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Los Angeles-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Maxton Waller has been providing music for a variety of film and TV projects over the years, from songs for shows like Marvel’s The Defenders, Sons of Anarchy, and the MacGyver reboot, to score for films like The List and We’re All Gonna Die.
When we sat down to chat with him for our 30 Years / 30 Studios series, he was in the process of moving to a brand new studio, one that will be better suited to his current projects and workflow. Read on to find out how setting up his first studio was a real learning experience assisted by Vintage King, what he thinks has changed the most in the industry over the years, and the one tool that he finds has greatly enhanced the process of working as a film composer.
What have you been doing at the studio since we spoke to you last? Give us an update.
I'm actually moving into a new production room soon. There's a composer in my area who has a retail space that he converted into studios, so I'm really excited about working there because it's a treated room, it has a vocal booth, and also, there are five other composers working there–it's super important to collaborate with other creative people, so I’m excited about it.
In terms of projects, my first studio picture came out in August 2023. It's a film called The List that I did for Universal and it was really fun to work on. When I first started working on it, I was very nervous because I wanted it to go really smoothly, but what I learned from my experience is that when you're working on bigger projects–because there's more responsibility–it was really organized and the people were just a pleasure to work with. It was about 30 minutes of score, and there are also two songs that I wrote years ago that were slotted into the film and are now released on streaming services. They are called Certain and Grateful and can be found wherever you get music!
I also finished another feature for RocketJump called We're All Gonna Die. [Laughs] Super cheery title there! We did a cast and crew screening a few weeks ago and it was amazing to go see it at the theater that I go to watch movies at. I'm really proud of that one as well.
I really like working on things that are multi-genre–I wrote a musical with my brother called Roborockalypse that’s out on Audible. It was amazing because it was a musical, a western, sci-fi, there was some drama in there and it was a comedy, and I like all of that stuff!
I don't really care about genre; I like to work on things as long as they have heart. When you work with someone who really cares about the project, you don’t take changes and revisions personally–it's not about me, it's not really about the director or the writer–it's about the project itself coming to life in a way that serves the purpose of the story.
How did you first become aware of Vintage King and what was your first experience working with us?
The first time I heard of Vintage King was around 2009, I think–I'd been in LA for a couple of years and someone from VK owned a studio in Happy Valley. I was recording there and the gear in the studio was nuts! It was the best gear you could imagine! I asked about where the gear came from and I was told that one of the owners of the studio also worked for Vintage King.
Then, in 2017, I redid my studio at home; I got a job working on a Nickelodeon show called Rainbow Rangers and I decided to redo my studio to have a Pro Tools print rig. I reached out to Vintage King and asked them, “How do I set up a print rig? How do I get Dante going?”
I didn't really know much about it and I was connected with Troy, who worked there at the time–we started talking and he helped me figure it out. He said, “What's your monitoring like? Are you doing live instruments at all? What's your microphone situation?” From top to bottom, we figured out all of that stuff. It took a long time but we eventually dialed it in; it worked out super great. Since then, I've changed things around; I'm always tinkering in there. I became more focused on simplifying the workflow and trying to make it as easy on myself as possible.
What are some of your favorite pieces of gear that you have purchased from Vintage King?
I have this Focusrite Scarlett interface that has 8-ins/8-outs that I just love; the pres are insane. I also bought a pair of Neumann KM184s that sound amazing, especially if I'm recording any kind of live strings, and even vocals–anything that needs to sound really shimmery and clear and present.
The other thing that I’ve been doing lately is when I’ve been recording acoustic guitars or vocals, I’ve been using the Shure SM7B, which I also got from Vintage King. That mic sort of goes against everything that I was taught, but I don't know…I kind of like using one mic for everything and figuring it out in the mix, because there's so much you can do now in terms of noise reduction or plug-ins.
What are your criteria for buying gear? Things can get out of hand really quickly once you start buying stuff.
[Laughs] You’re talking about GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome – and I definitely had that for a while where I was buying a ton of synthesizers and things I would never use. Now, I'm really intentional and I only buy stuff that does something that I can't currently get close to with something else. I haven't bought new gear in a bit because of that and it's been nice and peaceful; it has sparked some kind of creativity, just working within the limitations of what I have. Sometimes I wish I could live on an island with just a piano, a guitar, and, I don't know, maybe a Tascam 34 and a little mixer, so you kind of put yourself into a corner that you have to work your way out of.
I think it can get really overwhelming and you can start to spin out, saying, “I need that piece of gear because that piece of gear is going to make me do the work.” And, really, only actually doing the work is going to make you do the work–the gear is a tool that you use to get it done.
How has Vintage King helped you with gear selection, purchasing, and servicing in the past?
Oh, I mean, everything! When I was getting my studio set up, I had so many questions because I didn't really understand the process. Up until that point, my studio had been really small; I think I just had a 2-in/2-out interface, and everything was pretty much in the box. I didn't even really have a patchbay when I started talking to Vintage King. [Laughs] So figuring that out, learning about all the ins and outs, literally and metaphorically, and about what it means to run a studio…the knowledge that I gained from going through that process with Vintage King was really invaluable.
What sets Vintage King apart from other pro audio gear companies?
I think the availability of people to speak to on the phone is a big one for me–I like to talk on the phone. For example, if I'm having an issue with something or trying to figure out where the bottleneck is in my workflow, I don't want to wait three days for an email back from somebody. I want to talk on the phone and get an answer so that I can do something about it because post-production does not slow down for anybody–you have to be quick and Vintage King is very quick.
How has the industry changed since you first opened your doors and how has your studio adapted to those changes?
That's a really good question. I would say the biggest change that I'm noticing is that there are more people making things. I don't know if that's a COVID thing…maybe we all realized that life is short and we all want to be creating stuff more often. That’s sort of the optimistic way of looking at it, I guess, but that feels like the biggest change–it feels like there are way more movies, albums, and podcasts being made and these things are just expressions of our creative energy.
Adapting to that is just about trying to be quicker and more available, and by that I mean what I'm doing now is that towards the beginning and the end of any project, I'm spending a lot of time with the directors or the producers in the studio, doing stuff in real-time. There are some people who don't enjoy doing that because it can feel kind of difficult–it is difficult to interact in real-time with people about something because everyone is somewhat stressed. I like it because if I send off a revision and they email me notes back, even if it happens with the same speed as in-person feedback, it doesn't always happen with the same efficiency.
It’s about getting through to what the actual idea is, and our job as composers is to translate this other person's musical language and they may or may not have any musical knowledge. I have to learn what they're trying to tell me and I just find that easier to do in person.
Email notes can be jarring–like when they just say, “It’s not working.”
Yeah! When I was first starting out, I used to take everything really personally, so when people would email me and say, “It's not working”, I would do exactly what you just said; I would feel really weird about it sometimes.
Now what I'm learning is that, first of all, people are never thinking about us as much as we're thinking about ourselves. [Laughs] And second of all, they're talking in shorthand or being very brief because they just have stuff to do. Things have to get done, and they don't really have time to sit around and create a big communication about something that doesn't necessarily need to be a big deal. Why would they write a paragraph-long email when they could just write one sentence?
There is a tool I found that is so useful for exactly what we're talking about and I want to give it a shoutout. It’s called CueDB and it’s like a Dropbox where you upload your cues, the client can leave timestamped comments, and you can keep track of what version you're on. With regards to communication, I think when people are able to timestamp feedback to a video and leave it as a comment, as opposed to a sentence in an email, it does seem to take the pressure off them. I noticed that the feedback I get is actually better–not like I'm doing a better job, but more like they are able to be more specific more quickly, I think. It’s a great tool.
Looking back, what are you most proud of or excited about in terms of your history?
This is a hard one because I don't really like to pat myself on the back, but I'll say that I'm most proud of the fact that I've stuck around and that I am continuing to work in this field and I'm most looking forward to seeing what happens next.
I'm really interested in what's going on in the interactive space right now, with video games for example; I think that stuff is very interesting. I'm also really excited about this movie, The List. Then there’s the other movie that I worked on that, at some point, will come out, and I'm really proud of that too–this is all the stuff that is really exciting to me.
What are your plans for the future of your studio?
Well, right now I’m moving into this new space and taking it one day at a time from there. It’s been a while since I've had a studio space that was outside of my home so I'm hoping and looking forward to getting some work-life balance now.
Want to learn more about Maxton? Check out our Workflow video to learn about his approach in the studio and his go-to gear.