The Sound Architect speaks to amazing composer, Peter McConnell!
Peter has composed award-winning scores in the Interactive Entertainment Industry for nearly two decades. His credits include Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, Broken Age, the Sly Cooper Series, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, The Sims, Indiana Jones, Grim Fandango and Monkey Island. Peter is fluent in classic film-scoring styles ranging from the whimsical to the epic. His influences include Bernard Herrmann, Raymond Scott, Carl Stalling, Duke Ellington, Lalo Schifrin, and Danny Elfman.
Peter studied music with Ivan Tcherepnin at Harvard, graduating with High Honors. In addition to being a composer, he has been involved in the technology of music and digital media, and is co-inventor of LucasArts’ patented iMUSE interactive music system.
On the live stage Peter has played electric violin and guitar in Boston, New York, San Francisco, the Northwest Coast and Europe. He is a member and former governor of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, a member of ASCAP and a founding member of G.A.N.G., the Game Audio Network Guild.
Read our interview below!
Firstly I’d like to say thank you for speaking with The Sound Architect Peter, we very much appreciate you taking the time to do this.
It’s my pleasure!
How did your journey into composition begin?
I think that journey started when I was born. I’m told I sang before I could talk, and some of my earliest memories are of music I loved, which was a Mozart piano sonata and songs by a cowboy band called The Sons of the Pioneers. We lived in Switzerland in my early years, and after that in several very different parts of the U.S. – Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, then Boston for my college years – and in each place I absorbed the music around me. I learned to play violin, guitar and banjo along the way, played in youth orchestras in high school and bands in and out of college. I went to college thinking I would study physics, but when I found I wanted to play guitar more than I wanted to do physics homework, I took time off. I sang folk music in the streets, worked in a guitar store. And later returned as a music major. My first job was programming reverb code for Lexicon, a high-end audio company outside of Boston, and I would play in bands at night. The bass player in one of those bands was my friend and classmate Michael Land. We made a plan to start a band in San Francisco. The band never ended up happening, but Michael did invite me to interview at a small company called LucasArts not long after he had gotten a job there, and that’s how I got involved in writing music for games.
Have you always wanted to work in games?
I was into games from pretty early on. The first game that really grabbed my attention was Zork, when I was just out of college. The early LucasArts adventures came out just a while later, and when Michael showed me Monkey Island I was hooked – hooked on what a game could provide in an interactive story, and hooked on the possibilities of doing music in an interactive setting.
What has been your proudest project so far?
It’s always the one I’ve just finished! My heart and soul goes into every project and it’s not really possible to have perspective until a good amount of time has gone by. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare shipped in February, and in that score I was able to merge synth pop with jazz and even a bit of baroque writing to create something I think is truly out of left field. I’m a melody guy, and for me that score is a melodic romp, not to mention that I actually got to write music for zombie choir. I’m still working on the score to Broken Age, which ranges from solo guitar work to small ensemble pieces to performances by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I’m in love with themes, the emotional breadth and scope of this score. Looking at some of my favourites from the past, I finished the score to Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time almost two years ago, although the game did not come out until last February. I’m certainly proud of that one on a lot of levels: the range of style in the music, yet still a sense of cohesiveness, and in particular all the great performances by some incredible musicians in Nashville. I’m proud of others as well: Brutal Legend, Kinectimals, Psychonauts, then there are the classic LucasArts games – each has something I take pride in.
What has been you most challenging project so far?
In some ways Broken Age was and continues to be my most challenging project, because the score needs to portray such a range of emotion and so many different environments on a limited budget, and we want to keep it all as live as possible. It’s a miracle that we managed to get a symphony involved. Planning out the score in terms of large vs. small ensembles has been a serious undertaking, but a rewarding one as well. And it’s all made even more interesting by the fact that no one really knows how the story ends yet!
Do you have a dream project that you’d love to work on?
I’m working on them now. If we go outside of games, I’d love to compose the score for a live musical theatre production someday.
Is there a piece/composition that you particularly hold close?
As with the projects themselves it’s impossible to pick a favourite. That said, there is a piece I did for LucasArts’ Sam & Max Hit the Road called Doug the Moleman. My band played it once for about 20 people at a club gig. There was this older couple, very dapper – I think the guy had a leather jacket and cowboy boots – slow dancing to it. It was just a little moment, but something about it made it feel like the music was really connecting to the world.
Can you tell us more about your current projects?
I’m working on Broken Age, Act II and a couple others that I can’t talk about yet.
You’ve worked on such a diverse range of games, would you say a particular genre is your favourite?
They all have their strong points. To me the type of game is less important than whether the story is compelling. I think the music should be part of a good story. Also it really helps to work with a team that truly cares about the music. I have been very lucky in that regard.
How does your approach with each genre, are there any major differences?
There are some characteristics that typify the genres. In a game with lots of action, say a platformer or a shooter, you have to be aware of the tempo and pulse at all times, to be sure things build when they should in a satisfying way. With an adventure game you pay a lot of attention to how the environments connect, because the player spends a lot of time going back and forth between different settings.
One interesting comparison is the music for Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, a team shooter parody, compared to that of Plants vs. Zombies 2, the downloadable game, for which I also did much of the music. Both games use similar thematic material, but Garden Warfare was a real challenge in the beginning to find just the right vibe for, since a 3-D shooter has much more impact than the classic PVZ world. We tried a number of styles but settled on a sort of 80’s military synth-pop, because it kept the fun of the original sound, but had a heavy enough groove to stand up to all the shooter action. So the game genre ended up affecting the music a great deal.
That said, there can be huge differences within a single genre. Take adventure games, for example. The music in Broken Age is understated, and often it just gets out of the way once the mood is established. In other adventure games, particularly the classic ones, the music is constant, so that the game is almost like an opera.
Tell us about your approach to the fantastic score for Broken Age?
Early on in the production, I talked at length with Double Fine’s audio director Brian Min and Camden Stoddard, the game’s audio lead, and we determined that the score should be as live as possible. This was a tall order, since our budget was limited. So I started out by trying to do everything for just a very small ensemble. The story was still in its early stages (it still isn’t done yet!), and as each part developed I would start to score it if it seemed ready. But as the story unfolded it became clear that scope of emotion and action really called for an orchestra. As it happened I was working on an orchestral version of Grim Fandango music for Andrew Pogson, Assistant Artistic Administrator for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The subject of Broken Age came up, and through a great deal of work and perseverance on Andrew’s part we were able to have the MSO record the orchestral part of the score. It was quite a dance, because I had to write music for the game, but I didn’t want to do too much orchestral music until I was sure we had an orchestra. It all ended up working out perfectly. I can’t tell you how lucky we were to be able to get it all done.
Was there anything unique with your methods?
I drew a lot from my immediate surroundings. We live on a hillside near a lot of open space overlooking a valley not unlike Vella’s village. We have a wolf in our neighbourhood whose night-time howls were the inspiration for Marek’s (the wolf’s) theme. My studio even reminds me a little of Shay’s spaceship, and I used some of my favourite vintage gear to help create the spaceship vibe. For Broken Age I also had direct access to the software development tree of the game, which is unusual for a composer these days. That way I was able to implement some of the music directly, do a build, and check it out in the game immediately. I’m grateful to the team at Double Fine for entrusting me with those keys, as it were, because even though it involved a little extra up-front overhead for all of us, it helped me to fine-tune the way some of the pieces worked in the context of gameplay.
What software/hardware did you use?
I have a pretty ordinary system, really. Just a Mac running Pro Tools with a bunch of sample libraries and the usual plug-ins, and a studio full of instruments. I’ve never been a super gear-head – it ain’t the faders; it’s the ears listening and the hands controlling them, so to speak. I studied with an amazing teacher named Ivan Tcherepnin, who was a student of Stockhausen, under whom he worked in almost laboratory-like conditions of sonic and technical perfection. When Ivan founded the electronic music studio at Harvard, he took the exact opposite approach, choosing a room that was next to a concert hall, wasn’t very soundproof, but had a great vibe. I’ve always taken that approach to heart. My studio is right by my house, has a beautiful view in front and a big glass window (a real studio no-no!) so I can see and hear the family in the front yard. It’s a place where I want to create music, not produce it.
My broken Lexicon Prime Time digital delay. It makes some wonderfully horrendous noises.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
Study hard. Know the literature, especially movie scores. Play live music. Never stop tinkering. If you want to compose for games, play games! Get a job on the ground floor in a game company where you can see games actually being made. Join The Game Audio Network Guild (full disclosure: I’m a founding member), which is a great resource for people doing audio of any kind in the industry. Also, be sure you live near where games – or whatever it is you want to score – are being made.
Would you say there are any major Do’s and Don’ts along the way?
Learn what you are good at, and do that as often as you can. Also, it takes a long time to really get to do what you want to do. Just be sure you do a little of it every day – for at least an hour, if possible. Get to know other composers. While they are your competitors, they are also your brothers and sisters, and you may end up working together. Treat folks kindly – the game industry in particular is pretty unforgiving of jerks. Be the person that other people want to work with.
What lies in the future for you now?
One thing you get used to in this vocation is not knowing the answer to that question.
You can stay up to date on Peter’s activity at his homepage: http://petermc.com/
As well as his social network links:
Facebook Peter McConnell
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Article by Sam Hughes