'Most things do not happen quickly' Emmy-winning Lucifer composer Ben Decter on writing music for TV
Ben Decter is an Emmy-winning TV and film composer known for scoring hit shows Lethal Weapon, Lucifer, CSI: Cyber and Frequency. Here he talks to Mandy News about his music-making setup, how he got started in the industry, how long it takes to compose for an episode of Lucifer and more.
Ben, please tell us who you are and how you got into music, TV and film.
My name is Ben Decter and I began my musical journey after hearing Billy Morris, a 3rd grade classmate, playing the piano. I thought, “How the @%$* is he doing that?!” I began piano lessons the following week, and studied classical piano and music theory privately for many years after. I played in a middle-school synthesiser quartet and high school rock bands in New Jersey. In college, I continued song-writing, explored experimental electronic music on our campus studio (including a rather unlistenable performance with John Cage), and began writing original music for college theatre productions and student films.
As for plunging into the TV and film industry, that was an unintentional development. I was 25, producing songs and strange sonic compositions in my loft in downtown LA when a college friend mentioned that one of Mike Post’s assistants was leaving. I was aware of Mike because his theme for Hill Street Blues was the only piano sheet music based on a TV show that I had ever purchased as a kid. I brought Mike a cassette (!) of my music and played it for him in his Burbank studio. He hired me on the spot.
My first job in TV was helping to produce his music for Law & Order and NYPD Blue. I had never worked on a TV show before and I loved it. I particularly enjoyed the fast pace. In television, there is very little time for waiting for inspiration to strike, or second-guessing yourself. As someone who could spend endless time searching for the “perfect” sound or “perfect” melody, it was an unexpected gift to be forced to make decisions quickly.
How did you get involved with Lucifer?
The opportunity to compose for Lucifer arose from my existing relationship with Jerry Bruckheimer’s TV production company. I had scored two of their previous series: CSI: Cyber and Hostages.
What is the approach to scoring an episode of Lucifer? What is the turnaround time for each episode, etc...
The scoring approach generally boils down to trying to support the storytelling with music. Where possible, I’ll create certain motifs for a character, or a storyline. One of the challenges with a show like Lucifer is finding the balance between the intensity of the crimes (“He’s been burned alive!”) and the frequent lightness of the banter between the characters (“He looks like an overdone campfire marshmallow.”) The dance between the two requires some finesse!
As for the schedule… About every 10 days, I’ll sit down with the producers, music editor, music supervisor and picture editor and watch the current episode. I usually have five days to score the episode. It’s quick, which is typical for TV.
What do you use to compose music? Does the process change with the different shows you work on?
I am a pianist, and love to start projects by sitting at my piano and fooling around with ideas. But I’ve been using electronics since I was 12 (starting with my beloved Juno-60) and have a great love for studio production, synths and plug-ins. Logic Pro is control central. I love Soundtoys and iZotope plug-ins, Altiverb is a must-have. VEPro is an essential tool for me. I use sound libraries from Output and Spitfire, Audio Imperia and 8Dio among many, many other excellent libraries.
Whatever the project, the writing process is similar. My first step after reading the script and having discussions with the showrunner involves creating the sonic palette and themes for a given show. I love the palette creation process.
You have also worked on many other movies and TV shows, including the Lethal Weapon TV series. How did you get involved with that one?
Much like Lucifer, I was brought onto Lethal Weapon through an existing relationship. That was a challenging show and a challenging time. I was balancing multiple projects, including Shut Eye and Frequency as well.
What is next for you in 2018 and beyond?
At the moment, I’m enjoying writing for Lucifer and would be thrilled if we get to continue into another season. At the same time, this time of year is called pilot season, and the coming months will involve meetings on potential new series. Some will become active projects, most will not. Things move swiftly in TV, so a meeting one week can lead to starting work on the project the following week, or even the next day. I rarely know what lies ahead!
What advice would you give to someone trying to get into the music department in the TV & Film Industry, what does it take to be a good composer?
To me, being a good tv or film composer means being a good collaborator. It means being a good listener. It means being a good interpreter of producers’ language when they attempt to describe their sonic vision. Also, members of the team may have conflicting visions – at the same time. This can be tricky!
My job is to get everyone on the same page – and still support the picture. When I speak with people seeking to jump into this world, my first piece of advice is usually this: come to LA. It’s hard to be taken seriously if you’re not physically here. Opportunities often arise quickly and it’s imperative that you be here to take advantage of them.
Second, know that the arc of a career is (hopefully) long. Most things do not happen quickly. Take a breath. Expand your musical vocabulary. Get to know people involved in filmmaking and writing. Take a class. Learn a new instrument. Adopt a dog! Enjoy the many other things about life that exist outside of music. This field is best suited to risk-takers and those with hearty survival skills. Those looking for stability – whether emotional or financial – need not apply.
Find this interview useful? Check out our exclusive chat with The X-Files composer Mark Snow.Tags: