ReMixer Interview: McVaffe (Mike Vafeas)
A veteran of the video game music ReMixing scene, Michael Vafeas (McVaffe) has been contributing to OC ReMix since 2000, with over 40 ReMixes to date. He recently returned from a four year hiatus with a fantastic Okami ReMix, and plans for more. We caught up with him to find out where the scene legend has been...and where he's going.
- Real Name: Michael Vafeas
- ReMixer Name: McVaffe
- Date of Birth: 1978/04/21
- Birthplace: Flushing, New York, USA
- Website: mcvaffemusic.com (under construction)
- Family: 1 older brother, 2 dogs
- Education: Finished High School, 3 years completed at School of Visual Arts in Manhattan
- Hardware: Roland JV-2080 (x2), Roland Fantom X6, Yamaha MO6, Korg Triton+, Roland V-Synth, Access Virus C, Roland EX5-R, Novation SuperNovaII, Korg KP3, Roland JX-305
- Software: Sonar 7, Ableton Live, Stylus RMX, Trilogy
djpretzel: First above all: WELCOME BACK! What have you been up to lately (lately being the last several years)?
Thanks!! It’s a honor and a pleasure to be “back” so to speak – it definitely has been quite a while. During the past year or so I’ve been considering coming back to OCR and continuing ReMixing. I promised myself that after the holiday craziness I would try to get my act together and work on some new stuff – and I’m happy that I did.
The past few years have been devoted to pursuing some other interests that I’ve had for a while that previously I hadn’t devoted enough time to. Specifically, I spent some time studying photography, as well as working with some friends with some video / writing projects.
I sometimes just take a break from things and try something entirely new which interests me – in fact, I started remixing the same way. I went to school for graphic design, and I had no intentions of becoming any type of professional musician until I just started messing around with it and was commissioned to do a game soundtrack with people I went to college with. The ReMixes I did followed shortly thereafter, and it was a great thing because I think I’m better with music and audio than I ever was with drawing or design (for the record, I draw like sh*t).
djpretzel: You're considered one of the "veterans" of the site, having been around since almost the beginning. Even during your four-year hiatus, did you get a lot of fan mail or people asking about your pieces?
Yes, I was actually surprised about how often I would get mail after I stopped producing ReMixes. When you’re a musician or artist, I think you only tend to see the flaws and shortcomings of your work – but here I was getting fan mail from some people who would write these incredibly touching e-mails about how much they enjoyed my music – as silly and pointless as video game ReMixes may seem to people outside of communities like this. The fact that people would even be interested in any more work from me was a big reason for me to decide to work on new material.
Liontamer: djp mentioned your hiatus. Why the long layoff from ReMixing? Did your interest wane; did you feel like you couldn't bring it anymore; was it merely a matter of no time? I'm sure a lot of fans want to know why they've been deprived of your skills. [laughs]
I think a couple things happened around the time of my eventual departure. First of all, I was going through some family illness issues which – for those who have dealt with loved ones being ill – I’m sure you can understand why it would turn you away from doing things which you used to otherwise enjoy. Thankfully, after some time, things were normal again in that regard.
As well, the site had the whole ReMixer exodus / VGMix birth and I wasn’t really much a part of that whole thing, but the whole politics of the situation left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth as far as some of the community was concerned. I don’t remember the exact details, but I remember a few occasions talking to Dave (djp) about some issues and being fed up with the community in general. He wisely told me that the politics were secondary to the music and that the few individuals causing me a bit of grief (who I can’t even remember anymore) only represented a small part of the OCR population.
In retrospect, he was definitely right, but I felt for awhile it was time to move away or move on… Part of me wishes I stayed more with music in those years, but I likely wouldn’t have gotten as into the other creative stuff I did – so I don’t have any regrets.
djpretzel: During the early days, when you were quite prolific and submitting to OCR on a regular basis, did you have any idea your mixes would still be popular seven years later?
Not at all!! Those songs, I figured people would completely forget about or just dismiss, because they sound like crap compared to a lot of the stuff that’s being produced today, but surprisingly some of the stronger ones still get some feedback here and there. If you said back then people would be listening to my stuff 7 years from now, I would’ve said you were being a flattering liar.
Liontamer: Somewhat on the flip side of djp's last question, many longtime ReMixers have some older material on OCR that they can't stand, even though many fans continue to enjoy them. Have you ended up feeling that way about any of your older material?
I listen to some of my older stuff and a lot of the time I sit back and ask myself “what the hell were you thinking?” Not because it’s weird, but because most of my older stuff by today’s standards sounds unfinished and unpolished. I regret not putting enough time into a lot of the ReMixes I worked on, but, in effect, I did learn a lot from making them. And while some of them lacked a sense of completeness to me, I can still enjoy the “feel” I was going for in putting them together.
But yeah, I could easily make a fairly lengthy list of remixes that, evaluated today, I’m not particularly proud of. But some of those oddly end up being some of the ones that get the most positive feedback, so go figure!
djpretzel: You caused a bit of a stir and a whole lot of confusion back in the day when you took on two alter egos, the female "Jade Gemini" persona and also "Quasikaotic" (Liontamer: Even "Phazeremix.") - what was that all about, anyways? I know we cleared it up at the time, but I'm not sure you ever explained your motivations... now, seven years later, the VGM fan remixing community wants to know: Are you actually Keyser Söze?
[laughs] Ahhh, those days. I’m not sure how many people relatively new to the site would know about that, but there was a time when I posted ReMixes under 3 different aliases. More than anything, my motivation for that was to submit work which had no ties to the McVaffe name. After my first few remixes, certain things were (in my mind, at least) expected of me, and with every new thing I tried I didn’t want to make it a big deal like “McVaffe is trying something new here” bla bla bla.
Essentially, I felt stuck to the McVaffe name and style, and I wanted to create ReMixes that had nothing to do with McVaffe and his older stuff. I didn’t want to make it seem like I was going in a new direction, so I decided to create two alter egos - each with their own style – to start fresh. I was trying to escape the judgment of the new songs as a “McVaffe” ReMix and instead just have the music evaluated on its own merits.
Of course, it really made no difference, and even makes less difference today, as ReMixers as well as artists across all media try new things and styles with great success all the time. But back then, as misguided as I suppose it was – I wanted to try some new ideas without people knowing it was actually me. In retrospect, it was even kind of silly, because the alter ego stuff did still sound like my stuff anyway, but I kept it up for a while nonetheless.
Liontamer: One of the bigger events of yours in the ReMixing community was the 8-minute teaser track "McV's 2003 Remix Preview," featuring a slew of Nintendo arrangement sketches. If I remember correctly, you had plans to create a Nintendo arrangement album, perhaps similar to what KFSS Studios and OneUp Studios were working on at the time. Can you give us some background on the plans you had in mind back then?
I forgot the exact timing of it, but around the time of Project Majestic Mix, Mustin was putting together a few of his own arrangement CDs with other artists for commercial release. The idea wasn’t exactly to get rich, but to package these already great songs from artists with a CD cover, artwork, the works – just make it more official instead of a song you click to download.
He approached me about a solo project and initially I jumped at the opportunity. The idea was originally to have a 2 CD set titled Nintendo Remixed: The Groove and the Mellow. The collection was to feature two discs of remixes; One would be upbeat, electronic arrangements, while the other would be more chillout and maybe orchestral stuff.
Mustin was incredibly supportive about the entire project, but in the end I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. Between the amount of work involved, as well as being a bit uneasy about charging people for a group of derivative works when all of my previous remixes had been made available for free, I ended up opting out of the project.
I was excited about the collection for awhile though, and many of the drafts and ideas I sent Mustin for feedback ended up on that Remix Preview MP3 I put together with the intention of turning a bunch of those songs to OC ReMixes. But, unfortunately, the only one that was properly fleshed out was the Zelda "Dark World" theme, which turned into "The Darkness and the Light" ReMix on OCR – incidentally my last one that was posted when the new version of OCR was unveiled.
Liontamer: How familiar are you with the more recently posted material on OCR? Are there any newcomers since the time you've been away that have caught your attention? Do we have to beat you over the head if you don't know? [laughs]
Well, I’ve been following the site a little more closely since the end of last year and the beginning of this year, and I must say that a lot of the work I’m hearing is phenomenal! Some of the stuff from Another Soundscape, tefnek, Tweek, BGC, Diggi Dis, zirc & pixie (especially their original stuff) is just fantastic. There’s a lot of other artists doing great stuff right now as well, but these just happened to be the names I could remember… Do I still get a beating?
Liontamer: You didn't mention me, of course, so yes! [laughs] Being an old-school name in the community, many ReMixers and fans alike put you on a higher pedestal. Have you felt any particular pressure to deliver based on the reputation you have?
Yes, and I absolutely hate it! You’re lucky I’m not using yet another cheesy alias this time around!!
Honestly though, the pressure isn’t external in the least – it’s all internal. It’s extremely difficult (for me, at least) to sort of reappear after a long hiatus not only from making music and ReMixes, but from the game ReMixing community in general – which has matured greatly in the past few years.
My closest friends and collaborators know that despite what people might think of my so-called “talents” and perceived achievements, I’ve always been on the insecure side with a lot of my work, which not only sucks in general, but sometimes can keep you from putting your stuff out there. I know some people are going to have certain expectations from me and all I can say is that I hope that at the end of the day I can still put together a few songs that people can take with them, and ultimately connect with and enjoy. When you put your work out there for others to listen to and criticize, you eventually find you can never please everybody. It’s sometimes a crappy truth, but by working on nothing, you end up pleasing nobody, especially yourself. And that ends up being a much bigger shame in the end.
I had so many ideas of what song to get back into ReMixing with – a bunch of which I hope to turn into future ReMixes. But when I considered Okami, the song seemed perfect, and it was more of a homage thing than anything. The game was largely ignored by audiences, but to me it epitomized what I love about games and reminded me of what got me involved with games and game music in the first place.
Without turning this into a review – Okami has one of the most engrossing worlds, put together with some of the most gorgeous, creative visuals, inhabited by some of the most charming characters, and set alongside some of the most well-produced and memorable game music I’ve heard in years. This was the first game in a long time that I not only completely fell in love with but respected for all that it accomplished seamlessly, and I wanted desperately to pay homage to the game and to the now-dispersed development team, Clover.
The song “Reset” was an easy choice because it’s the title’s theme of sorts. But, on top of that, it has such a simple, beautiful melody that I immediately knew that it was the song I had to work on. I can only hope I did the song justice…
djpretzel: The ReMix seems a bit different from your past tracks, with a more ethnic flavor, syncopated percussion, and a very strong, melodic emphasis, not unlike a lot of anime OST pieces. Do you feel like your style has changed/evolved since your last mix in 2004? What new tools/approaches have you been exploring recently?
I really haven’t worked on much music during my hiatus, so I don’t think my style for putting music together has evolved as much as my ear has. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to a lot of music in the past few years, and that probably ended up changing how I put the track together. I didn’t change a lot of my approach per se, but I definitely spent more time listening and tweaking certain things, and probably subconsciously went for a different feel than you found in some of my older stuff.
As for the ethnic sound, I certainly tried to evoke the feeling of a foreign, beautiful world as it is so well portrayed in the game itself. Asian instruments in particular have a very organic quality to them that I love, so I tried to incorporate that as well.
Liontamer: If the Okami mix wasn't proof enough, one thing a listener will find going through your body of work on OC ReMix is that you've actually tackled a ton of different styles (ambient, jungle, salsa, etc.). Are there any genres you haven't touched yet that you're actually timid about? By the same token, are there any other styles you're dying to tackle?
There’s so much more I’d love to do musically that requires so much time to really get good at, and often it’s incredibly daunting. I’ve never done a rock track. I can say I’m definitely timid about that. Probably because a paraplegic three-year-old can probably play better guitar than myself…
As for styles I’m dying to tackle, I suppose it would be something more performance-oriented as opposed to the produced work I’m so used to. I love making the type of ReMixes that I do, but at some point, I’d like to work on much more intimate, performed (as opposed to sequenced) stuff. It’ll take quite some time before I can get anything like that sounding good, but I’d say that’s probably where I’d like to take myself next.
Liontamer: During your musical career, you've had some close calls at creating professional game soundtracks only to have those opportunities fall through. Is there any vindication now that you've contributed music to Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix? How important is it to you nowadays to pursue game music as a career?
[laughs] It may be better to keep this as a secret, but I’m going to put all of this info up on my personal site I’m currently redesigning anyway – but there were already two commercially released games on XBLA that I’ve worked on audio and music for that I’m doubting anyone reading this actually played. I’m not going to go too much into them in particular here except to say that it was definitely a lesson in dealing with time pressure as well as coping with disasters. For one project, I had 6 days to complete 5 songs, when my studio PC suddenly died. I had to tear apart my existing setup and rig up my 2080’s to a PC that’s nearly 6 years old in order to use an old version of Sonar to completely re-create the songs I only had drafts for – from scratch. Since that week I’ve had a certain respect for the term “debacle,” but, you live and you learn. And then you replace your damn studio PC.
I’m actually currently working on some other projects with the same company, which I will hopefully be able to discuss in a few months. But outside of working in this rather small, intimate group of guys in an “indie” atmosphere if you want to call it that - I’m not sure if I’m looking for all that much more right now. I definitely considered more aggressively pursuing game music as a career, but the way things are going I’m less interested in becoming a Tommy Tallarico of sorts – freelancing for a bunch of projects for different developers around the world – and I find I’m more interested in being part of a smaller group of individuals where the money might not be as great, but you’re more part of the crew, and you also have more control over your craft.
While I’m not sure at this point exactly what path my work will take me in the industry, one of my current personal goals is to work on small, game-related audio/visual projects on a regular basis. My hope is that even if my stuff doesn’t make it to the industry on any large scale, at least it could still be produced and distributed, and make its way to the fans.
And for the record, despite having credits in other games, the Street Fighter project was a last-minute dream come true. Despite having a relatively small part in the game, to say that my work was featured in a Street Fighter game is something I could’ve never dreamed of when I started ReMixing nearly 8 years ago, and I’m incredibly excited about that.
Liontamer: You've mentioned to djp recently that you feel you've got more ReMix ideas in the tank. Before we jump to the survey questions, any chance you can let the people know what ReMix they can expect next? Any final thoughts?
Well, as for future mixes I think I left a few Street Fighter tracks untouched, and playing [Super Smash Bros.] Brawl reminded me of exactly how extensive the Nintendo game music catalog is, so there are some ideas.
As for final thoughts, this is going to sound incredibly cliché and corny, but recently there was a post in one of the forums by someone who did nothing except express their appreciation for the site, the ReMixers, and for the hard work that goes into it from everyone. I wanted to echo that sentiment and say that, as one of the people who has had his retinas burned from the orange pages of the original OC ReMix, it’s hard to believe how far this site has come. It’s an honor to be part of the site’s history, and I’m psyched to have the opportunity to be part of its future as well.
- The following are standard questions asked of all interviewed ReMixers:
What was the first video game you remember playing?
My gosh, I’m sure it was for my brother’s Atari 2600 when I was about 4 or so. It might’ve been Super Breakout or E.T. … Yeah, what a way to get into gaming, right?
Did you have any formal musical training or education prior to becoming a video game music ReMixer?
I’ve had private teachers for piano lessons for years, but no training in the way of actually recording songs. I started by teaching myself Cakewalk on DOS – which was a struggle to learn before the age of teh internets. [sic]
How did you first get involved with ReMixing video game music? Did a particular game soundtrack or artist hook you?
Back when AOL was new, and before I was aware of VGMusic.com, they had sections of AOL dedicated to video games which featured user-submitted MIDI versions of video game songs. The sounds were limited to General MIDI – but at the time the source material in the games wasn’t much better. There wasn’t much in the way of actual remixes, but prior to MP3s and game audio rips, this was the way we could post and share game music online in small, manageable files. I posted a bunch of Final Fantasy VI covers there, and some people enjoyed my work. Eventually someone mentioned an interesting new site called OverClocked ReMix. I checked the site out and thought “hey, I could try this out.” And of course, what better song to start with than the SMB theme song?
Have you collaborated with other ReMixers on mixes, and if so, what was it like?
No collabs yet. =(
Do you prefer working alone? How does collaborating change your creative process?
It’s hard to say, considering so far it’s all I’m used to. For me it would be a little difficult to collaborate, because I try to do most of my remixes in one or two lengthy sessions, as opposed to going back to it over and over in small bits. Because of this, unless I was working directly with someone in the same physical space, it might be a bit difficult to ping pong files back and forth and keep the momentum going.
However, I’d love to collaborate with someone who could offer some performance aspect to my stuff – whether it be guitar, singing, or anything that’s much more convincingly played or performed than sequenced. That would be interesting for me…
What was the last musical project or track you worked on? Are you working on anything currently?
The last musical track I worked on is part of a larger personal project I’m currently putting together of original, game-inspired music. With luck (and a ton of work), this project will be fully available when all of the tracks are completed and the website I’m working on is up and running. Professionally, I’m working with a small game development company based in Manhattan. With them I have plans to provide audio and music for 2 or 3 XBLA games currently in various stages of production.
Based on your experience as an OverClocked ReMixer, what advice would you give those trying to get something they submit posted on the site?
KEEP TRYING! If anyone who likes my stuff heard some of the songs I started out with over 15 years ago, they’d piss themselves with laughter. By the time I found OCR, I had been doing music for a few years, so it wasn’t like some people who hear the songs, get the software, and then get frustrated because suddenly the song isn’t writing itself. Music isn’t that incredibly hard to understand and put together, but it does take a great deal of time and patience to get started. And no matter how good you get, there will always be things to learn and ways to improve. If you really want to take yourself somewhere, you’ll have to stick with it, despite the common frustrations that you’ll have starting out.
Who/what are your inspirations in terms of ReMixing video game music?
I’d have to say that Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo are probably my greatest inspirations in terms of source material, but the inspirations for the remixes I work on come from everywhere. Even though you can hardly hear it, part of the inspiration for my recent Okami ReMix came from a Fergie song called "Velvet." "Crystalline Caverns" was inspired by Linkin Park.
The inspiration is everywhere, you just have to try and meld the source material with an interesting take on it and put the song together using your own style and technique.
Of the ReMixes you've made, which is your favorite? Why?
Damn, that’s a tough one. I love the beginning of "The Darkness and the Light" but I’d have to say Makoto['s] "Jungle Jazz". I’m not particularly knowledgeable of jazz music – to me the amount of control and musical understanding that good jazz musicians have is completely mind-blowing.
And while I didn’t do anything in the song musically that any decent jazz musician would be particularly impressed with, I was proud of how I married the laid-back jazz feel over a contrastingly frantic drum pattern, and how the synergy of those two elements worked for me. It was also one of my few ReMixes that wasn’t a cheesy piano piece that actually seemed more performed as opposed to strictly sequenced.
How do you approach ReMixing video game music? Is there a particular sequence of events you find yourself following more often, or an initial process you always seem to use?
Hmm... I used to just sit in front of the PC with a song and start to fool around with it, but lately I’ve been conceptualizing the songs away from the PC. A lot of times, I’d start working on a song and would invariably get pulled on musical tangents which, while they might be great, might not be what I imagined at first.
These days, before I even sit in front of the PC, I take a pad and write down the feel I’m going for, the various sections I want to include, instruments and sounds, and start from that. That way I have a blueprint of sorts and a solid initial idea before I even play the first note.
Which game composers and soundtracks do you admire the most?
As I mentioned before, Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo are probably top of the list of game composers who have inspired me the most. Nobuo’s earlier Nintendo stuff probably up until Final Fantasy VI is among the most incredible game music ever produced. (FF7, I think, is where the series, and his take on it, went in a direction I didn’t particularly care for as much as the older stuff.)
I also have a great deal of respect for Mitsuda’s work, and Yuzo Koshiro did things with the Genesis and SNES sound chips that were pure genius. The Streets of Rage series has techno that blows most of the electronic stuff in games now clear out of the water. Though I don’t know the composers for them off hand – the original Mega Man and Castlevania soundtracks on NES are, for the most part, filled with brilliance.
I don’t particularly follow western game musicians that much, but some of the stuff that virt puts out is just insane. That guy’s got a ton of talent.
What's one of your best or most enjoyable memories from working on a ReMix? Worst?
You’re asking me to recall stuff that I worked on over half a decade ago?? [laughs]. Hmm, I remember having a great time working on The Castlevania Adventure "Tempest Mix." It was one of the first ones I did and I remember loving the whole storm sequence in the beginning as well as the overall energetic, gothic tone of the piece. Definitely one of my favorite early mixes.
I really don’t have any one piece that was a big problem, although probably the most frustrating one would’ve been the last one I worked on – "The Darkness and the Light." I love parts of it but I remember trying to do something very ambitious for the whole launch of the new OCR design, and decided to do a Zelda medley. Not only did the song take much longer than most of my previous mixes, but fitting all the songs together became a very time–consuming hassle. I’m fairly happy with the result, but that song more than any other, was a headache.
What's the most challenging aspect of ReMixing video game music?
I think achieving the balance between staying true to an original song while adding enough of your own flavor in the remix is probably my biggest challenge. You don’t want to be too literal in your arrangement, but if you’re too abstract with the idea then the whole idea of a remix or rearrangement becomes secondary to your own style, which is something I try to stay away from. Finding the balance between the source material and my take on it is usually the most challenging thing to me.