Early in his career as a composer and sound designer, Bill Byrne borrowed $25,000 and flew to Los Angeles, naively hoping to parlay a 15-second pinball simulation into a Hollywood career.
Funny thing is, his strategy worked.
Today, Byrne’s company – Bing Bang Boom! – creates integrated music and sound for film, television, advertising, video games and the Internet.
His award-winning work has helped promote everything from “Criminal Minds” to Katie Couric. But his specialty is those teeth-rattling theater trailers that portend the arrival of the next Iron Man, Star Trek or Batman blockbuster.
During a recent interview at his state-of-the-art recording studio, Byrne discussed his passion for percussive background noise, and the CD collection of original songs he and other local musicians are compiling for a charity fundraiser.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Byrne: Here in Spokane.
S-R: What was your introduction to music?
Byrne: My mom started me on piano when I was 4. Eventually I moved on to the trombone, guitar, bass and cello. I wasn’t very good at reading (music), but I had this little radio inside me, and I’d capture things on my dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder.
S-R: Was there a moment that changed your life?
Byrne: Yes. I loved classical music. Then in 1973 I heard Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” with all those sounds and vocals and orchestration, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do: combine sounds with music. And be a rock star.
S-R: How did that go?
Byrne: I started playing with bands right out of (Liberty) high school in the late ’70s, and traveled all over the U.S. for six years. Back then you could make pretty good money, because people went out and drank six nights a week. But the other guys in the band just wanted to party and pretend they were Mick Jagger, and I wanted to write music, so I had to do something else.
S-R: Did you try college?
Byrne: I went to Spokane Falls for about a year and a half. But technology moves way too quickly – it changes weekly now. So I started a company called the Production Group in 1986, and did jingles. Then in ’88, another local company – Pinnacle – was creating the opening for Monday Night Football, and I was lucky enough to be involved with the sound design for the pinball machine. Afterward, I knew that was my 15 seconds to do something, so I immediately got in a plane and went to LA. I had this weird idea that I could borrow some money, hire an advertising agency and my career would take off. I had no idea what I was doing – I just started calling the biggest ad agencies in the world.
Byrne: The first one I went to was Foote, Cone and Belding on the 36th floor of a building in Wilshire. Girls in fancy dresses served me muffins and coffee, and took me up to the vice president’s office. I showed him what I did and he liked it a lot. Then he asked how much I wanted to spend on my advertising campaign. I said $25,000, and he very politely told me they didn’t take accounts smaller than $3 million. But he gave me work right from the get-go, and I’ve never looked back.
S-R: How has your career evolved?
Byrne: Things were great all through the ’90s because cable was growing wildly and we had a different sound. I built three studios in LA and had 12 employees. But once you form relationships, clients just want to talk to you and have you do their work. And my clients couldn’t get hold of me anymore because I was too busy administrating and flying back and forth between Spokane and LA. So I closed that company in 1997 and started Bing Bang Boom! here in ’98.
S-R: Where might people encounter your work?
Byrne: It’s on all the major networks. And if you’re in a movie theater, you hear my stuff before the feature film starts – when they show those really loud trailers.
S-R: Such as?
Byrne: “Wolverine” … “Mission Impossible” … “The Dark Knight Rises.”
S-R: So your niche is big and loud?
Byrne: (laugh) Yeah, pretty aggressive. It’s kind of a hybrid between orchestral music and sounds you don’t usually hear.
S-R: How do you create unfamiliar sounds?
Byrne: Some of the coolest ones I made by placing microphones inside huge, empty grain silos, then striking the walls with big rubber hammers. Once I got the raw sounds, I took them back to the studio and manipulated them so they got even bigger.
S-R: Where can someone hear your sounds on the Internet?
Byrne: At href=”http://www.bingbangboom.net/library.php”>www.bingbangboom.net /library.php.
S-R: Do you watch something and then compose specifically for it?
Byrne: I did when I was in the custom business, but now I create things ahead of time. There’s a language of trailers and television promos – rises, falls, endings – and I’ve been speaking that language my whole career.
S-R: Do you also write stand-alone songs?
Byrne: Right now I’m making a CD of original compositions for the Union Gospel Mission to sell or do whatever they want. Fifteen to 20 really talented local people are volunteering their efforts to the project. We’re hoping to finish it this year, but it’s hard because each song takes between 90 and 100 hours.
S-R: Did the recession hurt your business?
Byrne: That and copyright piracy have definitely affected the music marketplace. But what I do is very specialized. So Warner Films isn’t going to steal my stuff and put it on a trailer or DVD and risk getting sued over what they would have nominally paid me.
S-R: How has the technology evolved?
Byrne: When I started, everything got written on paper. Of course, now we have computers. But technology is secondary to quality. If you wake up in the morning and your idea sucks, it doesn’t matter what technology you have.
S-R: Can you find top-notch musicians in Spokane?
Byrne: Oh, yeah. There are some world-class singers who I’ve taken to Los Angeles, and they hold their own in any session. We have fabulous guitar players, percussionists, horn players, symphony violinists.
S-R: What’s a typical work day for you?
Byrne: I start at 7, quit at 6, ride my bike for a couple of hours, then get back at it at 8:30 and work to 11.
S-R: What do you consider your strength?
S-R: What are you not so good at?
Byrne: Probably managing people.
S-R: Do you have a business philosophy?
Byrne: Always go way beyond what people request.
S-R: Is this a glamorous job?
Byrne: I’ve certainly met a lot of glamorous people over the years, but the job itself isn’t glamorous. It’s head down, don’t give up, push through. And it’s also very physical. My job is to create music that stirs emotions and tells a story, and playing that kind of music is physically demanding.
S-R: When people find out what you do, what questions do they ask?
Byrne: I don’t really tell people what I do. But those who know ask me about the people I’ve met.
S-R: What do you tell them?
Byrne: I say I’ve met some nice people and some not-so-nice people.
S-R: If someone wanted to build a studio like yours and stock it with first-rate recording equipment, how much would that cost?
Byrne: Probably a million bucks. But as far as an investment goes, this studio is a white elephant because in order for the next owner to park their motor home in it, they’d have to destroy it.
S-R: You’re 53. How long can you do this?
Byrne: As long as I still enjoy it. I love the challenge of seeing if I can do better today than I did yesterday.