Article: ReMixer Interview: Steffan Andrews

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Steffan Andrews Interview Logo

Steffan Andrews made his first big wave in the OCR community with his second ReMix, Chrono Trigger 'The Trial in Concert'. While Andrews remains modest on the piece, the near-eight-minute arrangement performed in one take illustrated to fans that Andrews knows how to do things big. In 2007, Andrews returned to OCR, spearheading the largest collaboration on the site to date with the epic 7-ReMixer piece Final Fantasy VII 'Black Wing Metamorphosis'. Having risen to working across games, films and TV professionally, Andrews recently locked up his first major game credit composing music for EA's FaceBreaker. You can now catch his latest TV work, Nerd Core Entertainment's League of Super Evil (L.O.S.E.), airing Monday nights 7PM EST on Cartoon Network & Saturday mornings 10:30AM EST on YTV.

Interview

Conducted September 18, 2008 by David "djpretzel" Lloyd, Andrew "zircon" Aversa & Larry "Liontamer" Oji:

djpretzel: Though you've got a mixed background in scoring for different media, FaceBreaker is your first involvement in an A-list game scoring gig. I just turned on cable the other day and saw Snoop Dogg pimping it in a commercial, which has to be validating for you on some cosmic/karmic level. How did you land the job?

I was invited to write music for the game by one of my college profs, who also works at Electronic Arts as an audio lead. It was definitely a great opportunity I couldn’t pass up!

djpretzel: Trevor Morris was involved with the game's score as well - how was the scoring work divided?

Yes, Trevor Morris is the lead composer for the bulk of the in-game interactive music. He’s got some impressive credits and it was very cool to be working on the same game! We were conscripted separately, and the music was for the individual stages of the game - so for this particular game there wasn’t any point where we had opportunity to interact on the development of the music.

zircon: FaceBreaker definitely takes itself less seriously than other EA Sports titles like the Fight Night series. How is this reflected in the music?

Ironically, it’s not really reflected in the in-game music. The interactive tracks for each stage are cinematic orchestral tracks that you might expect to hear out of a Hollywood blockbuster film. Each stage has music that is appropriate for the setting and the stage's character. The cinematic type score really sinks you into the environment. It gives it this epic feel, and it really fits well with the quality of the visuals.

djpretzel: When people think of boxing games with a sense of humor, Nintendo's Punch-Out!! comes to mind as a classic example. Was this game (and/or its soundtrack) an inspiration for you or others in working on FaceBreaker? What type of creative direction were you provided with from EA?

Can't say Michael Jackson was really an inspiration for this game. I am sure the development team is familiar with Punch-Out!!, but I'm not really sure if it was of much to go on for FaceBreaker. The concept is similar, but the divide is so vast between the NES and new age game consoles in every way. Incidentally, even though there is so much more possible now, the actual gameplay of the game is similar to Punch-Out!! in that it does not extend much past in-ring fights. EA wanted a pick-up-and-play sort of arcade style game. The creative direction for FaceBreaker in terms of the music was to keep it cool and epic. The menu music and most non-gameplay music consisted of licensed tracks from other artists, and the in-game music was to be like typical epic film score.

Steffan Andrews dark orchestration provides the background as Ice takes down Kiriko in EA's FaceBreaker

djpretzel: Were you able to actually play the game when scoring, or did you work from video clips or other materials?

At the point that I started, I was able to beta-test the gameplay of one of the stages at EA’s facility. At my studio, I was only working from a screenshot of one of the stages. Shortly after, they supplied me with a video file of a few minutes of gameplay capture and the sound effects track which I dropped into my sequencer to write around.

Liontamer: The credits you've accrued across games, television and film demonstrate your willingness to work in any medium. Your focus has been television, but does any one medium stand out to you as the most enjoyable, so far?

Where I am in the stream of things, I think television is a total blast. I’ve been writing music primarily for television cartoon series, and it’s seriously a lot of fun. That being said, if the opportunity came along to work on a great game or film, I would definitely switch gears. Television is a good fall-back because it is steady and provides a routine.

Liontamer: With FaceBreaker and the indie game Night of a Million Billion Zombies under your belt, how does the process of writing music for interactive playback compare to the more linear world of television and film scoring? What are some key differences?

Games can vary, and so can the music and how it’s implemented. Obviously game music in an arcade title such as FaceBreaker will be written and manipulated in a different way than a first-person shooter or adventure title. Interactive music (non-linear) has to address a number of technical objectives. With FaceBreaker, the action is very fast paced and requires the music to be very flexible.

Interactive music is written in multiple layers, so that when intensity in gameplay changes, the music can change as well. The audio engine can add layers or switch to different layers at any time depending on what's going on in the game, so the music has to be written in such a way that it can happen seamlessly. Musically, this involves a using static tempo, usually a static key, and having a good understanding of orchestration. You have to avoid anything with tails, such as delay effects, long reverb tails, or musical gestures that are not contiguous to a single bar. On the technical side, having a background in computer programming will really help you understand how the logic of the audio engine works. You also need to have a good understanding of how to write around dialog and sound effects. This is similarly true of linear scoring for films, except in video games the timing of sound effects and dialog against interactive music can’t be predicted.

So generally you have to address the concern of overall orchestration density, and instrument ranges in terms of frequency bands. In addition, you really need to hire a mixer who understands this and can help carve out the conflicting bands. During the mix, I had the excerpt of live gameplay sound effects available for this purpose.

Liontamer: Your demo tracks at your site, Orchetect.com, show off your proficiency in several genres, and your Chrono Trigger mix from a while back, "Spekkio the Brave", was even done in a traditional Scottish Highlands style. Which project has pushed the boundaries of your range the most?

I’d say nothing pushes your boundaries like working on television shows – especially cartoons. You’re called upon to write just about every genre of music under the sun at some point. It’s a continual learning experience.

djpretzel: You released some popular SNES mixes on OC ReMix back in 2000-2002 under the name of Spekkosaurus, then sort of disappeared, only to reemerge using your real name on our 2007 album Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream. What brought you back, and what were you up to in those five years in between?

I was busy on various things, as well as going to college. What you find out soon enough is that the music industry keeps you insanely busy. Rearranging video game tracks was still a hobby and a passion, but it definitely took a back seat. At the point zircon invited me to work on the FFVII project, I couldn’t say no to such a stellar opportunity to remake some of my favorite game music.

zircon: Chrono Trigger "The Trial in Concert" was a huge standout ReMix, and six years later we still have nothing else like it. Did you read from sheet music while playing this, or did you have it all planned out in your head? What model piano was used for the performance, and which software/hardware for the recording?

It was the culmination of finally sitting down and just recording something. I had been toying with the theme, improvising on piano, for literally years. It wasn’t really planned at all, it was just off the cuff. It was also at a time when I really knew nothing about recording. You can tell, seeing as the piano was a stock Yamaha upright falling out of tune, using a couple of Shure dynamics fed into vanilla Mackie mixer preamps and a cheesy reverb rack, recorded into Cubase on an old iMac. It made for a rough-and-tumble sound, that’s for sure.

zircon: Your massive "Black Wing Metamorphosis" collaboration for Voices of the Lifestream had seven people working on and contributing to a single musical work; how does that compare with the collaborative work you've had to do for video games or TV?

There is quite a lot going on with collaboration on television series, depending on the circumstances. The main requirement is that the show has to be cohesive, especially when a particular music style or aesthetic has been defined for a show. It has to sound like it’s coming from a single composer.

For one show, I and another composer split up the cues between us, and we go our separate ways and write them. Because we are using the same template of samples and we’re both in tune with the established feel for the scoring style, we are able to write similar music.

For another show, it’s much more involved. We split up the cues, but the nature of the show is that cues can often interact with each other. Usually each episode has a finite number of themes, so we both have to incorporate them in our music. The off time I may take some MIDI that the other composer has written of a theme and rework it into a cue I am writing, extending the arrangement and building upon it. You could almost liken it to "ReMixing" the theme. There are times when the other composer sends me a MIDI piano sketch of a cue, and I have to orchestrate it and flesh it out.

Preview the first season of Nerd Core Entertainment's League of Super Evil, music by Steffan Andrews & the L.O.S.E. music team

djpretzel: How has working on ReMixes at OCR helped you improve your commercial scoring? Are there things you like better about ReMixing, and vice versa?

Working with game music has been a good experience and stepping stone. I’ve learned from the community and garnered feedback in order to improve my work. My motivation for reworking game music is being able to pay homage to music that I became attached to and music that inspired me. It’s great to be able to take a theme and expound on it. But it’s really for the love of it, I don’t have any commercial aspirations.

Survey

History

What was the first video game you remember playing?

The original Donkey Kong on the Coleco ADAM computer. The one with the games and programs on cassette tapes. That was classic.

Did you have any formal musical training or education prior to becoming a video game music ReMixer?

Very little, really. When I was very young I went to grade 3 piano in private lessons, and quit because I couldn’t take the rigidity of it. I was being taught to play notes, not to play music. I took pretty much every music related course through high school, though the amount of theory I actually gleaned is debatable. There were elements of music theory in the college diploma program I took, but the curriculum overall was more centered on the technical aspects of audio and music production. Through all of that, it’s actually somewhat of a mystery where my knowledge came from. Music has been a large part of my life, and I think it came about through research and experience of my own.

How did you first get involved with ReMixing video game music? Did a particular game soundtrack or artist hook you?

Music of all sorts has always captivated me, and the nature of video games is that they are interactive, which often makes them more compelling than other media such as television or film. The fact that my favorite game scores were from games that had great stories only sealed the deal. In all honesty, the game scores that I fall head over heels for, even to this day, are mostly centered around the SNES “renaissance” era - Final Fantasy III [US] and Chrono Trigger. The themes are strong, memorable, and compelling. At the time that OC ReMix was just getting started, a friend tipped me off to the site, which made me realize there were a lot more people out there who liked game music than I thought.

Have you collaborated with other ReMixers on mixes, and if so, what was it like?

Do you prefer working alone?
How does collaborating change your creative process?

I headed up the collaboration of "Black Wing Metamorphosis", a remix of "One-Winged Angel" from the FFVII project [Voices of the Lifestream]. It was definitely a positive experience, and some very talented people brought their areas of performance expertise to the table. In that position, I arranged and orchestrated the track, and also ended up being a producer to delegate certain aspects of the production. With such a large number of individuals involved in a single piece, that was the natural strategy.


To the backdrop of Steffan's "Black Wing Metamophosis", slkdragon won the FFVII category runner-up in OC ReMix's Voices of the Lifestream music video contest

What was the last musical project or track you worked on? Are you working on anything currently?

I’m currently writing music for two television cartoon series. I am also involved with upcoming OC ReMix site projects.

Based on your experience as an OverClocked ReMixer, what advice would you give those trying to get something they submit posted on the site?

Have patience – with both the site staff and yourself. Believe it or not, not everything I’ve submitted to OCR has been approved. (Of course that was a long time ago. Mwar har har.)

Personal

Who/what are your inspirations in terms of ReMixing video game music?

Musically and stylistically my inspirations lie heavily in symphonic film music. I’m a big fan of a lot of contemporary A-list film composers.

Of the ReMixes you've made, which is your favorite? Why?

I’m pretty fond of the two tracks I produced for FFVII: Voices of the Lifestream. I think "Black Wing Metamorphosis" captured an aesthetic that I’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. It was definitely a lot of fun to just let loose and do something crazy.

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?

Most of the video game music that I invariably end up rearranging is music I’ve had a love affair with for a long time. Most often, it’s been marinating for many years, and I’ve toyed with it on the piano in a million and one incarnations. It’s over this long period of time that my vision for it evolves in terms of style and arrangement, and it’s often the desire to hear it realized in a certain way that motivates me to start roughing it up in a sequencer.

I usually “sketch” a number of ideas in my sequencer. Sometimes it’s just a piano track of an arrangement idea, not orchestrated at all. Other times it’s fully orchestrated ideas of segments. Often, they will be very different styles, or I will segue from style to style to see if something feels comfortable for the tune.

Which game composers and soundtracks do you admire the most?

I think my admiration of the scores for games like Final Fantasy III [US] or Chrono Trigger is a testament to their timelessness.

What's one of your best or most enjoyable memories from working on a ReMix? Worst?

I was blown away by the exposure that "The Trial in Concert" received. It wasn’t intended to be anything serious, but a lot of people seemed to think it was. I think what people liked about it most were the ideas it presented, not necessarily the quality of the recording - or even the playing, for that matter (both of which were questionable at best). The positive response was really what gave me the inspiration to continue being a part of the video game music crowd.

I don't think I've had any particularly negative experienced in game ReMixes, but I've had funny ones. The Sonic the Hedgehog: IceCap project [ReCapitated] was hysterical. One of the rare instances you'll find my own voice on anything I've written. The track I submitted was an ethnic mash-up affectionately entitled "Rice Cap".

What's the most challenging aspect of ReMixing video game music?

A big challenge can lay in the fact that a lot of game music is short and repetitive. It can take a lot of effort to develop a lengthy cohesive piece out of it that does not get repetitive.