Hi Ben, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you tell us about yourself?
Thank you for having me, Craig.
I am a freelance composer and sound designer based out of Edmonton with a background in classical piano and jazz guitar performance.
Over my last two and a half years in the industry, I have had the privilege of collaborating with indie game developers across the globe, including a number of Alberta-made teams; namely:
- Camera Anima
A steam-punk visual novel from EXP-presso Mutt; and
- Invisible Hand
An interactive narrative about homelessness, addiction, and mental health; created by a team of Edmontonians led by Matthew Church
On a more personal level, I skipped basketball practice as a child to play Baldur’s Gate II, possibly at the price of my vertical development. I also make a mean chili con carne.
How did you get into creating video game music?
It was a bit of winding journey. Stay a while and listen.
Coming out of MacEwan’s jazz performance program, I was looking for various ways to make a living through music. I eventually stumbled upon composition as an option. However, I knew nothing of the craft; I needed to find a way to learn this daunting subject using the little time I had between life and a day job. To that end, I started Soni Incantamentorum, a weekly composition project that combined my love of music, video games, and Dungeons & Dragons (D&D; Critical Role just came out).
Modelled after Koji Kondo-sensei’s ocarina melodies in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the project featured short-form music intended for use with the Bard role in D&D. Functionally, it served to: (1) provide an engaging narrative focus around which I can develop music composition as a habit, (2) encourage short, iterative experimentations in a variety of musical genres, and (3) get used to showcasing my work to the public. I wrote music to conjure light, to summon thunderclaps, even to invoke the dead. Though Soni was not met with great reception, I was hooked. I now wanted to write music to evoke worlds. It was at that point that I chose to pursue game music composition professionally.
What hardware/programs do you use?
Sticking to my core setup:
My DAW (digital audio workstation) of choice is Reaper. Its’ highly customizable UI and light processing profile is a great fit for my laptop-centric workflow.
Amongst my VST (virtual studio technology) plugins, LABS (Spitfire) is currently one of my favorites. The suite explores a range of high-quality esoteric sounds that are sure to inspire – plus, it’s free. Beyond that, my analog inputs (guitar, keyboard, mic) are ran through a Steinberg UR22.
As far as monitoring goes, I jump between studio monitors (Presonus Eris E5), headphones (Grado SR60 / Sennheiser HD 6xx), and the speakers on my laptop, phone, and car. I run the full gamut as part of my mastering process to ensure that my mixes will be palatable regardless of the end-user’s device.
Do you have any advice to those starting out?
A few points on learning audio and the business of audio that worked for me:
Trust your ears – Regardless of theory, if it sounds good, it sounds good.
Don’t dwell on gear – A boring riff played through a ‘76 Fender Twin Reverb is still going to be a boring riff. Focus on crafting the music first.
Be confident – Get rid of tags like “aspiring” – they only serve to identify you as an amateur. Your work speaks for itself.
Charge fairly – Beyond ensuring a sustainable freelance audio industry, your fee plays into the perceived quality of your services and establishes you as an investment to your clients. A proper rate encourages a mutual respect of time spent between the parties. Where monetary compensation is not available, consider payment in-kind. Check out #whatsmusicworth, or shoot me a DM if you need more information
The value of implementation – In context of game audio, consider delving into the subject of implementation, a keystone in interactive audio. Read up on middleware (Wwise, FMOD) and go through their free (superb) tutorials. An understanding of implementation will allow you to work more efficiently and provide new avenues for you to contribute to the team.
Show up – Show up to your local events and introduce yourself to the community. As far as Alberta goes, we have a pretty friendly one.
Most importantly…well, this sums it up better than I ever could.
What is your experience with game jams?
I can only attest to in-person jams. As of the 2019 Alberta Game Jam, I’ve attended four in total.
I always look forward to these events. They’re great opportunities to meet and hang out with the local game dev community. Further, I’ve used the jams to progressively explore different facets of game dev: starting from composition, branching out to sound design, and then, most recently, game design. I look forward to testing out my coding and art chops in the future events.
Any opinions on what games get music right and which have missed the mark?
The latter is often simply cases of improperly fitted or uninspired music. Instead, I’d rather provide you two examples of games that got their music right:
Katamari Damacy – The soundtrack fully embraces the unabashed silliness of the game, and the songs are so damn catchy. It blends multiple genres and explores a full range of emotions (from pure joy to melancholy) juxtaposed against sounds of humans/animals/objects crushed by your Katamari. I would go so far as to say it was essential in making Katamari Damacy fun.
Transistor – Mr. Darren Korb’s work comes up time and again in my conversations. Beyond its musical merit, Transistor utilizes audio as a diegetic element that brought player immersion to new heights. As an example, the game’s combat features a “time stop” function where players can plan upcoming moves. When said function is activated, an audio filter and a dedicated vocal stem is applied to the music, dulling the bombastic backing track and spotlighting the protagonist’s humming vocals (Ashley Barrett), as if plunging the players into the depths of the protagonist’s mind. What a creative approach and attention to detail!
When properly executed, audio can define a game’s identity. In my opinion, these two nailed it.
What are your thoughts on the game development community in Alberta?
From what I’ve seen in Edmonton’s meetups and Alberta’s game dev presence on Twitter, our province plays host to an ever-expanding pool of talent. We have a history, as well as an undeniable potential to create great games.
Despite the current political climate, with initiatives such as the IGDA, Gamecamp, Press A to Start, AMG and DPX rallying the community together, I remain optimistic about the growth of the industry in Alberta.
Thanks for taking the time to be our September 2019 Community Spotlight member.