Interview with independent sound design team Audio Aggregate

Recently I had the chance to talk to two members of a collective of video game music fans turned composers. The group Audio Aggregate (audioaggregate.com) is comprised of several members from the world of video game inspired music. This includes Jace Bartet, AKA chiptune composer Prizmatic Spray, Brion Helmsman, and Luke Fields of speed running rockers Bit Brigade, as well as Joel Hatstat of Cinemechanica, not to mention Mike Albanese of both of the latter groups. They also have several other accomplished musicians in Alfredo Lapuz, Coley Dennis, and Matt Weiss.

Separately this group of musicians has dedicated themselves to some great musical projects and bands, but together as Audio Aggregate have created and contributed to soundtracks such as the first true iPhone MMO Outer Empires and Geometry Wars style PC shooter Sentinel. I was able to shoot some questions at Mike Albanese and Jace Bartet about designing music as a collective, as well as a look into the indie game music scene and more. Read on, but first, get a feel for this group with a special single MP3 included for this interview.

[download id="19"] What made you decide to start a collective for game sound design?

Jace: Mike had the idea to get this thing rolling, and for me it was really a dream come true.  When I was discovering the NES around age 6, I immediately became obsessed with the music in many of the games I happened upon, especially Time Lord, Mega Man 2, and Duck Tales.  I'd just chill out in levels that had cool jams and feel the vibes.  A few years later, I figured out that the little red output on the side of the NES was an audio out, so I hooked it up to my boombox and recorded game music and sounds onto cassette tapes to listen to at my leisure. The idea of designing sound for games seems like winning the lottery, or being a "Rock Star."

Mike: Athens is 2010 America's Capital for Undercompensated Talent. The cost of living is extremely low, as is compensation for all the service industry jobs traditionally associated with a musician’s life. This is our opportunity to take something we've long since dedicated ourselves to and actually get properly compensated for it. The fact that our cost of living and general overhead is so low definitely helps keep us competitive, price wise. It is not unreasonable to believe people not living in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco should not have to exclusively make wrapped sandwiches to pursue their artistic goals.

What games have you worked on so far?

Mike: After doing some smaller projects to get our collective feet wet and learn the process, this year we've completed an Iphone MMOPRG called Outer Empires, wrote arena rock themes for a slot machine sim and delved into latin chiptunes for a short called Spanish Gold!

What games are you working on now?

Mike: At the moment we are working on music for a pilot for Nickelodeon involving wizard bunnies, cute sidekicks and a metal version of flight of the bumblebees (post-manowar if you will). We're also doing some work on an forward thinking title being developed by the NIH/SEPA program at the University of Georgia. We are busy bees, but aggressively looking for work that demands something different than "canned" faux-cinema music.

How do you decide on what projects to work on and which to pass on?

Jace: I suppose something would have to be pretty damn janky for us to pass on it outright.  We're really pumped about exploring as many game environments and music integration possibilities as we can.

Mike: Having minimal business experience before this, it’s been interesting trying to find a balance between keeping the company afloat and actively pressing developers who we want to work with at (read: minimal) all costs. Our collective is diverse enough to shine in a pretty wide spectrum of environments though.

In a collective, how do you decide who works on which song?

Jace: Mike plays a large part in this process.  He's basically our Dr. Dre.

Mike: Ya'll know me, still the same ol' G.

Jace: All project proposals pass through him first.  What has happened thus far, really, has mainly involved Mike throwing an opportunity out there to all of us, and anyone who feels that they have something viable to contribute can take a crack at it.

How do you go about writing songs together?

Jace: Many of us have worked or currently jam together in fairly involved music endeavors outside of AA.  Over the years, a synergy has been created that allows us to speak the same basic language of music.  I don't have any formal music training, but I have a very fluid relationship with, for example, Brion Kennedy, who has music training oozing out of every pore.  When we get together with guitars, things just seem to start happening.

Mike: Most of the guitar centric players are/were in a quadrophonic guitar + drum ensemble called 'Powers …. which due to the complexity of the layouts required a hybridization of collaborative and authoritative songwriting. Basically, one person is in "charge" of the melodic content of a song and has the final say on the arrangement, but anybody involved is pressed to innovate and take the lead ideas as far as possible. Generate -vastly- more ideas then we need and pair the end product down while retaining the original composer's vision via auditing. We've adapted this process pretty handily towards composing for game audio … I man the helm, studio and production wise, to ensure some semblance of continuity between tracks for a given project, but in the end, we're aggressively looking for the unexpected (and inspiring) musical moments that occur by mashing individuals with grossly different backgrounds and fields of expertise together.

Do each of you have certain strengths or musical talents and styles?

Jace: Absolutely.  I'm sure everyone has a different idea of what their own strengths are, but I can say for myself that I'm a slave to long melodic figures.  I've also spent a lot more time working with chiptunes than most of the other guys.

Mike: It's wickedly diverse. How many solo-composer-with-mid-sequencer type cats can claim they've dedicated years to learning and dissecting every krautrock band … -and- do remixes of contemporary electronic music live, -and- have a voracious appetite for chiptunes. Only by taking it collaboratively and using whoever is most appropriate/thought provoking in combination can you end up with non-derivative music in as diverse a palette as we have.

Is there a style each of you loves to or refuses to do?

Jace: I love working on basically anything that benefits from using Milky Tracker or Renoise, and anything that needs bombastic rock guitar.  I wouldn't "refuse" to do anything, although I'd have a hard time with an assignment that called for a generic "unce-unce-unce-unce" beat.  Speaking only for myself, one of my biggest dreams for Audio Aggregate is to help get video game music as far away from the ghetto of bland "orchestral" string swells and mind-numbing, flaccidly pulsing electronic beats as possible.  That's not to say that some great work isn't being done in the industry, particularly for handheld systems.  But I pine for the days when it was more common for game music to really jump out and excite the player, acting as an integral part of the game experience and not just background fodder.  I must find a way to make every assignment musically interesting for myself.

Mike: What Jace said, but in my case substitute "odd-meter drums" for bombastic rock guitar and "circuit bent electronics" for Renoise.

What advantages does having a full group of musicians bring to music creation in this game soundtrack setting?

Jace: We get to put a lot of ears on something.  If you have four guys with four different backgrounds and interests in a room listening to something and they all get a kick out of it, that's a pretty good indicator that it's strong.  Also, one of the ideas behind having a collective is that theoretically we should be able to produce solid material in just about any genre or sound set and do it with a very short turnaround.  There's probably someone to take on just about anything.

Are there any disadvantages to this structure?

Jace: Not yet, really!  Something may come up over time, but at this point it has been too invigorating, and too much fun for me to come up with any significant disadvantages.  Some may balk having to split pay up x-number of ways, but I don't mind that because I believe pretty strongly in the talents of each of us and in what we're doing as a whole.

How did everyone get involved in this project?

Jace: This guy named Rufus came to us in a telephone booth when we were hanging out in a parking lot one night and told us that the future depended on it.

Mike: Excellent!

Do you plan on releasing original music as a group as well?

Mike: Since various configurations of us play in different bands all working towards releasing records, I wouldn't say a compilation of Audio Aggregate original music is at the top of the priority list … but its -absolutely- a possibility, especially if we can release a soundtrack to a larger title that will showcase the diversity of our group.

What games and composers are you influenced by?

Mike: If we both gave our lists we would fill ten pages.

Jace: This could go on for a while...first and foremost, Iku Mizutani.  On the soundtracks for games such as Toukon Club, Shatterhand, Power Rangers - Time Force, and Dragon Fighter, he has proved himself to be a true alchemist in combining insanely catchy melodies with interesting rhythms and unconventional transitions.  I could write an essay on the importance and influence of the following composers on my style and life:  Neil Baldwin (Magician, Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge),

Mike: Imma let you finish, but Neil Baldwin is the greatest 8-bit composer of all time. Of All Time!

Jace: Manami Matsumae (Mega Man 2, U.N. Squadron), Tim Follin (Silver Surfer, Puzznic), Yoshihiro Sakaguchi (Mega Man 2, Duck Tales, Street Fighter 2), Chris Huelsbeck (Turrican), Jeroen Tel (Robocop 3, Cybernoid), Jake Kaufman, aka virt (Shantae, Contra 4, a billion amazing original chiptunes), Samuel Ascher-Weiss, aka Shnabubula (mind-altering original chiptunes).

Are there particular games or genres you like to or would like to create music for?

Jace: My primary interests are in shmups, 2D platformers, puzzle games, and anything kind of left-field and experimental that under-showered guys out there are toiling away on in their bedrooms/basements/studios.

Mike: I want to create spacerock for RPGs. It's a niche my drumming style and the guitar-ebow-is-that-guitar-or-angel-spaceships tonalities we have at our disposal are particular suited for. It also enables me to sublty work my Hum influences into something commercially viable. Life goal, check.

What do you think of the proliferation of independent games on iphone and console downloads?

Jace: It's wonderful in that real experimentation and innovation has an outlet; it's troubling in that good works may become increasingly easy to overlook, because the mountain of pointless nonsense to sift through seems to grow exponentially.

Mike: Independently motivated people + outlet for distribution = freedom from day jobs and a cottage industry built on boutique titles not suited for crossplatform, million dollar development deals. At least in theory, its quasi-utopian and very much in the spirit of how our bands operate. Itunes more or less instantly created a bullshit free internet based revenue stream for Cinemechanica (my band) and it has helped our touring and logistical needs in a not subtle way. Most of the Iphone devs we have worked with have a love/hate relationship with the submission process, but in the end, the review process will go through revisions and the strength of digital distribution with sweet user front end will emerge triumphant.

Do you think there is a large difference between large developers music creation and that of indie developers?

Jace: Budget is a big deal. Many of us work unglamorous day jobs, and making the time for an Audio Aggregate project sometimes means, or at least has for me on occasion, wreaking havoc on my sanity and wellness.  It would be cool to have the luxury of not having to murder brain cells to produce passable work, but I'm more than happy to do whatever it takes to hammer at our goals.  I am quite sure that everyone doing good work at any level of game design works long hours, and hard, to do what they love.

Mike: Our goal is to create music that we are proud of and that resonates with gamers in a way that (forgive me) "typical" music just can't. The end platform matters, of course, in terms of production execution (sample rates and what not) … but in the end, it's the difference between Movie Score X and the score to Requiem for A Dream. Could Clint Mansell have composed and executed that score for an indie? Absolutely. Would it have driven him completely insane, finding string players and local studios to record in piecemeal? Absolutely. Would he (we) have done it anyway? You get the idea. Eventually we'll get properly compensated for the somewhat over-the-top amount of time we invest … but right now, promotional bullshit aside, we want to work on great, forward-thinking games with great scoring potential … and hopefully make enough to feed ourselves and remain clothed.

Many VG inspired musicians have started to find their way into video game composition such as yourselves, Another Soundscape, Stemage (of Metroid Metal), and most recently Anamanaguchi. Do you think this is a growing trend, and possibly the beginning of a new era of game composers?

Jace: Whether or not this is a "new era" of VG composition really depends on the developers/publishers to me. virt and Alex Mauer are the only modern, active chiptune godheads I can think of who have also been heavily involved in professional VG work. But they're by no means the only chiptune artists doing incredible work. If VG developers paid any attention to websites like The Shizz or 8bitcollective, I think they'd be amazed at the quality of composition happening in those places by average joes, obsessives who know the different versions of Space Harrier based on the first transitional drum fill. It's up to developers to decide whether or not they want to push beyond generic "symphonic" soundscapes or bland "techno" pulses. The talent is out there. Anamanaguchi has had a very high level of visibility in the chiptune world for some time because of their live presence, but there is a whole universe of talent underneath the surface.

Who are some game composers and/or chiptune and VGM musicians you think we should keep an eye on in the near future?

Jace: Alex Mauer and virt (always); also, EvilWezil, Zan-zan-zawa-veia, J. Arthur Keenes, Josiah Tobin (aka Bit_Rat), Norrin Radd, Shnabubula, Wizwars, Derris Kharlan, Spamtron, and Unicorn Dream Attack. I'm sure there are tons I'm forgetting; this is just off the top of my head. Things have gotten insane and awesome in the past couple of years in the chiptune scene.

What do you have to say to those who also hope to start composing game music?

Jace: This is not pretty. Love it with all your heart and be certain of your passion.

Mike: Confirmed.

Any final things you would like to add, or wisdom to impart before we finish this interview?

Jace: Study the ancient masters, always and forever. Never stop studying.

Mike: Thanks for being so awesome and interviewing us. We are immensely appreciative.