Interview with brutal game composer legend, Peter McConnell

His credits include titles
from Sony, EA and LucasArts Entertainment, where he spent 9 years composing
in-house. Peter is fluent in classic film-scoring styles ranging from the
whimsical to the epic. Among his influences are Bernard Herrmann, Raymond
Scott, Carl Stalling, Lalo Schifrin, Frank Zappa, Enio Morricone and Danny
Elfman. He studied music with Ivan Tcherepnin at Harvard where he graduated
with High Honors. His main instrument is electric violin. He is a member of
the Recording Academy, ASCAP and a founding member of the Game Audio Network

Being a vet in writing music for games, I’m interested in knowing how you started off. Was it a conscious decision, to get into the game industry? If you sort of ‘fell into’ the industry, what was it about the game world that drew you towards it?

I really did just fall into it. A friend and colleague of mine, Michael
Land, got the job running the Sound Department at LucasArts back in the
summer of 1990. He brought me on as a consultant early in 1991 as I recall.
At the time I brought to the table some programming skills as well as a
certain take on melody and theme which worked well on those early sound
cards. I had also spent untold hours playing infocom games (remember those?)
and graphic adventures were now even more appealing to me. So when I met the
whole team at LucasArts it seemed like a good fit for both of us. My first
task there was to help Michael design the new music system, which we later
called iMuse.

So you were on the team that created iMuse. Could you explain a bit about iMuse, when you worked on it and why it was so far ahead of it’s time? And maybe compare some of those features to current middleware, such as FMOD or Wwise?

There were two main kinds of features in iMuse, what I call the
“vertical” and the “horizontal.” By “vertical” I mean what is playing at a
moment in time out of a number of parallel streams, and by “horizontal” I
mean where you are in the time line. By the way, just to add to the confusion the
Wwise folks reverse these two terms, but the point is that there are these
two types of interactivity that have been present in systems ever since
iMuse. I think the big contribution that iMuse made was in what I call the
“horizontal” realm, namely beat-synchronous transitions. This meant the
music system could execute, in musical time, any one of a number of
pre-composed transitions that could be mapped to particular beats or measure
locations within a piece. That was truly new at the time.

From what I have
seen, the main capabilities of iMuse (plus a few new ones) are present in a
number of systems since including FMOD and Wwise, as well as Microsoft’s
earlier XACT system. Of course I have various bones to pick with every
system, as you might expect, but all in all I think they are great tools,
and they make gaming a richer experience.

How was the music created/recorded for Brutal Legend?

Brutal Legend was created in four studios, using a number of musicians. I
played all the acoustic guitar parts and a lot of the basic electric tracks
in my own studio, which as where I did all of the composition. The really
shredding leads and super-heavy guitar parts (like the pounding intro, for
example) were played by an incredible guitarist named Bill Storkson. He has
played with everybody everywhere, and has an amazing band called My Victim.
We recorded Bill in his studio ASFX, and also did final orchestral mixes
there. Drums were played by Y&T Drummer Mike Vanderhule and recorded by Jory
Prum at studio Jory in Fairfax.

I made heavy use of orchestral samples, but
nearly every piece over 15 seconds long used a 36-piece live orchestra
recorded by Leslie Ann Jones at Skywalker Ranch. So really we made use of
just about every kind of resource, from shoestrings and a POD to one of the
finest sounding rooms in the country.

What did you look to for inspiration for the Costume Quest score? Seems like a tough assignment, creating a score that appeals to kids and adults, for a game that’s from a kids point of view. Did it take a lot of revisions to strike the right tone, or was it pretty easy to find your way there?

Emily Ridgway, Double Fine’s amazing music director, had some really
off-the wall stuff for me to check out before doing the CQ score, a lot done
by obscure groups — the only one I remember that’s not obscure is Mark
Mothersbaugh. Also I have to say a big influence was my own work in
Psychonauts. Once I got rolling, I just kind of got it. You might say CQ is
a rare case of something I hear a lot of the score for before I even start.

Your site says that were a founding member of GANG! For our new GANG members, what sort of advice might you offer in getting into the game audio world?

Join GANG. Then get a job doing ANYTHING in house at a game company,
preferably audio-related. You’ve got to really see the sausage being made
first hand, so to speak. Also, you don’t get the dream job when you start;
you have to find a way to build people’s confidence in you first. As for
demos, they should have three tunes and all be exactly what your client is
looking for. Determining what the client is looking for is the trick.

When beginning to work on a game score, could you fill us in on your thought process? What elements help you get into the game universe (artwork, game play, scripts, the developer’s crazy personality)?

I always start with visuals, usually stills and storyboards. Then the
story. Then I hear melodies. I’m very melody-oriented. I may or may not hear
the melodies associated with particular instruments or combos in my head
before starting. As I get more experienced I tend to hear the particular
instruments, but not always. Then I sit down at the sequencer. I start at
the beginning and go through to the end, like mowing the lawn. I’m not much
good at doing a rough lead-sheet and then filling it in, since I find that
everything depends on something that came before it, so I work things out to
a fair level of detail at each stage before moving further into the piece.

Do you have a favorite gaming experience/story, either watching a game come to life with your audio assets, or playing a game with friends, or maybe getting surprised by something encountered during game play etc?

Playing Brutal Legend at Double Fine’s big release party was pretty
awesome. I had worked on it so hard, and to see all that music and sound go
by so smoothly while all I had to do was have fun smiting my foe was quite
the reward. Plus they had a much bigger screen than I have. Gotta do
something about that.

Interview writeen/edited by Dren McDonald exclusively for