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Point Blank Online Instructor Spotlight: ZW Buckley

At Point Blank, you can expect to be taught by some of the best in the business. Each of our instructors is selected for their combination of talent, music industry experience, and tangible success – which they pass on to you in the classroom. Each is a true professional in their field and our Online team in is no exception. For this Instructor Spotlight, we will be interviewing renowned composer, music producer, and key Point Blank Music Production: Ableton instructor, ZW Buckley.

If you’d like to study Music Production: Ableton with ZW, or any other music production courses at Point Blank, sign up here. Additionally, if you’re looking to get the Point Blank experience in-person, you can always study a degree course with us in Los Angeles or London.

ZW Buckley is a composer, music producer and teaching artist based out of Seattle, Washington. Focused on video games, his music can be heard in multiple titles on the children’s virtual reality app, Peeka, as well as Machine Elf Studio’s upcoming ARPG, Laxidaze. In all his work, ZW is focused on harnessing the world-building power of video games to create a more welcoming, equitable, and accessible games industry and audio community. He was recently honored as a member of The Game Awards Future Class for 2022 and he is a co-founder of Plant Based Audio, a worker-owned game audio studio. ZW holds an M.S. Creative Technologies from Illinois State University where he researched music-led virtual realities. His research has been published in the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States.

How did you got involved here at Point Blank?

My journey to joining Point Blank started a few years back. After I finished my master’s degree in creative technologies at Illinois State University, I moved to Seattle to begin building my career as a video game composer. At some point, I noticed that a lot of my fellow early career composers really struggled with music production. Many of them studied at more traditional, conservatory-style schools where production skills aren’t a priority, if they’re even discussed at all.

Then, once they got into the working world, they realized quickly that regardless of the beauty of their compositions, the quality of their productions kept doors shut. These conversations with my colleagues were emerging around the same time I began looking for supplementary work alongside my composing. My spouse, who is truly far smarter than I am, reminded me that I had a master’s degree in music technology and was perfectly qualified to teach. I didn’t know anybody offering music production lessons, so I figured I could carve a niche for myself and maybe help a few of my friends. I made myself a cute little graphic advertising my new offering and was prepared for a long haul to find students. The very next day, Lena Raine, the composer of Celeste, whom I had not met at that point, surprisingly retweeted my call for students to her 55,000+ followers and overnight I had ten students.

After a few years of teaching privately, I was eager to try teaching in an institutional setting and looked for schools that would value my particular skill set. Of course, Point Blank came up immediately. I prepared an application and submitted it, hoping that I would get lucky like I did with my initial call for students. After a few weeks, I heard nothing and thought to myself “oh god, they hate me.” Of course, that wasn’t the case, it was that I submitted my application the week after the term had started. As soon as that term wrapped, I got an email from Daniel requesting an interview and was brought on to teach the very next term. I’ve been teaching Creative Audio: Ableton ever since.

Congratulations on being a part of The Game Awards Future Class! Could you share some insights into
this prestigious recognition and how it has impacted your career?

Truly, the coolest part about being in the Future Class is everybody else!From a quick glance at this year’s cohort, you can see that everybody is a rock star. Since being inducted last year, I’ve had the chance to meet so many of my classmates at industry events like Game Developer’s Conference and PAXWest and we’ve become fast friends. The organizers of the Future Class–Emily Bouchoc, Jessie Kuse, and Geoff Keighley–work tirelessly to create opportunities for us to connect with some of the most significant people working in games today. Its impact on my career has been myriad, but in many ways the impact has been quite personal. Being recognized for my work in games has been a nice moment of “okay, maybe I am on to something here.”

You co-founded the first game audio cooperative studio – Plant Based Audio. What inspired you to start this collective, and what services does it offer to the video game industry?

The impetus for Plant Based Audio emerged from a few separate places almost simultaneously. Perhaps, more accurately, it was the convergence point and logical conclusion of many things I and my colleagues felt at the time. First,I’m really quite passionate about the cooperative model. The music and games industry are both filled with plenty of cautionary tales of artists being taken advantage of through exploitative power dynamics. Cooperatives aren’t a panacea by any means, but they are a strong bulwark against those dynamics by the sheer fact that everybody owns the business together. I also grew up playing in bands and in many ways, I see worker co-ops as the band business model, so I feel very at home in this co-op. Second, working as a freelancer in game audio can be very isolating. A lot of us freelancers spend our days sitting at our computer working on projects for our clients and then, once the game has shipped, we are off to a new team and new project. It can be difficult to build a sense of camaraderie as a result. Now, with Plant Based Audio, my colleagues and I get to stick together as a team. We still move between projects and dev studios, but we do so as a group and there’s something special about that. As far as our services go, we offer quite a lot: custom music and sound design, dialogue editing and voice acting, technical audio design and implementation, sourcing and managing audio contractors, and audio consultation. Things are never boring as a result!

Your new EP sounds amazing! Could you give us a glimpse of the creative process behind it and the themes you explored in your music?

Thank you so much! In the liner notes, I wrote that “Fever Dreams at Ruger Place “ primarily dealswith dreams, desire, and the liminal space between wakefulness and sleeping,” and three months after its release, I still believe that those words are true.

When I wrote these songs in the summer of 2022, I was going through a period in which I was dreaming more intensely than usual. Some nights, they were vivid to the point that they almost felt real. Other nights, I would be unable to recall what happened yet would still wake up in a sweat. As a result, I found myself thinking not only about the dreams themselves but the act of travel to and from dreams. Why was it physically so exhausting for me to exit these dreams? Why were some so vivid? Why would my mind so closely guard some of them from my conscious self?

These questions unfolded in the music in a number of ways. First, water was a recurring sonic motif. I began to think of these dreams as waves washing over me: some more intense than others. I made several recordings of the Atlantic Ocean when I visited the East Coast that summer and you’ll hear them throughout the EP. The billowing chords at the beginning of It All Comes Back To You In The End are actually one of those recordings being modulated by Ableton’s Wavetable via Vocoder.

I also expressed these ideas through song form. Many of the tracks are through-composed with little in the way of repeating sections. Instead, I would sample part or all of the previous section to build the following section. In the same way that dreams twist and reconfigure our understanding or reality, I wanted the songs to do the same.

Also, I agree with you – it does sound amazing! But that’s entirely thanks to the mix and master done by my fellow Point Blank Instructor Cecil Decker. It’s the one aspect of the EP that I feel comfortable being utterly shameless about because I didn’t touch it!

We’d love to know more about your newsletter, “Keep Living With Music.” What motivated you to start this platform, and what kind of content can subscribers expect to find there?

I was probably 13 when I decided that I was going to become a professional musician – the one problem was that I had no idea what that really looked like. As a result, I developed this intense curiosity to know what life looked like for the professional musicians that I admired beyond the success of their music. How did they get into the field? How are they actually making their money? Did they struggle with doubt? Was their early career difficult? How did they find clients? 

Keep Living With Music” is the newsletter that I wish that I had access to as an aspiring music maker. It’s my career playing out in (somewhat) real time. I’ve written about how I made my first music video, why I stopped focusing on the algorithm and started prioritizing having multiple income streams, and what to do when you feel like you’re too old to release your music (spoiler: you aren’t). It isn’t filled with clickbait-y articles, tutorials, or how-to’s. Instead, it’s going to be filled with me reflecting honestly and candidly on my career as a video game composer, music producer, and teaching artist. 

Can you tell us more about your experience working on the upcoming collaboration between Peeka and Mattel, “Barbie: You Can Be A Fashion Designer?” What was your role in the project, and what makes it unique or exciting?

This will be Barbie’s first outing in virtual reality, and I’m really honored to have written the soundtrack for this story. It was so fun getting to write some pop songs for this game and working with Peeka to bring Barbie’s world alive with sound. I’m looking forward to seeing Barbie fans young and old enjoy it this fall!  

Balancing multiple projects can be challenging. How do you manage your time effectively while working on various creative endeavors, such as video game projects, music production, and running a newsletter? 

My calendar is my life – you should see how beautifully color-coded it is! It’s a part of a very elaborate system. I have a spreadsheet to help me track projects and break them down into tasks. I use those tasks to fill out my calendar based on time sensitivity. This whole setup helps me keep my head on straight and reduces choice paralysis. This is also the most organized I have ever been in my life. 

I’ve recently been going through a process of narrowing my focus and that’s been helping too. I used to do sound design for games as well as music, but I’ve started phasing that out in the last six months. If it isn’t composing for clients, creating my own offerings, or teaching, I generally try to pass it on to one of my colleagues. 

Could you share some tips or advice for aspiring audio creators who want to pursue a career in the gaming industry or explore their passion for music and sound design?

Yes, absolutely! I could talk about this for hours, but I’ll try to contain myself. One actionable thing that aspiring audio creators can do today is start building their networks. There is no such thing as a self-made person. You are going to need help building a successful music career. Some people have a hard time with the idea of networking but, at its core, networking is just making friends. Make friends with people who are in the industry or are working to break in like you. Get involved in your local scene or an online community. You might not have the skills to work professionally yet, but you can be a great friend to somebody exactly as you are. Plus, doing this work is hard and having people you know, love, and trust by your side is invaluable.

One other thing. Start learning about the business side of things now. It is an inescapable part of this field. You cannot be afraid of it, and you cannot run from it. The sooner you know how business works in your corner of the audio world, the less friction you’ll experience when you are ready to try your hand at this profession. A lot of people think that becoming a professional is a lightbulb moment where somebody snaps their fingers and all of a sudden you have enough money to do your art full-time. In reality, for most of us, our living is sustained through one or more business ventures related to our crafts and the process of becoming a professional is gradual. Waiting for somebody to waive a magic wand isn’t actionable, but having a plan to act on is.

The gaming and audio industries are constantly evolving. How do you stay updated with the latest trends and technologies to keep your skills and knowledge relevant? 

Getting back to my point about networking, many of my closest friends are other composers and producers. We share ideas with each other and keep each other up on industry news and happenings. I also regularly frequent Create Digital Music and Music Tech to try and keep myself abreast of the latest developments in music technology. 

As far as trends go in music, I do my best to be aware of them for the sake of clients and students. But, as an artist, I’m deeply invested in disregarding trends at all costs. I’ve found that when I chase trends, I’m not really saying anything artistically meaningful. I’d rather devote my time to developing my artistic voice and creating exactly the work that I want to be creating. 

Luckily, I can afford to do this because I’ve done my best to build my career in such a way that I’m not relying on playlists and streaming to earn my living, nor am I particularly dependent upon appeasing social media algorithms to get eyes on my work. It might result in my audience growing at a slower rate than my colleagues, but that’s okay with me. 

As an instructor for Creative Audio: Ableton, how do you incorporate your real-world experiences and projects into your teaching approach? 

I’m constantly referring back to my experiences and projects in Creative Audio: Ableton to help students grasp how these techniques can be applied in their own work. I think of myself as a teaching artist and an important part of that self-conceptualization is interweaving my classes into my creative practice and vice versa. I have so many tracks in the works that were born from live in-class demonstrations and in several of my lectures I break down tracks that I’ve made. In fact, if somebody reading this wants to learn how I made “Fever Dreams at Ruger Place” they should sign up for Creative Audio: Ableton. 

As my skills, ideas, and interests as an artist develop, so does my teaching. This past term, as I’ve gotten more into creating my own sample instruments from field recordings I’ve taken, I overviewed those techniques for my Creative Audio: Ableton students. That topic really guided my demonstrations of Ableton’s Sampler and Audio Effect Rack creation. We also had great discussions on how to actionably find your own sound as an artist and treating instrument design as a documentarian practice. These kinds of rich discussions wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t actively working in the field and developing as an artist. 

Apart from your professional achievements, is there a personal project or milestone you are particularly proud of? Something that might not be widely known but holds great significance to you? 

I suppose I’m going to cheat a bit on this question as this new milestone that I’m proud of – and very excited about! – is somewhat professional in nature. I’m in the beginning stages of writing my first opera. Last month, I was selected to participate in Seattle Opera’s Creation Lab which seeks to cultivate the next generation of opera composers and librettists. I’ll be partnered up with a librettist, provided with resources and mentorship, and will compose a new opera that will be premiered at the Seattle Opera next summer. 

I’m always eager to explore different and exciting musical directions and this marks a pretty significant new branch for me, one that I’m particularly proud of. Everybody should come see it next summer here in Seattle. 

Lastly, what is the last song you’ve listened to? 

Zure” by the late Japanese composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, from his 2017 album “Async.”

I’ve been a fan of his work for a few years now but have been diving pretty intensely into it since he passed in March. He effortlessly blended electronic music, acoustic music, experimental music, and field recordings into captivating sonic landscapes. I’m also deeply inspired by the trajectory of his career: a pioneering electronic musician becomes a celebrated film composer who settles into an adventurous and inventive experimental composer in his late career. He’s become something of a creative role model for me and I hope that I can be as creatively fresh and inspired into my 70s, too.

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