Music from a British movie trailer, arrangements for a local symphony performance, products used by performers from Muse to Maroon 5, and more emanate from the unassuming home of Westerville resident Ken McCaw.
McCaw, who grew up in Columbus and graduated from Whetstone High School, has been a guitar and keyboard player for most of his life. He started playing the piano at age 5 and the guitar at 12 and eventually gravitated away from performing and into scoring.
He studied music theory in college and earned a professional designation in film scoring from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1984. Since then, his main work has been in writing and orchestration.
Though he has some experience with film soundtracks, the vast majority of the scores he has put together have been for live theater productions, many of them children’s plays. The music for a theatrical production, be it live or filmed, is transformative, McCaw says, and he enjoys setting a work’s themes to music – and seeing those themes come together as the work progresses.
“I’m very strong with writing melodies,” he says. “I come up with things that people can remember.”
Though a lot of the productions McCaw has worked with have been in other states – he and his family have lived in Tennessee, California, New York and Florida. He has done business with Columbus Children’s Theatre and Mills James Productions. He got some recognition for his work on Christy, the Musical, a play performed as part of Tennessee’s bicentennial, for which he not only wrote the music, but also managed the entire 55-member staff of the play.
He’s also done the soundtracks to a NASCAR DVD, created the sound for a couple of film festival entries and produced an album of soundtrack music this year.
“My agent is now pitching (the songs) to the film industry,” he says.
For a lot of his theatrical work, McCaw arranges music that’s already been written, putting it together in a cohesive way. But he also writes a good amount of music himself.
This past year, he was commissioned by the Central Ohio Symphony to arrange an orchestral piece titled “Ice Dance.” The symphony performed “Ice Dance” at its Holiday Concerts, both held Dec. 14. The five-and-a-half-minute piece took him about 80 hours to write.
McCaw’s studio is an impressive sight. He has three computer setups: one for composing, one for recording and one for video editing, which he dabbles in.
“I now have all the state-of-the-art orchestral sound library (equipment) – the biggest and baddest available,” says McCaw.
Displays on the wall include his soundtrack albums, posters and promotional material for some of the projects he’s worked on, and a variety of instruments – guitars, a banjo, an accordion and even an old trombone, which he doesn’t know how to play but thought looked cool.
Not only can he write and arrange music via his computer setup, he can automatically print out sheet music. He even has a small, soundproofed vocal booth in the corner where he can add words – with the assistance of folks who can sing, of course.
McCaw does more than just write and play music. He has also invented tools to enhance musical sound.
About 20 years ago, he created a device called the Hammer Jammer and had a run of them manufactured. It’s a key-hammering mechanism for guitars that makes it easier to play at a fast clip.
“The main thing it does is give (players) new techniques and incredible speed,” he says.
The concept was innovative, but it didn’t do a lot of business. This was during the grunge era, and rapid-fire shredding was not in vogue.
“I bought out all the remaining samples,” McCaw says. “There were about 2,000 of them.”
But the Hammer Jammer has gradually managed to gain recognition. McCaw used it on a soundtrack song that was picked up for a trailer for 2008 British adventure-comedy Stone of Destiny, starring Kate Mara (House of Cards), Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty) and Billy Boyd (The Lord of the Rings).
Then, in late 2013, he put on YouTube.com a technique video, titled “Amazing Guitar Invention,” showing what the Hammer Jammer can do. It suddenly went viral in January 2014, and all of the samples he’d been holding onto for two decades sold in two weeks across 60 countries.
Though new playing techniques account for a big part of the device’s appeal, it’s also developed a following among individuals who cannot play a standard guitar. McCaw has heard from a woman whose arthritis makes it impossible to finger-pick, and from a veteran who lost his fingers in combat but can still hit the Hammer Jammer’s keys with his palm.
He’s also seen some response from recognizable names in the music industry. Matt Bellamy, lead singer and guitarist for alternative rock band Muse, posted a photo of himself using a Hammer Jammer in the studio in November.
McCaw also invented the ButtKicker, a silent subwoofer. It uses a silent motor to put vibrations into the human body – so you can’t hear the pounding sound, but you can certainly feel it.
“They put them in movie theaters, dance floors,” McCaw says. “A lot of gamers use it, a lot of bands.”
Among the bands and musicians who have used the device are Lady Gaga, Usher, Shania Twain, Alicia Keys and the Rolling Stones. It’s also used in TV; NBC Sports worked with the NHL to put transducers in the boards at hockey games so viewers at home can feel the impact of players crashing into them.
McCaw has lived in central Ohio since 1998 and Westerville since 2014. He and his wife, Kim, have two grown daughters.
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