Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, January 3, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 3
Winter 2005

Sound Decision
Doug Hall ’76 makes commercials melodious
By Sherri Kimmel
The United States in 1976, the year of its bicentennial, was like the America of 2004 in one respect—lots of red, white and blue and flags flying proudly and high. Also flying high that year was a Dickinson senior, a music major named Doug Hall. After spending much of his college career playing solo gigs around campus, he’d been invited to open for a popular folk singer, Livingston Taylor, brother of the better-known James. Hall started out that night singing his own compositions and playing acoustic guitar, then he switched to his main instrument, piano.

These days he’s still a master of the keyboard, but it’s most likely attached to a Mac G5 computer. As creative director/composer at Propeller Music and Sound Design in midtown Manhattan, Hall creates the mood music you hear when you turn on the TV and see a swanky car gliding down the highway. In a food commercial the sound of that strawberry plopping into a glass of milk also comes courtesy of Hall. With the ability to create a symphony of sounds on his computer, often augmented by live musicians he brings into his adjacent recording studio, Hall describes his job as “being director of my own band every day.”

Hall’s composing room, with its 10th-floor view of Rockefeller Center, is filled with light and lots of sound. At arm’s reach he has the G5, an array of synthesizers and processors, and an electric guitar. Adept at everything from classical and jazz to electronica and hip-hop, Hall also has written and produced for recording artists such as Danny Gottlieb and Regina Carter.

Musical abilities aside, Hall’s two decades as composer of music for TV and radio commercials and, recently, a feature film, have made him a well-known player in his field. For the last several years he was a free-lancer operating out of a studio in his Montclair, N.J., home.

But he and partner/wife Iris Schaffer, a singer and a former producer for MTV, wisely foresaw that setting up shop in Manhattan would bring them more clients and greater accessibility to the skilled session musicians who inhabit the city. Though just occupying the space since March, business is progressing at a nice clip.

In mid-September, Hall sat at his computer watching a QuickTime of a commercial for MBNA credit cards for which he was creating the background music. He had just finished composing a world-music-tinged score for a Singapore tourism promo. He enhanced the latter composition with live musicians, recorded in his studio—a string quartet, brass and the ethnic flute specialist from The Lion King.

“There are so many great musicians and singers here in New York,” he says, his green eyes bright behind rectangular black-framed glasses. “It’s a wonderful thing to work with these top-level musicians.”

Others with whom he’s worked over the years: saxophonist Michael Brecker and singers Michael Bolton (for a Navy recruitment spot), Luther Vandross and Patti Austin (for a Burger King ad).

While the trend among advertisers to purchase licensed music, such as Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” for Volkswagen or Sting’s “Desert Rose” for Jaguar, makes composing a competitive business, Hall argues the case for commissioning new work instead:

“The thing that original music can do that licensed music can’t is customize for a particular situation. [Using licensed music] is like buying a suit off the rack versus one that’s tailor made.”

While his classical musical training, which in addition to Dickinson included work at the Eastman School of Music in arranging and electronic music, is key to his success, he also credits his interpersonal skills.

“A large part of being a successful composer is understanding and communicating with clients, and I’m sure a liberal-arts background has helped with that.”

When working with clients who lack a musical vocabulary, Hall asks them “to describe what they’re looking for in nonmusical terms—color, feeling.”

Those who knew Hall in the past, long before Dickinson, could have predicted a musical future. His mother, he says, talks about how he sang before he talked, sitting at the supper table singing the Johnny Appleseed prayer. Imitating his mom’s incredulity, Hall says, eyes wide, “And it was even on key.”

While he concentrated on trombone and keyboards early on, Hall chose Dickinson rather than a conservatory because “I didn’t know if I would go into music professionally, and I wanted a more well-rounded education. Having a liberal-arts college experience has probably made my life richer in intangible ways. For example, having an appreciation for philosophy and psychology comes into play in terms of overall quality of life, as well as indirectly, if not directly, with my music.”

At Dickinson, Hall sampled all that the music department had to offer, taking courses in theory, piano and voice and joining the college choir and chapel choir. Of his professors, he particularly enjoyed Truman Bullard for his “enthusiasm and upbeat energy.”

After graduation, Hall played in bands and wrote songs around Syracuse. His father, a religion professor, had moved the family there, shortly before Doug entered Dickinson, to teach at Syracuse University. Hall played in rock bands in New York City until 1983, when he answered an ad in

for a studio assistant with a classical background and synthesizer-programming experience. This job with Elias/NY began his composing career.

Hall keeps up with current music through his work with commercials. “Ads can both reflect and anticipate pop culture,” he notes. And having a house with three 16-year-olds—Iris’s twins and his son, Evan—helps. The kids led him to alt-rockers Radiohead and Gomez. He also favors “music of the world,” particularly African, and offers praise for the odd pop princess Bjork. “She’s absolutely fearless. She’s not afraid to be different.”

Though no longer performing with a band, Hall enjoys jamming with his own house musicians, including Evan on guitar and drums. “We’ve always played music together,” says the proud dad. “When he was a third-grader he began writing songs. Now he has his own rock band, kind of post-grunge. It’s fun to watch him develop as a musician. He’s a better guitarist than I am now,” Hall admits.

He pauses and says with a gleam in his eye, “But I’m still better on keyboards.”

For more information on Hall’s company,
Propeller, go to: www.propellermusic.com


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