I started playing guitar in high school and started writing music around the age of 17 or 18. Dropped out of a design program to go to music college, and started working on games through a blend of internships, and a bit of luck with having some carryover familiarity from my chipmusic work as Disasterpeace.
I grew up in a musical household in Staten Island, NY. My step-father was the music director of our church and in a Beatles cover band called 'The Blue Meanies.' He would hold band practice in our basement, and I would go down there to play the drums. My mom sings and plays the piano, and my sister has been singing since she could speak.
When I was little, I used to love using my hands as percussion, slapping tables, my stomach, and clicking out rhythms on my teeth. Despite my behavior it hadn't occurred to me to delve deeper into music. My first real interests were sports, video games, computers and visual design — drawing and making stuff. At eleven or twelve, I started messing around with my mom's Macintosh — she is a graphic designer, so that was around and that was where I started with getting into being creative.
The music of my early youth was varied but influenced by a religious upbringing. I really liked the Christian band dcTalk, the music from the Peanuts (Vince Guaraldi), as well as the Beatles, grunge, rap, and a little later on Nü Metal. My mom's love for Joni Mitchell also rubbed off on me.
It really started for me with a love for making stuff. I spent my childhood drawing, writing stories and experimenting with software. I would make fake newsletters for the neighborhood, and fake companies as an excuse to design logos. I used to screw around with Microsoft Word templates and make fake certificates and brochures, all kinds of stuff. That evolved into an interest in web design and the internet in general.
As a teenager, I went through a pretty serious wrestling phase and stumbled into a new hobby, fantasy wrestling (or eWrestling). I had dabbled in fantasy basketball and football, but eWrestling isn't like other fantasy sports. It's not about statistics or roster management, but about writing. It gave me an impetus to get into creative writing. It's essentially a form fan-fiction, where you create a wrestler. Being interested in graphic design, I ended up making graphics for a lot of people. They would seek me out to make artwork for their wrestlers or logos for events. I also did a lot of websites at this time. eWrestling was where I got my first real taste of what it's like to be a freelancer. The money was minimal, usually 20 - 50 dollars per job, but it was a start.
I flirted with the guitar growing up but didn't take it up officially until high school, and started writing music shortly thereafter. As a budding guitar player, I was big into bands like Tool, Led Zeppelin, and Rage Against the Machine. I took ownership of my grandfather's 1960's Fender Vibrolux Reverb. I loved playing pentatonic, odd-metered power chord riffs and I found the sound of a distorted guitar mesmerizing. It was a great sounding amplifier, and regretfully I decided to sell it years later during an inactive period in my playing. I spent a few years making guitar recordings before getting more into computer music. Those experiences were the foundation of my pre-academic music education.
After high school, I attended but eventually dropped out of a design program in order to go to music college, and started working on games through a blend of internships, and a bit of luck with having some carryover familiarity from my chipmusic work as Disasterpeace. When I started writing music for games, I was just using my regular name, but at some point decided it made sense to consolidate my two names for simplicity’s sake.
I stumbled into my first soundtrack gig by responding to a wanted ad on a message board, but I never thought that scoring was a possibility until I found myself doing it.
On The Moniker
I had a habit as a kid of creating fictional entities just so I could make designs. So I wanted to form a band, and I started with a name and a logo. The band never came to fruition but the name has stuck for over a decade.
I like wordplay. It was a play on masterpiece. I originally spelled it 'Disasterpiece', but in learning about the Slipknot song of the same name, I changed the spelling to 'Disasterpeace'. Peace and disaster are kind of at odds as ideas, and I like that.
On The Chronicles of Jammage the Jam Mage
I wrote that album before I had any proper theory education, so I was mostly just using my ears and trying to experiment a lot with rhythm, harmony and time signatures / etc.
I wrote most of those tracks starting from drop d riffs on the guitar, so that is what gives it the sort of style it has ... i also used a tablature editor which kind of freed me up to write longer tunes with multiple sections that i could play back to get a sense of an overall structure.
there's a general kind of ignorance of key changes / modes in the music, it leans a lot more heavily towards 'what sounds cool' and coming up with riffs to play on the guitar, so a lot of the music came out of those explorations, and then adding accompaniment to those on the computer (drums and bass, mostly)
On Atebite & the Warring Nations
Atebite and the Warring Nations was a submission for a concept album contest on TheShizz.org, the Minibosses message boards. I had just watched the Lord of the Rings Trilogy around the time I wrote the album and the idea of creating a musical epic was central to it.
On My Music Education (Berklee College of Music)
Going to Berklee was a big help for me as a musician. It gave me an impetus to learn a lot of different things about music. Classes like theory, counterpoint, ear training, conducting, and arranging were invaluable. Also, by choosing to focus specifically on Music Synthesis, I was exposed to a lot of different types of music technology and felt empowered to keep using computers to make music. A lot of the people I needed to meet and places I needed to be to find opportunities in the games industry happened because I was at a music college. I think it's possible to succeed without going to school but for me and my personality it would have been a harder journey, and I might not have as many tools in my toolbox. Going to school is a bit like hopping on a moving train, and that momentum I surrounded myself with was invaluable.
On the MIT Gamelab Internship
Interning at MIT was a valuable experience. A group of about 8 interns would be assembled on a team with an advisor, and given an educational concept to try and teach through a game we'd develop. We were given the task to develop a game that teaches math concepts like acceleration and velocity to high school students. We made two platforming games that are somewhat related to each other, called Waker and Woosh. It was my first real exposure to working in a game development environment, making lots of collaborative creative decisions. I can say it was an intriguing challenge. I had an added sense of pride in the work, knowing that it might help others.
Early Production Style
I started with a very narrow approach to production. I had a simpler musical taste at that time, and a general lack of understanding about how to create the sounds I wanted. I like to mess around with my music much more now. Much of what I did back then was with the intent to sound 'heavy'.
I'm not sure I realized it at the time, but shifting to writing all my music in an 8-bit style was very convenient for me. Beforehand I was trying to realize full band-style productions. It's hard when you have limited chops and limited equipment. Working with a digital sound significantly lowered my overhead. As I wrote more in that style though, I truly began to appreciate all the nuances and strengths associated with it. Chipmusic is great because it puts more of the focus on the musical content, and less on getting caught in performance ability and production (though production is still important). It also forces you to think about music in a contrapuntal context. Starting to use the computer to write music allowed me to decouple my limitations as a performer and musician.
Looking back I can safely say that chipmusic was very much the right musical style for me at the right time. It allowed me to focus more on composition in my early years, and improve my production skills at a comfortable pace, instead of trying to reach higher standards all at once.
How I Got My Start in Games
Not long after I started making recordings in 2003, I began to post my work on discussion forums. I found there were many individuals more than happy to listen and provide feedback. Early on, this process was addictive. I got hooked on the rush of getting feedback, regardless of its quality or temperament. In 2005, a friend showed me an advertisement in a forum looking for music, and kindly posted my work in thread. I followed up over e-mail, an da few months later, I heard back from the poster of the ad, someone who worked at a company that made cell phone games. He asked me to write music for one of their projects, and I couldn't believe that writing music for games could be my job.
The first couple of cell phone projects I worked on required that the music and sound be delivered as General MIDI files. I realized early on that trying to do recordings with guitar, drums, bass, all this kind of stuff, was hard. It was hard to get the production good and to get good takes. So pretty early on, I discovered tracking, using synthesizers to emulate those instruments and then using guitar tablature software to keep track of my ideas. And it also had MIDI playback, so that became my go-to piece of software to write music in the very beginning.
I had all these guitar ideas, and I was getting frustrated with trying to record them straight. I got into the habit of coming up with riffs and transcribing them into tablature. Then I would arrange supporting elements using MIDI instruments, like bass and drums.
My first project was a game about zombies for a cell phone company. I don't think it ever got made, but I created a handful of ditties and General MIDI sound effects for it. The follow up was a mobile version of the 70s/80s game show 'Press Your Luck.' I made sound effects and a few musical themes. The third and last project I worked on for the company was a puzzle game called 'Wasabi,' for which I wrote 16 looping tracks. They ended up releasing that game without any music at all. I later released that music on my site under the name 'Limeade Grin'.
I was fortunate enough to go to music school, and get some audio internships, which turned into work opportunities. I also used college loan money to go to GDC in 2009, and that's how I landed 'Drawn to Life' and through that, Puzzle Agent. I became very interested in smaller, independent game projects, and started looking for free games to work on. I did some pro-bono work to get my feet wet in the beginning.
Early on I made it a point to seize most if not all audio related opportunities, and I think that’s really one of the most important things you can do when you are getting started. Seize every opportunity for awhile, give yourself a chance to get acquainted, feel yourself out, and establish some kind of repertoire. I think you have to become somewhat well-established before you can be more selective.
On The Role of Video Games in My Career
My very first soundtrack gig in 2006 was a game, and I’m still working on games. It’s a very challenging and fun medium to contribute to. There’s something to be said about the history of videogame music too, and how it evolved from simple, technologically restricted beginnings. I came to appreciate these early stylings, which are sometimes called ‘chipmusic’. It dramatically influenced my own work. I think videogames really got me to think about music contrapuntally. When you’re emulating a style that limits you to a few voices and simple sounds, everything that remains needs to be quite strong. It also delayed my foray into the production side of things, and got me to focus more on composition. I was able to perform my music live for many years as part of a small but international scene of very enthusiastic people. I could really go on - it was an awesome experience and I owe so much to the medium of games and to many of the smaller scenes in its orbit.
How Did You Get Here?
- Established a musical identity
- Disasterpeace, chiptunes, 2005
- Made an effort to work only on projects that I'm interested in.
- If you're lucky, projects you think have value will be well-loved
- Projects that are well-loved garner attention
- Attention means more ears hear your music, which usually means more opportunities to work on more projects.
- Seized the opportunity to work on FEZ
- Spent a year at a game studio learning what I didn't want to do
What Went Well
- Internships were stepping stones
- Work on early projects got me referrals for bigger projects
- Tried to choose projects that would allow me to learn and grow
- Clarified my focus over time
- Discovered that I preferred smaller projects to larger ones
- Typically not a fan of large-scale sound effect work
- Working with developers to create useful tools for music implementation
- Getting hired to be me
- Working with people who care about every facet of their game
- Learning from older colleagues
- Referrals from the more experienced helped me land projects
- Introduced and helped me pick up middleware software like FMOD
What Went Not So Well
- Could have sought more critical advice and feedback from peers
- I mismanaged my money at times.
- Paying off more of my student loans than I could afford to.
- I had to take a part-time job for a while.
- Developers sometimes vanish, along with their projects, after you've put in time and effort.
- Sometimes clients are too uncertain to give you direction, or too controlling to let you be yourself.
- Sometimes clients lack the investment required to care about the details of your work.
- Being out of the loop as a freelancer leads to miscommunication and implementation mistakes.
- Projects often linger on for way longer than you want or expect. Beware!
- People may try to pigeonhole you for a single trait or ability.
On Analog vs. Digital
I think we all have a different relationship to creative tools. There's something inspiring about playing with physical knobs and instruments. I love playing my piano, for instance. But for me, from just wanting to have a clean space to work in and to be portable so that I can work from anywhere, containing my work to my laptop makes my life much simpler. The technology is such that there are so many options on my computer that I can do, and you can get so many different kinds of sounds out of it. People have learned how to model old analog gear and at this point, I have a hard time distinguishing. The trade-off to go back to hardware is not worth it for me based on my values and interests. I'm not an audiophile. I care a lot about the way things sound, but the nuances that separate a hardware compressor from a virtual one are lost on me.
A media composer can benefit from asking: why music? Will another discipline shine brighter in this scenario? Do we drive, take a backseat, get out of the car altogether? Editing your work extends to asking whether it even needs to exist at all.
Rolling off low frequencies is one of my go-to techniques, it can help tremendously in clearing up a mix. I also try to keep things mono as much as possible, so that if something is stereo, you notice it. Or I make everything stereo and randomize the positioning per note so that you feel surrounded.
On Juggling Multiple Projects
I'm often involved in anywhere from 5 to 15 different projects of various sizes. It may seem like a lot, and at times it is and feels that way, but given the right balance it can be managed. Since all projects are developed under different circumstances, with different timelines and workloads, I am often able to move from project to project when I am needed. If you're concerned about work stability, being involved in multiple projects secures your future work schedule.
Interactivity in Music
Growing up, I don't think I noticed game music doing things with form and structure. And yet I think that's the strongest aspect that sets music in games apart from other art forms and other applications of music. The interactive developments of game music were already happening in the fifties and sixties. The ideas of aleatoric music and music by chance were prevalent decades before video games and the chance games that Mozart played predated those by centuries more. He designed a game around music where you rolled dice, and your roll determined the order to play sections of the piece. There were hundreds of sections.
There were some early standouts. Many of the LucasArts games from the 90s ran on a system called iMUSE (Interactive Music Streaming Engine). Games like Monkey Island had really sophisticated music systems that allowed the music to transition smoothly between sections by using real-time MIDI generation. Most other music at this time was simple looping material.
But even in Super Mario World on Super Nintendo they were starting to experiment with reactive music. When you're walking around, there's music of course, but when you jump on Yoshi, they add a little percussion track. Or in 'Yoshi's Island', on the map screen, depending on how much progress you've made in the world, the game will add more layers to the music. Little touches like these give the player feedback about their progress. The beginnings of interactivity were beginning to show back then, but I don't think I consciously noticed any of it until I started working on games and realized the potential for myself.
Favorite Game Soundtracks
- • Tomas Dvorak - Machinarium, Samorost 3
- • Yasunori Mitsuda - Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross
- • Various Artists - Jet Set Radio Future, Katamari Damacy
- • Koji Kondo - Yoshi's Island
- • Yoko Shimomura - Super Mario RPG
- • Yuzo Koshiro - Streets of Rage 2
I really love the work that Tomas Dvorak (aka Floex) does. His Machinarium soundtrack continues to inspire me. Little Nemo: Dream Master for NES is an all-time fave of mine, as well as the Chrono series (Yasunori Mitsuda).
On Making Things Sound 'Big'
I would say it's a combination of stereo imaging, things like saturation, knowing what to put in the forefront ... the more separately perceivable elements you have, the less 'big' you can make all of them. So the simpler your arrangement is, the bigger you can get. That's part of what makes a track like Titan work : https://disasterpeace.bandcamp.com/track/titan
If you’re trying to make a career out of your work, you’ll have to find an audience. Once I started to gain more of a following, I started to forego attention tactics in favor of creating a comprehensive website, making my work and ideas accessible to those who might stumble across it or seek it out.
I find that working on many different types of projects is a great way to stretch boundaries and grow as an artist. Each medium has its own unique qualities. I look at each medium, and more specifically each project having unique context. Each breeds a certain set of limitations, which yields a distinct creative output.
I find inspiration is rarely limited to music. Diving fully into other interests and aspects of life has yielded creative returns for me.
I try to lead a simple life. I have a solid routine, a small group of friends and a few hobbies. I love to play ice hockey. I paint with friends on weekends and try to make it to yoga once a week. I believe that leading a balanced life is crucial if you want to have a sustainable creative career.
There have been the obvious increases in computing power and portability, which have helped my productivity by reducing the time repetitive actions take, and also improving my ability to conduct business from anywhere. I've been using Logic Pro since 2008 or so, and learning the ins and outs of that program has helped me to realize my ideas much quicker than before. I believe it's important to minimize the amount of time it takes for an idea to get from your brain to reality.
At some point, I started sending my albums off to be mastered. I can't understate the value of having a fresh pair of ears listen to and tweak the sound of your tracks after a long creative process.
On Choosing What to Work On
I had to learn to let go of the desire to work on every project that comes my way. If you're lucky, a day will come where you'll have to learn to let go of the desire to work on every cool project that comes your way. I try really hard to be selective and to only work on projects that interest me and align with my goals. My goals are always shifting, but generally, I am trying to grow as an artist and a human being. Sometimes I will take on a project so I can develop relationships, or learn a new skill. Because I am in a fortunate position to choose my projects, It feels foolish to work on things I'm not thrilled about, when there are others who might have a greater need and a greater enthusiasm for that project.
If I do a bunch of really taxing, serious projects, I usually like to shift to something short and fun or try something completely new. There are things I haven’t done before like theater, or working with voices. I’m always looking for a new medium or style to explore.
What I can say is that with every project, I really try to find the common denominator between what the project needs, what my collaborators need and what I need, or what I'm looking to gain from the experience. Usually, for me it has to do with seeking out novelty, having fun, or there's an emotional resonance that I gravitate with, that I'm trying to help achieve.
On Creative Blocks
There are times where technology gets in the way, and you find yourself spending time fixing those problems instead of fixing musical ones. The best way to avoid that is to look to simpler, more primitive forms of technology, like a piano or a guitar, and a recording device. Playing my piano periodically and recording ideas I believe show promise is one of the most beneficial things I think I can do. An instrument like the piano also allows you to focus more on the form and structure of a piece than the vertical composition so that you can save the instrumentation choices for later. The horizontal (chronology) vs. vertical (arrangement, layers) issue is one of the most common ones I face when I work. I do my best to separate composition from production.
I also can’t stress enough how valuable it has been for me to collect all of my unused ideas. I have found great homes for dozens of seeds of ideas that sat idle for years. Majesty, Love, and Nocturne from the Fez soundtrack were all repurposed ideas that had been devised well before I was even involved with the project.
For fighting creative blocks, there are some excellent writings to help. Brian Eno's 'Oblique Strategies' are a great card set for creative blockbusting. 'The Listening Book' by W.A. Mathieu is another fantastic resource.
Most of my work has been done using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). 'The Chronicles of Jammage the Jam Mage,' 'Atebite and the Warring Nations,' 'Neutralite', and 'Level' were all made with GarageBand. 'Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar' was made with Reason, and most of my work these days is put together in Logic Pro. That being said I have used Famitracker on a few projects, including the music I did for 'Runner 2', and 'River City Ransom: Underground.'
When I wanted to take part in the NES tribute section of Runner 2, Famitracker seemed like the perfect choice because it allowed me to write authentic NES-style chiptunes. Normally, I am not as strict with myself, though, on many of my past chiptune albums, I have picked a general aesthetic and tried to stick to that as best as I could. In my tools, I aim for some balance of ease of use, flexibility, and sound quality.
On Performing Live
For a while it was me on guitar and my friend Roger Hicks who plays drums. I'd put together the entire set beforehand, as a recording without drums. Then I'd automate a bunch of guitar effects, so that they'd change on the fly and I wouldn’t have to worry about stomping down on pedals/etc. I also played solo at times in a similar fashion, and at the tail end of my live phase I was doing some shows as a singer/songwriter playing piano and singing. At some point I realized that live performance wasn't really serving my goals. To be a good performer is a major time investment, and yet performing has never been a top priority of mine. So I chose to stop. I'd rather generally pursue projects that I'm 100% invested in.
If you ever go camping or something, where there are no streetlights around, you're not under fluorescent lights like you would be at your house, it's easier to get tired and fall asleep at night. Staring at a screen, a bright blue light until eleven or twelve or whatever, it keeps you up and makes it harder to fall asleep. In general though, I try to give myself an hour window between screen time and sleeping.
I use white light in the morning to supplement the sunrise, blue light during working hours, which I find focusing, and red light in the evening. Because red is the color lowest in frequency on the visible spectrum, it has been shown to affect your circadian rhythm the least. It's also just fun to hang out in a red lit space. It feels a little bit like being on a submarine.
When I started making music around 2004, I used consumer grade boom-box speakers, Garageband, a guitar and a dinky little interface. I didn't use a MIDI keyboard for the first three years or so and wrote a lot of music just by manually inputting notes.
My setup is very simple. I've got only bare essentials: laptop, mouse, display, monitors, headphones, audio interface, and a midi keyboard. That's pretty much it. I do have some instruments too, though. I still have my very first guitar, a Stratocaster (update: it was stolen). I've also got a baby acoustic guitar and an upright piano. The piano is my favorite. I do my production work 'in the box', as they say. My current DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice is Logic Pro X. I try to keep things minimal. I don't like having lots of stuff around that I don't use on the regular. I've had a few synthesizers over the years, but I sold them all. My upright piano is my prized possession. I find the sonic difference between digital and analog synths to be minimal. I still like to go to acoustic instruments when that need arises.
Synthesizers in Film
Use of synthesizers seems to have crossed the threshold from questions of datedness into a potential for timelessness. I believe a synth soundtrack can stand the test of time. Synths are also budget friendly. The barrier to entry is far lower than working with a live orchestra.
As a designer of sound, synthesizers are a dream come true. I can shape my instruments to behave in so many different ways. That ability is not unique to synths. But they have an unparalleled speed and ease with which it is possible. The barrier to entry is also far cheaper than working with an orchestra.
Tips for Aspiring Composers
Don't aspire, write!
I think the best advice I can give is to be around, go to events, make friends and meet people, and try to make the best music you can, and make sure it's truly the kind of music you want to write.
Recognize and cultivate your unique perspective, and lean into that as much as you can.
For me, the approach is usually the same: I start with an infinite possibility space, and then I try to wrestle it down to something small and appropriate as quickly as possible. There are a lot of ways to approach a project, and figuring out the limitation set is in many ways one of the most crucial design challenges for any project.
I may have elaborate ideas about what the music is going to be, what it's going to sound like, and how it's going to work. But when I start to write, that process is fluid and unpredictable and often doesn't fit into that box that I've created. Then the question becomes “how do I wrestle these two conflicting sides?” Sometimes it's helpful just to start writing without thinking about it too much.
It’s usually a combination of approaches. I do like to set aside time to audition, tweak, record and build sounds which I’ll usually collate into a library for easy access once I start writing. Sometimes I like to just dive into the work, and discover and create sounds as I’m going - it forces me to move quickly and make decisions. There’s a feverish quality I find to writing music for instance, where I feel an internal pressure to keep moving so as to not lose whatever sense of inspiration it is I might have.
Restrictions open up possibilities. That may seem counterintuitive, but when you're starting at the beginning, the possibility space for something is infinite. As a creative person, being restricted allows me to make something tangible. Otherwise, I may drown in the infinite.
Restrictions can be challenging, they can also be beneficial. I've been fortunate to work on a lot of projects where I had the freedom to create restrictions for myself. Projects like “Famaze” or “Gunhouse” were open ended as to what I could do. I had free reign to make whatever made sense. So a lot of times when I start working on a project, I like to start with an idea or an aesthetic. With “Famaze” it was about an aesthetic. It was about “what can I bring to this project that's going to be unique, going to be consistent, that allows me to grow as a musician?”. For me at that time, that was trying to do an all FM synthesis soundtrack.
I was more laid-back about Gunhouse and so it was different. I approached it more from an angle of “what can I get out of this project myself, what do I want to accomplish that will make this fun and challenging?”. When I first started messing with software, I would just throw a bunch of loops in and be like “oh I made a song”. For a while, I had a stigma about that not being real music, not being creative. But then a friend of mine who also works on games, James Primate, told me about a talk that Darren Korb gave, the composer of “Bastion”. He uses loops a whole lot in his music, and I thought that was worth exploring. I didn't force myself to only use loops, but I had the intention of using them as my primary approach.
There are times when I may not be feeling creatively ambitious. Sometimes I feel a bit directionless, and the creative director has a more focused vision of what the music needs to be. The word direction is right in their title, after all. In those cases, I'm happy to let them take the reins. That's what happened with the film It Follows. David, the director, had a clear vision of what he wanted, and it made my job easier to be a conduit for him. And that's what's happening with “Hyper Light Drifter” a little bit. I've had a lot of time and success exploring ideas for that project. But when I'm feeling a bit fatigued creatively, I think it benefits the project to have a dialogue with the creative director, so that we feed off of each other.
The Influence of Time
When I have too much time, I tend to put things off until I have too little time. I tend to fall into this habit. Sometimes when I have enough time, I'll do preliminary work here and there, but my tendency is to procrastinate. I think time dictates what you're able to do, and reality sets in at some point. With It Follows, we had three weeks to score the film, so right off the bat I was like “Okay, here are some things I probably can't do in three weeks”. Things like work with live musicians consistently and have it be good, and write the whole score from complete scratch seemed like stretches. So in that situation, going with my strength being music synthesis, and working from a temp soundtrack, were a huge help in being able to finish the film in three weeks.
Having a restricted time frame forces me to commit to ideas quickly. Sometimes I tend to labor over my choices, and so on occasion, it's been nice to have a timeline forcing my hand.
Musical Time Capsules
On a similar token, whenever I come up with a musical idea, I save it if I'm not using it right away. I'll hold on to those ideas for years and then it's just a matter of finding the right home for it. So when a project comes along that needs new ideas, I have hundreds of them sitting on my hard drive that I can go through. I have goals as a musician for myself and for the ideas that I create, and I relish the opportunity to combine those with whatever's going to push a project forward in a good direction.
Being a freelancer has many benefits. You're in charge, which means you can theoretically set your hours and choose the type of work you do. It also means there may not be anyone to keep you in line, and so discipline is crucial. Some freelancers adhere to strict routines to keep themselves productive. Some like myself prefer the fluidity of choosing when to work. I find this allows me more flexibility to get away and do other things. Either way, freelancing often means you can custom-tailor your practices to suit the unique context of your life.
There are some who suggest that being a freelancer means you lose the stability of a day job. On paper that may be true, but freelance means that you are building a personal brand. It's like rolling a snowball down a hill, and over time, you gain momentum. You become more well known and better at what you do.
I often work with friends and colleagues, which can make projects more fun, and provide an extra level of accountability. It also helps me to socialize, which is something you may lose freelancing, especially if you work from home.
Being a freelancer is very different from working for a company in very cut and dry ways. If you can find projects you are genuinely passionate about, working in-house has many pros. The social benefits are clear, and it also gives your life a pre-defined structure. You can theoretically take a load off and not worry about work too much when you're not at the studio. However, I think it can be tough to find yourself working on the right things when you're in-house, which is why I much prefer to be a freelancer.
It's true what they say about hats. Namely, that being the boss starts out with wearing many of them. While you can pay others to share your responsibility, I believe it's important to at least understand all of the aspects of what your work entails. There may come a time that your business grows in complexity beyond what you are capable of handling as a singular person. You can scale down to stay on top of the burden, or bring in those who are better than you at certain tasks. I chose to do everything before bringing in some outside assistance. I built a website, got pretty good at reading and writing contracts, and learned how to do my taxes. I eventually realized I didn't need to be great at writing and reading contracts. I hired an attorney, and while the hours I spent representing myself helped me, I've learned many things hiring an expert that I would not have known otherwise. The same logic will generally apply for other aspects of your business.
Freelancing is maybe not for everybody, but I would recommend you try it. It will help you to understand yourself better, and your work style. Some are put off by the business side of being a freelancer, but I enjoy it.
Development Involvement - Games
Getting involved early means more time to sit with the game and its material, and more time to develop concepts.
Two projects come to mind which had very different implementations and workflows. I worked on a platformer called “Drawn to Life” for the Wii, where my role as a composer was limited strictly to that. I delivered music loops for various areas of the game, and ultimately, as a result of my lack of input and involvement, the music ended up being placed in the wrong sections of the game. Music I had written for a gameplay level ended up being used as the menu music, and vice versa. When the composer is outside of the development circle, these types of incidents often happen, which is why I think it's important and beneficial to have everyone involved on a similar footing, with access to regular builds so they can remain on top of their respective disciplines.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was my experience creating “Waker” and “Woosh” at MIT. I was involved as an equal party member of the team from the very beginning, not only being in charge of the audio, but also helping to direct and define the very nature of the gameplay, mechanics, presentation and narrative. This sort of collective and early involvement, as well as direction over audio implementation, has a great impact on the quality of the final product. By being closer to your work and having solid control over it, you have a better chance to see it realize the potential you had in mind.
There seems to be a 1:1 ratio, where my passion for a project correlates directly with the level of involvement I wish to have in the implementation of its audio. The projects I've been most enthusiastic about, (projects like FEZ, for instance) are projects I've also spent the most time implementing. In these types of projects, I tend to work closely with developers to make sure we share the same vision and goals. Like anything else, there are obstacles and technical limitations to deal with, such as memory, CPU, and voice restrictions, among others. I think it's important to have a willingness to fight for the features you desire, but also to be open to change, and to know when to defer, or to embrace someone else's creative voice.
I think there are times when there's a piece of music I'm trying to write, and I'm trying to adhere to limitations that I've set for myself. And I'm struggling to stay within that box and do something that I like. There have been times when I've given up on the limitation and written around it. It's like “okay this works”, it works on other levels, but maybe it doesn't fit within the thematic limitation. There are times when I feel like I could have been more disciplined, more willing to make mistakes, more willing to iterate on ideas. I think part of that willingness to give in so quickly comes from a place of stubbornness and expectation. Sometimes I expect that I'm going to write something that I like right away, and when it doesn't happen, it can be painful. Often when I'm writing, it's an emotional roller coaster. At times, I haven't been willing to take the ride, and instead, I've circumnavigated.
On Bomberman Live: Battlefest
It was an internship that I applied for through my college. We actually decided to (for the most part) write all original material and steer clear of the traditional melodies/songs of the franchise. In hindsight that might have been a careless decision, but there wasn’t any strong direction for us to do so. If I could go back I probably would have paid more tribute to that.
On Shoot Many Robots
For Shoot Many Robots, I sat around with my guitar a lot, figuring out lots of bluesy riffs and licks, and establishing early on a certain “sound”. I knew I wanted to go for a Drop-D sound, which is generally is very power chord heavy, but allows for more flexibility in coming up with riffy sounding parts.
On Assuming a New Musical Identity
It is. I think I’ve always been motivated by how people tend to overcategorize, oversimplify and generally just misunderstand artists and their intentions. I relish the challenge and the opportunity to prove myself and others wrong, to surprise people, to interface with new ideas and to allow a new set of requirements to humble me and send my work in a new direction. It’s really important to me that I’m always trying to push my boundaries creatively, to be a little bit uncomfortable and see where that takes me. Under the Silver Lake was very uncomfortable, and an amazing opportunity. To have collaborators who have faith in you, like David had in me to develop a score for a full orchestra with no prior experience, is a remarkable thing. I think there are those who have succeeded through relationship building and public outreach, but that’s never been easy for me - I’m a pretty private person and I like to keep my social circle smaller. So I think for me to be successful, it has to be about taking creative risks and finding collaborators who trust me to take those risks. I was fortunate to have a remarkable team of collaborators on Under the Silver Lake.
Is The Idea Worth Pursuing?
It’s tricky. Sometimes, you get lucky and discover something very early on in the process. You might flag it, saying "Yes, this is a thing that needs to be developed." Other times, it's more of a gradual process of sculpting from a low resolution to a higher one. It’s like you’re molding and refining something, and it's coming into view over time. It’s a process, and sometimes you know that it just won’t be good until it is, and those can be taxing experiences.
I think a part of the process for me is exercising some patience, and being willing to take the time necessary to get to the idea. At the same time, there's a lot of instinct that goes into asking a question like, “Am I going in the right direction right now? Is this an idea worth pursuing?” It can be a puzzle.
What’s so interesting about composing is that sometimes, the first thing you write ends up being the best because there’s something instinctual and real about it. When you’re writing for a specific purpose, it’s not a pure art. It has a utilitarian function. In my experience on many of the projects I’ve done, the first thing I write is cool, but isn’t necessarily the right thing. When you’re coming into it fresh, that’s when some of the wildest ideas emerge, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out. If you’re lucky you can still use those ideas later on another project.
There’s usually a process of refinement that needs to happen, and there’s a rhythm I need to get into to learn the language of a project like a film. I tend to have to build up the capacity to internalize a broader picture and establish rules for the music. I just keep absorbing material into an intuitive mindset, and it gets me into a flow where I can churn ideas out.
I think of it a bit like method acting, like finding your character as you acclimate to the story you’re trying to tell. It’s a complete state shift. The initial exploration is very free and creative, taking on many different forms, but once you transition into a structure, it requires a different approach and a different mindset.