Meet Hamilton Altstatt, a composer/sound designer whose tracks were used in the Avengers: Endgame trailers. Hamilton, a 'Professor of Practice' at Clemson University, where he teaches composition and audio production, has a long history in music, from playing in bands, to his current role in composition and music production. I had the chance to speak with Hamilton a bit about his work as a composer, the tools he uses, and about SyncStories, a music licensing and publishing company for TV, film, and interactive media, which allowed placement of his tracks in the trailer for the global hit film Avengers: Endgame.
What is your musical background?
I grew up in a musical family where I couldn’t sit down to watch cartoons without having to push a guitar or other instrument out of the way, so started playing anything with strings at a young age. Being a natural introvert, I spend most of my high school/college days holed up in my bedroom learning AC/DC songs while all my friends were out partying and having a life. I have a degree in guitar performance from Musicians Institute in Hollywood, but mostly I’m a graduate of the school of hard knocks...ie paid my dues playing for years in countless bands in a thousand dive bars for unappreciative audiences and pitiful compensation before deciding it was time to hang up my rock and roll shoes and focus on the composition/production side of things.
How would you best describe what you do?
I believe the job of composers/sound designers is to make a message, whether be visual or voice over, more effective, more engaging and more memorable. The message speaks to the brain, but the music and sound speaks to the heart, and it is that emotional connection that creates an engaging and memorable experience (like using music in a church service). People tend to remember their favorite songs not simply because it’s a well written song or has great production value but because they associate with an experience, a time, a place, people or event.
How did you get started?
Ok, now I could really bore you to tears because I have such a long and convoluted career path, so I’ll try to be brief. I actually started out working as a mechanical engineer (I have a BSME) while playing in bands on the weekends nursing hopeless dreams of rock stardom. Eventually I decided to roll the dice, quit my cushy 9-5 job, moved out to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune (and finding neither) but was able to land a number of gigs doing music/sound for over 80 video games during the 90's, due primarily to my technical expertise as an engineer more so than my creative skills as a musician. I eventually became the Audio Director at Disney Interactive, an amazing experience, but I can tell you, creating a soundtrack for a tv show/film/trailer seems relatively easy when compared to dealing with the ever changing and dynamic world of working on an interactive title.
What software do you use and why?
I use a lot of different tools depending on the requirement, but I probably do most of my creative composition using Logic Pro and pretty much all my production (editing, mixing, arranging, synch to picture) using Pro Tools. I use Pro Tools because it’s such an industry standard that it makes collaboration and sharing of sessions easy. Ironically, I started to use Logic because when Apple bought the company, I thought it was inevitable that it become the industry standard (I mean, come on, it’s Apple); unfortunately that has not come to pass. So much for my ability to prognosticate...
Can you tell us about how you approach a project?
I don’t really have a set process, but I would say that most of my ideas come at odd moments, late at night, walking the dog, in the car, in a restaurant, anywhere but sitting in front of my workstation. Thank goodness for cell phones (I used to have to carry around a portable dictation machine) so I can blurt out whatever crazy thought comes to my head. And of course, the amazing melody I recorded that sounded so good in my head with cars honking and people talking in the background, upon later playback is like...huh?? What the heck was I thinking...?!?
What is most challenging about what you do?
Because of ever tightening budgets and timelines, a large percentage of production houses are using pre-produced soundtracks rather than custom compositions which is where I get most of my music placements. This presents a huge challenge because you have to put yourself in the mind of a producer or editor and try to not only guess their immediate needs, but anticipate future needs by looking at trends and industry direction. The hard truth is we usually fail, but it only takes one serendipitous moment when one of your tracks just happens to be in the right place at the right time to make up for all your other tracks that are sitting around gathering digital dust. This, by the way, is where companies like SyncStories make for invaluable partners because they are the ones out there shopping our tracks and making the deals like this one with Disney for the Avengers trailer.
How did you get involved with SyncStories, and how well has that patnership worked for you?
I was introduced to SyncStories through my partner, friend and mentor, Charlie Brissette, and it has worked out very well for me. SyncStories is not only great at getting music from their libraries placed in high profile productions (like the Endgame trailer) but they also seem to have their thumb on the pulse of what's happening in the industry so they can give us a heads up of potential future music requirements coming down the pipeline. I consider them an indispensable partner.
Hamilton in his studio with Charlie Brissette
Now, when your tracks are picked up, like with The Avengers: Endgame trailer, are you involved any further editing/syncing with the trailer, or for any additional elements?
Once they pick up our tracks, we are usually out of the loop and they just hand it off to their editors. Occasionally they may request further customization, but this particular library from which they chose tracks (Score Tools I) was specifically designed to make things easy for editors by not just including the complete track but individual elements as well, so it gives them a lot of flexibility to shape the tracks to their individual needs.
Do you have any advice for budding composers looking to produce music for TV/Film placement?
As far as advice for budding composers, I would encourage them to find a mentor with a successful track record in the business. Charlie and I started working together a long time ago when I was audio director over at Disney Interactive, and his advice and mentorship over the years has been critical for my success (such as it is). The mentor does not have to be a composer; in fact, it's the business side of things that's the most important and hardest to learn, so hitching up with, for example, a rep from a music publishing company (like SyncStories) would be highly recommended. Offer to take 'em to lunch or for coffee and pick their brain!
Nick C Sorbin (Nick Charles) is a former Managing Editor of 9 years for Renderosity's CG Industry News. By day, a mild-mannered Certified Pharmacy Technician working in both home infusion and a hospital ER, contrasting creative outlets as a digital artist, sculptor, musician, singer/songwriter, and Staff Writer for Renderosity Magazine. Read his articles