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ARTICLE

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

Last week Vol 2 of the Greatest Video Game Music, a seventeen track compilation album of gaming music played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was released digitally. Here we talk to composer and arranger Andrew Skeet about the project, what missed the cut, the perceptions of game music and more.

Asking anyone loosely affiliated with videogames what their history is with the medium is a loaded question. It's also one of the important ones. The answer's telling whether they understand the industry, and by association, they're worth listening to.

Celebrity endorsement (which recalls a Steve Martin zinger: "Do you like Smashing Pumpkins?" "Sure! I love to do that!") can be vacuous. Happily, the other end of the scale are musicians, composers. They mightn't be boned up on the gaming history, but they know their art, and there's an appreciation of the musical scores crafted in video games.

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Andrew Skeet is case in point. The forty-four year old, who's work has seen collaborations with bands and television shows, openly admits to only investigating the medium once he was brought in to create the first Greatest Video Game Music album ("from about a year and a half ago it was from a standing start, and having to find out lots and lots.").

Yet ten minutes later he'll sidetrack into a near-eulogy on chip tunes over orchestra arrangements ("I really admire the skill that they had with quite small resources, making these unique things"). Equally get him started on the eagerness to release a re-recorded take on Metal Gear Solid's Snake Eater theme song, it's hard to get him to stop. ("If I want to indulge that 70s side of my music - which I'm always happy to do - I'll try and find a track that suits.")

Throughout our near half hour conversation, he gives open and honest assessment to the works he's researched, how he feels about the industry moving towards the Hollywood sound, and the best presentation of music in live venues.

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The seventeen tracks on the album have been recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, one part of a four month process bringing new compositions to multiple eras of video games. Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 rub shoulders with Chrono Trigger and Sonic, while Fez and Luigi's Mansion help round out a versatile set of arrangements.

At time of our conversation, the second album had only just been released, but was already charting high in the digital downloads on both Amazon and iTunes.

Firstly, can you elaborate on how you got involved with the project?

The record label already had a connection with the London Philharmonic Orchestra through a Greatest Hits of classic music, made a few years ago. Which was very successful. The label had a vague idea about doing an album of video game music hits, and the orchestra had to find someone who could do that.

I was approached by the London Philharmonic because I have a background doing film scores and working with bands, as well as orchestras. It's in that middle ground between worlds.

Had you any background with video games before this?

Not really. Other than playing them over the years - even then it was as a hobbyist than an absolute games head. That was my only connection. I hadn't even thought about it in all honesty. From about a year and a half ago it was from a standing start, and having to find out lots and lots. It's been fun.

What was it that attracted you to the project?

First of all, it was a chance to work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It's the same in sport - if someone said "do you want to come and manage Manchester United", even if you weren't a massive football fan in the first place, you'd think "it's a big club", so...that had an appeal.

And I loved the idea once I started looking into it. I realised how much video game music changed over the last nine or ten years, since it stopped being produced by chip sets, that it could be recorded properly, how much that whole world had expanded, with the quality and everything else.

It was like being asked to do a film music album in the mid-1930s. It's still quite early days, but things are happening. Since then I'm now the proud owner of a SNES, a Gamecube, Xbox, PS2 for my research - the bonus is sitting around playing games I wouldn't have otherwise come across.

What's the development process like?

It's about four months for me, of which the first month or so is research really. I have a couple of young composers who are very knowledgeable about video games and they bring me ideas...we sit around with lists, and we look at music.

Then there's about six weeks of getting the dots on the page and doing the arrangements and thinking about how to do this stuff. I'm only with the orchestra for about three or four days. It's short and very intense, that recording bit. Then its back to just me and the engineer mixing.

You must have been thrilled conducting...

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Very much so. One of the problems when you conduct in the session is that it is very emotional and, as you say, very thrilling, because you've been hearing the music you've been thinking about that's only been on the page, or a rough demo - and suddenly here's eighty guys playing.

You can't get too in the moment, of getting overwhelmed by it. Because what I've got to make sure of is that they're playing every bar right, and thinking about what bits we need to do again...you've got to have a half a logical head on. I have a few people in the control room who'd just scrutinise the score, looking for little errors. It's a lot to take in when you're standing there - not that they make many mistakes.

Is there any option for alterations to the music once you're in the studio?

There are some, but it is very limited. You can imagine that even if I wanted to change something for the violinists - there's sixteen of them, and the furthest away from me is about thirty feet. By the time you try and give notes to people, it can really eat up time in the session.

They don't know the game, but what they can do is...we talk a lot about the character, and style of the piece, in the session. That changes things. I can do things like, asking not to play a bit when I hear it, or making a few changes.

And sometimes in the mix as well. We record some of it in bits, for the more contemporary titles like, let's say Batman: Arkham City or Assassin's Creed. I do it the way they do it in L.A, which is to do the strings separately, the brass separately, the woodwind separately. We have some control at our leisure. Major changes would take too long, so you have to get it right as much as possible.

With the contemporary pieces that are already fully orchestrated, how do you approach re-recording them?

It's definitely one of the big questions. It does depend on the piece. And in fairness I don't go too far away from them normally if they've been done recently, orchestrally.

Elder Scrolls for example, for the in-game version of it, they needed some shimmery chants in there - atmospheric pieces. I'd maybe decide not to do that, because this is a version people will listen to away from the game. Or that version, I drop it all the way down to a piano solo near the end, which doesn't happen in the original, give it a bit of dynamic space. Small changes like that. But I won't change something if it's already sounding great.

And also people know these versions from the game; that's part of the attraction. Hearing the album and being reminded of playing the game. If I think we can do it better, some things are more suitable, then I'll give it a little change.

Nothing like sticking in some funky bass like your Gumball album? [Skeet's first album score for Gumball: 3000 Miles, had "every ounce of 70s vibe" according to the composer]

[laughs] There's songs that didn't make it to the album, didn't clear the rights - with Konami. We did record Snake Eater, which is very much in Gumball style already. So if I want to indulge that 70s side of my music - which I'm always happy to do - I'll try and find a track that suits.

I think it's more difficult with the contemporary ones, to handle them a bit more carefully. When I'm doing re-versions of some of the older ones, like Sonic - anything goes. The original is so far away from what we're doing now, I treat that as a starter point to get the melodies and I feel like I can do anything. When the piece is a bit more recent then it takes a little long to fiddle around.

With Snake Eater, did you have a vocalist?

No, it was going to be an instrumental version. But it sounds amazing. It may yet, we may still...Konami move fairly slowly. There's that and a Castlevania symphonic suite which are currently not available but which I'm hoping might become available.

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