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Game Music, Indie Music

One Musician To Another: Danny Baranowsky Interview

One Musician To Another: Danny Baranowsky Interview

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Every once in a while an artist comes along who presides over a subsection of music with a staff, a crown, a throne, a cape, a sequencer and a legion of followers. It is in this fashion that Danny Baranowsky has conquered the world of indie game soundtracks. With thunderous power chords of which arpeggios sometimes flee from and tubular bells that ring out with a sonic plasma shock wave, Danny B has established himself as nothing less than the supreme chancellor of indie game composers. On December 4th, 2012 at 20:30 Pacific Time, Danny B graciously decided to sit down with us and discuss his past and current projects. Join us below!

OSV: Did you have a chance to use the Hitman Facebook app today?

Danny B: Is it the one where you can put hits on your friends?

OSV: Yeah, yeah.

Danny B: And didn’t they pull it?

OSV: I think after one hour.

Danny B: I don’t know who’s in charge of the Hitman franchise’s advertising but they keep fucking up (laughs). That’s amazing.

OSV: Yeah, you kind of wonder where in the process things go wrong.

Danny B: Yeah, like the trailer with the sexy nuns, that was bad enough.

OSV: Someone suggested that they’re actually doing it on purpose, that they actually like the controversy.

Danny B: Yeah, probably.

OSV: I wanted to talk a bit about what you’re up to right now. I know the Drifter Kickstarter got funded, it looks very cool. Had you started writing material for it before it was fully started or do you wait until afterwards?

Danny B: I did the track for the Kickstarter trailer before I knew. I try not to do work for hire so much anymore, I try to get percentages on the backend and keep rights to the music. So for most of the stuff I do these days I don’t get any money up front, I just try to pick projects that are going to do good. I had faith that the project was going to do good and the Kickstarter was going to be okay so I just did a couple things for him beforehand. Sometimes it backfires but I think the risk is worth it so in this case it worked out and I think it’s going to do really well.

OSV: Yeah, I look forward to it. Did you mention once that you’re also doing sound effects for it?

Danny B: Yeah, not in the beginning but I heard the sound effects that he had in there and I don’t usually do sound effects but I was so disgusted I decided to go try it (laughs). I took a sound design class in college and learned some basics and stuff but usually I don’t have to. Usually they have a sound effects guy and I don’t really like to but for this one, making space sounds and plasma cannons – I think it’s fun, I’m okay with it.

OSV: What don’t you like about it usually?

Danny B: You know, it’s just one of those things where I feel like now that I’ve actually tried it I don’t hate it as much as I thought I would but it always just seemed really boring and technical. And tedious. But the few I’ve made for Drifter have been really fun so I think I was just biased for some reason.

OSV: It just depends on the nature of the project, I guess.

Danny B: Yeah, I feel like doing gunshots and stuff would be really annoying and lame but making space sounds…like I made one where it was like, it hits the asteroid and then the shield fluctuates. I watched Star Trek for 15 years, I know what that’s supposed to sound like so for this it’s been fun. I don’t usually volunteer for it but for this new project that hasn’t been announced yet – he asked me to do it and it’s going to be a platformer so, we’ll see if that sucks (laughs) but I don’t know, it could be fun too.

OSV: What normally is your ratio of finished songs to unfinished songs?

Danny B: As far as stuff I write that doesn’t get used?

OSV: Yeah, or something that you might not have finished because it wasn’t going anywhere at the moment.

Danny B: It’s really low. It’s gotten better over time. Earlier in my career it was more often but I think with Isaac everything got used. With Super Meat Boy there was like 4 or 5 that were on the special edition that didn’t get used. Usually I’m dialed into it enough now that I can at least get things in the ballpark and if they’re off there’s still at least a core idea that works. So maybe the first iteration won’t be used but what it morphs into still gets used. I don’t write the whole song and then go back and add stuff, I write things very sequentially. I write 4 bars and make sure it’s totally good and then the next four bars like that and very rarely do I go back and add stuff. I mean, I do but my process is very linear like that so I’ll know within the first 30 seconds when I show it to them. I always show it to them in the first 30 seconds and if it’s wrong I fix it or scrap it but usually it’s good.

OSV: Do you find that you ever come across any technical limitations or has software solved the problem as far as wanting something to sound polished or realistic when you want an orchestral sound?

Danny B: That’s kind of an ongoing process for me, I think I’m getting better. I always thought I was going to be a film score person, I never thought I would be in game music so for years I worked on orchestral film score stuff and tried to make it sound really real. I think I do an okay job at it now, it sounds pretty good.

OSV: I liked Parallax a lot, it was really good.

Danny B: Thanks man, yeah, the hardest thing is brass, especially solo brass and any type of soloed instruments. I have Hollywood Brass, Hollywood Woodwinds and I’ve been trying to make those work so it’s kind of a process. As far what’s limited…I feel pretty comfortable with everything, I don’t feel like there’s anything that really holds me back, I have a really good flow. I don’t even really use a keyboard, I click everything in so I’m pretty set in my ways.

OSV: How about drums, you are a drummer yourself, correct? Do you ever play them yourself with your hands or fingers? Or do you just program them in?

Danny B: All clicked in man. It’s a shame, I played drums for 15 years and I click all my drum parts in. Eventually I’m going to get an electronic drum set and start playing stuff, it’s just quite an investment and I just got to make sure it’s the right one. I mean, the one I’m looking at is like $7500 so I gotta make sure…I haven’t ever found a place where I can just go and just play it because I don’t want to buy a drum set for $7500 and hate it, you know? I think I would still do a lot of sequencing by hand, fixing and stuff because even though I’ve played a long time and I’m a pretty good drummer there’s still a lot of stuff I do that’s not necessarily physically possible for humans. Then again, every time I say that a month later on Youtube somebody’s doing it (laughs). Did you ever see FamilyJules7X? He did the metal covers of Meat Boy and Isaac?

OSV: I’m not sure if I’ve seen those.

Danny B: I can link you to them but I don’t write stuff with humans in mind and so I never think it’s going to happen and then this guy Jules shows up and just plays all my solos on the guitar somehow. It blows my mind. Isaac came out and then a year later we did Wrath of the Lamb. I hired him to do guitar for the final final boss in Wrath of the Lamb so it was kind of cool because he was a fan who just did this stuff and he got to work on the game. That was cool.

OSV: Yeah, so he wasn’t a full time musician or anything? I guess he must be pretty knowledgeable regardless.

Danny B: Oh yeah, he’s really good, he does weekly videos of him just doing video game covers, he’s a really good guitar player. He doesn’t do it for a living right now, I think he wants to. If there’s anything I can do about it I would pay him a salary to live in a cage in my house with a guitar and play whatever I want him to play. I’m maybe not the most knowledgeable about this sort of thing but I would say the he’s probably one of the best video game metal guitar cover people in the world, that I’ve ever seen. It’s really cool to see that stuff. I clicked it in with my hand and would never ever play it out. I don’t use a keyboard to play stuff out, I write music like I’m playing a video game, like Mario Picross or something and it blows my mind that people figure it out. Did you hear Brent Kennedy, the stuff he did with Meat Boy piano?

OSV: Yeah.

Danny B: He made impressionist classical piano pieces out of my silly ass video game music, that’s the internet dude, it’s amazing!

OSV: Yeah, I was always blown away by a lot of the OC Remix stuff too, I was on their site even like 10 years ago.

Danny B: Me too, that’s where I started, I love OC Remix.

OSV: Have you done anything with them recently?

Danny B: I’m doing a track for the Final Fantasy VI album but over the last few years I’ve drifted apart from them. I used to be a judge there, I used to do quality control and that’s really where I got started. The last few years I’ve been so busy keeping up with games that I don’t have too much time for just stuff for fun. It’d be cool to get back to it though because it’s really fun to do Castlevania in lounge jazz style.

OSV: I also wanted to ask about the choir sounds that you use in your music, they seem to be quite varied, do you mainly use sample libraries or do you have another method?

Danny B: Most of what I’ve used recently is Voxos. It’s a VST instrument where it works on syllables. It has 30 different syllables, like fa, do, re, mi, all these Latin syllables. You just cue up the phrase that you want and it plays those in sequential order. So it has all the different sounds in the whole range of the choir so you can just kind of put them together. It’s really cool, it’s really funny because it’s total gibberish, it doesn’t mean anything but people keep coming up with meanings or translations for it, “I think this is what it’s saying, this is Italian for the Lord has smitten you…”

OSV: Or Elvish…

Danny B: (laughs) Yeah…but it’s literally gibberish.

OSV: Does it use all samples then or is it synthesized at all?

Danny B: Samples, yeah, it has essentially sampled every sound at every octave and then it intelligently kind of links them together. As far as sample libraries go it’s pretty cheap, it was only like $800 which compared to what other things are, it’s pretty cheap. But it’s amazing, it sounds so good. I also have East West Symphonic Choirs and stuff but that’s a little more obtuse. I tend to gravitate towards ease of use because I’m not a programmer or anything at all so if it’s dumbed down for musicians, that’s what I want.

OSV: I know you mentioned before about being interested in playing live, do you know what sort of setting would have to happen in order for that to occur?

Danny B: Yeah, actually just on Cyber Monday I broke down and got a cab and an amp so I’m going to start playing guitar again.

OSV: I saw that picture, it was a Marshall, right?

Danny B: Yeah, I haven’t even plugged it in yet but that’s still the goal man, ever since I was 18 all I wanted to do was play shows and tour. I was in bands in college where you’d go to a crappy job all day in school and you would somehow have to get to gigs. Everyone wants to try and make a living doing it and it’s impossible because you make, what, like a couple hundred dollars between the four of you per night and everything?

Now it’s kind of weird being on this side of it where my day job is writing video game music and getting residual income. I’m just trying to work to a point where I can have money coming in long enough where I could go on tour for 6 months and just not make any money. That’s all I want to do, I’m not a great guitar player at all, I’m not even a good one so I’d need to have an actual lead guitar player, probably a keyboard player, a drummer and I would probably sing but I want to do not only original stuff but I want to do band versions of Meat Boy music, Canabalt and other stuff I do. I don’t know, just try it. I miss being in dive bars in front of people especially now with the whole chip tune movement and all these bands like Anamanaguchi, I Fight Dragons, and all these awesome bands. It seems like there’s such a demand for it that like, I don’t know, maybe something could happen.

OSV: Or you could play at Magfest.

Danny B: Yeah, I’m going to miss Magfest this year but I’m definitely looking forward to that. Pax too, I’d love to play Pax especially because I live here now so it’d be easy.

OSV: Yeah, I could envision that type of show, it could have pretty good production values with like blood maybe on the stage or some flames with video projections…

Danny B: Sacrificing livestock (laughs). I could write stuff, get up there, sing and play a tape but I don’t want it to be karaoke. I want it to be people playing music and with electronic stuff especially it’s really hard to do that. People give electronic stuff more leeway, like, Deamau5 has an awesome show and Skrillex and all these new guys but I was raised by classic rock man, I want to put on a rock show. I don’t want to make dance music, I want to make rock and roll. Muse is probably one of my favorite bands ever, that kind of thing where it’s just super energetic, it’s not really choreographed but just…System of a Down put on a hell of a show, I’d love to do something like that. And there’s a lot of bands doing that, like a lot of the chiptune guys, they’re really good.

OSV: You could take FamilyJules7X.

Danny B: I am trying sooo hard to get him to move out here, he lives in Boston and if he came out here that would do it. All I would need is like, a drummer and we could do it. Yeah, I hope we could make that happen, that’d be cool. Of course, I’d probably stop making game music so…(laughs).

OSV: You could do both I think.

Danny B: I’m really lazy though (laughs). I have enough trouble getting it done now, if I have a tour too…

OSV: Do you think a composer’s inability to take criticism is the most important factor that could lead to them getting a bad reputation and not finding work later on? How important do you think it is for a composer’s success?

Danny B: It’s definitely one of them. There is a lot of things you could do wrong and I’ve definitely done most of them but that’s a big one. I mean, you need to understand that as much as we love game music and we put so much emphasis on it and so many people love it, it is there for the game, it is not there for you. If I was making game music for Super Meat Boy and Isaac exactly the way I wanted to do it, it wouldn’t fit the game. Sometimes you work with people like Edmund where the stuff I just do naturally kind of matches up really well and I think that’s why we do so well together but yeah, you have to lose the attachment and it’s hard because anything I write, even if it’s awful, like when they’re just like “That’s not good” or whatever, it hurts, every time.

This gig I’m working on right now, in the last week I’ve done like 5 different tracks because it wasn’t right but this guy has been really cool and saying, “this isn’t good for this but I think it’ll work for something else.” Sometimes you get guys like that and it’s cool and fun but sometimes you get people you work with who are just creative types, they’re not PR people so the way they express it is not always very cool but you just have to take it and understand what it is and that they are trying to make this thing and you’re helping them. You’re a piece, you’re a tool for the outcome of that game so I try really hard to keep the ego out of it because it’s not about me, it’s about the game and the better you can keep that in mind typically the better the soundtrack is going to be.

OSV: Do you think that you have a style that is your own aside from whatever project you’re working on? Or do you mainly write music for a specific project?

Danny B: It’s kind of funny because almost everybody who I ever work with uses Danny B as a verb. Just Danny B it. Just make it like Danny B. And it’s hard for me to understand what that means because it’s me but I think everybody has a style. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who couldn’t have an identifiable style so I think when I do original music some people are probably going to be able to recognize it. It’s something that kind of bugged me for a really long time because I don’t want to be typecast and I don’t want to be pigeonholed. A lot of times it gets on my nerves a little bit that people think I’m this chiptune guy when I did orchestral film music for 7 years before I ever touched a video game. But it’s like, how sad could I be when I write silly ass game music and get money for it, like, you’ve got to keep it in perspective. It would be really cool to do a big triple-A game or something if the terms were good – being able to use a full orchestra and just do more realistic stuff but it seems right now that people really dig my style and they want to pay me for it so, how could I complain?

OSV: Have you ever had any offers for triple-A games?

Danny B: Well, the closest thing would be, I wouldn’t say it’s triple-A but Cave Story 3D which was a physical Nintendo 3DS game. So that was really cool, I don’t know if it’s considered triple-A, I mean, it was Nicalis, it was a corporation so it wasn’t really indie. But no. Even then it would have to be a good deal because this indie thing man, it’s too much fun and too much money. Maybe that’s a shitty way to put it, I’m sorry (laughs). I think I would get less money and it wouldn’t be as fun because I’ve heard what other people make on triple-A games and unless you’re Jack Wall or Trent Reznor you’re not going to make crazy money. Or Jesper Kyd or Inon Zur.

And, again, it’s kind of hard for me to say because I’m in a position of ignorance. I don’t really know, this is just my impression of it so I could be completely wrong but I’m not jonesing to get into triple-A. One of my exceptions is Star Wars, if they asked me to work on a Star Wars game the answer is yes immediately, you don’t say no to Star Wars, like, why would you do that? But I try to keep an open mind. I’m suspicious of corporations and stuff because I feel like the profit motive does get in the way of the creative stuff but some of my favorite games are triple-A so that’s not always the case.

OSV: I think people would be surprised to hear that you could get more money doing a score for an indie game over a triple-A.

Danny B: Well, especially the ones where I get percentages that do really well. I got a percentage on Isaac and Isaac sold a million copies, so, you know. I don’t know, again, I could be totally wrong. I’ve just talked to a fair number of people who have done triple-A stuff and it just seems like they should get more. Maybe I’m biased because I’m a composer. I’m sure that Hans Zimmer got plenty for Modern Warfare 2 and I’m sure Jesper Kyd does great and all that still. It’s more people in my situation.

I know some of the people who worked on Mass Effect…I don’t mean to say that they’re being stingy, it’s more about that when this is a game that took over 500 people to make, you’re not going to get as much of a chunk but when it’s 3 guys and you’re splitting sales from even less money, you’re going to get more. A lot of indie games don’t, I’ve done tons of games that made barely anything but it was more because you take a risk and sometimes it’s Binding of Isaac and sometimes it’s Zits and Giggles.

OSV: How often do you come across a score that you actually dislike in a game and when it happens does it tend to be the music itself or just the implementation of it?

Danny B: You know, it’s weird to say but I’m not a very critical person so…rarely. Rarely do I play a game and think “This music is awful.” I mean, it happens but usually it’s just nitpicky stuff. When people ask me to critique their composition I don’t want to do it because I just feel like there’s so many different ways to do this that who am I to say if you did it wrong or not? Sometimes it’s clearly awful, what is a good example? I was talking to C418 about this…I can’t even remember.

Right now I’m playing Far Cry 3 – cool music. I was playing Assassin’s Creed 3 too and I read a lot about how since it wasn’t Jesper Kyd anymore, it was…I forget who is on it, I suck (Editor’s Note – Lorne Balfe) but I remember I read all this stuff that was really critical about it about how they’ve changed Assassin’s Creed from this cool, ambient, emotional score to standard Hollywood trash and…I like it (laughs). It sounds good to me! So that’s kind of weird to me because I do feel like I should be more critical and I should more often be like, “these guys are doing it wrong,” but I don’t know man…

OSV: I think you can respect other people’s style even if it’s different than yours, that’s a good thing usually. How do you respond to critics who call you the Nickelback of indie music?

Editor’s note: Critics haven’t actually called him that, this was just in reference to a Podtoid episode where Danny claimed someone once said that to him.

Danny B: (laughs) I wish I had that kind of money. You know, I think I’m a pretty nice guy, I don’t think I’m a dick. I don’t think I deserve that kind of stuff but it’s just, the internet, and I am absolutely one of those people who can read a thousand positive comments and read that one bad comment and my day is ruined. And you know, I think that’s just part of it. I think it’s just because I’m so obsessed with getting better and being good at what I do that I want everyone to love it. It’s also further complicated because some people are just trolling. Like that person might not have ever heard anything I ever did, they just see my name a bunch of times and they’re just like, “Oh, he’s the Nickelback because he’s popular or something,” I don’t know. A lot of fucking people love Nickelback dude and, I hate them, I think they’re awful but…a lot of people love them. It’s not an indicator of quality but…yeah, that was good.

OSV: Are there any good use of key changes in songs?

Danny B: On Brooooadwaaaaay! Yeah, that’s about it. I think in musicals it works but that’s it.

OSV: I also wanted to get your feelings on saxophones.

Danny B: (laughs) So when I did the Cave Story 3D soundtrack I thought it should sound all this kind of stuff and Pixel (Daisuke), the guy who made Cave Story, he fucking loves saxophone so he made me put saxophone in a bunch of the tracks. And I love him, I don’t think it was the right call but, again, it’s his game and all that. I think saxophones are cool if it’s 1945 but outside of that…and Bill Clinton…and Epic Sax Man – that’s it.

OSV: (laughs) So, when you had to do it did you go for an 80s vibe or a 40s vibe?

Danny B: With the Cave Story soundtrack, it’s such a different universe even though I didn’t agree with it, it still kind of works because it’s just the way the music is written. I don’t think Pixel knows how to read music, I don’t think he knows anything about music really, I think he’s just self taught which is why now that I know the whole soundtrack pretty much by heart because I redid almost all of it – he is like an alien that came from another planet and reimagined music which is weird because it works, it’s really good but it doesn’t make any goddamned sense. At all. Like the end part of the title just goes crazy and makes no sense whatsoever but it works so…you throw saxophone in there it’s not like it’s going to make it any more weird. It’s already alien.

OSV: What’s your favorite final boss battle music?

Danny B: Damn…I will say that final boss music is my favorite kind of music but…the first one that comes to mind is Final Fantasy IV, Zeromus. Pretty much all the Final Fantasies but Final Fantasy IX’s is really good. Am I cheating by having multiple answers?

OSV: No, no, take your time, you can look through your games if you don’t want to leave anything out.

Danny B: I’m a little partial to the Super Meat Boy Final Boss music. There’s a time to be modest but come on, buddy.

OSV: I think it’s up there, for sure.

Danny B: I can’t think of anything recent, there’s a lot of good game soundtracks recently but I don’t know if it’s just nostalgia that keeps Final Fantasy boss themes and music in general on a pedestal or if it’s a difference in actual quality. I don’t think so…like when people say music used to be better I think that’s bullshit. I think when we’re 10 everything is awesome and then you grow up and you’re jaded and it’s like Christmas isn’t as magical anymore. Christmas sucks now and game music isn’t like it used to be.

OSV: It’s probably just a nostalgia thing, I think there’s more good music than there’s ever been in the world.

Danny B: I think so too and I think it’s mostly because there’s so many ponds to be a fish in that even 10 years ago there was only so many sources of music and you get what you get. But now, if you are way into dubstep punk rockabilly country-core there’s a guy doing it, you can get some and you can pay him. So yeah, my final answer is Final Fantasy IV Zeromus (sings a few bars).

Are you recording this?

OSV: Yeah, yeah, keep going.

Danny B: Nah, I’m good.

OSV: We’ll make sure to have that clip included.

Danny B: (laughs) Aww man, I embarrass myself.

OSV: Do you ever sing on your own tracks?

Danny B: You know, I used to more. I did an OC Remix 10 years ago of Earthworm Jim called Invertebrate Retreat but lately…I want to get back into it but I’m just trying to keep up with all the game gigs. I feel like I got a good thing going and I want to keep the fire burning.

OSV: That makes sense.

Danny B: Yeah, I can’t complain. You know, I will not be satisfied if in a few years I don’t have an original album. I used to be a somewhat decent singer and 10 years of smoking, drinking and not singing, it’s kind of just gone now so I’ve got to see if I can get it back. This thing I’ve linked you is 18 year old me right out of high school. I mean, I still like it, I think it’s good, obviously now there’s 10 years of experience, there’s a lot of stuff I would change.

OSV: Cool, yeah, I’ll check it out and make sure it’s included. Well, that’s all I’ve got, it’s been really cool.

Danny B: Thanks for having me, man.

Check out more of Danny Baranowsky’s work at his Bandcamp page and/or follow him on Twitter!

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