Jesse Harlin Interview16 Jun, 2009
We grill LucasArts' new Music Supervisor about the Secret of Monkey Island remake.
Please introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us a little bit about how you got started at LucasArts and what you do there.
My name is Jesse Harlin. I got started in the industry as a freelance composer ten years ago. After freelancing on a number of projects for a few years, I eventually came to LucasArts when they were looking to hire a second composer to work alongside of Mark Griskey. Six years later, I'm now the Music Supervisor and on-staff Composer for LucasArts which basically means that if it has music in it, it crosses my desk. Since every project has music in it, I'm a busy guy.
What is your gaming background? Did you play the classic LucasArts adventures?
Dirty little secret time: before working at LucasArts, I hadn't ever played any of the classic adventure games. I grew up as a console gamer - Atari, NES, SNES, PS1, etc. - but had somehow missed all of the LucasArts games that came out for those systems, except for Super Star Wars which I used to play on my Gameboy. I knew LucasArts mostly as the company that put out Star Wars games like Masters of the Teras Kasi and Star Wars: Starfighter (which I really enjoyed). When I was in college, I played Riven, the sequel to Myst, which was my first adventure game. I became so insanely addicted to it that I started skipping classes and not sleeping until I had completely devoured the whole game in a week. Nowadays, I'm still much more of a console gamer, playing things like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, and LittleBigPlanet in my time off.
Now, regarding The Secret of Monkey Island - Special Edition, how were you approached, and what was your first reaction?
Craig Derrick, the game's producer, came to my office one day last summer and said "Hey, I have some news for you." At the time, the idea of working on MI:SE was an underground grassroots project that Craig was just getting going. It was almost like a heist movie where the guy with the master plan starts secretly assembling a crack team of specialists. He'd show up at your door, talk in hushed tones about wanting to revive Monkey Island, and then basically tell you to "wait for his signal." I was thrilled when I first found out.
Was it clear from the get-go, that the music would be re-recorded?
Yes, Craig originally came to the Audio Department wanting to know how we could help with updating the game. It was instantly clear from the start that a remake needed to be completely voiced, needed updated sound effects and ambiences, and that I'd be redoing all of the music. He wanted to know what kind of things I could do when it came to updating the music, how far could I take it and rework things. So, almost as a test to find out for myself, I actually took the opening theme of Maniac Mansion and completely redid it for a contemporary rock combo. Craig loved it and I think it earned me a spot in Craig's crack commando remake team.
How did you prepare yourself? Did you play the original game(s) to get you into some kind of "Monkey Island"-mode?
Yes, exactly. Like I said, I hadn't played them when I was younger, so I started by playing through the CD-ROM version of SMI from 1992 for the first time. I wanted to make sure I was familiar with the game, the characters, the plot, and particularly all of the music. In addition to playing the game, I also made sure that I watched playthrough videos on YouTube of the 1990 version. On top of that, I also tried to plug into the massive fan community that these games have garnered, so I started reading up online about the game at sites like Mixnmojo and The Scumm Bar. I had about a week to go from Monkey Island novice to expert before I needed to start digging in and redoing the music.
After all, the "Monkey Island" games and their music are still extremely high-rated amongst gamers... did you feel any extra pressure because of that?
There's no question that there's an immense amount of love for the original Monkey Island music, perhaps for SMI's score even more than any other of the games. I knew that I wanted to be extremely faithful with the remake, as anything else wouldn't make sense. Across the entire team, there has been an intense amount of attention to detail paid towards being faithful to the original game. The remake is basically a love letter to the original game, its fans, and LucasArts' heritage. All of that brings with it a fair amount of pressure.
Was there any sheet music available from back when the game was produced, or did you have to write new arrangements?
No. No, there was not. In fact, there was nothing - no audio archives of the game from 1990 or 1992, no MIDI files, no sheet music - nothing. I doubt that any sheet music ever existed for SMI since the entire score was originally just MIDI data that played back through either AdLib or Roland MT-32 sound cards. Regardless, if it did exist at one time, it doesn't now.
The first thing I had to do was try and find out what still existed from when the game was first created. As I said, the answer was "nothing." Once I knew that, the next thing I had to do was ask the Engineering team if they could extract the MIDI data out of the 1990 version of the game. The files weren't encoded as regular .MID files and so our engineers had to first create a translator utility. The translator got us most of the way there, but then we had to run the translated files through another translator and then do a little more magic before I had actual MIDI files I could use as a starting point. Unfortunately, because the 1992 version used Redbook audio on the CD-ROM and added four new tracks to the score, we didn't have any MIDI files for these and had to transcribe them by ear along with all of the extended variations to tracks like "LeChuck's Theme" and "The Fettucini Brothers." Once everything was translated and transcribed, then I could begin to look at the scope of the task ahead of me.
Was the MIDI score from the original arranged differently than it would've been for a live-recording?
Absolutely. First of all, the original scores were written for a maximum of 16 simultaneous instruments, the limit that a computer could handle at once back in 1990. Nowadays, I can layer dozens of instruments ontop of each other and just play it all back as a stereo .WAV file. On top of instrument limitations, everything was going to be played as data into a sound card and live instrumentalists would never touch a note of it. Because of this, the original composers didn't have to worry about physical limitations like instrument ranges or timing rhythms that would make quick sense to studio musicians.
I quickly ran into a bunch of strange little instances where I had to start thinking creatively in order to actually make things work. The track "Monkey Island" spends a lot of time down on a low C in the bass, so I had our bass player bring in a 6-string bass in order to record it live. On "The Journey," the soprano recorder had a couple of Bs below middle C that it needed to hit. The only problem is that a soprano recorder only goes down to C. So, they were performed as C# and then I had to digitally pitch shift them down to B. There was a lot of stuff like that, but I figured it all out one way or another.
Did you make any substantial changes to the original compositions (deliberately or out of necessity), or add new stuff to the game?
Yes and no. There are so many stories here. I spent a lot of time listening to the original tracks from both 1990 and 1992 and scrutinizing their arrangements. Some tracks, like "Monkey Island" or "Chapter Screen," were simply rerecorded as is with new instruments. A number of other tracks had their arrangements expanded. I had a great time working on "The Fettucini Brothers" and added melodica and muted trumpet into the mix, while making sure to faithfully record all of the melodic variations from the 1992 version. I even went out and bought what was called a "gym teacher whistle" and our Music Assistant (and flutist/recorder player on the new MI:SE score), Wilbert Roget II, recreated all of the MIDI whistle parts live. Similarly, I added melodica, ukulele, and both tenor and soprano recorder to "The Scumm Bar." I even resurrected the orchestrated differences that originally existed in 1990 between the tracks "Following the Shopkeeper" and "Mêlée Forest" that had been done away with when the 1992 versions of the music was produced.
Only one track really forced me to change its arrangement out of necessity. The song "Guybrush & Elaine," the love song that plays when Guybrush and Elaine flirt with each other on the docks, begins with this lush, sweeping Hollywood string line. I didn't have access to an orchestra and even with all of the advances that sample- and MIDI-based music production has made since 1992, string runs in isolation like that don't sound all that great when programmed. I was trying to figure out what to do with it when I suddenly remembered this Mexican restaurant I'd been to recently with my wife. There was a band that roamed from table to table serenading the diners with mariachi music. So, I scaled back the cue to a brass section and two violins and asked everyone to play as romantically as possible. Even though it's a bit different, it's still funny and over-the top. I'm really happy with the results.
Other than that, there were two tracks that got pretty heavy remakes. When I listened to "Cannibal Village" and "Ghost Ship Shuffle" for the first time, I felt like they weren't quite living up to their potential. "Cannibal Village" was really limited by the technology of 1992. For the remake, I asked my live instrumentalists to improv with an "ethnic" feel in the key of the song, recorded a bunch of different approaches to improvs, and then pieced together a new version of the track that is fairly different than the original, but I think closer to the actual intention of the original.
For "Ghost Ship Shuffle," I knew that we had a scene where the ghost pirate band are really jamming there on the deck of LeChuck's ship and look like they're having a great time. The track, however, is just the same melody played five times in a row. I wanted to give it some life and make it feel really spirited (no pun intended), so I actually asked Grim Fandango composer Peter McConnell to come in and play jazz violin on it. I had him play the first time around the melody as it was on the original track, but after that Peter did a number of different takes where I asked him to improv and think of the piece as a "jazzy transylvanian folk tune." I then comped together the final track and Aaron Brown, our mix engineer, added some ghostly effects into the final mixing. I'm thrilled with the end result. It really has a rich and vibrant life to it now.
The only brand new material is the Gold Guy LucasArts logo at the top of the game which was fun. It's the first brand new piece of Monkey Island music in 10 years and it was great to be able to add even just a little bit to the musical language of the series.
What was the ratio between live-instruments and synthesized sounds for the re-recording?
It depends on the track. A small number of tracks have very little live players due to either limited time, limited budget, or limited need. Every track has at least one live instrument, though most have many, many more than that. I recorded live saxophone, trumpets, trombone, drums, shakers, bongos, tablas, djembe, melodica, flute, tenor and soprano recorders, ukulele, violin, whistle, bass, organ, and ghostly moans. I'm probably forgetting something, but there was a lot of live recording.
Please describe the process of going from the MIDI-music to a finished "Special Edition"-track.
After everything was transcribed or translated into a useable MIDI format, the first thing I did was compare everything to the 1992 version of the score and figure out what needed to be recorded as live and what could be replaced simply with samples. The next step was to start rebuilding the tracks using just samples. Some of it would be final. Some of it would be placeholder until the live instruments were tracked. I do most of my work using Logic Pro and a bunch of different sample libraries, so I'd start building the tracks up with just MIDI data and samples, usually starting with the bass, drums and percussion. Once I had a solid rhythm section, it was on to the brass, strings, and melody instruments. Lastly I'd move onto filling in the details with coloration instruments.
Once the MIDI was all there, I started to write out the different instrumental parts. We tracked everything over a span of weeks. Flute sessions here, bongo sessions there - whenever the players were available. I'd piece together the perfect recording from the various takes and then reintegrate them back in the the samples, replacing MIDI instruments for live instruments. Each instrument was then rendered out individually into what we call "stems." The stems then went to Sound Designer Aaron Brown who was doing the final mixes. Aaron would work on the mix, I'd give him notes, and then once they were done, Aaron mastered the final mixes so that they were ready to go in-game.
What do you think of the "Special Edition"... have you had a chance to play it?
I have and I think it's fantastic. It's so faithful to the original. It has to be - it's built on top of the original game and using the same SCUMM code from 1990. So it has the same animations, same writing, same advertisement for LOOM from Cobb, etc. If anything, our engineering team has actually fixed a number of bugs that still existed in the original version of the game. I think fans are going to love hearing the voices. The original writing is great, but getting to hear the voice cast perform the text is really something special. I still laugh every time I hear the Shopkeeper tell Carla "It's your loss, baby."
How does it feel to have your name in the opening credits of a "Monkey Island" game? ;-)
It's a bit surreal, actually. Michael Land, Barney Jones, Andy Newell, and Patrick Mundy all wrote a really fantastic score for a rich new world of monkeys and ghost pirates. I simply wanted to update their score for a 21st century audience while still being respectful to their original work.
Would you be interested in doing re-recordings of other classic LucasArts titles, in case further "Special Editions" are produced? What would be your favorite and why?
Absolutely. It was tremendously fun to get to dig into the history of gaming like this. If I had my choice, I think I'd pick Maniac Mansion next. It's the first SCUMM game and each of the different characters had theme music done in a different musical genre. To me, that sounds like a great opportunity for some really creative production work and a chance to flex some orchestrational muscle.
You've got a couple of great video game scores under your belt already, yet most of them are mostly action packed soundtracks (not exclusively, but for the most part). Would you be interested in scoring a point-and-click adventure game? I guess it would be new territory for you...
Yes, it would be and I'd definitely be interested. Action packed soundtracks are great, but it can get to be a bit tiring after a while to try and keep writing cue after cue of orchestral music at 150 bpm with everyone playing fortissimo. Plus, actiony games tend not to have the same elements of quirky fun inherent to an adventure game. Just working on MI:SE showed me how much freedom can be had with the orchestration on an adventure game. When you look at the score for SMI, even though the game says "Deep in the Carribean" at the front of it, the music is this interesting hodge-podge of carribean, african, jazz, and circus textures. It's pure fun, and even simply reproducing the score for MI:SE was a ball. I'd love the chance to write new original material for these worlds.
<b>After a couple of years where adventure games were basically "dead", it looks like in the last few years the genre has grown strong again, with many companies not only producing adventure games, but being founded especially for them. Do you think these developments re-sparked LucasArts interest in the adventure-game genre? (leading to "The Secret of Monkey Island - Special Edition")
Contrary to popular opinion, there has always been interest at LucasArts in the old IP. With Darrell Rodriguez as our new President, we're finding a resurgent level of interest in the older IPs now up and down throughout the entire company. You have to remember that for every employee who came to LucasArts because they love Star Wars, there's also another employee who came there because they loved Full Throttle or Day of the Tentacle. This mixed with an explosion in the avenues for digital distribution really created a perfect storm where all of the right elements were in line for MI:SE to come together.
Do you have a funny anecdote from the production of the MI:SE?
It's hard to really get across how much work went into making MI:SE as faithful as possible across the entire team. Towards the end of the project, I asked Michael Land to come down to LucasArts and have a listen to the new tracks and talk some of the history behind some of them. One of the main questions I had was about song titles. He told me that the songs in the game hadn't really had song titles when they originally wrote them - merely names like "Circus Music," etc. I told him that I'd been using the song titles listed on soundtracks.mixnmojo.com as names for the different cues and he said that was great with him. So, except for a couple of small changes that I made, it turns out that whoever named the tracks on that webpage gave the songs their official names.
One of the songs listed there is simply called "Cue 2." When I started the project, "Cue 2" drove me crazy. It's this small cue, maybe 20 seconds long, and is one of the tracks that can be ripped off of the 1992 CD-ROM version of the game. As I did multiple playthroughs of the game to map out which pieces of music played where, I never heard it actually play in-game anywhere. I can't remember how many playthroughs I did trying to figure out if it was just due to branching options or strange in-game conditions that were needed to trigger it, but I kept coming up without any answers. Then I started watching full playthroughs of the original 1990 version on YouTube thinking that perhaps something had been broken when it was redone in 1992. Maybe it existed somewhere originally and a scripted trigger changed and now it wasn't playing in the 1992 version? No. Nothing still.
I went to our engineering team and said, "Guys, I hate to have to ask. There's this track on the CD-ROM named "track22.wav." Can you please comb through all of the game's scripts and tell me where it's being played in-game?" As it turns out, it isn't. It never has. It was written for the 1992 version, put on disc, and now is ripped and considered part of the official soundtrack for the game but it doesn't actually appear anywhere in-game. The whole point of the Special Edition remake, however, was to remake the game as faithfully as possible for the fans. So, I produced a full update of "Cue2." Does it appear in-game anywhere? No. But whenever I get the thumbs-up to put out a soundtrack, you'll find it there. Stay tuned on that issue. I'm working on it. ; )
Any last words for our readers?
I just hope everyone enjoys seeing the game again for the first time. It was a tremendous amount of fun to work on and I think it shows in the final game.
Thank you very much for this interview!
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