Interview with Stitched Crosses Composer & Sound Designer, Joe Harrison

Before Mr. Joe Harrison could step into another exciting adventure by phone booth, transporter, or hyperspeed, GQB’s resident interviewer, Arnie Carvalho, was able to catch up with him to talk about his professional debut as a musical composer and sound designer for the Stitched Crosses audio dramatization and soundtrack

AC: Joe, how did you get started as a sound designer?

JH: Well, let me just turn back the clock a bit…. During the early 2000’s I had really started to get into listening to radio productions. Among the ones I listened to repetitively were BBC Radio’s The Lord of the Rings adaptation, and the Star Wars: Dark Forces audio trilogy. Before that, though, I had also loved listening to the older radio dramas, such as The Shadow or Superman or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Aside from listening to these, I was always mildly fascinated by sound design in general—Ben Burtt’s work in particular—and loved how it all really came together to make the whole thing work. This fascination for sound design grew when I was introduced to the radio dramas. As opposed to a movie, it is up to the sound designer [in a audio dramatization] to carry the production (aside from the voice actors, of course), as it cannot rely upon visuals. Honestly, though, at the time I don’t think I really understood just how much responsibility was on the sound designer of a radio production. I was just intrigued and excited to find a way into the “world of audio”.

This was about the time that I was introduced to “fan audio dramas”–audio productions put together entirely by fans of a popular franchise and what have you. The thing that I loved about producing audio dramas was that you could practically create a major movie-like story, but at almost “zero” the cost of a motion picture.

What were some of your early projects?

My first production was a five-part fan-made audio project, and it was doing this first series that I learned a lot from beginning to end. In the series’ original first episode (which was later replaced by a “special edition” remake) the sound quality was awful, the sound design was awful, the acting was awful (it was just my sister and myself doing all the voices). At the time I didn’t really care, but once the second episode came around I knew it was time to start raising the bar. I tried a few things here and there, but there really was not a significant change in my sound design abilities until the third episode.

Episode three to five sounded almost completely different from the first two episodes… which is why I could not resist the temptation to remake the first two from scratch to bring them up-to-date with the others. As the series concluded and a new series went into production it pretty much became my goal to raise the bar a little higher each time.

For the sound effects, how many did you record yourself, and how many came from pre-designed libraries?

Breaking it down into percentages, I’d say about 30% of the sound design for Stitched Crosses was original, either because there were things I needed that were not in my sound library, or because I just wanted to give it more of an original, ‘from-scratch’ feel. If I remember correctly, all sounds of swords being unsheathed were original; riding [sounds] (such as the jingling of the reigns of a horse) was all original; and any sounds that involved movement of clothes, cloaks, etc., were original, just to name a few.

Another 10-15% of the sound design was original mixes; sounds I didn’t record, but created using various different resources mixed together.

For sounds you recorded or designed, can you share with us that process?

Everything recorded is done right in my room in front of the microphone. For sounds involving clothing, it’s just a matter of getting as close to the microphone as possible and rustling whatever it is your using to perform the desired sound.

For most clothing and cloak movement I simply used my winter coat and rustled it, ruffled it, or slid my hand across it. There’s a scene in the last episode where two of the story’s characters are in a tent. I wanted to capture this setting by having the tent walls flapping in the wind. So I got a couple of coats, shirts, or bed sheets, and shook them. The same applied to the main character’s cloak flapping violently in the wind in the opening scene of the first episode.

For designed sounds, or original mixes, it’s mostly a matter of bringing multiple pre-designed sounds into a sound editing program and mixing them together. For instance, Markus’s sword rings when he pulls it from his sheath. Both the ring and the blade sliding from the sheath are two different sounds. The ring is actually a reverberating sound that resulted after I hit two swords together. So I removed the clang, isolated the ring, and overlaid it on the sound of the sword being pulled from the sheath.

The story has a number of fight scenes told only through effects, with no dialogue, narration, or visuals.  Were these scenes challenging?

Thank the Lord, I had some practice with this in one of my own productions, but it still didn’t downplay the challenge by much. In a scene like this, it can be pretty stressful when you realize, as sound designer, you have to make the scene work. Almost all of the responsibility is on your shoulders.

Without visuals, more attention is paid to the sounds… which means audiences will notice if you are constantly using the same sounds over and over again. This became a fairly big part of the challenge, because there are only so many ‘sword-on-sword’ clanging sound effects out there. Plus it would get boring if you were just sitting there listening to swords clanging against each other.

So I had to get a little creative with livening it up a bit. This included movement sounds, boot scuffles in the dirt, a few surprise combat-moves (such as a kick or a punch) to add in some variety, and getting the voice actors to record several different grunts, groans, and yells.

The end result, I feel, are realistic fight sequences to which you could easily imagine the visuals.

In addition to doing the sound effects you composed and recorded the music for Stitched Crosses.  Who are some of your favorite composers, and did any of them inspire your work on Stitched Crosses?

Some of my favorite composers include Jerry Goldsmith, James Newton Howard, Trevor Jones, and John Williams. All four, though primarily Goldsmith, indeed inspired my work on Stitched Crosses, and inspire my work in general. Searching for the right feel for this production, I was heavily influenced by Goldsmith’s scores for Timeline (the rejected score), The Mummy and The 13th Warrior–the latter two specifically for parts that involved the Middle Eastern world.

While these composers greatly inspire my “sound”, I also take very seriously the importance of discovering and utilizing my own “sound”. Otherwise I’ll just come across as a “copy-cat”… which, unfortunately, seems to be happening with a lot of composers today.

I remember not too long ago when a one-man composed score could only be done in the MIDI format, but yours sounds almost orchestral.  What tools were used to achieve this?

Ah, the good ol’ MIDI days. Well I am very happy that the MIDI era is pretty much behind us now. As our technology progresses, people like me who don’t have access to a live orchestra, but want to express themselves musically, are being given new and wonderful opportunities to do so, thanks to hard-working men and women who develop software in their free time; software that takes actual recordings of live instruments and integrates them into downloadable software that can be loaded into music programs.

Most of the instruments I use sound real because they are real; live recordings of people playing each note on their instruments, all integrated into a piano keyboard (or, in my case, my computer keyboard). It’s then just a matter of turning on the recorder and playing the notes, and then editing any mistakes you made. While I definitely hold up high the programs I use, I am very much looking forward to upgrading my resources in the near future.

There are long interludes of your music during transitions of scenes and set the mood of the drama.  Were you aware how much of a spotlight your music would receive in this drama when you were composing it?

I didn’t know it would be like that going in, but in all honesty… I may have actually pushed for some of those interludes and transitions when I saw the opportunities. A lot of them, specifically the interludes, were not noted in the script. But they seemed logical to add in during time lapses. I’m sure the director didn’t disagree with my choices. Well… I actually know he didn’t because he kept them in! [laughs]

Which piece is your favorite as music overall? And which piece is your favorite within the context of the drama?

Just about all of my personal favorite pieces come in the second half of the dramatization. It at that point where I really feel like I began to find my footing and felt more confident in how far I could take the music.

One of my favorite pieces is a battle track during an ambush sequence (titled “Jerusalem Caravan Ambush” on the soundtrack). I still feel that this particular track turned out better than I expected. Another one would definitely be “The Damascus Road”. This one, I feel, definitely sets the mood of the scene.

Though I’ve learned a lot since composing this soundtrack, and though I may struggle with that part of me that wants to re-compose some of it, I will definitely look back on it with “fondness” (to choose a cheesy word) because it was my very first music composition project. It is very surreal looking at my CD rack and seeing my soundtrack among all the others in my collection. Music means so much to me, and this has been an opportunity that I never truly believed would actually be realized. But God had different plans, and I cannot even thank Him (or Josh & Kasandra Radke) enough for it.

What other projects are you currently working on?

Aside from composing a bit of freelance/non-profit music here and there for various other things, I have recently been “re-called” to compose the soundtrack for Grail Quest Books’ upcoming audio production, Shadow of the Stars: Savus, which I am really looking forward to.

Joe’s God-given musical talent has inspired and touched people long before Grail Quest Books was led across his path. Below are comments from some of Joe’s family, friends, and fellow cast-mates on Stitched Crosses about his music and how it has played a role in their lives:

“When I got Joe’s music I immediately put in on my MP3 player and looped it. The “love theme” he composed for Markus and Mairin is so beautiful!”
Vanessa Martin

+ + +

“I couldn’t believe that the soundtrack was composed digitally. When I first heard it I thought that Josh and Joe somehow had gotten access to a live orchestra.”
Tony Zore

+ + +

“Music is the third most important element to my writing–after God and my pen. To hear Joe put the world of Markus to music has been a dream come true for this writer, and a real honour. As a lover of film, I have always wanted to know what it was like when George Lucas collaborated with John Williams or William Wyler with Miklós Rózsa or anyone with Hans Zimmer. Joe has given me a real good taste of that relationship between story teller and musician, and I look forward to all further opportunities to work with Joe again, if it be in accordance with God’s will for our careers.”
Joshua Rothe

+ + +

“When I got Joe’s Stitched Crosses soundtrack in the mail, I immediately digitized it and put it on my iPod.  And now sometimes, when I have trouble sleeping, I will queue up the last three or so tracks of his on the album and listen to them to help me fall asleep.  You may be tempted to think I do this because it’s boring music, but it’s not.  It’s calming and relaxing and these three tracks especially help inspire me to take on the next day.

“I can’t wait for Joe to get a shot at conducting a live orchestra recording session of his own compositions.  With a developing talent like his, I’m sure that day will come.”
Chris Walker

+ + +

“I have had the pleasure of following Joe’s work in the audio mixing field since he emerged in the fan audio community back in 2005. Since then, his talents have only grown, and I have had the chance to spend time with Joe at ConCarolinas. You couldn’t ask for a more talented young composer in the audio drama field, nor a gent with more integrity and enthusiasm for the genre.”
Nathan P. Butler

+ + +

“I’ve known Joe for some time, and have always been impressed with his talent as an audio play producer, editor and actor. He’s always had a knack for choosing the right music and for his amazing sense of timing. I was even more impressed when I heard that no only did he compose music, but he is a fabulous soundtrack composer! Where did this guy come from?!

“His score for GQB’s Stitched Crosses was so profoundly appropriate, setting the mood perfectly for the story. I really felt like I was there riding alongside Marcus on his quest. He made my narrations sound good to boot!”
R. Douglas Barbieri

+ + +

“I have to say I am so jealous of my brother Joe. I have been obsessed with music scores as long as I can remember-I collect pretty much any I can get my hands on. Me and Joe grew up super close and he loves scores just as much as I do, but he turned that love into action and now he’s kicking tails and taking numbers doing musical score. I am totally amazed and awed every time I listen to something he’s composed because he really has that golden age of film scores sound down-I am talking Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Hans Zimmer, and John Williams in the times before people forgot that music was supposed to be a personality and a feeling and not just background noise. Joe makes the music a personality and a feeling and it makes everything it accompanies feel so much more magical and real.

“His music tells a story and gives wings to stories already written, I am so proud and JEALOUS of him it makes me sick! 😀 It just makes me happy to see him using a God-given talent and using it so well. His music gives me chills and makes me want to hear more…which in my book are the keys to being one of the greats. 🙂

“Joe I have to say that I think if Jerry were still alive and he heard your music; it would bring a smile to his face. I love you!”
Sarah Gilbertson

Arnie is a writer and podcaster who can be found on Star Wars Action News, Now Playing, and Books & Nachos where he has interviewed a number of authors, game developers, actors, and other creative types.

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