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Interview: Composers On Scoring The Digital Download

Interview: Composers On Scoring The Digital Download

March 8, 2010 | By Jeriaska

March 8, 2010 | By Jeriaska
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More: Console/PC, Indie

[In this roundtable discussion, Gamasutra sits down with the musicians from titles and album series including Gravity Crash, Shatter, NightSky and I Am Robot And Proud to discuss the creative process behind their unique independent soundtrack work.]

According to many observers, downloadable platforms -- notably console downloadable titles, from more conventional genres through more experimental titles -- are currently showcasing some of the most exciting sound design concepts in games.

CoLD SToRAGE (aka Tim Wright) has been an innovator of videogame music since the appearance of his soundtracks for Lemmings and WipEout. In recent months he has been busy publishing the original album Project Moonbounce and the score to Just Add Water's Playstation Network title Gravity Crash.

In this roundtable discussion on composing for downloadable games, he is joined by Module (Jeramiah Ross), whose soundtrack to Shatter by Sidhe is in the running for an IGF audio award at this year's Game Developers Conference. As with CoLD SToRAGE, the New Zealand-based artist's music can be heard on Bandcamp.

Last year Chris Schlarb's music to the Niklas "Nifflas" Nygren-designed title NightSky was a finalist for the IGF Awards. The highly anticipated WiiWare title, which invites players to maneuver a rolling ball through an assortment of evocative nocturnal landscapes, is due out later this year.

Also participating in this group chat is Shaw-Han Liem, who in 2009 performed music from his solo album series I Am Robot and Proud at the Game Developers Conference. His first game soundtrack is currently in development, featured in Jonathan Mak's top secret follow-up to Everyday Shooter. The discussion takes a look at multiple topics related to writing music for digital media, from finding the right sound for a game, to the live performance of game arrangements and the options available for distributing soundtrack albums online.

CoLD SToRAGE recently released Project Moonbounce, a music album incorporating audio signals bounced off the lunar surface, and Gravity Crash Anthems, original and arranged music from the Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable title.

How would you describe your experience working on a game soundtrack while writing an original album?

CoLD SToRAGE (Tim Wright): Having these two projects where "never the twain shall meet" was strange at times. I kind of have this multiple personality where on the one side I'm a Jean-Michel Jarre updated for the 21st century, and on the other hand I want to shun these electronic things, hit dog bowls and smash pianos.

On Moonbounce, anything that struck me as melodical or strange could be leveraged into being the theme of a track. There's this minimalist thing going on, and on the flipside Just Add Water wanted Gravity Crash to have '80s-influenced computer game music, but through rose-tinted spectacles because you add so much as a child through the imagination. It's how you would have liked the music to sound while you were playing it at the arcade in 1986.

One element that Shatter, Gravity Crash and NightSky share in common is that in each of these games, you're navigating an inanimate object on the screen. Be it a ship, a bat, or rolling ball, the player is having to identify with a thing instead of a person. Have you found that in these instances it's necessary to endow some personality on these objects through the use of the musical score?

Module (Jeramiah Ross), Shatter composer: That was essential for Shatter, having those emotional cues placed on an inanimate object. The first draft of the score was ambient and industrial, where there would be a lot of mechanical sounds. It was all a bit too serious, and we wound up scrapping everything we had been working on for the past six months. That was a bit painful, but learning that creating game soundtracks was about creating journeys was a turning point for me.

At some point we decided the bat was a teenager with an attitude. I was thinking back on The Last Starfighter and Tron, movies where teenagers are out on a mission. That gave it a voice and a cohesive relationship between each track that brought me back to Dark Side of the Moon, an album that carries a similar chord structure and ethos throughout.

Chris Schlarb, NightSky composer: I love that you mention Dark Side of the Moon. In a funny way the concept album has been reborn in the videogame medium. Prog used to be a four-letter word, you know? Back in the day a band like Genesis or Yes would be slammed for trying to tell you a story from beginning to end, but now I think that's a requirement of a good videogame soundtrack. There should be that cohesiveness: of instrumentation, texture, arrangement and melody to serve the concept of the game in total.

Prior to composing for NightSky, Chris Schlarb released the album Twilight and Ghost Stories on the Asthmatic Kitty label.

CoLD SToRAGE: I think another thing we benefit from in games is that unless it's a sequel, each game is a new entity in itself. You have this game called "Plonky Plinky," and it's set in this weird world where people are made out of jelly. You need a soundtrack that will fit that. You're not going to be judged necessarily, unless there's a raft of jelly-based games that comes out at the same time. Many bands are happy staying where they are, or stay inside their arena so as not to lose their audience, and in many instances that straitjacket is self-imposed.

Another thing that this group shares in common is that to some extent everyone here performs music live. Shaw-Han is frequently touring, performing tracks from the I Am Robot and Proud series. What was your impression of the crowd while playing GDC in March of last year?

Shaw-Han Liem, musician I Am Robot and Proud: It was good to finally put some faces to names I knew. I'm fairly new to the world of gaming in general and indie gaming in particular, so playing at GDC was a nice introduction.

When I saw your show in Tokyo, I remember you brought out a Tenori-On and had people in the front row creating the basis to the melody of an improvised piece.

The Tenori-On is a sequencer machine that you can pitch to a particular scale, so I would start the show by bringing that little guy out into the audience. It also has a nice visual aspect to it. People can press the buttons, see the lights and hear the audio feedback. I can take that loop I get from the audience and make an improvised tune out of it. I think with electronic music there's a degree of mystery with people: "How is what I'm seeing connected with what I'm hearing?" Starting a show like that is a nice way of making that connection with the audience.

Do you see interactivity in videogame audio as something that could be explored more fully?

Shaw-Han: Why? What have you heard? (laughs) Yeah, that's definitely an aspect I'm interested in. I think the fact that the person listening to your music has a bunch of buttons in their hands is the unique aspect to videogame music. There's definitely a lot of interesting things you could explore to take advantage of that unique relationship with your audience. What I can say about the game is that the visual weirdness is reflected in a musical weirdness. The question is whether that music will make sense outside of the context of the game itself.

Shaw-Han Liem has created a collection of music albums, titled "I Am Robot and Proud," which include The Catch, Grace Days, The Electricity in Your House Wants to Sing, and Uphill City.

Chris: I understand that perfectly because the way the music is used on the NightSky soundtrack, it is made up of short, ambient movements randomly selected throughout the game.

For a long time I couldn't listen to the music outside the context of the beta version of the game because I didn't think it made sense. The game helps to give it context. But then I ended up being asked to perform music from the game in a live setting at a music festival. For a lot of the stuff that I wrote for NightSky, and kind of my compositional style in general, I don't use electronics. There were a few worlds where it was a stylistic requirement, but with live instruments you can happen upon these nice accidents rhythmically or melodically.

Even though the game has not been released and no one has heard it, people loved the live show. I performed it with upright bass, mandolin, vibraphone, drums and guitar. I got probably one of the most enthusiastic reactions of any live performance I've ever given.

CoLD SToRAGE: When people ask me if I'm a musician, I say "No, I'm a composer." However, I did promise myself that on my fortieth birthday I would hire a venue and play live for the first time in a long time. In that case I would have to play something from WipEout, and I might also do a tongue-in-cheek reprise of one of the Lemmings tunes.

Module: You would be surprised what people relate to. Living on the road and touring gave me an appreciation of that. A lot of the live environment in a sense is like an overgrown kindergarten. Once you get an idea of what works and what doesn't, that starts translating back into the studio recordings and compositions.

Performing game soundtracks live is particularly cool. It's something I'd love to do more with Shatter--getting together a live band with a laser and visual show. I think that's something that can really add to the promotion of a game and take it to another level. It's really a great time with multimedia in the digital age.

Bandcamp has become very popular among game composers as a means for making soundtracks available online. How have you found the service as as host for Gravity Crash Anthems and the Shatter soundtrack?

CoLD SToRAGE: For me it was more of an accident than a deliberate act. At the point where we were bringing Gravity Crash out, the managing director of Just Add Water sent me an email pointing me over to Jeramiah's work on Shatter. I found the service had a really well laid out website and that it was free. The other thing is, it's free "for now." What the tipping point is for Bandcamp, I don't know.

Jeramiah "Module" Ross has made his music for Sidhe's GripShift and Shatter available to stream on Bandcamp.

Module: Before we released Shatter, I was signed to a record label that wanted me to spend thousands of dollars putting out physical CDs. I decided to pull out of operating that way, because the music industry at that time was not working for me. Things were drastically changing. That was when I stumbled on Bandcampy. It makes it easy for people that are interested in your music to come along, listen to it and buy it. Bandcamp was the perfect platform for the Shatter soundtrack.

CoLD SToRAGE: They're very proactive--if you contact them with queries or problems, they come back and they talk to you one-to-one. The other thing is it's lossless as well. I haven't a complaint so far, and I cannot yet see Darth Vader in the background, but I should be knocking on massive chunks of wood.

For a number of downloadable titles running on a tight budget, it appears that releasing the soundtrack can often be crucial to promoting the game.

Module: Having the stream on Bandcamp is pretty important. If people really want a album, they're going to download it anyway, via torrent or file sharing. This makes it so you can say, "You can listen to it here for free, and if you want to support us, you can pay to own it." You never really get a feel for an album with thirty-second clips--especially with game soundtracks, because they are reliant on there being a journey.

I think this is a good approach to digital music in general to give people a really good feel for it in advance. 9 times out of 10, if people love something they will pay for it. Otherwise, they'll skim through it and move on to the next thing.

Do you have an idea of how you would like the soundtrack to NightSky to be made available?

I have been thinking about it since I completed the soundtrack. We're still waiting for the game to come out to coordinate the soundtrack release with it. I like that on Bandcamp you can stream and purchase in the same place. I don't know if any of you have had to fill out Excel spreadsheets for certain services, but it is the antithesis of what you want to have to deal with as an artist. There are enough obstacles to the creative process already.

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