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Interview with Zircon, aka Andrew Aversa

October 31, 2010

I was recently lucky enough to interview Video Game Composer, Electronic Artist, Sample Developer and co-founder of Space Whale Studios, Zircon, whose work I have been a fan of for quite some time.

He graciously agreed to answer my questions via email.

– I would like to start off by asking you some questions about your work on Return All Robots! I enjoyed listening to the soundtrack and it has a very cohesive sound. How did you approach getting this unified sound and what considerations did you have to take into account before you wrote the first note of music?

The piece that actually defined the basic ‘sound’ for the rest of the soundtrack was the main theme, which came first. I wrote that piece primarily in a single live session with my good friend and fellow Philly composer Mike Worth, one of the other co-founders of Space Whale Studios. We wanted to make a lighthearted piece with some elements of caution and danger, while also calling to mind 80s synth cheese and 8/16 bit video games. Once we had that established, it wasn’t too hard to come up with the theme.

As for keeping a cohesive sound, a lot of it came down to using the same pool of samples and synths for each track, as well as simply trying to stay in the same ‘mood’ – e.g. 80s, 16bit, a little cheesy, etc.

The soundtrack now is actually about twice the size of the version I posted during the RAR! remix contest, so I look forward to sharing that with everyone.

– To what extent did non-musical elements influence your choices and approach to writing the soundtrack? How much did things like the game’s story, art direction or level design have a bearing on what  you composed?

A solid chunk of the music was written before any levels were designed and when we only had a vague idea of the story. We knew the general aesthetic that we wanted, and the type of gamer we wanted to appeal to, so those elements of course were a big influence. About 50% of the soundtrack was written after I had designed many of the levels and written the story – certain pieces were needed to flesh things out and keep the soundtrack from becoming repetitive. I guess it’s helpful to be both the lead designer and composer for things like that!

– Would you be able to give me a quick run down on the process of creating one of the tracks from Return All Robots! From the piece’s inception, to completion and final implementation into the game?

Well, step one is to consider the in-game usage of the piece. This helps establish the general mood. For example, the Cryogenics Lab is a challenging level with an ice theme, so that means the music shouldn’t be too bubbly and bright (whereas that would be very appropriate for earlier levels.) Step two involves diving into FL and setting up a general palette of sounds, usually starting with percussion groove. Step three is refining and completing the piece, often with feedback from the rest of the team.

Step four, looping and editing the track, ensures that the piece has the necessary metadata for the audio engine to loop it properly, and that it will sound completely seamless to the player. Step five is implementation, where the piece gets imported into XACT, a tool that manages the game’s SFX and music libraries and allows me to alter properties like pitch, volume, priority, etc. This step also requires me to select which level(s) the music should play it, which is just a matter of editing XML .LVL files.

The final step is simply testing how the piece sounds in-game. Does it loop properly? Is it at the right volume? Is it too short? Does it make the SFX harder to hear? This is more of an ongoing process, as I’ve been making minor adjustments to the music all the way up to now, days before the game’s release.

– Could you provide a list of the equipment and gear you used to make the soundtrack?

Well, my main workstation program is no secret: FL Studio. For synthesized sounds, almost everything was done using u-he Zebra 2, one of my favorite synths. In fact, I even used Zebra to create a number of the game’s SFX. Native Instruments’ FM8 and Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere showed up a little bit too. Most of the soundtrack’s drum sound are from a drum machine sample CD by “Goldbaby.” Lots of Roland TR-series stuff that gives many of the pieces an 80s or early 90s feel. Stylus RMX, another Spectrasonics product, helped fill out the drums as well.

– Check out the trailer for Return All Robots!

– I would also like to ask you about your involvement in the thriving video game music remixing scene at the excellent OverClocked Remix. Why do you think there is such a big community and audience for the reinterpretation of video game music? And what are your own primary motivations when it comes to remixing video game music?

The major reason for the size of the audience is definitely nostalgia value. Even people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves “video game music fans” often have lots of nostalgia for games from their childhood, so hearing that music reinterpreted brings back those good memories. Of course, once you’re hooked and listening to ReMixes, you’ll often start branching out and listening to mixes of games you’ve never played.

As for my own motivations, when I first started making music on a computer I was doing it for the pure joy that it gave me. I thought it was so cool that I could actually produce music at all, let alone upload it for other people to hear. At this point I had already started listening to music from OC ReMix, though I wasn’t a part of the community yet – as soon as I finished my first piece I hopped on to the #ocremix IRC chat. The rest is history. My love for creating ReMixes led to a love for creating music of all kinds, which in turn led me to focus on music as a career. Nowadays, I still make ReMixes primarily for the fun of it, though it’s also something that helps my career; many fans of my original works heard about me first through OC ReMix.

-One of my favorite Zircon OC ReMixes:

– What do you think is the best way for someone with no shipped games under their belt to begin looking for work? Would you recommend that they approach indie developers or the massive iPhone game market first rather than aiming their sights at the somewhat lofty heights of composing for big console titles?

Everyone wants to be a game composer, and I think it’s literally the hardest creative field to thrive in. The problem is that there are so many composers looking for work, but music is the smallest role on just about any development team. Even the biggest of games only require 3 or 4 composers at most, whereas you might need ten times as many artists. With all that in mind, I honestly would recommend first that people consider what other skills they can bring to the table. Writing? Design? Art? Programming? QA? Even knowing about audio implementation and sound design will give you a leg up on most composers out there.

Without a doubt, it’s completely futile to shoot for big titles first. It’s impossible, unless you have friends in the industry who have the power to hire you. You definitely want to start by building up experience and credits on small titles first – Xbox Indie Games, iPhone/iPad or Android, Flash stuff, or games created by college students as part of a degree program. Doing this will also help you network with people who could go on to be very successful later. Get involved with your local colleges and IGDA first to become acquainted with the regional game development scene, and of course join forums like TIGSource, GameDev.net etc. As you build credits, experience and relationships (while always charging appropriately for your work, if budgets are involved) you’ll hopefully start moving into bigger gigs.

The emphasis here is really on relationships, though. Everyone you meet is someone who could potentially give you work later. They might just be hobbyists like you now, but a year or two down the road they could be producers or audio leads for major companies. Treat everyone you meet with respect. It’s very rare for companies to hire total strangers on the basis of skill and credits alone – they start looking from within their network and expand from there.

– To what extent do you think having top of the range gear, pluggins and sample libraries is required in order to remain competitive in this industry?

That’s a tricky question, because lately there has been a massive resurgence of retro games that do not call for the latest and greatest sounds. Also, small developers won’t care a great deal about what you use; they’ll just be happy to have a composer at all. However, as you get into bigger titles, your demo reel becomes more important and you want to make an excellent impression. Some people can make even cheap samples sound fantastic, and developers don’t literally concern themselves with the specific tools you use, as its the final result that is important. Nonetheless, Los Angeles Scoring Strings or Hollywood Strings will almost certainly make your orchestral demo reel stronger than, say, Garritan Personal Orchestra or free sundfonts 🙂

– Finally, is there any specific things you could recommend a composer could do or practice in order to better prepare themselves for the specific nuances of composing for video games?

The creative act of writing music for games is hard to really talk about, since there are so many kinds of games. Writing chiptunes is very different than composing a multi-layer interactive score for a next-gen FPS title. So, rather than give specific advice about anything here, I’d say that it’s most important for composers to simply keep practicing in any way possible. Don’t stop writing just because you don’t have a gig. Don’t avoid certain styles of music just because you’re not comfortable with them. Don’t dismiss traditional music theory, ear training or arranging techniques – they can all be applied to video game music!

In short, never stop working. Breaking into composing for games as a career is not something you can do in an hour a day. You need to spend as much time as you possibly can on improving yourself, improving your music, networking, learning about the industry and generally soaking up all the knowledge you can… because believe me, the competition in this field is *fierce*.

I would again like to thank Andrew for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been valuable to hear his insight and he has given me much food for thought, which I will take forward as I continue with my CEP.

You can find out more about Zircon at: http://zirconmusic.com/

Check out more of his OC ReMixes here http://ocremix.org/artist/4628/zircon




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