A look inside the creative mind and career of the film and game composer, and what it truly means to be “different”
April 21ST, 2023
Creating an artistic identity
Every artist asks the same question at some point: “How can I develop my unique sound?” Most ask themselves this many times in fact, and composer John Massari is no different. There’s a dominant force at play behind everything he creates: in his words, “Honesty. Knowing that what I create will be traced back to me”. Being creatively honest while making something truly unique is a great goal for any artist to have, but it’s no small feat — so how does he do it?
You can hear Massari’s work across numerous different projects, but one of the most notable examples is his soundtrack for the classic 80s movie, Killer Klowns From Outer Space. He does an excellent job of mashing together contrasting structures, styles, instrumentation and more to create a rich yet unsettling palette, giving his work such a unique character. Examples of John's unique UJAM plugin use include tracks he’s created for the world renowned production music giant, EXTREME MUSIC. These tracks appear in an impressive list of credits that include children's classics like Paw Patrol, modern TV series like Stranger Things, Jane the Virgin & Schitt's Creek, and many projects with Disney; a broad creative range to say the least!
Killer Klowns was also remade into a game in early 2023, which Massari wrote the new soundtrack for — it still demonstrates his unique style, updated to meet the demands of an entirely different medium! In this article we’ll explore how John approaches his work as a creative and, of course, how he uses UJAM plugins to help speed up his process and open up entirely new sonic possibilities.
Utilizing contrast and pushing plugins in new ways
At UJAM we’re known for plugins that make it easy to get incredible results in the fastest possible way, but John actively uses UJAM plugins to help him achieve his unique sound … and you can use the same principles to do this for yourself. The first key is to be willing to do something a little different, to push your plugins in ways they weren’t designed to be or add layers of processing that transform the sound beyond its initial vision. Our Finishers are a quick but extremely effective way to accomplish this, especially some of the more “out there” ones like Finishers FLUXX and DYNAMO!
If you want to make an even stronger statement, you can also clash contrasting forms and styles together, especially from opposite ends of the spectrum. For example, take John’s overall approach to composing: mashing together what he calls “raw” and “nasty” sounds with “refined” or “polished” ones. The result is a great blend of chaos and order, and it’s uniquely his sound since he’s playing off of his own definitions based on his own tastes and past experiences. If you took the same approach, chances are your music would sound very different, which is why the broad-stroke creative decisions you make are only one part of the puzzle.
Another aspect of style that rarely gets the limelight it deserves is arrangement — not the actual instruments you use, but the structure of the song, its musical form. The classical era was in many ways the height of musical form, and many of the song structures from hundreds of years ago are nearly identical to today’s (if it ain’t broke, right?). John is very deliberate in how he takes classical structures and incorporates randomness to break out of the mold cast by more traditional styles. By putting his own spin on every aspect of the production process, he’s able to clearly distinguish his style; small decisions add up over time, and you’ll be surprised by what you come up with when you take this to heart!
Why the best grooves don’t start with percussion?
One of John’s favorite tricks — and something that adds quite a bit of uniqueness to his style — is his use of strings, specifically with UJAM’s plugin Symphonic Elements STRIIIINGS. These strings from Hans Zimmer’s private collection have a naturally percussive feel in certain presets, which John uses to his advantage. Of course, STRIIIINGS is perfectly suited to its “intended” use: creating massive string arrangements instantly, adding layers to live recordings, and being a powerful tool for giving any song a quick lift in overall energy.
These are all things you can discover simply by using the plugin as intended, whereas John Massari’s arrangements come alive through his ability to transform anything he chooses into a groove! Shaper boxes and synth sequencers are his best friends here, and allow him to quickly transform stringed instruments into grooves with a ton of character.
Next time you pull up a plugin you use frequently, first ask the question: “How can I use this in a new and different way?” There are no “wrong” answers — as long as it sounds good, it’s perfectly viable! Rather than turning strings into percussion, you could do the opposite, taking a drum part and using short delays or resonances to give it a stringy quality for example. Sometimes it’s less about what you start with and more about the way you process it ... because in the hands of a creative producer, nearly any sound can take on an entirely new life.
If you aspire to become a composer, especially for any form of visual media (film, games, etc.), then study John Massari’s example closely; he’s done an excellent job of creating a unique sonic identity that’s attracted a wide range of high-profile clients. It’s all too tempting to assume that your job is simply to do more of what already works, while nothing could be further from the truth. Without a distinctive sound, it’s infinitely more challenging to get great gigs, as there’s nothing to attract people specifically to you.
So work on mastering your tools, but don’t stop there — use them in ways they were never intended for, build your very own sound, and demonstrate your unique musical voice at every turn. That’s a simple recipe for getting work you love, but with enough effort and some solid music, you’ll have a much clearer path to lasting success.