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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.

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

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.

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.

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

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.

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

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...

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.

Greatest Video Game Music: InterviewGreatest Video Game Music: Interview
Greatest Video Game Music: InterviewGreatest Video Game Music: Interview

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.

For games that have came out years ago, do you enjoy approaching them more, as you have a greater creative freedom?

I probably do. It's like a different job slightly, that feels more like composition. Taking the bare outline of a melody and re-harmonising it, making whole pieces. Whereas recording Assassin's Creed or Batman is more putting your producer head on, work out how to generate those sounds they've used, and how best they be recorded. That feels more like craftsmanship. The others feel more creative.

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

How did the track listing get decided?

I had the final say on it. All the rest, the record label are incredibly, in a good way, hands-off. They're very supportive. They say "get on with it, do what you like", which is quite unusual, especially when people are spending a lot of money like this.

They had enough of the Triple A stuff on there for marketing. We won't put anything on there we didn't like, but we'd make sure we had something from Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid - the big big games that are helpful. Legend of Zelda is a good one to have on - and beyond that they had a few other suggestions, but they were titles that'd come out recently. I was hoping to get something from the new Halo as my friend Neil Davidge did the music for it, but that couldn't happen because of the timing.

But we threw loads of ideas around and played lots of games and just gradually made our way...we wanted the list to reflect the diversity from different companies, so we weren't doing just a load of the Square-Enix stuff. It's supposed to be an album about the breadth of the medium.

I love the fact you've got Fez on there.

Richard [Vreeland], who wrote the music, who did the whole 8-bit sound, he loved the fact it's gone to orchestra, and I enjoyed the fact that we had that on there. Its a genuinely independent, very clever, game. Having things like Halo and Elder Scrolls - that's what buys us the option of Fez, because if it was all like Fez there wouldn't be enough in it for a record label to make money back on a orchestra that'd be realistic.

One Winged Angel: was there any thought to supplant that with another Final Fantasy track, given its been so heavily used in the past?

You could be right. It's certainly been used a lot. But we're just doing our slightly different take on it, but I take your point completely.

Was there any other pieces, given the breadth of music Final Fantasy's given us, that caught your ear?

In that particular case I like having things from Final Fantasy - I admire the game a lot, and I love how they've re-recorded it recently, incredible orchestration. But One Winged Angel was good for me to balance this album. This album's quite melodic, and I wanted a few tracks that were a little more - we had Liberi Fatali on the last album - on this album, Diablo Overture and One Winged Angel has the orchestra playing something more contemporary sounding.

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

Has your thought process changed between the last album and this one? Did you approach this album differently with that experience in mind?

The big change was that, when the first album came out - bizarrely - some of the tracks that people kept mentioning they enjoyed were Tetris and Angry Birds. Which are hardly...with Angry Birds, is a bit of a joke - I didn't even expect the label to put it on.

I realised that people did enjoy hearing these new versions of what have only ever been 8-bit. So we're doing more of that this time. Again, one of them isn't allowed to be on there, Street Fighter, as we couldn't persuade them to allow us to put it on. But there was more of that sort of thing going on.

So there's more tracks on this album that haven't been done before, I don't think. Obviously Dragon Roost Island has been done, but hasn't been done, orchestrated like this - there are more unique tracks on this album. The first was more a general walkthrough.

What do you think about game music in general? Is there a resistance from certain groups?

I think its a mixture of resistance and general ignorance. I don't think its necessarily wilful ignorance, but I think how good it is now - they're doing a program this Saturday afternoon about video game music in general, and they're playing tracks from the first album and other stuff.

And the London Philharmonic - there was no resistance in them. There was a lack of any idea what it'd be like. They knew there was some good stuff to play. I don't think they were resistant or particularly snobby. I think classical music has moved on from if you were trying to record this years ago. I think [musical purists] would be less broad-minded.

Looking at the Amercians, they got this straight away, and I wonder if the UK has a little less appreciation, is a little behind the curve. Now, that's only a guess.

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

Are live concerts a direction you'd be interested in taking this? Doing a tour of these tracks, even going abroad with it?

To an extent I would, absolutely. We did a concert last year to promote the first album which was great fun. I'd be less interested personally. I'm sure it's wonderful in many ways, but the Video Games Live, which is incredibly successful, which is nice for a big rock festival, with lots of screens - it's very multimedia. I'd be less interested in that.

If the concert was more, in the same way as the guy I was in college with, John Wilson, who now does music from the MGM period in the 40s and 50s, he has a regular prom every year, where he takes his orchestra and plays - and that's become an accepted part of the establishment - partly because John so so good, does it so well. so I think every muscial case has to be made by just quality.

And that's one thing I hope with these albums, whether with certain tracks people would choose themselves, certainly we've tried to record and play it to the highest standard possible, and I think it gives it the best chance.

I see what you mean about Video Games Live - the audience is almost drawn to watching the screens rather than the orchestra.

And that can be great. Ultimately if music's going to stand on its own two feet...I don't know if video game music, one or two well known tracks aside, like One Winged Angel, whether its had a big crossover hit your granny would know. Like Deer Hunter. That hasn't happened yet.

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

Any pieces you've researched that you enjoy personally?

Mass Effect 3 does what it says on the tin, but I do love that, I didn't really know the game, but I liked the music was associated with what I played. I admire that about the composers - they find exactly the right sound for the game. Because that is obviously a huge part of the job.

I'm slightly drawn towards the Nintendo side of things. Purely because that seems slightly more magical and unique. Others tend to have that L.A movie sound, which I'm already quite familiar with - the Hanz Zimmer production, if you like. Not that I'm not interested in that, but I'm quite interested in the other world sound - we even did a version of Metroid on this album. When I checked that out, I couldn't believe it, what the guy had managed to get out of a little chip set in the early 80s and 90s. This atmosphere that was so claustrophobic and matched the game.

I really admire the skill that they had with quite small resources, making these unique things. Its a personal opinion, but since the small resources were expanded to big resources, to some extent, the composers of video games have not to be quite so creative as they were in the previous era. Now they've managed to play catch up - "now we can play with a orchestra", use these huge things and copy Hollywood...I loved exploring early stuff.

Greatest Video Game Music: Interview

Is there any interest in a third album?

For me there is. I was quite surprised how quickly it came around with the second one. This time last year - you send these things off. I kept an eye on it and it seemed to do pretty well, and come April they're asking to do another one. So I don't know really. I'll leave that to them to ask.

I've certainly got a long list of stuff we didn't do. I've got an increasing konami collection I can't use. I'll have half the album done. [laughs]

Greatest Video Game Music Vol.2 is available now on iTunes (on which you can listen to track previews) for £5.99 as a digital download, or a physical copy will be available from Amazon UK from December 3rd, priced at £11.78.

You can see Andrew Skeet's full body of work at his official website.

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