MAGFest X Recap, Part II: The Meat

(in case you missed Part I)

Before I get into the panels and whatnot, there’s one thing that I forgot to share in the last post regarding the Gaylord: because it’s so fancy, the Gaylord is host to a lot of fancy parties, including weddings.  One of my favorite moments at MAGFest X was seeing a wedding party and then seeing a full-fledged Zora walk past them.  Furthermore, could you imagine taking wedding photos and having the Colossus mutant power sound roared randomly by twenty different people all around you?  If that kind of stuff excites you, you should make it to MAGFest next year.

The first panel that Jen and I went to at MAGFest was called “Orchestral Game Music and Society.”  It was hosted by members of the Gamers Symphony Orchestra, which is a group based out of the University of Maryland that plays orchestral arrangements of video game music as well as original game-influenced compositions by their members.  Their members also do many of the arrangements that they perform.

The panelists essentially just talked about who they are, what they do, and what their goals are.  If you live in area surrounding the UMD, you might be able to join them provided you can make their rehearsals and, more importantly, if they have space.  As you can imagine, there’s a high demand to join and, naturally, a limited amount of space.  There’s good news for all of you who play things other than the piano or flute, though: they do accept people of any instrument, though they can’t guarantee that you’ll play since their make-up is slave to the demands of the arrangements that they play.  Who knows, though—maybe someone will write in a part for contrabass saxophone.

The conductor, Kira Levitzsky (four from the left), mentioned a project that she has a vision for that involves the GSO releasing a CD of the works of “future game composers” on iTunes to help raise money for their organization.  I thought this was a pretty neat idea, so I contacted her after MAGFest—hopefully one of my tunes will be tracked!  Just have to prepare one in time…

When it came time for their Q&A, I asked them about what percentage of the music they play is from the last 10 years and what percentage is of VGM composed prior to that.  The answer I received was that there is, approximately, a 25/75 split with the majority of tunes being modern.  Gamers in the orchestra get enthused by the games that they are currently playing and want to hash out arrangements of those, one said.  Another had mentioned that he prefers to receive old arrangements because more creative liberties are taken in them.  If I remember correctly, it was said that was because, as one would imagine, modern scores are already arranged and orchestrated for a more traditional instrumentation; this is in opposition to arrangements of, say, chiptunes since the sounds of chiptunes are abstract—the arranger has to decide which instruments would be best suited for which bleep or bloop.  I’d guess that, also, so many arrangements of old tunes have been done that arrangers have to put in their own extensions of melodies or forms.

I had furthermore asked a follow-up question of whether or not the old tunes still resonate with the performers.  While it’s great that they’re not fixated on older music, with such a majority of the arrangements being modern I was concerned, as a Mitsuda fan, that maybe the older greats were getting lost in the mix.  Fortunately, they expressed that their members and audiences seem to enjoy all of their arrangements.  They said that some are known even to go back and check out the original versions of the more unfamiliar pieces and expand beyond that.  That was great news!

After the panel I met with one of their members, Chris Apple (two from the left) of Chris Apple Studios (which, now that I type it, sounds an awful lot like crisp apple strudels… yum!).  He is a fellow aspiring game composer (check out his stuff on the site for sure), so we chatted a bit and he led Jen and me to check out the group Rare Candy, which features Dominic Cerquetti on keys.  Cerquetti is a programmer for Firaxis (Civilization).

The show was pretty cool (Mog, as you can see, loved them).  The two things that I remember they did were a Metroid medley and Storm Eagle’s stage from Mega Man X.  Man, I always forget how much I love how rockin’ X’s tracks are.  Here’s a video of them doing that tune at MAGFest IX and here’s the original.  Personally, my favorite part is when they play the “level selected” diddy and caw (PS: Cerquetti’s the one in the Team Rocket shirt).

On Saturday there was an “Indie Game Musicians Protips and Q&A” panel.  The schedule said that Darren Korb would be there, but he actually wasn’t, so alas, I have no good follow-up to my Bastion review.  Regardless, there were some interesting composers present who offered many different perspectives on a variety of topics.  In the photo, from left to right:

- Vert (OCRemix, etc.)
- Josh Whelchel (Wind-up Knight; various iPhone games)
- Will Roget (The Old Republic)
- Rich Vreeland (some verison of Bomberman)
- Jeff ? (he introduced himself as having played violin on a lot of soundtracks—sounded like he composes, too, but I didn’t catch what he’s done so I couldn’t look up his last name)
- I thought he said Andrew, but I don’t know—he did some work on a Monkey Island game.
- Grant Kirkhope (all things Rare, i.e. Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye, Viva Pinata)
- Danny Baranowsky (Super Meatboy)

(if you remember or recognize any of the people I effed up, please let me know who they are so I can edit the list)

Jen didn’t join me for this panel and instead went to the one detailing the Smithsonian’s upcoming video game exhibit (I heard it was awesome).  I’m actually glad she didn’t wind up with me until the end because the first long while was very composer-centric, as Josh and Will both detailed certain methods they use when writing.

Josh talked about writing a tune in a limited amount of time by writing a drum track, assigning the MIDI data of the different parts of the set to different instruments, and tweaking.  Though it sounds like a bit of a copout, it’s a pretty good tip for writing something really quickly if you need to – his sounded pretty cool for sure – especially, I imagine, if you’re writing for a small iPhone game or something that doesn’t need a lot of development.  His method reminded me of something that my old professor, master jazz trumpeter John D’earth, continuously told his students: imagine that every key is a drum and every note you play is you striking a different drum.  By it he meant to focus on the fact that rhythm should be a primary focus in one’s improvising; “Rhythm is king,” he always said.  Josh’s method of quickly composing gives a whole new meaning to John’s words.

Will, on the other hand, talked about making samples better by tweaking them in Native Instruments’ Kontakt.  One of the ways he works is by making sure that each instrument sounds exactly the way he wants it to before he writes in his DAW.  In the panel, he adjusted a terrible horn patch and really breathed life into it.  It was of his opinion, and of the opinion of a number of those in the panel, that Kontakt Complete is a must-have because of the shear volume of the library, the customization features, and the quality of samples.  Also, he and Rich touched on mixing an orchestral work and trying the capture the spatial aspect that a live performance inherently has.  Rich suggested that everyone go to a live performance and listen to the orchestra from different parts of the room, which is something that I’ll have to do and study.

It was interesting to hear the guys talk because the audience really got to hear experiences that landed on complete opposite sides of the spectrum and everyone had very different personalities and methods.  For example, while Will focuses on the tweaking of instruments, Danny just keeps it simple and uses what’s given to him to make his music; most of the guys input MIDI data using the keyboard though some still click along the piano roll; some had a lot of success walking around and handing out demos and networking at GDC while others quite simply worked on one project that happened to be huge and then had offers fall in their lap; some really find profit in making albums of their works and selling them on BandCamp.  Their words just reinforced that there’s no one way to go about busting into the industry and getting work.

Meanwhile, Grant ranted on and on about how Nintendo and the big companies couldn’t give a shit about the music in games (he undoubtedly used harsher language in his nearly unintelligible British accent).   He even talked about how he suggested to his superiors that they sell the soundtrack to a particular game and they refused.  Fast forward to Grant selling the soundtrack otherwise and there being some kind of legal loophole that led to him keeping the profits.  That man was hilarious.

Out of all the composers, the one that left me most intrigued was Will.  The way that he spoke about music, from focusing on the orchestra in his works to emphasizing the importance of transcription and studying form, resonated with me.  I am eager to listen to more of his works very soon.

I thought for sure I’d get to Uematsu in this post, but I’ll save him for a third.  Sorry for the wait!