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Thinking in Sound: Creating Something Different Every Day with Mark Chu
Music & Sound
New York, USA
Yessian's music composer, producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist on why he has hundreds of voice memos on his phone

Mark Chu is a Los Angeles based music composer, producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for Yessian. His works have been featured on TV shows on the Big Three major networks, cable and streaming services, theme music for NBC’s Sunday Night Football and the NHL, experiential music productions for all of the major auto shows, various theme parks, museum installations and has during his career scored hundreds of television, radio and web projects for clients from Abbott to Zyrtec (and everything in between). 

LBB> When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

Mark> If the project is rhythmically driven, I’ll start with a basic beat and tempo that works best to highlight important moments of the picture. I’ll build the drums out and then the rest of the track around it. If the project is melodically driven, I’ll take a drive or a shower and hum ideas to myself and then sing a melody or chord progression into my phone. My phone has hundreds of these voice memos.

LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Mark> I wouldn’t say I prefer working solo to collaborating, but solo is definitely what I’m most used to and efficient at. In my case, being a composer usually means creating most of the parts for other instruments and musicians; so collaborations with a gang are rare. But these days, what I really enjoy doing is developing the basic structure of the track and then making a rough guideline for other singers and instrumentalists to do their thing. I’m always surprised and blown away with what my coworkers and musical colleagues… who are masters of their craft send back to me. In my experience, when you find the right people to work with, what they add to the music is always way beyond what you could have imagined or written by yourself.

LBB> What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

Mark> There are so many things I love about my job, from working with awesome people, to creating something different every day to even finding the perfect guitar pedal to use on a track, but the most satisfying part of my job is watching my kids’ faces when they see one of my commercials on TV or YouTube.

LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

Mark> The ad industry has evolved a lot during my career, and even though I’m biased, I feel like the role of music in advertising is just as important or even more than ever. It used to be that ad music and recording industry music were completely separate things. Now everything is intertwined and with recording artists doing commercials and commercial music becoming records. Sonic branding is always expanding and I’ve recently felt more of a shift to custom music vs. needle-drop library requests. The VR sector, internet and now web3 metaverse worlds all need music and it’s exciting to be doing what we do right now in time.

LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

Mark> My first musical heroes were Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Slash when I first started playing the guitar. For bands, I love Radiohead, Guns N Roses, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Nirvana, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction. There’s too many to list there.  As I started getting into DJ-ing and EDM production, I was really into BT, Aphex Twin, Tiesto and Sasha and Digweed. For Hip Hop in the aughts, I really respect the work of Just Blaze and Kanye West. For more current stuff I’m inspired by Pi’erre Bourne, D.A. Got That Dope, Metro Boomin, The Alchemist, Mike Dean, Louis The Child, Flume, Finneas, but again so many to list as I’m sure everyone says….and so many I’m leaving out just because I’m forgetful. 

LBB> And when it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

Mark> I didn’t know really know anything about music composing pioneers before I started my career. So I can’t say that I have frequent influencers there. Ad music composers are usually forgotten with their last broadcasted commercials. But I definitely learned a lot from Dan Yessian our founder and Gerard Smerek our global creative director. Dan always hammered in the idea that we were weren’t supposed to be focused on just making the best music; rather, we should be making the music that best serves the spot. From Gerard I learned so much about production techniques, engineering and getting the best sounds going in and that really elevated the sonics of my compositions.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music (lets say going through client briefs or answering emails) - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Mark> Because I’m working on or researching music all day I definitely have music going on, but it’s obviously in the foreground. If I’m not working, I usually don’t have music going on in the background, because it’s a relief to have breaks of silence.

I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions) - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

The majority of what I do will end up being played on a TV, earbuds or laptop; so in my earlier days I was conscious of that and made sure my music translated as well as possible through those outlets. Having done this for a while now, I can get a good basic feel for how sounds will translate from my speakers to the end user’s. If you can get things to sound pretty good on earbuds, and laptops, they will just be that much more amazing on the bad-ass, surround-sound immersive experiences.

LBB> On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

Mark> My daily listening diet consists of music references sent to me by our clients or our production team, and that includes music from just about every genre. After the morning briefs and emails it’s listening to what music I’m making for the day. 

Work from Yessian Music
Phoenix Labs