts a new composition project, he generally starts by taking some time to consider his approach. He says, “I try to get creatively invested for five or six days before I start writing anything. I love using mood art like concept art or storyboards. You get a glimpse into the creator’s minds that you might miss if you’re looking at the finished product.”

He continues, “It’s hard to put into words because these are all abstract thoughts, but I try to get a picture of the entire score. If a whole musical score was a painting, what would that painting look like? What colours would it be and what the composition be? What feelings would it convey to you?”

It’s important for Marcus to involve his clients in the whole process. He explains, “I’ll email the directors way beforehand and send them a sound or tell them about an interesting compositional technique that I’m thinking of integrating into the game or film. They’re always excited to talk about it. A lot of my clients like being part of a collaborative process. They like to feel as though the whole composing thing isn’t running away on them.”

Different media make different demands on composers. Marcus says, “When I work on film, I compose directly to picture. If you give me the locked cut, so it won’t move around, I’ll compose to it. Don’t edit to my music, I’ll edit my music to your scene. The same goes for ad work. They have a cut and the ads are usually tempo locked to a BPM. I compose to the BPM. It’s quite restricting, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s liberating to be told to compose 30 seconds at this BPM and in this style of music.”

He adds, “Games are completely different. They’ll tell me they need this music and tell me to break it down into stems, but otherwise I can go nuts. If I’m doing long scores, I have to think about if all of the stems mix well together. I have to think about what audio engine they’re using, so I can to decide how to get more mileage for the player.”

Video game music is just as viable as film score as an art form in Marcus’ view. He points out, “Some people say, ‘Games aren’t art, are they? They’re what we keep children occupied with on road trips.’ What are they talking about? Game music is an assembly of notes, just like film music is an assembly of notes. The parameters are different but bear in mind that they both have parameters. There’s no way you can say one is worse or better than the other.”

Keeping busy has been no problem lately for him. Marcus says, “I just pitched for a Universal project, but it’s probably the biggest project I’ve pitched for. I don’t know if I’ll get it but I pitched for it anyways. I started a film production company with several partners. We’re called the Looking Glass and we’ve been able to work with some pretty cool people. We find scripts that are really good and we help produce them, find distribution for them and drum up money from investors.”

Marcus is also in talks to start a video game studio as well. He explains, “I have an incredible designer lined up. His name is Mikail Yazbeck. He worked on TaleWorlds, he helped design Mount & Blade and he worked on Halo Wars. We’ve been talking with investors, so we’re going to try and make it happen.”

Along with all of his other projects, he’s also created an album remixing the Gameboy Advanced soundtrack for Iridion 2.

Being a composer for media can be a daunting challenge and many people fall by the wayside. Marcus has some advice for those who want to persist in the industry. He says, “You have to take every risk and every chance you get. You have to go to conventions, hand out your card and shake hands with people. You have to make phone calls every day. If you wake up in the morning and you don’t have phone calls to make, you’re doing something wrong. You have to compose every day, so that you get really good at it.”

He adds, “Your talent will only bail you out once you’re on a project. Getting the project is the hard part. Be prepared for disappointment. You’re going to hear no a lot more than you’re going to hear yes. There’s going to be a lot of ones that got away.”

Finally he says, “Get into ad work. Ads are fun, they’re in and out projects so you’re done in five days and they pay pretty well. Literally 50 percent of my work is ad work. It’s easy to step back and say, ‘I did a really good job on that!’ Films can take months, video games can take months but with an ad project you’re in and out, you’re paid and you see the job you did quickly.”

Finding inspiration can be a challenge in Marcus’ view. He explains, “I’ve got two kids, a wife and bills to pay. It’s easy to lose inspiration after dealing with all of the responsibilities in your life. I find it hard to get creative sometimes. You have to challenge yourself on a personal level to get better and create something you haven’t created before. You have to find ways not to become stagnant.”

© 2017 Karl Magi

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      Elaine Hill 4 weeks ago

      Love your music in Grimoire: Manastorm!!!