Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound, a celebration of video game music, SFX and VO from a historical perspective, is worth the price of admission just to experience the score. Now, a digital version of the OST from Beep by Leonard J. Paul has just been released. In this in depth interview with Leonard we talk about the motivations and technology behind this 22 track album – a wonderful mix of classic video game music with sweeping ambient modular synths and live cello – in a word eclectic and great music to work to, chill out with, and thoroughly enjoy!
The hallmark of the music is that the underscore was done using procedural music techniques. It has the feel of classic video game music meets modern synthesis. It was the perfect choice for a film that spans the history of game audio.
The Interview with Leonard J. Paul
Designing Music NOW: I know your goal was to use procedural music in writing the score of Beep. How much of the final score was procedural, and how much was “composed”?
Leonard J. Paul: My goal with composing the music in Beep was to reflect the sense of wonder that I got as a kid when playing games. A key aspect of the film is nostalgia and I wanted to bring this feeling through with the music as well. To keep things fresh I felt I really needed to push myself into discovering different ways of working with music.
For the underscore of the film I used the visual scripting language Pure Data to compose all of the music. Each song is individually created to use different rule sets to change the synthesis, effects, notes, mix and other parameters over time. The functional structure of each song is unique but I typically composed a few musical patterns in a 16-step sequencer and allow the song to improvise on those patterns over the length of the song. This limitations in this process can be seen as being similar to using analogue sequencers to compose music. Usually 50 notes or less are improvised on by the computer to create a full 3-5 minute song. I used a lot of effects, odd meters, polyrhythms, and other techniques to help prevent the song from becoming repetitive.
For the underscore used in the film, I improvised live using the musical structures that I had composed and but it took me nearly half a year of part-time work to implement the logic that allows the computer to fully determine the composition. This means that the versions of the songs on the album are entirely “hands free” and will generate a nearly endless amount of variations based on the themes that I composed.
DMN: You have a passion for procedural music, when did that start and what are the major challenges to producing great sounding procedural music?
LJP: I definitely have an interest in making music that allows for some serendipity in its creation. When composing music for the documentary film The Corporation, I used a lot of sample granulation to create textures that were slightly different each time they were played. With Retro City Rampage, my process was often to create the main theme on an acoustic guitar, enter it into the tracker, improvise over it with the guitar, edit the results and eventually arrive at a version that I felt was a fun conversation between myself and the limitations of the NES hardware.
I really like working in an iterative approach that works to smooth out the edges of technology and infuse a human character to the music. This process is very similar to the compositional process on early video games where composers would need to find interesting ways to implement their music on very limited hardware.
I’m very happy to have had the award-winning cellist Peggy Lee add some very inspired improvisations on several of the songs, which helped to add a really human element to contrast the synth sounds. Besides the score for Sim Cell, I haven’t worked much directly in procedural music so the score for Beep was quite difficult for me. The level of details that you can delve into with Pure Data, such as coding custom filters or making complex music logic behaviours, can make it feel like you’re working on a score with a microscope. It was a continual challenge to stay focused on the big picture and work on the overall feeling and meaning of the music so that the technology becomes transparent. Editing procedural music is quite different than working traditionally as you’re sculpting the rules that define the music, so similar to trimming a bonzai tree, it will definitely have a mind of its own.
DMN: It is a novel idea to use procedural music in a linear format, but it worked beautifully. Did you have any trepidation going in or were you confident that it would work?
LJP: I spent a long time in pre-production on the score researching different techniques and approaches that I might use since there was a good amount of time between the Kickstarter and when the film premiered. I initially thought that I would spend more time learning how to compose for the iconic game audio systems from the Atari 2600 through to the Playstation 1 to illustrate the difference in styles as they were presented in the film. But I found that each of these early game systems is really an instrument in itself and not only requires unique approaches to their audio limitations but also understanding the different composition systems that were used to score the music for them. There’s a real difference between writing music by quill, for a player piano and using a MIDI sequencer and this process affects the music directly as well.
When working on the game Retro City Rampage, I had several years to learn about the details of making music in just the style of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I eventually decided that it would be difficult to create the depth of emotive qualities that I wanted for each of these systems and to have them work well together for the film. A lot of chiptune music is quite dense and angular which requires a lot of work to fit under the dialogue. I decided to look into the era of modular synthesis that inspired many of the early game composers at the time and I worked to create a similar feel using Pure Data.
Previous to Beep, I had only done one song in Pure Data so it was a very steep learning curve for me but definitely a rewarding one. I’d definitely suggest it as a tool to composers that want to try something new.
DMN: What are some of your inspirations for the soundtrack?
LJP: My initial inspiration for Beep was the music of the composers interviewed in the film. One of my favourite game songs of all time is the Marble Madness: Level 2 music by Brad Fuller and Hal Cannon. I used to listen to the game as a kid when on the ferry to and from Vancouver Island and I enjoyed listening to it when playing on my Commodore Amiga too. I first met Brad at a IA-SIG event in San Jose in 2006. He was a composer/coder similar to myself so I always had a fun time chatting with him when I would see him at industry events. The film is dedicated to him since he passed away from cancer in early 2016 not long after his interview for the film was recorded. There’s a lot of songs by other people in the film that I was inspired by but Marble Madness really stands out for me.
I decided on creating electronic music similar in style to music that inspired many of game composers from that early era. I spent a lot of time listening to Vangelis, Larry Fast (Synergy), Jean Michel Jarre, Wendy Carlos, Tomita and other modular synth artists. Karen gave me directions on the way she wanted the music to feel from bands similar to Tycho and the music from the Her soundtrack by Arcade Fire. I was also inspired by other modern albums such as Autechre’s “Amber” and Dawn of MIDI’s “Dysnomia” for their textures, compositional structures and use of rhythm.
As far as Pure Data, I am creatively inspired by the modules built by Martin Brinkmann. I really enjoy the sound and responsiveness of his patches that he makes available for anyone to use. I find it relatively easy to figure out how he’s put things together in case I need to make some tweaks to his patches. I spent a long time researching procedural music made using Pure Data to discover what techniques I wanted to use to base my compositions on. I was really inspired by the music of Acreil. Some of his generative work is really amazing and he’s been nice enough to make the source available for some of them as well.
DMN: Besides the feature length documentary, you are also involved in an “interactive” documentary. The procedural music approach must come in very handy for this. Can you explain how it will work in the interactive version?
LJP: There are plans for creating an interactive version of the soundtrack but I’m not sure how things will progress. This score has been very time intensive but I’ve already started cleaning up my patches for future use in an interactive format. I think it would be really cool to release a physical version that could run on something like a Raspberry Pi, where each time the song plays it would sound slightly different. In a certain sense, this is really the way that the score is meant to be heard and it’s similar to the way I hear it when I’m composing the songs. The soundtrack that was released is actually only one rendering of many different possible mixes of the songs.
My current goal with the interactive version would be to support the educational aspects of the film and try to make it as accessible as possible so people can explore how sound and music was made. This could be similar to the tutorial video that I made that demonstrates how the film’s logo sound was constructed in Pure Data.
I plan to take some of the techniques that I used in the film to help each my game audio students at the School of Video Game Audio as well.
DMN: Thanks for the interview!
LJP: Thanks a bunch, it’s been fun!
About Leonard J. Paul