Game Music

An Interview With Jake Kaufman: It’s Hammer Time!

December 1, 2009 | | 3 Comments Share thison Facebook An Interview With Jake Kaufman: It’s Hammer Time!on Twitter

We’ve already spoiled the big news that Jake Kaufman is leaving Volition to join Wayforward in Los Angeles next year, but we promised you an interview regarding his work on Red Faction: Guerrilla, and true to our word, here it is.

While we had the opportunity to speak with Timothy Wynn regarding his work on the game’s cutscenes, we now get to talk to Jake regarding the in-game music, some of his inspirations, and his thoughts on game music in general.  It’s a good time, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

We are sure you’ll find Jake’s interviews just as entertaining as his scores! Click the jump for more.

OSV: Hello Jake. It’s great to get the chance to talk to you about one of your game projects for once, and this is certainly a huge one for you. While you worked on Saints Row 2, this is the first game you’ve worked on at Volition where your music has been released to the masses afterward. How did you first find yourself working on this project, and did you see it the big opportunity you’d been waiting for?

Jake: Oh, I wish I were cool enough to have worked on Saints Row 2. I was hired as RFG hurtled toward the crunch time event horizon, to fill the role (and office, and apartment) of escapee Raison Varner. The most exciting opportunity for me was the chance to dissect and study another composer’s Cakewalk Sonar project files. I went all Leonardo da MIDI on those things.

OSV: So becoming a “salary man” as they call it in Japan paid off this time around? Do you miss the freelance stuff?

Jake: Definitely, on both points. See the last question of the interview. I very much enjoy having other human beings around, because cabin fever is a bitch. At the same time, Lumbergh’s First Law states: “Yeaaaah, as the density of human beings in an office increases, the probability of a meeting occurring approaches 1.”

OSV: You not only worked with other audio team members in-house at Volition, but also indirectly with composer Timothy Wynn. What would you say are the advantages/disadvantages of working with a team of composers like you did with Red Faction: Guerrilla?

Jake: I anticipated that we’d all be egotistical prima donna pricks. As it turns out, I’m the only one who fits that description, so it was a super amazing experience. The way I see it, if collaborative soundtracks were good enough for NES / SNES-era Konami, they’re fine by me.

OSV: What did our friend Ariel Gross do on the project? What’s it like being able to work every day with a fellow demoscene artist and longtime friend? Does the fact that he’s such an amazing musician yet he doesn’t write music for Volition’s games frustrate you at all?

Jake: Ariel came on after SR2 wrapped up, and worked on a variety of things like vehicle engines and cutscene mixing. He’s hilarious, upbeat, and almost certainly extraterrestrial. If you’ve seen the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! then you have an idea of our dynamic. As for his own music in our games: making him even busier sounds like an awesome idea, if you ask me. (I just heard him bark out “OHDEARGOD” from his room.)

OSV: Timothy Wynn’s contributions to the soundtrack were all with live orchestra while the rest was not. Do you have a preference for which medium you write: electronic or orchestral? Why?

Jake: As you know, my lifelong goal is to twist as many musical genres as possible into pure caricature and pastiche. Whether I’m writing for French horns, Belgian horns, shred guitars, square waves, Moroccan horns, flaming pianos, or the Wilhelm Scream time-stretched into an ambient drone, my schlock knows no cultural, historical, or technological bounds.

While I’d relish the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of 80 conservatory-trained musicians, Tim actually knows what he’s doing. That makes all the difference when trying to convince producers to spend 8.4 gigadollars on a live orchestra.

OSV: Your music is incredibly expansive on this soundtrack – contributing in the area of 2/3rds of the soundtrack (or approximately 2 hours) – yet you were basing a lot of this on Wynn’s “Defiance” theme. Did you find basing some of your pieces on a theme to be limiting at all?

Jake: Nope! In fact, most of the material I wrote wasn’t just based on Tim’s themes, but Raison’s as well – he laid the framework and did first (and second, and third, and nineteenth) drafts for a lot of the in-game music. True to form, I got the last word, but his contributions were massive, and regrettably underappreciated.

I’m probably missing something fundamental, but the only distinction I see between composition and arrangement is the granularity of the ideas you’re ripping off.

OSV: Your tracks are clearly more complex and musical than “ambient” yet obviously not as succinct as a theme piece; some tracks are as much as seventeen minutes long, for instance. How did you go about approaching this music? More specifically, how do you go about approaching this music as opposed to the more traditional four-five minute themes?

Jake: Our aim was to write building blocks that were modular enough to fit together, but diverse enough to survive long gameplay sessions. We swapped in subtly different interpretations of certain passages, branched into self-contained tangential sections, and faded things down to atonal drones during the in-game night hours.

To offer a mortifyingly inept analogy: My wife likes to knit with variegated yarn. One skein might be vaguely “red,” but if you look closely, you can see reds, blues, oranges, light parts, dark parts, all kinds of variance. If you zoom way out, you recognize it as the Soviet flag she’s making for her Ironic Knitting Club, but if you have to describe its color, you’d probably say “red,” or say nothing and instinctively salute the flag, as you were instructed.

OSV: Do you have a favorite track(s) on the soundtrack? Why is it your favorite?

Jake: All of George (Oldziey) and Dan (Wentz)’s multiplayer tracks have a great “oldschool Red Faction” feel, and as a shameless fanboy, I love them. Dan contributed a lot of aggressive, gritty synth sounds to both multiplayer and single-player scores. As for ambient stuff, “Oppression” (formerly “Progression 2”) is my favorite backing piece. It just felt right to me, and was the most fun to work on.

OSV: Wynn mentioned that there are always some pieces that have to be shortened or cut because of production needs, etc. Were there any things that didn’t make it into the final soundtrack that you wished had?

Jake: The worst I got, personally, was “this [sounds like Final Fantasy] [is way too busy] [is a little heavy on resonance], can you tone it down a little?” Raison, on the other hand, wrote several entire soundtracks worth of material that ended up getting scrapped as the project changed direction over several years, and some of it was just utterly beautiful, futuristic and intricate. I’m thrilled with the end product, but as a soundtrack nerd, I’d kill for a “B-sides” release with all his prototype stuff.

OSV: We’ve known you for a long time, and throughout a lot of games. We’ve always prided ourselves on picking out some of your references between projects. Was there anything we may have missed in Red Faction: Guerilla?

Jake: Oh, definitely.
(10 second pause) …
Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!!
(runs away)

OSV: When are we going to see the Jake Kaufman chip, rock, and disco arrange album of the music of Red Faction: Guerrilla?

Jake: Rather than endure a scathing anti-corporate screed that scuttles my career options, please direct your attention to, a venue for the celebration and promotion of arranged and classic game music of all types! Join us for a weekend of music, nerds, revelry, and the voice of Duke Nukem in person!

OSV: Do you feel the material you wrote for RFG is too mellow to make its way into your live sets?

Jake: Oh come on, you know I’ve already RFG-orchestral-rickrolled, RFG-chocolate-rained, and epic-RFG-dance-mixed the entire company (they have since grown wary – or weary). But yeah, taking stuff outside the office… yeesh. I’m not even sure if this interview will get cleared, especially the part where I implied that Tim Wynn has ties to the Al Qaeda Symphony Orchestra.

OSV: Who are some of your greatest influences as a composer/artist and can cite any of their influence in Red Faction: Guerrilla?

Jake: … Oh, not this question. Sorry, wait here for a sec…
mysql> USE jakes_brain
Database changed
mysql> SELECT * FROM artists_listened WHERE influence = ‘strong’;
FATAL: Aborted connection 946278 to db: ‘jakes_brain’
user: ‘boners’ host: ‘localhost’ (Result too large)
[[email protected]~]$ WHAT!! Oh god, the “Putumayo : Turkish Groove”
album last week must have been the last straw…
bash: WHAT: command not found

OSV: Do you feel game music gets the credit it deserves?

Jake: We already have a whole generation of gamers to whom synthesized tones generated from coded instructions are little more than a quaint, vaguely offensive historical footnote, like Al Jolson in blackface. You also have a generation of indie gamers who, rather than suffer limitations out of necessity, celebrate them as a style. “Game music” reaches so many distinct audiences that appreciation is sort of inevitable. Even if most of the audience(s) don’t seek it out on its own merits, there will always be freaks like you and me to pick up the slack.

Picture this: An 80-year-old guy talking in a TV documentary about how, back in the day, all the game music was blips and bleeps written in an assembler. In a little over a year, Koichi Sugiyama will be 80, and we’re still listening to his blips and bleeps, and making our own. That’s so awesome I just peed a tiny bit.

OSV: What’s next? I know you probably can’t talk about what’s next at Volition, but you’re always involved with a slew of projects at any given time.

Jake: Next, I move to LA in January, to work as staff composer and sound designer at Wayforward Technologies — the brilliant, retro-savvy developer behind Contra 4 and A Boy and His Blob. I’m not sure what excites me most:
a) Being somewhere where “sounds like Nintendo Music” is a genuine, heartfelt compliment;
b) The opportunity to build up the audio culture at a studio which previously outsourced;
c) Revising my daily commute to include Z-axis movement over diverse topography;
d) Snow driving being cut from the planned feature list after multiple focus groups found it “too scary”;
e) Real Mexican food

Oh yeah, and I’m back on the freelance market, too. Hooray!

OSV: You’re the man. Thanks for your time!

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