Bryce Jacobs: Adventures With A Guitar

Bryce Jacobs

To introduce Bryce Jacobs as a movie composer - even as a talented musician and composer - is only telling half the story. Not only does he write and perform distinctive film soundtracks, working on some seminal Hollywood movies alongside the likes of Hans Zimmer; not only is he a talented musician constantly exploring the crossover between classical orchestral music, the guitar and electronic effects; but on top of all this he’s a devoted advocate of the guitar as a versatile, underestimated instrument, having developed his own unique 12-string guitar based on the range and capabilities of a piano, to overcome some of the guitar’s traditional limitations. We talk to this truly multi-talented musician about challenging misconceptions around the guitar, its place in film scoring, his own passion for movies, and the difference Exponential Audio has made to his work.

A Musical Eclectic From Day One

Jacobs has always nursed a passion for music across the genres, developing from a young age a parallel obsession for orchestral music alongside his beloved guitar. “Music has always been an ever-present part of my life”, he recalls. “When I was 12, I’d been playing guitar for about a year, and I heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and that was it! I was totally all-in at that point, because of that one song.” He had played the piano since he was five, and as a teenager was getting more into rock, but ‘Stairway to Heaven’ proved a gateway to all sorts of new worlds. “That song got me more interested in other areas - there was some jazz harmony in there so I started getting involved in jazz guitar playing, the classical side of the song spring-boarded me into classical. And even seeing the word arpeggio I thought “what’s that?” and then wanted to study music theory. It all branched out from there, I started studying all styles. I became very obsessed with improvising which then led to songwriting which then led to composing. I played in bands all through my teens and twenties, and did a bachelor’s in guitar and a master’s in composition at the Sydney Conservatorium, all while still playing in bands. So I had this kind of parallel existence of being obsessed with orchestral music and playing the guitar. It wasn’t until technology kicked in that it all came together!”

Passion For Film Prompted By A Penguin…

Following his college years, Jacobs worked as a touring guitarist across Australia and the UK, but found himself more and more drawn towards film, attracted by the musical scope and variety of movie scoring. “The variety you can have in film is what I’m all about. If I listen to too much Julian Bream I end up going to listen to Tool, then back onto Miles Davis then head onto The Chemical Brothers, etc - I’m someone who just listens to as wide a reach of styles as I can. Film is the last bastion of where you can have that.”

Jacobs got in touch with an old lecturer for advice on charging for orchestration work. She asked if he’d be interested in working on a film about a penguin who can dance but can’t sing… “So I ended up being a copyist on ‘Happy Feet’! That kind of started my film career as an orchestrator, orchestrating on these outsourced John Powell films while also working on Australian projects.” A few years on, by 2008, Jacobs felt the call of Hollywood, and landed an enviable role at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control, working as assistant to Ramin Djawadi to then work up the ranks from there. “At a certain point I hit a crossroads and thought I’m going to take the plunge and go to the States for three months and see what happens. That was 8 years ago – I’m still here!”

Developing A Real Signature Sound

Jacobs has a wide-ranging film resumé covering everything from kid’s animations through to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and ‘Rush’. It’s clear that he relishes the variety, and yet brings a real signature sound to all his projects, making use of – not surprisingly - the guitar, in fantastically innovative ways. “At Remote I just naturally started to develop my sound. I found that I would use lots of non-literal ways of incorporating guitars into the mix, lots of textural ways. Alongside using synthesisers and orchestra I thought “how can you disguise a guitar to sound like synthesisers and orchestra?” And that started becoming a point of difference for me, no matter what I got involved with.”

This developing confidence to explore the guitar in film composition came to the attention of Hans Zimmer. “‘Rush’ was a real high point for me in my years at Remote - there’s a lot of me on that film as a writer and a player. That whole soundtrack started off with a suite of 37 layered guitar parts, because Hans had told me: ‘let’s start only with guitars before any orchestral stuff or electronica’ - he just wanted the creative essence and juices to come from guitars (given the era of the film). That really put me on this trajectory.” It’s a formative experience he is still moved by: “The film itself, it’s an incredible film. Any time you’re working on a true story you feel a real responsibility in a very humble way. And to be able to musically do something like we did with that…with the rock elements then the more esoteric cerebral and emotional elements, that constant call of death that F1 divers experience like a moth to a flame… there were so many intricacies to that film, it was great to be able do such exploratory musical stuff with it and let that inform the orchestral and electronic components via guitars.”

Getting The Guitar The Recognition It Deserves

Once you get Jacobs started on the role of guitars in film scoring there’s no disguising his passionate advocacy for the instrument, and his disappointment at how little recognition it is given as a wonderfully flexible instrument in the composing world. “I think it has incredible breadth for a scoring job. If you really think about it, it’s still a relatively young instrument in its development. When I was at university there was a real turning point where the guitar started to be taken more seriously in academic realms, but out in the world guitars have become such potent statements for specific genres – whether its rock guitar, punk guitar, jazz guitar, classical guitar – but it also becomes very quickly isolating since it’s easy to think ‘oh that’s just what it does’. But there’s all these beautiful spaces in between. And that’s what I’ve naturally explored.”

He traces this curiosity and creativity back to his early love of orchestral music. “I remember being at university, especially when I started, I was falling in love with Debussy and Wagner and all these incredible composers who largely had no interest at all in guitar! I thought surely there’s some common ground here, some exploratory territory where you can find a sonic landscape using a guitar that gets closer to what an orchestra could do. It can’t just be all banging out power chords, riffs, soloing or performing Bach pieces and calling it a day.”

This frustration inspired him to design his own guitar – the BKJ 7 Octave guitar - with 12 strings and therefore a wider range of classical capabilities, then when digital came along he found he could stretch the instrument’s potential even further. “I gradually gained a better understanding of DAWs and how they worked, then the computer technology caught up to be as powerful as it is now, and all of a sudden I could put all these ideas in a tangible thing, that was very exciting for me. It’s something I’m still exploring and probably will be forever more!”

Simple Strokes Of Genius

For somebody so dedicated to expanding range and experimentation, when it comes to his favourite gear, Jacobs confesses to now being a simple man at heart. “It’s funny but it’s the simple strokes of genius that have always attracted and impressed me the most. Usually when you layer stuff up with too many effects it just becomes another thing altogether, borderline gimmicky. From a young age - even before I was deliberately thinking this way - I was very aware, when I was listening to Led Zeppelin, of Jimmy Page’s guitar orchestration; the way he would use a recording to layer up the guitars to create this otherworldly soundscape, yet doing it so simply just using the right tone, the right amount and quality of reverb and maybe a few other carefully placed effects in between. Then I discovered Pink Floyd and Dave Gilmour, hearing what he was doing with delays…. what he could do with one delay pedal was just astounding – the same with U2 later on.”

“Although I have been guilty of having as many effects as I can, what’s it’s turned around to be now is me grabbing one piece of equipment and really milking it for all it’s worth, and then combining that with something else. Otherwise it can become more of a superficial thing, ‘this instrument does this and that does that’ - and you risk it becoming a homogenised nothing-ness.”

In his early days in Los Angeles, Jacobs had to invest wisely in new tech, having sold all his original gear when he moved from Australia. “I had to really invest in Guitar Rig and Waves GTR, and get as much mileage as I could out of them. I discovered a lot of new things and eventually I wound up buying a simple Vox AC15, getting real classic hardware to complement the digital world.”

His real go-to pieces of gear, however, would have to be “the delay pedal, amp distortion, amp reverb a lot of the time, and wah pedal of course.” He says he uses wah pedal a lot. “The reason I first bought a wah pedal many years ago was just to play ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’! But in recent years it’s been more like ‘how can we combine that with delays and reverbs to create this quasi-dance like filter effect that’s not a synth and not a filter cut-off’”


Naturally Inspiring Creativity

Throughout all his experimentation and inspired movie scoring there’s one thing Jacobs rates very highly, and that’s quality reverb. “There are some effects that are very elusive to capture nicely, and reverb is definitely one of them. Hall reverb especially, it’s very easy for that to sound cheap, very hard for that to sound authentic.” He needs no prompting in declaring Exponential to be his reverb of choice. “What I love about Exponential Audio is that there’s a new quality about it, not something I can quite put my finger on, but there’s a freshness to it. I’m always interested in that. It naturally inspires your creativity, if you’ve got something there that’s speaking back to you in a new way, you then don’t go down old tired paths.”

“I feel like other reverbs I’ve used I’ve had to put an EQ on, and all this other acrobatic stuff around the reverb until it actually sounds right in the mix. Exponential is much more about getting straight to the point. It says on the website about not wasting time trying to have a plug-in that’s all the bells-and-whistles visually but is the real deal when it comes to authenticity and usability. I like that. No one obviously sees that in the outside world, what we look at on the computer, but what the outside world does witness is what it sounds like. Whether it’s a professional or whether it’s someone who has no idea about music or audio at all, I ultimately think it makes a perceptive difference. And even if it just makes a difference to you as the composer or mixer or engineer, that can have a larger cascading effect than you immediately realise.”

Effects in general, Jacobs believes, are becoming ever more important in movie scoring. “In the time I’ve been doing it, which is ten years or so, scores have become a lot more record-producer-like, with carefully-chosen sounds that work together in a special way.” He has witnessed a change in the composer-artist relationship: “you’re no longer just going to a composer and saying ‘I want a romantic comedy score’, it’s more like ‘what can you do with this particular film that happens to be this particular genre but needs your own particular watermark on it?’ That’s where effects are a really important choice (alongside instrumentation within the musical production process). Even when it comes to an orchestra, whether sampled or real, even the orchestra now sounds different than it did even two or three years ago. There’s an orchestral sound that’s starting to be left behind, being replaced with a tighter, more intimate, cinematic wave that we’re now coming across in films and TV more and more. Reverb is a huge part of that, especially when it comes to the orchestra I believe, and sampled orchestras especially.” It’s also, Jacobs reckons, down to money. “Plenty of the time now the budgets may only allow for a sampled orchestra, and it’s the reverb that has a huge role in making it sound expensive or making it sound cheap.”

Be Unique, Keep Your Morale Up, And Love What You Do

When it comes to advice from such a passionate and experienced music professional, Jacobs thinks hard. “There are two points I would make. I would say on the professional level the thing that was always drummed into me was this: Whatever anyone else is doing, be able to do it, but always be as unique as you can beyond that. Try to create and cultivate a unique path to travel on. I’m very critical of myself and others in that realm, it’s like: ‘what are you actually adding to this or are you just pulling out the usual stops of those that have come before you?’”

“On a purely personal note I would just say make sure you always keep it fun and find ways to keep your morale up in genuine ways. It’s a pendulum-swinging business, and it’s very sinuous with who you are as a person - it’s not like a 9 to 5 where you switch off at the end of the day, it’s an ever-present thing. Make sure whatever happens, you love what you do: that’s paramount. That’s what got me out of bands and into the movie business, because at my lowest point in bands I really wasn’t enjoying it. Whereas at my lowest points in film there has still been a heartbeat (though sometime faint) that brings me back to life… and let’s face it, what we do is a pretty special thing to be a part of’. I mean, there are worse things I could be doing for a living, that’s for damn sure!”