An interview with Peter McConnell

Like most gamers with taste, we enjoyed playing Grim Fandango. In addition to this, we also enjoyed the excellently jazzy soundtrack. So, a while ago, we emailed the creator of this music, Peter McConnell, to see if he�d answer some questions for Goaste. Astonishingly, he replied and said yes, he�d be glad to answer some questions. So we asked Luke to ask Peter some questions. And not silly ones like �How are you?�, or �What�s your favourite type of cigar?�, but important ones like �How do you get people to pay you to write music?� and ��Which hat is best?�

Here�s what he said�

Goaste: How did you get started in the music and computer games industries?

Peter McConnell: Back in 1990, My friend Michael Land was looking for people who could do technology and composition, and I was lucky enough to be able to do both.

G: How many projects have you worked on to date?

PM: I've lost count, especially with all of the titles I worked on at LucasArts. If you count music editing and supervision, then it's over 33 titles.

G: What music are you influenced by?

PM: I think the real question is "what music am I not influenced by?" But a few artists do spring to mind for my recent scores; namely, Bernard Hermann, Carl Stalling, Raymond Scott, Angelo Badalamenti and Danny Elfman. But the list goes on. The first music I remember hearing was Mozart and the Sons of the Pioneers. I've played in folk bands, bluegrass bands, hard rock bands, fronted an alternative rock band and done a short stint in Europe with a goth band. May main instrument is electric violin, but I can more or less play most things with strings on them.

G: What equipment/software do you use? Is there any equipment/software you can recommend to people working on a tight budget?

PM: I use Digital Performer on a Mac G5 with a number of sample libraries, along with as many instruments as I can play or hire others to play. If you're on a tight budget, DP or Logic is still the way to go. You just may not be able to afford the most expensive computer, or the best sample libraries and mic preamps.

G: When composing music for computer games, how important is it to have your own distinct style (in the same way that movie composers such as John Williams do)?

PM: It's important both to have a voice and to be able to refer to other peoples' voices. A lot of music for music for picture is referential. And speaking of John Williams, there are many, many of his cues that you can point to and say: "the director was thinking 'rite of spring' or the temp music was Holst's 'the planets.'" That's no slam on John Williams, who is the very, very best in terms a craft and the ability to pull exactly the right emotional strings at exactly the right time. It's just part of what the art of writing music to picture is all about. At the same time, if you aren't saying something new, people will sense that. I always try to have my own take on a situation.

G: What do the varying roles you have worked in involve (for example, how does being Sound Development Supervisor differ from a freelance composer)?

PM: Being an in-house sound development supervisor involves a lot of email, negotiations with project leaders, and general quality control, as well as the occasional chance to compose a score. In general, working inside a company involves more overhead, I think, than being on your own. But there's still plenty of overhead to deal with when you're on your own. There's all the books and billing and project relations, and most importantly, rustling up new gigs. Sun Tzu says in The Art of War that any military operation requires roughly one administrative person for every three soldiers. I translate that into 25% overhead. If you can spend just a quarter of your working time doing stuff that's not composing, you're doing pretty well.

G: Which other game composers do you admire?

PM: I've always admired the work of my compatriots Michael Land and Clint Bajakian. I've also admired the work I've heard of Jack Wall and Michael Giacchino, as well as many others.

G: How long do you spend on each project/piece of music?

PM: Typically, nine months to a year for a big project, but the range is anywhere from 6 months to 4 years, depending on the production schedule.

G: I noticed your website contains a link to a download site for the Grim Fandango soundtrack. Could you elaborate on your feelings on people downloading your music?

PM: If it's not for sale somewhere, I'm for it. If it is, I'm against it. Not to oversimplify in the very complex argument about downloading, but let's not forget that there are many artists who write great music that many people enjoy, and these artists aren't able to tour, or sell T-shirts or kewpie dolls. These folks need to earn a living, and they deserve to get a little shekel when people acquire their music and enjoy it. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, or free music, if your business is making music, and not lunch. That said, how to make things work for everyone has yet to be worked out, although sites like iTunes and Magnatune are a step in the right direction.

G: How much of a game do you see when you asked to write music? Just the artwork and scripts? Or the animation?

PM: As much as I can, which is scripts, story documents, background art, character sketches, DVDs of game play through and roughs of the game itself.

G: Do you play the games you've worked on?

PM: Whenever possible.

G: When a project you're working on is cancelled, how does it affect your overall schedule? Do you still get paid?

PM: I've been lucky that way. But I've known others who haven't. The entertainment industry is full of risk, and games are no exception.

G: What non-video game composition have you done, and how does the creative process differ from writing for games? Is there any difference in the amount of freedom you're given when writing for different mediums?

PM: Most of the non-video game stuff I have done is for rock bands, or very small film projects. I can't really compare the level of freedom I have with that of people in, say, film based on direct experience. But the people I know who do work for film and TV describe situations that seem to be a bit more restrictive than those I deal with. In the games business, people seem to be more used to delegating and are willing to give a lot of room for a composer's creative vision.

G: What projects are you currently working on?

PM: Right now, Sly Cooper Three, for Sony/Sucker Punch.

G: Finally �Which hat is best?

PM: Akubra (Australian), black, imperial quality.

G: Thankyou, Peter! I must go now! Goodbye!

Peter McConnell's work to date includes the soundtracks for Grim Fandango, Sam and Max Hit the Road, several of the games in the Star Wars series, and the recent release Psychonauts. He is also a well established live performer. For more information about his work, see his website.

In addition to taking time out to answer these questions, Peter was very polite, and can be classified as an all round excellent chap.