Game Theory: A-list Game composer Andy Brick
Molly Sheridan: I know you have degrees from the University of Michigan and Mannes, so you came to this with a solid foundation academically. What were the things that you learned afterward? What sorts of skills do you need to pick up to catch the attention of some of these companies?
Andy Brick: Boy, there are a couple things. For me, the most important education I got was the education I’ve gotten since finishing school. I’ve always taken lessons; I’ve always pursued teachers even after graduating. I studied with this guy Danny Troob for a number of years—he orchestrated all of the Disney hits of the ’90s—and I’ve studied with various other people who have helped me along the way.
What I would suggest for somebody who is looking to go in a similar direction to where I’ve gone is get your skills to the point where you can do everything by yourself. The way I see it, before anyone’s going to give you a budget to allow you to assign functions to other people, they’re going to want you to do it by yourself. They’re going to say, “Ok, we’ve got a budget for six live instruments and we need you to make it sound like a live orchestra.” So get your computer skills down so you know how to do the audio recording. Make sure you know how to make those samples sing and how to mask samples with one live instrument—that’s one of the greatest things that you can do if you’re working with samples and synths on a string section. We all know there is just no way that you can recreate a real string section with MIDI. There are some really good sample libraries and you can go and spend $6,000 and get the best string samples out there that have all the tools and software and special programs just to make the strings sound good, but at the end of the day they don’t sound real. They sound really good, and in and of themselves they sound kind of cool but they’re not real. So one of the really good tricks is you take a single violinist and you have him play whatever those synthesizers are playing and then you mix it in way down so that you can’t hear it as a solo violin, you just hear it as a real element in this synth bed, and it changes things dramatically. So get your skills down. Know the tricks; know the computer tools really well. That’s one piece of advice I would give.
Study orchestration—read scores. If you’re going to be working with an orchestra, you’ve got to know how harps pedal, all these fine little things and it’s much more than they may teach you in music school. I have a closet full of scores and I’ve torn them apart and made notes in the margins. So study, keep going. You’re not done when you’re done with music school. It’s never ending and there is a ton of music out there. Seek out music that you’re not exposed to. I just did a demo for a game and we needed to have an accordion in it. Accordion? They didn’t teach me anything about the accordion at Mannes or the University of Michigan, so I went out and I found some accordion music and I talked to the guy who was going to be playing the accordion and took a lesson just so I could feel the instrument. It’s a never-ending process. There’s a ton that you can and should and have to do.
Molly Sheridan: I heard Steve Schnur from Electronic Arts speak recently and he was throwing around some really fantastic, unbelievable financials, and the audience was floored how big the number had gotten while we were, I don’t know, looking at something else. For composers coming up, are there opportunities here? Markets like these are always tight, but is it opening up in any way. How would you gauge the opportunities?
Andy Brick: I think the field is closing. When I first got into it, which was about eight years ago, it was a completely open field. Nobody thought about game music. MIDI was sort of evolving. You could do MIDI orchestral scores and get some kind of reasonable sense of what the orchestra would sound like if it ever were to be done with live orchestra which at that point it wouldn’t because the budgets weren’t there. And then as it evolved and as the media started to pay attention to game music and the composers were given the budgets to do live realizations of the music, it became very popular and it’s become an extremely popular venue for people to try and break into. The doors are about as open as they are in the film world right now, so the chance of getting yourself into a situation where you’re going to use a live orchestra in a game is about the same as your chances of getting into a film that’s going to give you a live orchestra.
Molly Sheridan: Do you run into situations where you hit an irreconcilable impasse in these projects and have to say fine, it’s a commercial project, I need to just let it go, that’s just how it is…
Andy Brick: Oh, you must be able to let it go. I was in a big recording session with a huge orchestra, and the audio director was there at the recording session and we were running down a cue of mine and it was sounding great, and the ending was sort of a recapitulation of what had happened at the beginning, and he turned and said, “You know, I think it would be really cool if all the instruments got softer from here until the end, so there’s this big diminuendo in the last 20 seconds.” And I was sitting there and thinking, “Well, that makes absolutely no sense at all,” and I hadn’t written for these instruments in a way that would allow them to do that well. But he said, “Let’s just tell everybody to do a diminuendo.” And I turned to him and said, “I’m not sure that that’s going to work,” and he goes, “Oh, it’ll work.” I was thinking I’m not sure it’s going to work in terms of the music and he was thinking in terms of the game and the images. Well, yes it will work in terms of the game if it could be done. Well, we had to modify a little bit, and sure enough in the recording now there’s this diminuendo for 20 seconds and every time I hear it, I think, “Why did they do a diminuendo there?” but then sometimes I think, “You know what, that was actually a really good call because it does fit what’s happening at that moment really well.”
So you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to remember that you’re writing for someone else and what they choose to do with it after you’ve written it is their choice, and if they ask you to do something that isn’t your first instinct, you’ve got to reconsider your instincts and try to understand where they’re coming from. And sometimes you’ll have a good dialogue. You’ll have an audio director or producer and they’ll ask you to try this and you’ll say, “No, that’s not going to work, but we can try this,” and you’ll go back and forth. And sometimes, they just say, “You know what? Add a high hat there. That would sound really cool with your French horns.” And you’re like, “A high hat?…well, okay.” You’ve got to let go.
Another example of what happens in commercial composing—you’re asked to write in the “style of” and as a composer you’re then faced with a kind of conflict: How do I emulate what they’re asking me to do, because they are the bosses and they are giving direction, and at the same time infuse your own element into it?