Interview with Steve Kirk

I know you recently finished up the music for The Princess and the Frog game last year, could you explain a bit about your approach to that score, if you used live players, or a combo or live musicians and midi, if you created it all in your own studio or used other recording/mixing facilities, how many minutes of music you needed, how much were loops involved, etc.

When I was hired to do this score, it was probably because some of the folks at Griptonite (a division of Foundation 9 and the development team for Disney) were aware of my work on the Voodoo Vince game done for Microsoft a few years ago. They needed someone who had worked in New Orleans and jazz styles, since the musical styles in the Disney film were, for the most part, set in the early 20th Century. There were live players involved, and also midi. I tried to budget for as many live musicians as possible, but instruments like upright bass, tuba, some piano, some accordion and orchestral instruments were midi samples. I played guitar, banjo and mandolin. Reeds and woodwinds, trumpet, violin, viola, some accordion, piano and drums were all played by live musicians.

All the music was recorded and mixed in my studio, which is smallish, but I have a control room, a tracking room and a good selection of nice mics and mic pres. I also have a playback environment that I can really trust. I used a Digidesign 002 rack modified by Black Lion Audio as my audio interface.

Griptonite needed about 50 minutes of recorded music and many of the pieces had to be composed so that different sections could seamlessly loop with other sections in a modular fashion. Some pieces were simple one-minute loops. Other pieces needed to be stemmed out so that the player could mute or un-mute instruments as part of the game play. When a player wins a mini-game a 15 second fanfare would play, so a bunch of these had to be written. There were also seven songs by Randy Newman that needed to be accurately transcribed and re-recorded as instrumentals for the game.

I would begin by creating a midi sketch. Once that was approved, the sketch would be completed, and after a few of these were done (a Milestones worth, usually) I would begin arranging recording sessions and converting midi files that were to be played live to notation. ProTools 8 exports midi directly to Sibelius, and although that process is not perfect, it was a big improvement over exporting parts to standard midi files and then importing them into a notation software. I would try and record live drums first, and other instruments later- the drums then becoming the rhythmic core that everything else gets locked up to. Because of scheduling this wasn’t always possible, so sometimes drums would have to be recorded at a later time than the brass, for example, but that didn’t really present too much difficulty. I always tried to have my brass/woodwind sections record together in one room, where they can work out articulations together and discuss stylistic approach as a group before they track. I think this really helps the performance sound more like everyone is playing together at the same time and increases the musical energy of the recording.

For those that don’t know the story, maybe you could describe the process of how the “theme to farmville” came about…how long did it take to turn around, how many youtube videos are there now of people playing that song, any live players on that, or is it all you? What kind of attention or jobs have you received since that exploded? Did you have any idea that this game would become so huge?

I was in the middle of “The Princess And The Frog” project and my friend David Gray (who I had worked for when he was with THQ) called me and asked if I could write one 15-second cue and one 30-second cue for this Facebook game he was producing. He also needed some barnyard animal sound effects. So I said, “How fast do you need it?” and he said “Well, can you do it in a day or two?” and I said, “Ok, sure”.

We knew that if it was going to be a 30 second loop, we needed to make it unobtrusive and pleasant- something that would tolerate a maximum amount of repetition. We also thought that the piece should have country elements, but not be overtly in the “dueling banjo” arena. I suggested a Chet Akins style approach- no drums and kind of laid back. I also asked that our agreement not include any revisions, since I was in the middle of another deadline, and he needed the music so quickly. It took me a day to do two cues. Both cues were electric guitar, acoustic guitar, upright bass and piano. The piano was a honky-tonk type upright sound I got from the Abby Roads Keyboards Reason Refill. The cue they ended up using was the 30 second one, and that’s the one everyone hears when they play the game (if they haven’t turned the music off yet!).

Of course no one had any idea it was to become as popular as it is now, with more that 80 million active players, so that was a shocker. Last time I checked there were over 75 covers of the FarmVille theme on YouTube, which is both hilarious and flattering.

I just finished some other work for a new Zynga game and am looking forward to seeing what happens with that.

I know that you do a lot of other music work besides working in the game sector, if you’d be so kind as to share with some of the emerging game audio hopefuls, what percentage of your music work is game related? What other music work are you also involved in?

I teach guitar and band workshops at Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco, as well as Community Music Center, also in San Francisco. I also use my studio to work on projects by singer/songwriters, my own personal projects, and every Friday I play with an R&B band at a restaurant in Alameda.

I’ve done a little bit of work composing scores for small independent films, and would love to do more film and animation composition.

For those just getting out of college or trade school these days, what advice would you have for being successful in the game industry (or just in sustaining a career in audio/music)? And how did you end up getting into game music?

It really helps to know how to do as much stuff as possible- to be able to read music and write and play in a variety of styles. I began as sound/audio assistant for Richard Marriot (founder of Club Foot Orchestra) in the early to mid-nineties at Atari Games, doing whatever anyone asked me to do. It was here that I learned how to edit music and sound on computers, using Sound Designer- Digidesign’s stereo editing program they had before ProTools even existed. I also learned about midi sequencers via Opcode’s Studio Vision Pro. I was sad to see that company go under. From there I did sound design work for THQ and other companies and began freelancing as a composer. Although I had done some music for games while I was doing sound design work, my big composing break came when I was hired to do the music for Voodoo Vince, a Microsoft game released in 2003. That game has over three hours of my music in it, and it was a real thrill to work on.

Besides getting paid to write music (which we all find inspiring) where else do you draw your inspiration from when embarking on a new game scoring project? Do you find it’s better to write at the same time every day or night, to be in a routine or to just write whenever you can…

I like having sample pieces that have been supplied by the client to work off of when I’m trying to figure out an approach to a project. It really helps to have a musical sample of what is expected stylistically, and usually works better than just a verbal description. It only takes a couple of listens for me to get a good idea of what to do next.

Since I teach mainly in the afternoons and evenings, a lot of my writing time these days gets done in the mornings, when I have the most focus and energy. I like mixing and mastering in the morning too, when my ears are fresh. Of course, when I’m in a crunch I write whenever I can, but it usually works better when I can budget a big block of time for writing rather than short little stabs, and mornings work best for that.

I know yer a ProTools guy, did you go to school for that, learn it on your own, work with others to learn your engineering skills? How’d you get to this point with your pro tools skill set?

I learned from friends and from watching engineers work with the program, as well as thousands of hours editing on the thing. I’ve certainly made plenty of calls to other users when there is something I want to do that I can’t figure out, and I will use the online users forum if I have to. I’ve also done a bunch of work with Digital Performer, but prefer ProTools, especially with the vast midi improvements made in version 8.

Do you have any favorite gaming memories (either playing with friends, or being blown away by a particular game, or cut scene, etc)?

I am really enjoying playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald