Game Music

Rock ‘n’ Roll In Western Games: Interview with Robert Anthony Navarro

February 12, 2009 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook Rock ‘n’ Roll In Western Games: Interview with Robert Anthony Navarroon Twitter

I know there are a lot of gamers out there who like rock music. A lot of you even like rock music in your games! And while I’ve been wary in some ways of the many rock arrangement albums that the videogame industry has spawned over the years (Konami, The Black Mages, etc.), I did openly admit to loving Uematsu’s recent rock score for Lord of Vermilion.

Now, you probably noticed that everything I mentioned above originated from Japan.  That’s because, for the most part (Frank Klepacki is an important exception), Western developers have focused on traditional orchestral scores for their games, but that may be about to change. We’ve been fortunate enough to sit down with Robert Anthony Navarro of RA AUDIO, INC., a talented composer and guitarist who recently collaborated with Inon Zur on various Naruto titles. He has seen first-hand what is on the mind of developers, and believes that original rock music (not the licensed stuff in sports games and Guitar Hero) is poised to break down the walls and finally earn its rightful place alongside orchestral music in Western videogames.

There’s a lot of interesting discussion ahead, so go ahead and hit the jump.

OSV: Hello Robert. Thanks for talking to us. While we’ve covered a lot of albums here that suggest Japanese composers are obsessed with rock music in games, this seems to be a new thing in the West, where the emphasis lately has been on live orchestral music. As you’re more qualified than anyone I know on the subject, give us an update on the state of rock music in games in the West.
Navarro: Aside from obvious games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Rock Revolution that scream rock, the bulk of games containing rock music today seem to be extreme sports related (skating, car racing, surfing, etc.), fighting and games like Grand Theft Auto that feature radios you can tune to your taste (such as rock). Examples of this kind of rock usage can be heard in games like Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, Naruto: The Broken Bond, American Chopper: Full Throttle, and Surf’s Up. Games with large budgets are able to attract commercial artists through licensing opportunities, but with the state of the economy at the moment we might begin to see a rise in original rock composition. Here’s hoping!

Lately, a growing interest in “hybrid” film scores ala Hans Zimmer, Paul Haslinger and Tyler Bates has ushered in the use of heavy rock guitar with orchestra and electronic elements in games. Examples of this sound can be heard in the work of composers like Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan in games such as Hellgate: London and Haze. I see more of this hybrid approach to composition affording more opportunities to rock composers.

OSV: As a performer, I take it you feel there’s no substitute for the real thing. Can you comment on the quality of the sound libraries that composers are using these days? Is the problem with the samples themselves or the composers not being familiar enough with the actual instruments to use them properly? Are there things that the sample libraries do particularly well or poorly?
Navarro: Of course live orchestra is the way to go, but some libraries are actually quite good when used properly and in combination with other software- such as EastWest’s Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, RA, and of course the choirs, Sonic Implants, and Vienna Instruments Symphonic Cube. Some instruments (like brass for instance) take some doing to make the synth patches sound real enough- but in the hands of a skilled composer it can be done. As far as specific sample libraries that stand out in my mind are concerned, I was particularly impressed by EastWest’s Symphonic Choirs.

I am not a big fan of guitar and/or other rock sample instruments because (to my ears) they sound transparent and 2-dimensional for the most part- and I really wouldn’t use them because I play guitar and bass myself. I know of a few composers that use Ministry of Rock, but outside of guitar noise loops I have cut up and used a few times I don’t have too much to say about the sample libraries. I do use drum loops and drum samples from various libraries including Big Fish Audio and Stylus RMX. I have used guitar and bass modeling software. When used with the right compressor, mic pre, EQ and guitar, Guitar Rig, Amplitube and Ampeg SVX rock! I still prefer micing live amps to modeling software, but I could play you tracks I did with the software plug-ins that you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference with.

OSV: You’ve collaborated with a number of composers recently, and have even been credited as a co-composer as opposed to the traditional arranger role. Do you see this as a change in the way developers and traditional composers look at music in games? Do you think we’re going to start seeing more rock music in games?
Navarro: I think that Audio Directors have a specific sound in mind when they choose their talent, and that composers are beginning to seek out the right musicians to collaborate with who specialize in specific styles and genres, rather then trying their hand at it and fumbling their way through it.  I would love to see more games using rock, or at least more rock elements. Will it happen? One can only hope.

OSV: One particular collaboration with was Inon Zur on some Naruto titles. Tell us about this experience. Do you feel your different writing styles complement one another’s? Can we expect to see the two of you work together again soon?
Navarro: Working with Inon is always a blast. We both bring to the table what we do best, and neither one of us seem to get in the other’s way. I have done everything from co-composing on tracks, playing guitar and/or adding voice-over to his tracks, and working on my own. In all cases, the creative flow is effortless. I think my turn-around time has actually become faster working with Inon and keeping up with his pace.
We are currently demoing on several titles together, so I’d say its a good bet that we’ll be teaming up again in the near future.

OSV: Can you comment on the differences between the roles of a performer and a composer? Do they go hand-in-hand, or do you often feel the need to separate them out?
Navarro: I compose without the thought of who is actually going to be performing the parts I come up with. Since I play several instruments and sing, I can cover most of what I write. However, if something very technical outside of my skill set is required- I find the talent.

I believe that the roles of performer and composer are two sides of the same coin because I often compose as I perform the parts, revise what was written in favor of something else, and then play the new parts- all on the fly. I find it amazing that some composers cannot perform most of what they write, and that some musicians cannot write at all. I am grateful that I can do both.

OSV: Can you tell us about some of your influences? Are there artists in both the rock arena and in classical composition that you admire?
Navarro: The Beatles were my first love. After them, I would list in no particular order: King’s X, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Chris Cornell, Blink-182, Sting, Massive Attack, Portishead, Sneaker Pimps, Korn, Bach, Eminem, Sarah Bettens, Elliot Smith, Timbaland, Mozart, Stravinsky, Paul Haslinger, John Williams, Gershwin, and the list goes on.

OSV: I mentioned that Japanese composers are already on board with rock music in games. Recently, Nobuo Uematsu’s score for Lord of Vermillion featured a live rock group (guitar, bass, and drums) throughout most of the game. Have you been following this Japanese tradition of rock music in games? Why do you think it is that it’s only now that rock music is getting the respect it deserves in the Western game industry?
Navarro: During my research for the Naruto titles I worked on, I quickly became aware of the use of rock music in games, which mirrors the use of rock in classic anime cartoons such as Macross and Genesis Climber Mospeada, and of course most recently in Naruto.

OSV: On the topic of Japan and rock music, it sometimes seems as though they’re stuck in the days of 80s hair metal. I don’t pretend to know a whole lot about the various subgenres that fall under rock, but can you comment on this trend in Japan, and tell us about the kind of music that is most often requested of you in the States? Do you have a favorite style that you’re hoping to bring to the table?
Navarro: Here in the States, Hard Rock and Metal died in the 90s when Grunge rockers like Nirvana, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden took over. Interestingly enough, 80s rockers found a thriving audience in Japan. Even today, bands in the “where are they now” category (as far as the US is concerned) are able to play to packed arenas in Japan. While the screaming guitar solo has all but died in mainstream rock today, sweep arpeggios and two-hand-tapping still reign supreme in the land of the rising sun.

Fortunately for us rockers here in the US, Metal has made a come back through the music of bands like Korn, Avenged Sevenfold, System of a Down and even in Metal/Punk cross over bands like SUM 41 and Story of the Year. Better yet, Metallica is regularly played on KROQ.

I am usually asked to deliver either heavy guitar ala Slip Knot or Korn, or Pop Punk/Power Pop ala Blink-182, Green Day, Fall Out Boy, etc. While I’m happy to oblige the powers that be, I’d actually like to do more hybrid collaborations ala the score to the motion picture ‘Death Race’.

OSV: Guitars are pretty ubiquitous in music, so I’m curious if you’re ever asked to perform jazz or classical guitar. Are you proficient in other styles of guitar music? While guitar soloists are the first thing to come to mind when we think of rock music in the game industry, is there a growing market for bassists or percussionists as well? Do you feel these guys are more replaceable in terms of the sample libraries available, or do you see value in having a whole band together to rock out with?
Navarro: Since guitar was my first instrument, I started out playing classical in school, but quickly switched to bass. Since I do not play any orchestral instruments, I ended up playing bass in the jazz band to fulfill ensemble elective requirements. I can hold my own in various styles, but rock is definitely my forte.
I’m not aware of a demand for bassists in the game industry, but a good percussionist can easily find his way into live recording gigs- especially if he/she can pull off ethnic percussion.  As far as I’m concerned, live instruments are always the way to go, but when budgets and quick turn-arounds are a concern . . . great sample libraries can save the day.

OSV: You also do a lot of work outside of the game industry. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve done, and perhaps what you’d like to do in the future. Is there a particular franchise that you’d like to work on?
Navarro: I started out as a Music Director for APM Music, selecting tracks for music supervisors spanning the motion picture, television and video game industries on projects such as Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Smallville, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sponge Bob Square Pants, and Twisted Metal Black. Eventually I began coordinating CD projects for various APM related libraries, as well as producing, recording and composing CDs of my own including a co-production with film composer Jeff Rona, projects with members of Remy Zero, Queensrÿche, Cinderella, and award winning lyricist Hal David. Shortly thereafter, I became an Executive Producer for APM, and co-produced a tremendous amount of custom music including ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ Theme and the Kansas City Royals Theme. To date, I have produced 25 library CDs and over 1500 individual tracks for APM related productions. In August of 2007 I resigned from APM to form my own company, RA AUDIO INC., in order to concentrate on composition.

In the world of game audio, I have managed to get my music into various games titles including Naruto: The Broken Bond & Rise Of A Ninja, Driver 76’, Surf’s Up, LA RUSH, and American Chopper: Full Throttle. Most recently, I composed two tracks for the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious motion picture series, Fast and Furious.

I have always wanted to write music for a Batman related cartoon series, movie or video game. I am a huge Batman nut, and that has always been a dream of mine.

OSV: Due to the fact that we’ve seen mostly this orchestral approach from the West, I’m not too familiar with composers or performers who do rock music in games. Are there any composers or performers that you think we should have an eye on right now?
Navarro: Steve Ouimette comes to mind. He is a very versatile player, with the chops to pull off just about anything you throw at him. We recently collaborated on a rock intensive project, and between the two of us we covered all the bases. Rod Abernethy is great as well.

OSV: While all of us will agree that rock music in games is mainly a Japanese thing, there are a few composers in the West who have been fighting long and hard on behalf of the genre. Frank Klepacki’s work on Command & Conquer and World at War immediately comes to mind. What are you thoughts about Klepacki and others who have somewhat pioneered rock music in games? Do you feel they’ve paved the way for people like yourself to get into games?
Navarro: Klepacki has definitely left his mark. I have been sent his material (C&C, WAW) as reference tracks by Audio Directors looking for a similar sound in their games. I was not very familiar with his music until I began listening to the reference material I was given. What I found interesting was that the influences he draws from (Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Depeche Mode, etc.) to create his “signature” sound are many of the same influences I have chosen to draw from for my own sound. As my tastes have evolved, I have gone a bit darker/edgier with my approach to guitar- drawing from bands like Slip Knot, In Flames, Korn and Ramallah- but I have to give props to Frank for the foundation he’s built. Aside from Klepacki, the other composers I am aware of that are fighting the good fight for rock are Ouimette, Abernethy and myself. Hopefully our combined work has made a compelling argument for Audio Directors to consider more rock based game scores . . . and when they do, we’ll be waiting to answer the call.

OSV: We have to ask you as a guitarist. What’re your take on the recent explosion of rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band? Do you feel they’re a venue for people to get exposed to the instruments, or are they cheap imitations that aren’t worth their weight in plastic?
Navarro: I love it! So many people who felt left out because they were not born with the gift of music can now rock out to their favorite songs- and a few I personally know of have been inspired to take up real instruments as a result.

Interestingly enough, I find that non-musicians do a lot better at Guitar Hero and Rock Band than most real players. It’s always funny to watch musicians lose against people who can’t even tune a guitar, let alone play the actual songs they jam to on their game consoles.

Truth be told, playing the games is no substitute for putting in the time to learn an instrument, but they do teach rhythm, hand/eye/ear coordination, execution, and teamwork.

OSV: Can you tell us about what you’re working on currently? What are you plans for the future? We’re looking forward to hearing more of your music in games.
Navarro: Currently my time is split between video games, motion pictures, television, commercials and production music library CDs. Occasionally I produce artists and collaborate with songwriters as well. I am currently demo-ing for various game titles, I am working on an undisclosed feature film, and I have seven library CDs in production for APM Music related libraries. I am actively looking to land an on-going television series, get a few more feature films under my belt, and work with a few commercial artists I admire.

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