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Interviewing veteran composer Barry Leitch (Part II). A new profession: Game Composer.

After 30 years composing for around 240 video games, Barry Leitch has many stories to tell. In this interview he gives some thoughts about the evolution of his profession, including the hurdles and advices, good and bad practices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the correlation between a game's reception and its soundtrack. After researching some cases, I saw the recognition a video game soundtrack could get uses to be limited by the recognition that title receives. So if the soundtrack is superb and the game is mediocre, those fantastic pieces of music will probably get lost very fast. Can you talk about your case and mention other curious situations you know?

Rob Hubbards “Spellbound” music was given a 53% rating for audio in Zzap 64... It is arguably the best piece of music ever written for the C64. The game wasn’t bad, so that’s a one off anomaly. If the game isn’t very good, usually the music gets tarred with the same brush… If the game is great, it usually benefits how the audio is perceived... It’s a negative / positive association.

I think games have changed a lot over the years… people used to pay a lot more attention to their soundtracks due partly to several reasons:

A) Novelty and uniqueness: It was a new sound that had never been heard before. Synthesizers were new at the time, and suddenly there was this whole new genre of music with game music being a far derivative of that. Where people would have to push boundaries and create new mechanisms in order to squeeze something not only musical but aesthetically pleasing out of a sound chip. In this sense, Rob Hubbard’s work was absolutely groundbreaking.

B) Creative Control: The composer had a lot more creative control over what went in the game, so obviously, they would compose a soundtrack that people would want to listen to. As the industry grew, so did the amount of people involved in a game, no longer did you just have to get the programmers approval. You had to appease the producer, the programmers the artists, the marketing guys, and in the end you get that horrible “design by committee” thing, and it simply dilutes the quality of the audio, you end up steering what you are writing to something that will appease as many people as possible, as opposed to doing what all the great composers do which is to be somewhat more self-indulgent and create art.

Sometimes studios look for renowned game composers and give them more of that creative control when they probably had a talented local composer available who wouldn't have that freedom. It's a very crowded space where you need to work a lot on your own "brand", outstanding what makes you different and delivering the best quality at your hands. In this surreal case, I’m the renowned composer.. LOL.. Something I would have never dreamt of! and I have to tell you I’ve had SO MUCH fun writing the music. I’ve been more excited to write this soundtrack than ANYTHING I’ve worked on previously, and I’ve probably gone way over the top in places, more so than I would usually have done as I’m quite used to writing for a committee - keeping the pieces within those “safe boundaries” that you know will appease most people, but in letting me off the leash a bit, I’ve had that freedom to explore places that I wouldn’t usually have gone. I am constantly testing ideas out on friends, just to make sure I’m not going off the rails too much, and the feedback has just been incredible! So I really feel like what I’ve created here is a work of art. Not everybody will like it - but I think a lot more people will like it than hate it. There are many stories about famous bands who had difficulty getting their most famous works published... It all comes down to that creative control. Aquiris have been very “hands off” with the music. They havent really pushed back on anything (other than when I used a sitar in one of the race tunes, and their reasoning for that was because it grounded the music too much in a specific geographical area. So it’s very much been a “dream gig”.

C) Getting lost in the noise: There’s a LOT more audio now... In music production alone, there’s been a 100X increase in recorded music produced from 1980-ish until now... and on top of that, there’s a LOT more mediums of delivery, from toys, to cellphones, so people are constantly bombarded with music, it’s easy to see how great soundtracks can simply drown in the maelstrom.

Regarding the consideration from developers about the music of a game, was it always equally relevant back then as it is now?

I could waffle on nostalgically about how game music was more important back then. “How music used to mean something….” :) but to be honest, it’s just as relevant now as it was then.. There’s just a LOT more of it… Today’s wee mobile apps have FAR more music in them than most commodore 64 games ever did. Another thing I’ve noticed though is that pieces are written more to create an atmosphere rather than just be some good music. Obviously this is game specific, and there’s games that suit some good old fashioned “game music”, and games where atmosphere is paramount. I think I just miss picking up a game knowing that you’re going to hear something musically interesting no matter what it was. It’s possible to create atmosphere with melody.. It doesn’t always have to be a long drawn out string section.

I can imagine you are still in touch with other veteran video game musicians, are they still working in games? how does this industry treats veteran musicians?

I still am in touch with several veteran game composers, many are currently enjoying the current “retro revival”, but many have had employment problems over the years. The game industry in general is very cyclic, boom and bust. I haven’t worked full time in games for almost 15 years now. In general, it’s a very competitive industry, everyone has a friend who has a band, or can write some music, so it’s only financially logical for businesses to look at the cheapest possible solutions. It has nothing to do with talent either, some of the most talented composers I know, struggle to find work (People who are far better composers than me). Even now, top game development companies treat their external resources badly. I hear horror stories all the time about how some of the big name companies make their external developers jump through hoops to get paid and then make them wait months for the privilege. Making games is fun - working for some game companies… not so much.

Back in your early days you had to work on several projects at the same time to be able to pay your bills as a composer for video games. With this overcrowded and full of passion projects (and with very scarce funding) indie games scene, is there a similar situation now to when you started, when we talk about being financially sustainable? Please don’t hesitate in mentioning numbers if you want.

Working freelance wasn’t a sustainable business model for me when I first started (around $250 per tune – and I wasn’t good enough to get regular work), but after a couple of years I managed to get a full time job paying around $7000 a year, “14 of us lived in a shoebox in the middle of the road”. Obviously that was a long time ago and I was very young (17). I think by the time I left the industry in 2000 I was on $75k a year. I think the big difference between now and then is that back then the market was so hungry for products that any title would sell reasonably well. These days, there are many titles, and very few actually hit gold.. I saw statistics lately that showed out of 10 games, costing roughly around 50k to make.. (single developer indie games) – 7 will lose money.. 2 will break even and 1 will make money.. Those aren’t very good odds. What fascinates me is the constant PR.. It’s become such a huge part of making a game successful, Twitter, Facebook, all the gaming sites, podcasts, youtube videos, etc.. Answering questions for interviews ;) We used to have Zzap64… A company would put an advert in it and the game would sell… simple.

I think it’s heartbreaking to see the amount of work today’s generation put into developing software and don’t see even enough return on it to survive on, but I also think it’s amazing to see the gargantuan projects like GTA being developed. I think the problem stems from people not wanting to pay for phone apps. I’ve caught myself agonizing over a 99 cent app and then realizing “WTF !! it’s a buck ! I use this every day !! PAY THE DOLLAR !!” – That being said, there’s a lot of shovelware out there.. and you only need to get burnt once before you start to get hesitant about that precious dollar.

As for Horizon Chase, it’s my passion project for the year. For me, the amount of love shown from the people of Brazil for the Top Gear music has been awe inspiring. The amount of people who took the time to learn to play the old tunes on instruments is astounding. It’s very moving to see these kids so excited to play them, seeing & hearing their passion was what motivated me. It was an honor to be asked to be involved. What was just a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Sheffield for me, was apparently a huge part of many people’s childhoods. It became something very personal to them, and thus, it became very personal to me. This whole project has been a labor of love for me. I’ve put my heart and soul into it, and only hope I can once again remind them of the excitement of being a child playing a kick ass racing game. For me, it’s reminded me how fun it is to write some good old fashioned fun driving music. I’ve been constantly listening to it in my car trying to get the mixes perfect, and I have to tell you, I’ve caught myself speeding every god damned time I listen to it…

Which advices for the future would you give to the early 90s’ Barry? and for the 2000’s Barry?

90’s Barry: “Enjoy the early 90’s... it doesn’t get any better than that.”

and 2000’s Barry: “Atari will die.. Fisher Price needs music for their toys!”

;)

Life since early 2000s.

After working on the Arcade and Dreamcast versions of RUSH 2049 and Gauntlet: Dark Legacy, Barry got some offers to work doing music for toys. So decided to focus on that niche with the same passion he composed for games, maybe it's not as exciting as games, but brings him more stability.

If you stop to think, this man has put music in lives of so many children that is hard to calculate... I wanted to close this interivew with a very fond memory of him, the last pic he took with his grandmother, showing her some of his toy tunes: "She used to sing me a lullaby when I was a wee boy, I put that lullaby in a LOT of toys. she got to hear it before she died.", Barry told me.

-Barry Leitch (http://www.barryleitch.com)

Aquiris Game Studio is a Brazilian independent studio, mainly focused on multi-platform games for midcore audience. We publish our own games and also codevelop some of our projects with a publishing partner (i.e. Cartoon Network).

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