GEOFF HALL
Understanding The Signs
(Hall Studios)

 

Colorado-based composer Geoff Hall takes electronic-based synth music to high elevations on his 2016 release Understanding The Signs. The eight track CD has a great sonic chemistry and combines a wealth of New Age-related instrumental sounds that blends in with other musical genres, including film soundtracks and neoclassical flavors. It’s interesting to note that Hall is also a guitarist yet, Understanding The Signs is completely orchestral, synthesized keyboard dominated music. Speaking about the meaning of the album title, Geoff tells mwe3.com, “The ability to get outside ourselves and the daily routines that define a large part of our lives is, in my opinion, very important. Achieving that separation and objectivity can result in a cleaner line of sight or clarity of thought that’s hard to get to in the course of a normal day. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of “signs,” I do appreciate the implications of them. The title is a play on that.” Hall is claiming that his follow up release will be more guitar-centric yet, for synth keyboard watchers and fans of music by Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, Geoff Hall’s Understanding The Signs provides quite an appealing hour of synthesized, instrumental New Age bliss. www.GeoffHallComposer.com

 




mwe3.com presents an interview with
GEOFF HALL


mwe3
: Tell us something about where you live now and what you like best about it. I know you’re from Virginia but what was it like growing up in Memphis? It’s such a musical town. How would you compare Memphis with Nashville? Are they two different vibes?

Geoff Hall: I live in Boulder County, Colorado. We’re just a few minutes outside of the town of Boulder. This is our “adopted” home, and we love it. We’ve been here about 15 years in total. We enjoy the mountains, all the outdoor activities, and the laid back culture in Colorado. It’s a stark contrast to growing up in Memphis—not that I’m knocking Memphis, but the 2 places don’t have a lot in common. As you said, Memphis is a musical town, and it was nice to have that in high school and college. It’s very heavily dominated by blues, but there are also other artists in genres sprinkled around. Years ago, Memphis was a fairly well-known place for bands to record. There were a number of studios there that were “on the map” so to speak. I’ve been removed from it for some time, but I think Nashville has the edge on Memphis in a lot of respects. It’s a nicer city with a more evolved and connected music scene. The one thing I’d say Memphis has over Nashville is the barbecue! You can’t beat it!

mwe3: You’re also a guitarist so how did you decide to veer into electronica and orchestral sounds for your new album? Is this your first CD? I hear you’re going to feature guitar on your next album? Tell us about your favorite guitars, synths and other gear you recorded Understanding The Signs with.

Geoff Hall: I know; it seems a little bit backwards. Understanding The Signs is my first release, and there’s almost no guitar on it. My only explanation is that about 15 years ago, I got serious about studying multi-instrumental music, composition, and orchestration, and this was just after I began noticing and listening to music that spanned a range of genres where the guitar was notably absent. Neoclassical, ambient, New Age, and film scores. That’s not to say there’s no guitar in those genres, but if it’s there, it’s less noticeable… just another voice in the mix. I just fell in love with the sound the complexity and the challenge of composing multi-instrumented music. And, I really enjoy the sense of musical freedom that comes with it.

I suppose I’ve been on a bit of a musical journey or evolution over the last 30 years. Painting it with a very broad brush... you could say I started with guitar, rock music, shred guitar, solo electric guitar, solo finger style guitar, classical guitar, synthesizers, and then bridged into New Age via guitar with guys like Will Ackerman, Alex de Grassi, and other players, that opened up a lot of new music for me in that space. Music that really didn’t have much guitar. From there, I started to pay serious attention to film scores. There’s such a wide range of work in that space that it’s tough to categorize. That said—and as you already know—there are some incredible pieces of music out there. I really enjoy and appreciate a great score. And there are so many good examples. Ultimately, they began to influence what I listened to and how I listened. And so, I think that’s how I ended up with a first release that wasn’t focused on guitar.

Now, all that said, yes—you heard right—the next CD will have the guitar in the middle of everything. I’m working on it now, and I think there will be some solo pieces and there will be pieces with other instrumentation accompanying the guitar. That could be traditional instrumentation or modern alternatives like synths. I may, in fact, have 2 variations on some of the pieces so that there’s a solo guitar version and an instrumented version of the same piece. We’ll see. I hope to have it out by the end of this year.

Favorite guitars… let’s see. On the electric side, I’m a bit of a PRS fan, but I also have a Strat that I play a lot. On the acoustic side, it’s a different story. I have a number of guitars from builders like Ryan, Maingard, Hamblin, Redgate, Mueller, and a few others. My acoustic guitar collection is twice the size of the electric.

My studio set up at the house is pretty straightforward. I use the new Symphony I/O, a D Box for summing, Burl Pre-amps for recording acoustic guitar, and an AX-FX for the electric. I also have a baby grand acoustic piano, which I love to noodle on. Very often I’ll sit at the piano and sketch out some ideas that I’ll then take into the studio and start to orchestrate. I use a midi board/synth in the studio to access a wide range of virtual instruments, like a lot of folks do these days to keep costs manageable. From there, the sky’s the limit on what can happen.

mwe3: Is there some symbolism behind the title of the album? Understanding The Signs has such broad implications. Also who designed the artwork, it’s very effective. I love the purple and white pattern.

Geoff Hall: It makes me smile to hear you say that the title has such broad implications. That means it worked! And thank you for the comments on the cover art. It’s nice when people notice those details. And yes, there is some meaning in the artwork that links to the pieces in the release. Without belaboring it too much, I’ll say this as far as the connection is concerned: The ability to get outside ourselves and the daily routines that define a large part of our lives is, in my opinion, very important. Achieving that separation and objectivity can result in a cleaner line of sight or clarity of thought that’s hard to get to in the course of a normal day. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of “signs,” I do appreciate the implications of them. The title is a play on that.

Understanding events in our lives as “signs,” looking for and understanding the meaning in what people say or do, realizing the cause and effect of the decisions we make everyday, reaching out beyond ourselves to put all of that together in an effort to be a better individual and to make better decisions. All of that is part of it. And it’s personal for everyone. It has to be accomplished or realized as an individual. So, the lone runner, getting outside of himself or herself, under that sky, it’s all a play on those ideas. The titles of the pieces all link to an experience or emotion someone under that sky could be contemplating. In fact, the title for the CD was almost “Under the Night Sky.” I liked the symbolism of the stars and the individual’s pursuit of understanding.

mwe3: Who else helped you get the sound onto disc? Did you work a lot on the CD mastering? Is it a delicate balancing act to get the right sound and do you master different for CD compared to MP3 and other downloads?

Geoff Hall: When I’m writing, I try to keep the mix in mind. In orchestration, you’re constantly thinking about things like the handoff of an instrument or group of instruments to another, the levels, who should be in the foreground, the middle ground, the background, is this or that part overwritten, do you need a counter line here or there, it never ends. And that’s part of what’s so great about it. You have to make hundreds of choices every time, and the final outcome is the result of all those individual decisions. So, yes, I think about the mix constantly.

For Understanding The Signs, I created my own mixes. Then I took them to a professional recording studio (Airshow Studios in Boulder) to have it remixed and then mastered. The reason I did that was because I wanted outside ears on everything. You get so accustomed to your own work and how you think it should sound because you’ve listened to it a million times as you work on it, that you can lose some objectivity. With this kind of music, there’s a lot to the subtleties. The mixing phase is really the hardest part. There’s a lot of back and forth. The engineer thinks this, you think that, he wants to bring this up or down, you want to bring that up or down. It’s a collaborative process, and in this case, I think it served the recording a lot better. You don’t always end up with what you thought you were going to have, but hopefully you end up with something at least as good or better with another professional in the mix.

On the mastering side, it was a no-brainer. David Glasser has a great ear and really did a nice job with the overall sound and continuity of the release. A number of these pieces are “dense.” There’s more instrumentation that may be obvious to a listener on the first pass. David understood that and did a good job balancing each track to ensure that the character of each piece was preserved.

I do have some other work that’s in the film/TV score genre that I mixed and mastered myself. I’m not a mastering engineer, and in truth, I don’t really want to be. I enjoy being the composer. So, the mixed/mastered versions that I’ve done are good, but I wouldn’t claim that they’re in the same category as David’s work. That said, they’re high enough quality for their intended use. Some of them are posted on my Soundcloud page for anyone who’s interested.

mwe3: What era of music did you grow up with? You were around 15 when YES returned in 1983 with Trevor Rabin right? It sounds like you have a great interest in the soundtrack area of music but it also shows your affinity for progressive rock instrumental. There’s always been great instrumental music in rock but you have to look for it right?

Geoff Hall: It’s funny because I feel like an amalgamation of so many different types of music. It would be hard for me to point to only a handful of bands or musicians that really had the greatest impact. I’m afraid, I’m a contradiction in terms on this subject.

To keep it somewhat brief, I grew up listening to John Denver albums and some of the late 1970’s music my parents had in the background. But, my first “ah-ha” moment with music was really with Rush as a 12 or 13 year old kid. It just hit me in a different way and that began my slide into the world of progressive rock, guitar and all the rest of it. But the truth is also that I actually loved a lot of 80’s music, which I can’t believe I’m admitting here, but I did. To this day, my iTunes account looks like someone randomly selected thousands of songs from the iTunes store, threw them into a bag, shook it up, and dumped it into my library. Everything from Rush to Harry Gregson Williams to LAGQ to Peter Gabriel to Eric Johnson to John Williams to Segovia to U2 to YES to the Prague Philharmonic to Enya, and on and on...

I absolutely agree—there is some great instrumental music in rock, but you do have to look for it. Lately, I’ve been listening to a band out of Nashville called Hammock. They’ve got some interesting instrumental pieces that might be called “post rock”. I’m not certain, but it’s a cool sound.

mwe3: Trevor Rabin returned to film soundtrack world after YES. Which Rabin soundtracks have you heard and what are some of your favorite film scores by other composers, orchestral and/or electronic, and why?

Geoff Hall: I was a big fan of the Trevor Rabin years with YES. I know a lot of folks who feel differently about that, but I really enjoyed his work with YES on those albums. The thing is that in addition to being a talented guitarist, he is also a great composer. I’m not sure I know of another guitar player who went on to write orchestral scores, hybrid or otherwise, for films after spending time as a lead guitarist in a band. I’ve never met him, but I’d love to talk with him about that transition. If I recall correctly, he got a break with Hans Zimmer and then Steven Segal and it took off from there. He’s got a wide range of score types, but I think the National Treasure movies were some of the more memorable for me.

As far as scores go, I am a big fan of guys like Harry Gregson Williams, Henry Jackman, Hans Zimmer, Dennis McCarthy, Howard Shore, John Williams, James Horner, Patrick Doyle, and Tykwer/Klimek/Heil who composed the music for Cloud Atlas. I’m also a fan of Jeremy Soule who wrote the score for the game “Skyrim”. There’s some really great work in that score.

I’m actually not partial to hybrid or traditional orchestral work. I enjoy both very much. What’s important is what serves the film the best. Sometimes, I think you need a traditional orchestral score and there are other times when it’s ok to bring in modern instrumentation and expand your palette. Ultimately, it ought to be a question of what optimizes the emotional goal of the scene or movie.

mwe3: When did you go to Berklee to study in the Music Professional Program? What part of the Berklee experience made the biggest influence on your approach to composing and recording?

Geoff Hall: It’s a great program. My focus was on orchestration and scoring for film/TV. I’ve gradually worked through the courses over the last couple of years, and it’s really been valuable. I’ve been a student of music for over 20 years, but I still learned a lot in that program. Everything from writing and arranging material for orchestra to film scoring techniques to breaking scores apart to see how they were created to learning different strategies for approaching different types of visual situations and emotions. It was time well spent.

mwe3: You were so influenced by the Windham Hill sound. Do you have any contact with Will Ackerman and also tell us about the Shawn Lane influence. What albums from Shawn do you like? He died in 2003 so you must have known here way back when.

Geoff Hall: My first exposure to the content of Windham Hill was when someone introduced me to the music of Will Ackerman. From there, I discovered Michael Hedges, Alex de Grassi, and a number of other very talented musicians. Will and I don’t know each other, but for a time I was in contact with Alex and studied with him a little bit. He would occasionally stay with us when he was touring where ever I was living at the time. Very nice guy, and obviously a great guitarist.

Shawn was a guitar phenomenon, and also a really nice guy. I knew him when I was in high school. A handful of friends, who were also guitar players, would get together and go see him play in Memphis on the weekends at whatever club he was performing at. He’d typically have to get us into the venue because of the age limit, so we were always on our best behavior, which is saying something for a group of high school age guys sitting in a bar, just so we could watch him play. It was mesmerizing. His story is sad because he died at a relatively young age, and, despite being one of the best guitarists to ever play the instrument, he was largely unknown. I was lucky to have had some time and lessons with him. He was also a huge fan of film scores, and in particular, John Williams, which seemed strange to me at the time. But, years later, I would come to understand that much better than I did then.

mwe3: As far as guitar playing goes, how do you plan to work the guitar into the soundtracks you write? Do you use a lot of treated guitars and computer apps to get sounds you like and what are your favorite guitar tunings, and amps? What guitars do you want to record with?

Geoff Hall: Well, to be honest, I haven’t had an opportunity to score a feature length film yet, but I’m trying to get a shot at it! It’s a hard opportunity to come by these days. I think, as I mentioned earlier, the score has to serve the film. If that film is modern and there’s a place for guitar to play the right role, then that would be a great opportunity. Having said that though, I’d be just as content to write an entirely orchestral score. For me, it’s really about figuring out the right approach for the film and following that, whatever it may look like. I’ve scored student films and other videos, and I deliberately avoid saying something like, “I’m going to find a way to include this or that instrument in this cue.” If you follow the contour of the visual, assess the energy level of the scene, understand the story and emotion, and recognize the impact it needs to create for the viewer, those instrument choices become easier.

My acoustic and classical guitar set up is pretty straight forward. I don’t use a ton of processing. I run through Neumann mics into a couple of Burl preamps through the new Symphony I/O and into the DAW. I’ll EQ the track and make some other mix adjustments that might include things like reverb, compression, limiting, and other dynamics, but nothing major.

The electric guitar is another animal though. Anything could happen on that front. I just got a new Ax-Fx unit that I’m learning, and the sky truly is the limit. In order to really capture the quality of that piece of gear, you need to run it through flat monitors so that you’re not coloring the sound with a specific kind of amplifier. So, that’s what I’m currently doing. I use Focal Twins and Solo 6’s in my studio currently. I really like the sound. So, we’ll see what happens with that.

A number of pieces on the next CD will have alternate tunings. There will also be one or two in standard tuning. When my evolution into acoustic finger style began years ago, I learned a lot of pieces in a wide range of tunings, DADGAD, open G, open D, drop D, EADEAE for some Celtic pieces, and a host of others. I don’t know that I have a favorite. I enjoy moving from one to the other. It’s actually a nice way to look for inspiration.

Right now, I don’t know if I’ll record with 5-6 different acoustics for the next CD or if I’ll limit it to just 1. I’ll have to see what the variation sounds like and go from there. I’m fortunate in that I’ve got some great instruments to choose from. So, we’ll see…

mwe3: What’s been the world wide reaction to Understanding The Signs and what do you make of all the great New Age and electronic music these days? Where do you see yourself fitting into the New Age and electronic music landscape of 2016?

Geoff Hall: The reaction has been very positive so far. As this is my first release, I’ve had a lot to learn and I’ve still got a lot to learn about the process and getting your music “out there.” There are so many releases every year… so I think a big part of the battle is just getting it heard. So, I’m grateful, really, to you and others who have embraced it and are giving it some exposure. Initially, I was told that a 5-10 percent acceptance rate at outlets would be considered a solid showing. So far, I think we’re at about 80 percent - and waiting to hear form the other 20. So, that seems very positive, but I suppose time will tell. Ultimately, my hope is that if people hear the pieces they’ll hear something they identify with, that they can relate to.

There’s so much great music out there, it’s always fun when I discover something “new.” Whether it’s 5 years old, 10 years old, or 2 weeks old. I love that. I think it’s especially true with instrumental music that it’s getting harder to categorize it. We use the term “New Age” to cover a lot of ground. What happens when someone has 5-6 different categories of New Age music on their release? What happens if there’s a neoclassical or a very emotional piece that seems like it could be part of a film score on a release of otherwise New Age ambient music? Personally, I like to see those boundaries get pushed. I think composers should write what they feel and what they like. If the music is written well enough, it should stand on it’s own. I’m not a fan of the thought that a release has to have 8-12 of the exact same type of pieces for continuity’s sake. If that’s the desire of the composer, then great. And I have a lot of albums that I love that are that way. But, I also think it’s ok to broaden that approach and mix things up a little bit. If the music is authentic and well constructed, the voice of the composer will come through even if there’s some diversity.

mwe3: What are your other plans for 2016 and even into 2017? What can the fans expect from you next?

Geoff Hall: For the rest of this year, I’m trying to record and prepare the next instrumental CD. The focal point will be the guitar… finally, right? If it goes smoothly, I’d hope to have it out sometime around the end of the year. Beyond that, we’ll have to see. I’d love to be working on a film or two with someone. Hopefully, something will come along. In the meantime, I’ll keep composing music that I find interesting and that means something to me emotionally.


 

 
   
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