Audeze interviews composer and producer Ethan Cohen

December 05, 2023

Ethan Cohen is an American composer, producer, and string arranger. Combining his love for orchestral writing with his lengthy background playing/programming synths and keyboards, Ethan jumped head first into the Los Angeles scoring world where he began working at Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions. He has since begun his own music production company Noise Engine, where he has expanded his focus to take on trailers, ads, and most recently pop music where he continues to grow his work as a string arranger.

Ethan Cohen wearing LCD-X headphones while on Mac desktop

"The LCD-X's have completely flipped the script for me. It's almost weird being able to trust a pair of headphones so much." - Ethan Cohen
Here's our chat with Ethan:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of? 

I've been super fortunate that my career has led me to meet some amazing people who have been trusting enough to throw me into thrilling projects. Most notably for my inner music tech nerd, a couple years ago I was lucky enough to stumble upon the sample library development team Skybox Audio, where I was able to fill in a few gaps with some beta testing, meta tagging, content creation, and sound/preset design - all for their flagship product Hammers+Waves. I know this doesn't quite fall under my main bread and butter role as a composer/producer, but my small part on the fantastic Skybox team is something I take a lot of pride in.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

Today, 99% of my work is composition/production. I'm contracted most often to write for film, TV, trailers, ads, kids branding, records, etc. I will say however that as this industry continues to shift, my ability to wear multiple hats (composer, producer, mixer, student, entrepreneur, performer) is becoming a very important thing. I also have an obsession with learning and when bandwidth allows, I rarely turn down a project or opportunity that will allow me to further develop my skill set.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I'm another one of those musicians that began very young. I started playing piano at about 6 years old, but I come from a fairly non-musical family and had to beg my parents to let me take lessons. From there I found that my ears were my strongest asset and spent a huge amount of my childhood transcribing my favorite songs. When I switched to a jazz piano teacher in middle school, my composition and improvisation was heavily encouraged and truly jump-started the creative part of my brain. I had Cubase 6 Lite and began trying to recreate my favorite film and video game scores. It was also a time when dubstep and house music was really booming in the U.S and I was awestruck by these artists who were able to sculpt such captivating sounds from scratch.... and thus began my obsession with music production and synth programming. When I got to college, a similar obsession of mine formed with the orchestra and for string writing specifically. Thomas Newman is a composer I spent thousands of hours enjoying, analyzing and transcribing, and is still someone to this day that influences my writing and string production style.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Kind of a silly story but when I was in 3rd grade, I had to make a science project and my dad came home with a textbook-sized stack of papers entitled "The MIDI Protocol". Of course I'd never read non-fiction before and my dad ended up doing most of the project for me, but through that project I was able to get my first taste of what would become one of the most important pieces of technology in my career. As far as my musical life today, there seems to be an endless amount of "it's a good thing I went to that such and such, otherwise I never would've met so and so" moments. One such moment definitely stands out to me: I responded to a job board posting from a sample library company looking for a composer to write a couple demos with their product in development. At the time, I was in the middle of a very time-intensive score mix at Remote Control, but the workaholic in me couldn't seem to turn down a gig so I sent over an application. And I'm infinitely glad I did because this application led me to meet Danny, the co-creator of Skybox Audio, and someone who has become a huge mentor in my musical career. Finding someone I share many similarities with but who has been absolutely crushing it in the field for longer than I've been alive, is a super inspiring thing to see. Seeking advice from friends and family is extremely valuable, but there are simply situations and landmarks in a career in music that require experience. And seeking help from someone who's personally gone through it is something I truly don't take for granted.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

It's not the easiest thing to discuss but the music business is a difficult one in many ways. The way the landscape has been set in the scoring world gives little flexibility to newcomers, and requires a very thick skin. I strongly believe there is a level of humility that is essential for building experience, trust, and growth in this field, but my frustrations lie with the way this structure has conditioned me to view my worth and what I have to offer. That said, I can't say I would change anything because these obstacles have built a resilience that has allowed me to nurture a healthy respect for myself and the work I do, as well as create strong relationships with my collaborators.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

Absolutely! As I mentioned before, I'm a big music tech nerd and I can safely say that I will never be that composer stuck in a "comfortable workflow" while the rest of the industry has migrated to bigger and better things. TV, ads and trailers demand extraordinary deadlines, so anything that can speed up my process with no sonic compromise has a good chance of being implemented in my workflow. I work primarily in the box because recallability is vital (not to mention, hardware is expensive...) so plugins are my main tool of choice. In middle and high school I would chase down resonances with surgical eq automation... and now we have Soothe2 and Gullfoss which automate this process in a split second. Hardware emulations of vintage gear are tip top these days as well, and you won't find a single orchestral mix of mine without a Maag eq air boost on the strings. I'm also really interested in what VSL is doing with Mir Pro 3D, and look forward to implementing this in my live strings template soon. As for non-software tools, I began my journey playing cello, viola and violin during the pandemic. I thought it might help my string writing to have the actual instruments in my hands. Fast forward a couple years and I'm now layering live recordings in every orchestral track I work on. I’m always experimenting with new mic configurations but I love the sound of a Royer R121 on violin spot, and the Townsend (now UA Sphere) on cello. I recently had the chance to borrow a pair of Gefell MT 71S mics and they very well might be the best sounding combo I’ve used to date. I’m also getting my hands on Vanguard Audio Labs’ V44s gen 2 stereo condenser mic shortly and have a hunch it might be a new recording essential. As for outboard gear, I tend to record spot mics through my Golden Age 73, and have been playing a ton with the UA LA-610 mkii (especially on more aggressive cello parts).

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

My recommendation is to never stop learning. There is so much to be learned just by listening to music of any genre. And there is so much to be learned outside of music that can vastly expand your perspective/musical voice. And along those lines: I'd highly suggest taking on projects that push you outside of your comfort zone. Every project is an opportunity to learn something new.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I've been working in headphones since I first started producing. I wasn't able to invest in studio monitors for my first couple years making music (my ears weren't really trained to understand the difference at that point regardless). Once I started using monitors however, the purpose of my headphones morphed into a very situational usage: for tracking instruments, to throw on when I didn't want to bother roommates/neighbors late at night, and to bring as a general reference when working in a new room. I haven't been able to rely on them for accurate imaging or bass information but sometimes I just enjoy listening to music on them.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

It seems to be a pretty widespread topic of conversation these days but as more of the music industry adopts the Dolby Atmos format, I can't help but get a little excited. The only obstacle I see right now is the magnitude of the investment required to set up a proper Atmos system. But as they say, "necessity is the mother of invention", and I truly look forward to a time when I'll be able to create music from the ground up in Atmos without breaking the bank. For the time being, I'm still having fun messing around with the binaural fold down feature in the Dolby Atmos Renderer.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

The LCD-X's have completely flipped the script for me. It's almost weird being able to trust a pair of headphones so much. And when it comes to my particular workflow, I can't emphasize enough how much things have improved: I have a sit/stand desk in my home studio, but when it's set to the standing position, my speakers are blocked. Because of this, it has remained exclusively in the lowest position. But ever since I've started using these Audeze headphones, I've been able to spend the majority of my working time standing up with no compromise sonically. I talk to a lot of studio musicians who feel that the demands of this job have taken a toll on their back and overall health and I've felt this way for a while too. In the short amount of time I've been using this new headphone workflow however, I've had way more energy and far less back pain than ever before.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

If I'm being honest, my biggest use so far has been going back through tracks I had "finished", and fixing them. The mids truly mimic the legendary ATC midrange drivers I'm used to, but the bass information from the LCD-X's has been revealing problems I hadn't been able to hear in my subless room. Over the past couple weeks, I've wrapped up a trailer album, written a dozen library tracks, written a handful of unscripted TV tracks, pitched a couple ad spots, and pitched a couple songs for kids TV programming. And in the large majority of these cases, I'm the one tasked with doing the final mix and master. Now having the resources to be able to monitor with incredible accuracy both in the studio and on the road, I feel I can finally just do my job without second-guessing.

Audeze LCD-X Headphones on Ethan's set-up