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Michael Land Interview Round-up LucasFans Interview (2002)

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Ever wonder what it is like to be a musician at LucasArts? Or what do the composers actually do when working? You're about to find out! In this interview with Mr. Land, we have a behind the scenes look at how the game music is born at LucasArts and let Michael tell his thoughts about his music and the future of game music. This interview was conducted Joonas Linkola, and was originally published on the Mixnmojo hosted site LucasFans, 2002.

First a question about your background, Mr. Land. What did you do before you started to work at LucasArts and how exactly did you get in LucasArts?

I worked as a software engineer at Lexicon, Inc., writing MIDI software. I was also a composer and musician all my life. So the job at LucasArts was a great match for my combination of software and music skills. I was quite lucky in that I found out about the job through a newspaper ad. My mother had urged me to look in the newspaper and I thought "she's crazy, there aren't any good jobs in the newspaper." Boy was I wrong.

What's the best thing about being a musician at LucasArts?

That's easy: the incredible quality of the games we get to work on. It really challenges us to do our best work, since the games demand it. And the next best thing is the great support we get from the company, in terms of equipment and budgets for live players. Now if they could just do something about those tough schedules...

Describe your normal day at work (is there such thing?)

When I'm composing, I spend the first couple of hours dealing with email and department issues and the like (besides being a composer, I'm also the sound department manager). Then I close the door, disconnect email, and work on music for the rest of the day (and usually night as well). When I'm not composing, I spend the whole day with email and issues, etc.

It's really strange switching between being a composer and being a middle manager. I felt a similar tension between software and music when I was more heavily involved in the technical end of things. Some say that the two fields have a lot in common, both being structured languages for conceptual thought. In my view, the two are very different realms, quite opposite in terms of mindset and approach, one being very analytical and the other being very creative. Maybe that says something about my approach to music. I avoid using logic and methodology when I'm composing, and instead just try to feel it. For me, analysis can smother creativity, so whenever I need to be creative, I try really hard to carve out time and space where other issues can't intrude.

What is the game you are most satisfied with in the musical side?

The Dig. Of all the game music I've done, it's the closest in spirit to my own personal style of music. It's also the most structurally integrated score I've done, in that all the themes are reflections of each other, evolving and fitting together in ways that move with the game.

A part of the process that was especially interesting for me was doing the soundtrack CD that was released by Angel Records. It turns out that I had to completely rework the music in order to make it appropriate for linear listening. In an adventure game, where the player can spend a great deal of time in one place, the requirements of the music result in a form that is almost the opposite of traditional musical structure. Instead of starting out small and building to a climax, you start out big and then get smaller and smaller, gradually settling down to almost nothing. So for the Dig Soundtrack CD, I had to virtually recompose the music from scratch, using the same themes and melodies, but working them into completely new forms, in order for the music to make sense without the game.

Could you tell us your best LucasArts 'war story'?

One day last year there was some work that the maintenance people needed to do on our offices, and with no warning they kicked us out and said we had to go home for the day. Instead of going home, I rounded up the whole sound department, and we went out to a nearby park for the afternoon. This park is a place we had gone before, called the Marin Headlands, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Probably because of those sweeping views, the military had built a huge complex of underground bunkers and gun embankments during World War I. One of those was a huge underground concrete tunnel, with a giant metal door.

The last time we had been there, we had all been looking at that giant metal door in the huge tunnel saying "Gee, I wish we had a sledgehammer and a DAT deck". Well, this time we were prepared. Right after the last outing, Clint [Bajakian] had been so intent on not missing that chance again, that he went out and bought a huge sledgehammer with his own money. It sat around in the sound department for a year until that day when the maintenance workers kicked us out. So this time, when we went up to the park and into the tunnel, we not only had a sledgehammer and DAT deck, but we had duct tape and paper towels to turn the sledgehammer into a giant padded mallet.

Clint and I took turns pounding on that giant metal door, doing a real performance. The sound was amazing in the huge concrete tunnel. We did everything from ppp to ffff, and the recording was perfect! Then we got everyone in the department to play the door all at once with their hands, like a giant kettle drum. Finally, we all stood in a circle and sung in unison on one pitch, like monks in a temple, with our voices blending and echoing against the concrete. Afterward, when we went outside, a bunch of kids in a nearby school had heard us, and were applauding and cheering us for what must have been a very strange performance coming out of a hill in the park. These sounds have since become a very valuable part of our library. We've used them in sound effects for a number of projects now. That's the benefit of being prepared.

Could you tell us any "behind-the-scenes" info about some game or a particular song you have worked on?

Here's one. Maybe it's common knowlege, and maybe it's not. Do you know where the name "LeChuck" came from? Here's what Ron Gilbert told me. I have no idea whether it's true or not, but I thought it was pretty funny. Back in 1989, when Ron was designing "The Secret of Monkey Island", Lucasfilm Games was a small group within Lucasfilm Ltd., and our General Manager was a man named Steve Arnold. For years Steve had been telling Ron that he really liked the name "Chuck", would he please put a character into one of our games named "Chuck". I guess Ron gave him what he wanted. Sort of.

Could you tell us how "A pirate I was meant to be" was born? [Ed. note: "A pirate I was meant to be" is a song in The Curse of Monkey Island

Jonathan [Ackley] and Larry [Ahern] wanted to have a show tune in the middle of the game, kind of a Broadway-Musical number where the pirates sing and dance. The Monkey Island world has practically everything else, so why not that. Somewhere or other I thought I heard someone say the chorus was going to be "A Pirate I Was Meant To Be", so that's the line that I used when I wrote the melody for the chorus. When I went to Jonathan and Larry with the tune, they liked the verses, but told me that the song didn't have a chorus. I said "But what about 'A Pirate I Was Meant to Be'?", and they said "What's that?" They had never heard of it. I guess I must have imagined it. Fortunately, they liked the line enough to include it in the song. I think it kind of caps off the verses nicely.

How much do the game designers and the musicians cooperate in designing the game and its musical side? In other words, do you get freely to put whatever kind of music you want to into a game or do the designers have specific ideas of the musical background?

It can work either way, depending on the designer. Sometimes they have pretty specific ideas about the music, and keep after you until you give them what they want. That's pretty uncommon though. Most of the time they have certain feelings for certain sections, and tell you what they are in emotional terms. Then you try to find musical versions of those feelings that fit with the overall style of the game. There are also some designers who just give you an overall sense of the game and some of its moods, and let you pretty much create the whole score from there.

How early in a game project does the music usually come in and how do you start designing music for a game?

The composer starts checking out the game pretty early, like a year or more before it's done, but only to get familiar with the mood and start thinking about general musical ideas. The actual composition begins about eight months before release, less for smaller games. The first step is to learn how the game is structured interactively, and figure out how the musical forms will reflect that. Then you start composing rough versions of the main musical themes and play them for the designer to make sure you both agree. After the main themes are approved, you compose all the individual pieces needed to cover the game, often basing them on the main themes, and test rough versions in the game. Once you get them working, both technically and aesthetically, you finish with live players and a final mix.

Your game music is highly regarded to be among the best in the whole industry. You produced a soundtrack CD of The Dig (which was a success, I hope), but how about a "Best of Michael Land" compilation CD? It would be a sure hit, there is so much awesome music in the games you have done that deserves to be on CD. We all want it. Help us Michael, you're our only hope!

Wow, I'm not sure what to say. It's very kind of you to express such support for my music; I appreciate it very much, and it makes me want to try that much harder to do good work in the future.

On the question of soundtrack CD's, I think the games industry is at a very interesting place. Soundtracks are becoming more and more common, but still haven't found a solid foothold where they are the norm. The issue seems to center around the record companies. While a few record companies have released an occasional game soundtrack (The Dig being one of them, for which I am very thankful), most record companies have not yet realized that selling game soundtracks could be a good business. In some cases, the game companies themselves are releasing soundtracks on their own, but that's difficult to do very often because of the cost and effort involved. I guess our industry hasn't yet reached a level like the film industry, where the market is big enough that soundtracks really sell well (by record industry standards). But in a few years I think we will be, and by then I hope that almost every major game will release a soundtrack. I'm sure this will happen, especially with people such as yourself letting companies know how much the public wants them (I really appreciate that petition you put together; reading all those complimentary entries was a wonderful experience for me). Thank you very much for all your effort and support.

What are you working on right now?

I'm answering the questions in this interview. No actually, a number of things are going on. I'm in the process of disconnecting a bunch of the equipment I used during Monkey, to give to Peter McConnell so he can start composing the score for Grim Fandango (that's going to be a fascinating musical world; I'm really looking forward to it). I've been working on all kinds of sound department business, which is mostly pretty boring stuff like databases and servers and networks, except that it's all in the service of being able to do cool music and sound even more efficiently and effectively. Most of the music I'm doing these days is at home, where I'm working really hard to improve my piano and violin skills. Basic musicianship is so incredibly important if you want to express yourself through music, and I feel that any gains I make in that area will be reflected in whatever I do with music anywhere else.

What are you waiting from the future? Do you see any big revolution coming up in game music (new hardware etc.)? Will making game music be harder, easier or the same in the future as it is today?

Game music is getting better and better all the time. I think we're actually in the middle of a big revolution with the wider use of digital audio for music. This is major new opportunity, since it opens up possibilities for all kinds of production techniqes that were not available in the days of MIDI. For example, in The Curse of Monkey Island I brought in top notch live players on steel drums, marimba, drums, percussion, guitar, flutes, oboe, english horn, bassoon, clarinet, and me on bass. These musicians (myself excepted) were all incredible, and added huge amounts of personality that I could never acheive with synthesizers. Fortunately for game music, this level of investment in music production is getting more and more common. As this trend continues, I expect it will someday even be common for games to use live orchestras. And what will become of the interactive possibilites that MIDI offers? I think that over time people will learn how to do the same tricks with digital audio that they learned to do with MIDI. It's a bit more difficult, but where there's a will, there's a way. I know that the iMUSE system can already do in digital audio most of what it used to do with MIDI, so we're well on the way.

Anything else you want to say? Perhaps a few words to all your fans out here?

I want to say I'm truly overwhelmed with the responses in the petition you organized. I had no idea that there were fans out there who were so fond of Monkey Island in general, and the music in particular. And of course, much of the credit goes to Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian, who's contributions to the world of Monkey music in LeChuck's Revenge were phenomenal. So all I can really say to our audience is thank you, thanks so much for listening.

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