If you played Super Meat Boy, you didn't hear better music in a game last year. Last month at GDC, the game's composer Danny Baranowsky and I wandered down one of the Moscone Center's carpet corridors to chat about chiptunes, hipsters, The Shield, and music's unique function within gameplay. With Super Meat World adding juicy bonus content to SMB last week, now's the perfect time to learn more about the sounds that accompanied so many buzzsaw deaths.
Evan Lahti: You actually got your start as a game composer while you were a member of the internet's biggest videogame remix community, OC ReMix, right?
Danny Baranowsky: Yeah, I found the site 10 years ago when I first got started, and I would make CD-Rs of all of the remixes. I eventually got to be a judge on there, so I got to be a part of the quality control. Basically, starting there and starting to do remixes was kind of around the time I realized I wanted to do music for a living. I was curious if doing OC Remix would lead to a music job, but the general consensus from everyone I talked to was, "No it won’t."
And in a strict sense it’s true, that by doing remixes you won’t get hired or anything, but you are getting into this community of people that are passionate about something that's very specific to games, so therefore they are people who are all about games in general. I kind of just viewed it as a way to get better at the production of music without having to come up with my own melodies and stuff and also just because I enjoyed doing it. Getting things out there, getting things published and hearing some people tear it apart and some people love it. It’s just getting used to that cycle of releasing your ugly baby, getting it made fun of or praised, and repeat. I just did that for years. And since I was a judge I got to be a part of the quality control, so I had to just…learn how to do the impossible, which is objectively appraise something that is so subjective.
So, basically that all kind of led to me meeting Adam Atomic, who did Canabalt. He would send me games from time to time and I would send him s#*#$y stuff that would never work. But eventually he sent me this game called Gravity Hook, and there was no music—
EL: —That’s one of my favorites. I think it’s, uh, I think it’s the “B” theme that I like the most?
DB: Nnneh, nnneh, nnneh, nnneh, bl-neh-neh, bl-neh-neh…
DB: …So, uh, he sends me this, and I’m like: "It’s cool, it just needs music." And he said, “No, I think I’m going to go silent on this one,” and I literally told him “F$*# you, I’m writing music anyway.” And he’s like, “Whatever, dude.” And 40 minutes later I sent him Track A. I tell this anecdote because this is like the moment that it all started. From there, Adam, y’know, he’s told me since then that he was blown away, like he was really impressed by it. Adam had already been a pretty big player among the indies, so Edmund McMillen found out about me because of him, along with the Flash Jam guys. I got to go to TIGJam and meet him, so after a long, convoluted process, OC Remix got me to that moment where not only could I write music that was good, but music that was game music. Remixing music for eight years really forced me to understand what makes game music good.
EL: So, obviously, there are things that are different between game music and other music, but is there something that game music has to “do” for the user? Does it have to leave space for sound effects, and things like that? How would you describe that?
DB: My current theory on that is that game music should serve a similar service to film music but more…I don’t want to say generic because that seems like a negative connotation…but, you know, the music in Super Meat Boy, the idea was that, OK, you're in this haunted hospital with creepy needles and all this stuff, and you have 90 seconds to loop this music, and anything that can happen on the screen during that particular track should be scored by the music.
I actually started in film. While I was doing the OC Remix stuff I was trying to get into film. I never thought I would be a game music composer. I thought I was going to get into film, be the next Danny Elfman and all that stuff. In film it’s very direct. It’s, “Oh, this guy is crying about some bull$&# so you should do some sad string stuff,” so it’s very one-to-one, but in games, you're providing an atmosphere. And like you were saying, there are going to be sound effects so it can’t be super, super…
EL: It can’t dominate the experience.
DB: Yeah. So when I mix stuff, I usually cut off the top frequency of the spectrum because when you have a really high end… Like in club music when people have tweeters in their car, the high frequency, that’s the #*$& that pierces into you and you can’t escape it. Usually I roll that stuff off, because the sound effects are what should pierce out and the music should sit in more. So that’s definitely a consideration.
EL: I know it’s complicated—it depends on the game, it depends on the song, but how do you go about building a song, from conceptualizing it, to what tools you use, to the final product?
DB: First, I like to inundate myself—if I can play the game without music, or at least the game’s art, I love looking at art and rolling it around in my head until something occurs to me. But I guess it’s like any creative thing, where you just start doing it and things start happening. Sometimes the very first thing you write is awesome and inspirational and you’re good to go, but sometimes you have to write for an hour before something finally sticks out to you, and you delete everything else you did until finally you’re at that core idea. As far as my process, I click in everything with the mouse. I audition samples and I get an idea on how things are going to sound by pressing the keyboard but I don’t record them and I do recordings that are on guitar but other than that it’s all clicked in. So, it’s almost…me writing music is almost like a videogame, it’s almost like a puzzle game, because it’s all a big grid with all these parameters and stuff. I think I definitely do it differently than a lot of other musicians who will just get on their guitar or piano and just jam and record and let it happen organically. I’m more methodical and empirical. “This group of data is superior to this one, so I’ll take that one.” It’s like Mario Picross.
EL: How do you feel about the state of game music today?
DB: I mean, I think it’s probably like anything—there's a lot of good stuff and a lot of bad stuff.
EL: What are some of your favorites?
DB: Katamari Damacy, Plants vs Zombies. I was playing Super Mario Galaxy for the first time about a month ago and that was awesome. I am kind of disappointed that Final Fantasy has gone downhill so badly. Final Fantasy X was the last one with decent music, and IX was the last with great music.
I do think there seems to be a little too much cynicism when it comes to videogame music, in that a lot of people are like: games like Call of Duty and the big epic games like that or games that require an ambient soundtrack, just because it isn’t melodic or you can’t listen to it in your car doesn’t make it bad music. I think some people equate good music with super-poppy melodic stuff and to me it’s more about what serves the game. I don’t think it’s as bad as a lot of people say. I hear a lot of, "game music isn’t what it used to be," but I think it's our expectations that have changed a lot. It isn’t like in the '80s, where all you had was four channels and the games were so simple that the music was a huge part of it. Uncharted 2 has a great soundtrack, Greg Edmonson is awesome, but the dialog is a huge part of that game. There wasn’t dialog 20 years ago.
EL: It really seems like a modern challenge, with how much context matters in game music. Like, on the one hand, context should matter in the game because that's part of building a good song, it has to fit the theme or the level or the art. But at the same time, as a composer, are you still hoping that your songs can stand on their own so people don’t need to know that “this the theme that they played when Aeris dies” for it to be meaningful to them?
DB: Yeah, totally. One of the examples that comes to my mind—did you ever see The Shield? The show?
EL: Just an episode, I think.
DB: I loved that show. And it had absolutely no music. And it was awesome. Being someone who writes music for a living, you'd that would bother me, but it doesn’t. I guess why that sticks with me is: game music does not always have to be incredible art—it can just be complimentary to something else. I’m lucky in that way…Super Meat Boy left room for ridiculous synth solos and just…bombastic s$*#. It was a ton of fun to make. That wouldn’t be the same in Fallout. You aren’t going to hum any melodies for Fallout, but that doesn’t mean that music wasn’t f*#$ing perfect for it, like dead-on.
EL: Can you talk a little bit more about how Edmund got in touch with you?
DB: Edmund knew me through Adam, and he had seen Gravity Hook and some other stuff. When they contacted me for the original Meat Boy, there wasn’t time for a soundtrack, so he said “Just send me what you have lying around." So I sent him like 12 random tracks, and he somehow made a reasonably cohesive soundtrack. That was the original Meat Boy. For Super Meat Boy, I put those tracks into it. The Main Theme, the Forest music, the Salt Factory music and the Rapture music—all of them are from the Flash game. That was cool in that it was so meta at that point. I was remixing my own videogame music.
It’s really cool to have people like Adam and Edmund. Everything they let me do, they let me write for it. I don’t have to go out and look for tons of gigs—everything they do, I love, and it’s awesome. Adam and Edmund and Tommy all appreciate how important game music is. You can’t really ask for more than that.
EL: Are there any other composers out there that you really like? Mainstream, chiptunes, etc.?
DB: For chiptunes, my favorite artist right now is Disasterpeace--
DB: --Rich Vreeland. I met him last night for the first act . He’s amazing. He makes chip music sound far more…varied than it has any reasonable ability to be. With such a limited set of sounds he does such ridiculous things.
EL: Yeah. His stuff is very rarely, like…saccharine, in the way that, like Anamanaguchi might do, or something. It doesn’t feel Japanese.
DB: Anamanaguchi is really good. I don’t say this to be down on them or anything, but when it comes to chiptunes artists, I don’t know if “it bugs me” is the right phrase, but what doesn’t interest me is when people make club music with chip sounds. It’s kind of like the whole hipster thing, where they’re co-opting the nerd look. It’s like, hey--I got the nerd look by being a nerd. So I’m not saying it’s not genuine or whatever, it’s just doesn’t interest me to hear music that would be a club track with chip instruments. That’s why I love to hear what Rich does because he does just crazy, original compositions with these sounds we loved growing up. Anamanaguchi is awesome, those guys are fun to listen to, and the Scott Pilgrim game soundtrack was awesome but—y’know, we all have to have preferences, I guess.
EL: Are you satisfied with the recognition that game music has?
DB: I think it's important to understand the difference between chiptune and game music. Because when people say a videogame soundtrack is a chiptune, that's kind of strange to me. The retro tracks are chiptunes—they’re the chip instruments and everything—but the latter half of the game is all orchestral music, those definitely aren’t chiptunes.. I understand why because people don’t have on top of their mind at all times the distinctions between types of game music, so I know why I’d be more cognizant of it. But, y’know, my parents—when they hear any chiptune, you could play them Stairway to Heaven in chiptune and they will think it's noise. I think it sounds awesome. But it kind of parallels the acceptance of games. Games are becoming more accepted and I think game music is too. Films have been around 100 years—would you say film music is accepted in mainstream? Probably not. I mean, people buy soundtracks, but only when it’s the full club cut of the Rob Zombie song from the movie, or something. If we get too hung up on the recognition I don’t know if that's really healthy on the creative side. It is cool to have people into it and have a big audience and everything. I guess one of the things that's interesting is that I heard a Katy Perry song where she used a Game Boy sound in it, and that's cool. It’s cool that it's crossing over. Part of what's helping that acceptance is that the people who grew up with those sounds are consumers now.
And will it ever be as big as regular music? I don’t know, I don’t really think I care, they’re different genres, which is strange because game music isn’t a genre, it’s just a thing, and there are as many genres in game music as in anything else.
Listen to music from Super Meat Boy at meatboymusic.com. Danny's other work can be heard at dannybmusic.com. Follow Danny on Twitter here.