Carlos Villalobos on Fighting Temp Music and Pushing Yourself | Making Music for Films & TV

Carlos Villalobos grew up in Chicago playing rock music, harboring the same rock star dreams that so many young musicians have. He played for years in the ‘90s with his band Esperanza, made his own solo flamenco music as CJ Villa, and worked on local music productions. "In the beginning of my career, it became very confusing as to what and who I was, because I was doing a little bit of everything," he says.

But ultimately, this broad set of skills, musical tastes, and Villalobos’ curiosity about all the different ways music can be made proved to be a great start to a media composition and production career.

An opportunity to work in Hawaii led to writing music for Baywatch Hawaii, which became his foot in the door to the wider industry. Today, he’s making music for Empire, Fox’s primetime show about a hip-hop record label that will be airing its fifth season this fall. (Carlos has been with them since the first.)

"I couldn’t pick one [way], so I kind of took the longer route to get where I was going. But I think in the end, they say it’s always worth it," he says.

As part of our ongoing series of interviews with media composers, we took the opportunity to talk to Carlos about more lessons he's learned in his career, what music software and gear he uses every day, and his work recording bands and artists in his Chicago studio.

For more information about Villalobos and his work, find his website here.

What was your first media composing and how did you get it?

In the late '90s, when I was producing in Chicago—I was born and raised in Chicago—I started out here. I was working with a few little projects and doing these sort of local productions. In 1998, a friend offered me a job as a recording engineer in a studio out in Hawaii, and I had met this guy a few times before through some other mutual friends, you know—it wasn't a big job. I wasn't getting paid a lot and I was just starting to get my foot in the door, but I had no formal training. I didn't go to music school. I didn't have any connects really.

While I was in Hawaii, I wound up working with a bunch of artists as a programmer, producer, engineer, and co-writer. Almost immediately, because when I got there, nobody was really doing that kind of stuff, and Hawaii has its own sort of little market—they had their "famous artists," quote, unquote. They were big fish in a small pond and I was working with these people.

After a couple years of doing that, I moved to LA in '99. I was in LA probably only 10 months. So, in 2000, I got a call about this show, Baywatch Hawaii, and it turned out that the music supervisor of the show was an artist that I had produced a couple years before. The executive producer had heard all the music I had done and wanted me to join their team. I knew nothing about TV or film, so I didn't know to what capacity I was going to do things. And I remember at the time, I was playing with other rock bands and that was the career I wanted to take. Be in a rock band, be a rock star, and make millions [laughs].

I called my attorney at that time and I said, "Listen, this show Baywatch Hawaii wants to do one original song per week. I don't know if I want to do it." He said just make an offer. Make it something really high or ask for a lot of money or whatever and they'll probably say no and then you can move on. So, I thought I'd take his advice. I made ridiculous demands for a lot of money and then they said OK. I was like, What? Literally I had three days to—well, they came and packed up my house, grabbed all my stuff—and within 3 days of me saying I guess I'll start doing this, I wound up going.

Carlos Villalobos - Baywatch Hawaii, Season 11

I picked up a couple of books. And this was what? 2000. You couldn't really look on YouTube to learn how to do this stuff. So, I remember spending my flight from California, from LA to Honolulu reading all about how to sync to picture and all the different methods and learning all about SMPTE and all this kind of stuff. When I got there, they were like, "Dude you don't even have to worry about that stuff. We take care of all that. You're just doing an original song per episode and we'll cut that and edit it and everything."

It turned out to be a sweet gig, because I got to get in and see how the whole film and TV industry worked, the different roles of people. And I got to deal with music supervisors and people like that. While I was working on those songs, I wound up getting the theme song for Baywatch Hawaii for that season, which was the final season. So, I actually did the theme song as well. And I was introduced to a whole bunch of new stuff—and from reading the book on my way to Hawaii—I actually started getting more and more interested in this role of film music. I'm glad all that happened, that I didn't have to jump right into it so much, but that I actually got to see all the roles of people who were doing a really successful show, who had been doing it for years. It was like going to school at the same time, you know?

How has creating music for yourself or other recording artists informed your compositional work?

"It's been pretty good collaborating because I get a chance to not only experiment and get out there and do things differently, but see how other people do things."

Well, it's always a learning process. For me, the more I can experiment, the more I sort of learn. And working with other artists of course—I never was a big collaborator. I always used to do everything on my own. It's been pretty good collaborating because I get a chance to not only experiment and get out there and do things differently, but see how other people do things—which is going to be different than how you do it. So, as far as creating music for myself, it's definitely improved my composition work a lot because you're exposed to so many more different ideas.

How did your academic music education or lack of a formal music education inform your media career?

I would have to go with my lack of formal eduction on the music side. My formal education was your standard education—I was going to go become a doctor, basically. I was a science guy. But I always had this curiosity, so, I think that the lack of formal education in the music world and my formal education from the past led to my curiosity to always learn, which set me on a good path. Because I didn't want to know about one thing—I wanted to know about a series of things. Most importantly, the industry, how the industry worked. And then from there, I was able to understand how I could apply a lot of the stuff to music.

For example, in business, there are rules, but you still kind of work without these rules. Like, you kind of break these rules, so to speak. And in music, I found how to create things as well without the rules, without having to use theory. Not that theory's misleading or bad, but sometimes when you start in theory—because I've studied a little bit of it, obviously—you can sort of limit yourself, because you wind up thinking, This doesn't make sense. You know? It's supposed to be like this, the rules, so you should do this. I think my lack of formal music education helped me create without using the rules, so to speak.

But also, again I did take it seriously, and I study, I read, I watch videos. Every once in a while, I'll call up a composer that I met or whatever and maybe even just fly to LA to sit with them and either talk to them or see them in a studio and just see new things. It's always about learning. That education part doesn't stop, because our industry changes constantly and technology changes it.

What do you consider to be the most essential skill set, soft or hard, to have in your career?

Carlos Villalobos

Patience [laughs]. Patience. I mean, that's the number one, because you have to deal with timelines and people who really may or may not be spot on with their instructions. You may have to deal with other musicians and other teams that may be a little bit slow. But I mean, as far as all the skill sets that I would say is: patience, creativity, obviously an affinity towards tech—being tech savvy and understanding how things work—you can't really be behind.

And you always have to want to strive to do your best. I mean, you always have to do your best work and there are times where you don't want to. You have to push yourself. That's the one thing that's important, because you are self-employed. No one else is going to push you and make you do things and you always have to push to do your best work.

What's the strangest request the director or film, TV producer has given you when describing the kind of music they want?

Colors. I had a director who would talk to me in colors and shades to sort of create moods. So, I was left kind of guessing what that director wanted. Like, "I want this scene to be purple," or, "I'd like to have this vibe kind of have a blue tone to it."

I would say in some ways, it was difficult and in some ways it was a little bit clear to me, but it was definitely the strangest sort of request that I had gotten, especially describing the scenes and clips that I had. Somehow I got through it. It worked.

What's your studio setup? What instruments are you composing with? Favorite scoring software, music libraries, etc.?

I'm a Mac guy. In the studio, I have a couple Macs, but I guess my main machine is a Mac Pro 3.33GHz Mac Pro with a silver tower. It has 64 gigs of RAM, a bunch of SSDs and hard drives and backup drives. Actually, I use Cubase Pro, Pro Tools, and Logic Pro X.

I would have to say that Logic Pro X is my favorite, the most bang for your buck software. So I have that on my laptop and on my studio computer—you can have it on so many, multiple computers. It was just one of those things where I got it for all my computers, which I have five computers, so they all have Logic Pro X on them.

Villalobos Studio

I started with Cubase in the late '90s when I started the whole composing thing, around '98. I got into it for a while and then I switched to Logic Pro X some years after because the guy that got me into Cubase Pro, who was also like, a composer, a media guy, switched to Logic and got me into that. I use Logic predominantly for scoring now. Cubase is second, and I do all my mixing now in Pro Tools. I always have, because that's sort of industry standard.

Then as far as plugins, man, I have a lot [laughs]. I guess for composing and stuff, I use obviously Spitfire, 8Dio, EastWest, Heavyocity, Native Instruments, of course, Slate stuff...

And as far as processing plugins, I think I have them all really. I mean, from Waves to—oh my God, I think I have them all [laughs]. I have so many plugins. I just became one of these guys who started buying plugins left and right because several projects that I would work on, for example, with Empire, there's a set of plugins we'd always use in the studio, so I wanted to have the same plugins at home. So, you have your Soundtoys. You have your Sonnox bundles, and these are all bundles too, right?

And then for a different show, they might always use the FabFilter Pros and all that kind of stuff, so I'd get those. It just became one of those things where I kept collecting plugins over time, working on different shows and whatnot.

What would be the standout ones though? In the processing realm, those are all really top-notch brands you recommended, but what are some ones that are memorable to you? That, I've really always liked using this?

As far as processing plugins, Soundtoys comes to mind. The Sonnox bundle I use a lot. In fact, I use the [Sonnox Oxford] Inflator quite often. Obviously, the Waves stuff, which I don't use as much as I used to. On occasion I do. The SSL is fantastic. I like the UA [Universal Audio] plugins a lot, but I don't have a UA setup anymore, because in my setup I use the Apogee Symphony still, which I like and I actually have the old Apogee Rosetta.

Apogee has been fantastic, and I'd gotten such great support from Betty and the people, Bob Clearmountain and all of them back in LA that I don't know if I could even switch to something else, because whenever I have an issue, they just take care of it right away.

They're an Apple company now too, right? So, they've kind of got that kind of umbrella supporting them as well.

Yeah. They definitely have that locked in there, so it makes that easier. But like I said, over the years, I switched to Apogee 2007 or 8, so it's been 10 years that I've been with them. The Rosettas are incredible and the mixes that I do in my room that I send out are pretty much finals—they're done. But yeah, as far as standout plugins, those are the ones I tend to use the most.

Of course, in Pro Tools, I use some of stock stuff, like the Avid EQs and stuff like that, and their Avid processing bundles. And in Logic, I use a lot of the Logic stuff, which I actually kind of like. As far as real standout ones, like I said, the Sonnox I use a lot. The Inflator's fantastic. Their dynamics are incredible. Everything sounds very crisp and clean. With Soundtoys stuff, everybody uses it and I can see why.

I'm a Logic Pro person as well and it's really impressive what you get for 199 bucks—the reverb alone is worth the money, you know?

Well, that's just the thing. Logic has its host of plugins that are fantastic. Their EQs are great, their reverbs are great, their delays are fantastic, which is why I like using this VST wrapper—P&M plugins. They make a VST wrapper that I use in Pro Tools sometimes if I ever want to bring in a Logic delay or a space reverb or anything like that. You can actually use it in Pro Tools.

What's your general process? Do you come up with thematic concepts for characters, plot arcs, and build from there? Or how does that kind of look?

Most of the time it does start with a theme and then it kind of moves from there. For example, sometimes I'll get a picture and I'll write based on the mood in the scene. But it just depends—I will always think of a theme beforehand when I'm looking at something or If get a script first, which sometimes happens, and then you know what the character should represent. But usually it depends on what the director wants.

Sometimes I'll be thinking a theme one way and the director will come and say, well I want this and you've got to figure out how to kind of make those things work. But yes, I always start with a theme. I remember kind of coming up and talking to a lot of composers along the way and they would always tell me, "What you want to do is you want to come up with a theme first. You want that theme and then everything else will sort of fall into place once you get the theme."

Carlos Villalobos

Before, I never used to do that. I'd just start writing bed, with feel, thinking that that was enough, but then you start to realize, Hey, wait a minute. My soundtrack does not sound uniform and there's a central theme that's missing. So, I understand now when they said, "Listen, you should write a theme first and then do everything around that theme."

Some other movies—a lot of Netflix stuff now—doesn't necessarily have a theme. It's almost like you're doing sound design composing, so it depends on the project. But I think over the last five years or so, it's been kind of a mix and match between having to do themes and having just to do sort of this sound design/soundtrack kind of stuff.

How do you choose register, timbre, or instrumentation for these particular thematic concepts?

A director will usually have his ideas and we'll do a blend. For me, it just kind of comes naturally. Like, I sort of have a feel for the picture. You know, I tend to do a lot of things visually anyway. So, it is just a little bit more natural. I don't even know how to explain it.

But instrumentation, usually the director already has some sort of thing they brought me, like, "I need a flute." And then I take it from there. I'll figure out, do we make it a cool flute? Is it a dark flute? Is it going to have a lot of space design reverb? What's it going to have? How are we going to make it fit the scene?

How much of a battle is it to work with stock music or temp music that a director puts in—to create a new piece that encompasses what the director loves about the well-known place holder?

Yeah, good old temp music [laughs]. I mean, it can be hard, but I sort of found ways around it. What I tend to do is I sort of figure out the tempo, because usually that's what they want. They want the feel of the tempo, the key, and maybe what little elements might be sticking out that the director likes. For example, it might be those big horns or something that stands out that I know that that's what they want. I haven't found temp to be a problem for me, unless they want me to directly rip it off, which at that point is like, it's a little bit—I don't take that chance at all.

What I get from temp music is again, a lot of people hear it and they'll want to copy it, but what I take from it is, what's the instrumentation they used? What is the feel they used? For example, are there 16 cellos going across or is it just a bed of music that's sitting there? Or is it a rhythm thing that they're looking for? Is it a drum sound that stands out or a particular instrument that's being featured in that temp? And then I'll figure out the tempo. So, for me, temp music is just for me to figure out the tempo, the feel, and what kind of instrumentation they want because they don't know how to necessarily express what they want.

Carlos Villalobos - "El Loco!" (Sex And The City, Season 2)

Have you found any go-to compositional moves or tools for protagonists, antagonists? What types of chords, intervals are going to work for suspense, loss, etc.?

Not really. I tend to sort of, a lot with minor keys. I'm into dark, sad chords and moods and things like that. It all depends, because everything's so specific. I haven't had one project that is the same. I worked with one director on two different things that she did and both processes were completely different, which required me to sort of think completely different, which required me to sort of sit down and figure out different tools and methods for each one. I've never really had this go-to sort of move or tool for really anything, which is probably a horrible answer to give you, but that's kind of how it's been for me.

What's kind of a normal breakdown of your time during your day? How much time do you spend composing? How much time recording and producing? How much time securing work?

"Even on off days, I will spend at least a few hours kind of reading about something new, learning some kind of new tech, reading about some new skill, just because I think it's important to really try and stay ahead."

I guess in my case, it helps I have a manager who is amazing and she helps me out a lot when it comes to securing work or scheduling or things like that—taking meetings, all that kind of stuff. I'm also at a point too where a lot of it is word of mouth, so I get calls directly from a specific project or a company that's looking for someone to compose or my name was somehow dropped into a hat and I'm one of their choices. That helps a lot, obviously, but I work on different projects daily. One day it might be composing. One day it might be producing an artist. The next day, it might be mixing a different artist. It kind of varies. So, I have the fortune of having sort of a not very repetitive workload. It's never boring because I get to do a little bit of everything from, like I said, performing, producing, mixing, and things like that. Working on different genres of music too.

My days can be kind of chaotic and a little bit crazy, but I kind of like that. I get bored just doing one thing. And I feel like if I don't move on to do something a little differently, I get stagnant and I get stale. I'd say a lot of my time is spent writing. I'm constantly writing. That goes without saying. And even on off days, I will spend at least a few hours kind of reading about something new, learning some kind of new tech, reading about some new skill, checking out some YouTube videos and things like that just because I think it's important to really try and stay ahead.

What do you see as the future of media composing?

That's such an interesting question because so much is changing constantly. I mean, as samples and libraries become better and better, I think there's going to be more and more DIY composers out there working from their bedrooms. These new sample libraries—I don't know if you've heard the new Hans Zimmer library, the new string library. They're just getting so much better. Kind of scary [laughs].

As far as the future goes, I don't know what's going to happen. I think that Hans Zimmer kind of brought back using the live orchestra, which was fantastic. Because I remember when samples started coming out in the '90s, the late '90s, when I got into it, it was like, "Hey these samples are so good, they're going to replace the human musician." And they might have, but I remember Hans Zimmer would always bring in a live orchestra to replicate what he was doing, because they didn't even have the power to do that at the time, right?

Now, you look at a plugin like the Tina Guo cello plugin. I don't know if you've played that, but it's amazing. I mean, it sounds like she's in the studio with you working. If things continue to go that way, it's going to be easier for someone to press a key and have a killer riff come out of it, and they're a composer.

And there's so much more new media that's coming out. There will be so many different opportunities that we don't even know about right now that I think are coming out. It's definitely going to be, I think, a little bit more of a solitary gig because you'll be able to do it by yourself. It'll be interesting to see who's going to really be a top composer in an environment like that because it's going to require you to be really, really creative in order to make it feel natural and be real-sounding, like a group did it, you know?

With new technology that's coming out and the stuff is changing every six months, I have no idea where it's going, but I'm really curious to see where it does go. Like I said, these libraries are becoming more and more amazing where you can literally just play one chord and it will play an entire composition for you. So, I don't know. We'll see.

What are you working on right now?

All right. Let's see. Well, we just wrapped Empire, Season 4. So, I'm kind of back to working on my own music and producing other artists.

Carlos Villalobos - "Let Me Rock" (Empire, Season 4)

And that's season 4 of Empire?

Yeah. I've been there since Season 1. We finished Season 4 and we will have a season 5. I'm still in Chicago, and I've been working with some local bands here. A band called Acres to Miles, which is from Chicago, Ethan Butler, who is from Chicago. Fantastic guy. Manny Torres, who is also from Chicago. And I've been writing and producing with other artists here and in LA, and then, actually in Argentina.

Then I'm just constantly writing. I'm working with some friends. I'm also sort of on the side-planning—I want to start an art center in Chicago for kids.

That's awesome. What is that art center going to look like?

I can't talk about too much right now, but let's just say that it's doing something with kids, all ages. It's a whole different sort of program, and it's more teaching kids about the value of music in both film and as a music medium to sell, and teaching kids who are in film the value of music in their actual productions in films that they create.

So, it's like going to work. In some ways, these kids without projects would basically see what it's like so that you can either A, follow this as a career path or B, realize that it's not the career path for you, so you don't waste any time and you move on to whatever else you want to go into. But it's more informative. It's more workshops. It's more getting your hands dirty.

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