First compelled by the name “Super Hero Composer”, then listening to music that lived up to the title, I had to ask Marschawn Howard for an interview. He graciously accepted, and we ended up having a great conversation, from North Carolina to California, including topics like writing catchy, memorable music, second-guessing yourself, and the story behind his bold title.
How did music first come into your life? Do you have any formal training?
Marschawn: I actually don’t have any type of training, really. I just go off of what movies teach me, and music that I listen to, and my professors when I went to get my degree in audio engineering. They didn’t really have us do any composing, but I just asked around. (laughs)
Awesome. So I see you’ve done a lot of remixes and covers in addition to original pieces—which came first, the remixes and re-arrangements, or original compositions?
Marschawn: Definitely re-arrangements and remixes first. For some reason I thought that was cooler (laughs).
Cool, so what was the first piece you ever composed? And what sparked that initial inspiration?
Marschawn: Oh… I guess the first legit piece I ever made was called “Final Confrontation”. I did it for school, because I needed some background music.
So it was just because you needed it? (laughs)
Marschawn: Pretty much. It was like, I need background music, and I don’t want to pay someone, so… (laughs)
So what or who are some of your main influences and inspirations, whether musical or otherwise?
Marschawn: Musical, definitely… I know his name is thrown around a lot, but definitely Hans Zimmer. I like his simplistic take on composing, rather than John Williams, where everywhere, everything’s happening—it’s so busy! Also, Nobuo Uematsu, from Final Fantasy and all that… Yuzo Koshiro, from Streets of Rage—that was the first game I ever played, and that’s what was the catalyst for me being a composer.
Awesome. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Marschawn: For now, I use FL Studio 12. I kinda fluctuate between Kontact Plug-ins, and East West Plug-ins… They’re just so expensive. (laughs) At work, we use East West. But at home, I actually was fortunate enough to have Kontact Komplete 8, so I use that, for now. I don’t really like the strings in it—they sound too old!
So what was the first video game you wrote music for? How did you get the position? Describe the experience?
Marschawn: The first game was at the college I went to, for the animation students. It was called Night of the Ricky. It’s a side-scroller beat-em-up essentially. The twist of it was that they wanted music that was like the transition between 80’s hip-hop and 90’s hip-hop. That was pretty fun. It was daunting at first, I was a little scared. But then after the first two tracks, once I got to Stage 2, I was pretty confident. I wrote some of it in about 3 days.
Nice, nice! Okay, so what’s your compositional process for writing for games, like character themes, map and field, battle themes…
Marschawn: Well, character themes… I have to get words, like a description of the character, rather than looking at an image. But for battle themes, I can look at a still image of any kind of battle, and think of something for that. But the process usually starts in my head, I’m like I gotta write something catchy! Something people will remember, something hum-able. And then after that, I sketch it out on the piano first, then strings come in, then brass, then percussion and tid-bits. That’s like the process every time! (laughs)
“The process usually starts in my head, I’m like I gotta write something catchy! Something people will remember, something hum-able.”
Yeah. What instruments do you play?
Marschawn: I play guitar. I’ve been playing for… 16 years?
Marschawn: Sadly, I didn’t learn how to read the sheet music for it. I just had a guitar, and I was like oh, I’ll just play this.
Okay, so you just picked it up by ear. So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a composer, whether on the business side or creative? And how did you overcome those challenges?
Marschawn: Definitely the biggest challenge I have is myself. I second-guess myself so much. It’s probably why I’m stuck in the position that I’m in now. I get in my own way. I don’t think my skills are good enough to do the things that I really want to do. I know it’s my main problem, and I’m trying to tackle it, but it’s so hard.
“I second-guess myself so much. … I get in my own way. I don’t think my skills are good enough to do the things that I really want to do. I know it’s my main problem, and I’m trying to tackle it, but it’s so hard.”
So it’s sort of a challenge that you’re still dealing with now?
Marschawn: Yeah, it’s so frustrating sometimes. I’ll have a theme or something, and I’m like this will sound cool! And if I’m still on it four hours later, I’m kinda like oh, this is crap… (laughs)
Aww… So your standards go up really high.
All right, so why “Super-Hero Composer”?
Marschawn: Well, I love super heroes! They’re everywhere—I have posters all over my room. I grew up with comics and stuff. It’s good thematic material. That’s what I want to do—I want to do DC movies and Marvel movies. Well, more so DC movies rather than Marvel—they’re a little too picky! They’re very choosy with their composers.
Okay, so now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready?
Favorite video game series!
Marschawn: Final Fantasy!
Favorite Final Fantasy game!
Okay, favorite video game protagonist.
Marschawn: Crap… Solid Snake!
Marschawn: I don’t really have one, but I guess Squirtle!
Okay. Favorite dungeon in any game.
Marschawn: The entire Bitterblack Isle, from Dragon’s Dogma!
Okay, favorite battle theme.
Marschawn: Lost Odyssey! The battle theme is called I think Fire Above the Battlefield.
Okay, favorite character theme!
(laughs) Oh my gosh. Favorite time signature!
Nice! If you could make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you choose to fight with?
Marschawn: A cello.
A cello! Nice! Would you like turn it upside down, or…
Marschawn: Essentially, yeah. It’s a big solid hammer!
What would you do with the bow?
Marschawn: Yeah, it could be a hammer, and a bow and arrow at the same time!
Okay, that’s awesome. End of rapid-fire questions. What are some of your future plans? What are working on now?
Marschawn: Right now, I’m working on a web series a little bit. I’m working on my own little web series using the Grand Theft Auto editor. You can film yourself playing the game, and get into all different types of things, and change camera angles. I’m also gonna score it, so that’s what I’m looking forward to about it.
Cool. So you mentioned you have some programs at work and at home—where do you work?
Marschawn: I work at a company called Grover Gaming. They do casino games, like slot games. They’ve become really interactive lately. They look like regular games, but they’re just slot games. I’m their composer and sound design.
Awesome! You’re actually a living, working composer! You’re not just doing an unrelated job on the side! (laughs)
Marschawn: I mean, I’m looking for different work, just because it’s an hour and a half drive to get there, and I’ve been doing it for almost two years now… It’s giving me experience! I’d never written jazz music before I got there.
Cool! Do you like writing jazz?
Marschawn: No. (laughs)
(laughs) What is your favorite style to write in?
Marschawn: Epic… Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts type music. Like the one you liked on soundcloud, “A Mighty Foe”. That’s my favorite kind of stuff to write.
Oh yeah, what inspired that one?
Marschawn: A whole lot of Kingdom Hearts! (laughs) Most of the inspiration for that though was my anticipation for Final Fantasy XV—super excited for that!
Great! Well those are all the questions that I have. Do you have any final thoughts?
Marschawn: Definitely… When you’re composing, don’t second-guess yourself! The music came to you for a reason, so write it down, and DO IT!! (laughs)
(laughs) Okay, awesome. Thank you so much! Hope you have a great day!
Listen to Marschawn Howard’s awesome tracks on soundcloud: