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If you’re a gamer today, chances are Grant Kirkhope composed your childhood. He may not be a household name, but he created the soundtracks for Nintendo 64 classics Banjo Kazooie, Goldeneye, and Perfect Dark, and Xbox titles including Viva Pinata. He also composed the soundtrack for the more recent Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and is back behind the musical wheel for Yooka-Laylee, the Playtonic-developed spiritual sequel to the “Banjo” games.
A classically trained trumpet player, Kirkhope went to college for music. He was in several bands, opening up for the likes of Van Halen, Bon Jovi, and ZZ Top, before one of his friends suggested he apply at Rare, the UK-based video game development studio responsible for the above N64 classics.
“I did play video games at the time, but I had never thought about composing for them,” Kirkhope told me. “In fact, I was very bad at harmony at college. I failed it three times out of four.”
Rare hired Kirkhope in 1995, and his first project was converting the music from the Super Nintendo version of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Quest for use in the even more technologically limited Game Boy version of the game. He composed at Rare through Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and Viva Piñata 2: Trouble in Paradise, before leaving the company and moving to Baltimore to work on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
Video games have changed a lot in the 10 years since Kirkhope started at Rare, but for Kirkhope, the process of composing remains mostly the same. “The technology has changed, so it’s better quality, but the actual mechanics of the way I write music hasn’t changed at all. I just literally sit there and do it,” Kirkhope said. “It’s all about the harmony and melody, to be honest…that’s the most important part. You can dress it up any way you like.”
The advancements in gaming technology—better graphics, larger game file sizes, and more memory —also mean there are some things on the musical side of game development that composers weren’t able to do on older systems.
The Nintendo 64, for example, was quite capable of playing CD-quality music, but the cartridges just didn’t have enough memory space for music files of that size. That’s not a problem anymore, and games can now have full stereo streams, no different than recordings on a CD.
With all that room games can now contain vast orchestrated scores. And while the push for orchestrated game soundtracks has elevated the overall audio quality of game music, it doesn’t really change how people respond to—or remember—a gaming score.
“People get to hear tunes for hours on end when they’re doing a level…they don’t forget it quickly,” Kirkhope said. And with more and more games opting for orchestrated scores these days, it also means that the compositions have to work—and sound good—in a live, orchestral setting.
“It almost takes longer to polish it than just to write it,” Kirkhope said.
Orchestration isn’t the only part of the game-composing process that technology has changed. Old music tricks, such as having the music fade out from one song and in to another as the player walks between areas (Kirkhope did this often in in the Banjo games, is more difficult to pull off with two sophisticated stereo streams, and as a result isn’t seen that often in games anymore. It’s now much harder (as well as a memory-intensive process) to pull off the same effect on current-generation hardware.
Even things such as manipulating tempo can be tricky. The Banjo games often had areas where the tempo of a song might increase to reflect the intensity of the gameplay, and that can easily be done with electronically made music (like most older games have). But you can’t just take an orchestrated audio stream and speed the tempo up without everything sounding like it was out of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
But, no matter the process, the tools used, or the quality of the game’s recording, for Kirkhope it all comes down to creating and crafting the melody.
“If you write a good tune and a good set of chords, and it’s catchy, whatever it is, I think that stands out no matter what it is, whether it’s on a Game Boy or a mobile phone or a live-seated orchestra—it’s all about the content,” Kirkhope said. “There’s tons and tons of movie soundtracks that I go see these days, and I don’t remember a note of it…sometimes I get worried that things are getting a bit generic and similar sounding, so I always strive to try and write a good tune.”
And those tunes are catching on, as video games—and their soundtracks—continue to grow in popularity. “[Video game music] is getting to be a really big force,” Kirkhope said. “People really love video game music a lot…it’s stunning really. I never quite realized it until I got to the States. It’s getting all over the place. You can hear Game Boy music in dance tracks now. It’s getting everywhere.”
Grant Kirkhope is currently a freelance composer in Los Angeles, where he’s signed to Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency, the home to such composers as Michael Giacchino (Up, Lost, Call of Duty,) and John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter).
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