Michael Land Interview Round-up The Michael Land Homepage Interview (Summer 1998)

This interview was conducted by "Telarium", and was originally published on the Mixnmojo hosted site The Michael Land Homepage, Summer 1998. Special thanks to Tom Sarris who arranged this interview.

Q: First of all, I'd like to thank you for granting us another interview. It's a real treat to get to know more about the music side of LucasArts.

A: My pleasure. And I must say from scanning the questions below, I'm really impressed with the quality and insight of your questions. It's a real pleasure to be interviewed in such a knowlegable way.

Q: What's going on now in our favorite gaming company?

A: A lot of the focus in the sound department right now is on Grim Fandango. It's a really expansive game, with some great moods and settings. We've got several sound designers working really hard to make the soundtrack as rich and expressive as possible. And Peter McConnell has been bringing in live musicians for his music score, and it's sounding really great.

Q: In our last interview, you were discussing the iMUSE system. Who came up with the original concept of iMUSE and when? And how long did it take you to develop the first prototype of iMUSE?

A: Back in 1990, when I was working on Monkey Island with Ron Gilbert, there were a number of ways in which we wanted to synchronize the sound and music with the picture, but we just couldn't do it because of limitations in the sound playback engine. So right after Monkey Island, I started brainstorming on some ideas for a more sophisticated sound engine. I soon realized that it was a pretty big challenge, and brought in Peter McConnell, an old friend and colleague, to help. Together, we fleshed out the basics of the design, and spent about eight months programming furiously to get it implemented. Around that time we brought in Clint Bajakian to collaborate with us on the score to LeChuck's Revenge, and in fact it was Clint who had the pleasure of taking iMUSE for its first test runs doing real interactive music, while Peter and I frantically finished up the programming. We were very pleased and maybe a little relieved that it actually worked, and shortly thereafter we were able to join Clint in composing the score to LeChuck's Revenge.

Q: iMUSE, as I understand, is one of the only things by LEC that is patented. Why did you feel it was necessary to patent this technology?

A: I think that at the time, everyone felt we had developed a new and very useful technology. How you get from that feeling to a decision to file a patent is more of a business and legal question, and I like to leave those kinds of questions to businessmen and lawyers.

Q: Just out of curiosity, who came up with the acronym for iMUSE?/

A: That was Peter McConnell. He has a knack for that sort of thing. Around here, we refer to him as "The Namemeister".

Q: It is well known that digital music has changed the genre of game music. How does digital iMUSE compare to MIDI iMUSE? Are there limitations with digital music you didn't have with MIDI?

A: Yes there are, but they don't really bother me. There are only two significant features that we were able to do in MIDI, and can't in digital. One is the ability to do interactive tempo changes. As far as I know, that feature was only used once, by Peter, in the grog drinking contest in LeChuck's Revenge. The other is the ability to enable and disable individual instrument parts. That feature was much more heavily used over the years, but there's a way to do something similar with digital music where you switch between entirely different mixes, so I don't feel we've lost that much interactivity, and we sure have gained a lot of musical quality.

Q: Of course, the great thing about digital music is the ability to use live players to enhance the quality of music. Was there any kind of hesitation from LucasArts about hiring live players for CMI because of financial reasons?

A: No, on the contrary. We've gotten a great deal of support from company management regarding the use of live players. Everyone seems to recognize that they add so much life to a soundtrack. We even have our own recording studio here on site. Of course we need to keep an eye on our budgets, and make sure we're getting plenty of bang for our buck, but that's true of all the components that go into a game.

Q: How much of the CMI soundtrack was performed by real players and how much was synthesized? I'm assuming that the instruments like orchestra strings were synthesized.

A: There was actually a pretty substantial amount of live playing woven throughout the score, combined of course with high quality instrument samples played on really good samplers. All of the full orchestral writing was done entirely with samples, because that provided the best blend for the orchestral sound (I spent a lot of time developing the sample set for the orchestra). In the non-orchestral pieces I used live instruments pretty liberally: guitar, bass, drums, a truckload of percussion, steel drums, accordion, marimba, penny flutes, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, and bassoon. All of the players were absolutely top quality, and it was a great pleasure working with them. Wherever you hear those instruments in a non-orchestral piece, they're likely to be live (although in some pieces I left the sampled versions in place because there wasn't time or need to replace them). I'd say that a majority of the pieces in the game have at least some live tracks, with a fair number being predominantly live. Considering the number of pieces, that's a lot of live playing.

Q: I assume that sheet music arrangements had to be made for the live players for some of the music in CMI. Were there any sheet music arrangements made for the earlier games like Monkey Island or LeChuck's Revenge? Has LucasArts ever considered making sheet music available to the public? Personally, I would LOVE to have my favorite Michael Land works in sheet music form!

A: I actually have printed parts for the original main theme from Secret of Monkey Island. I printed them out from the MIDI sequence a few years ago when someone asked about performing the piece live using a percussion ensemble. I don't know about making it generally available, but possibly on a case by case basis...

Q: Did you ever allow or encourage the live players in CMI to improvise, or was it all mapped out from the beginning?

A: There was a lot of guided improvisation, where I had a rough structure and general mood in mind, and asked the player to improvise within that framework. It worked especially well for the more ambient music.

Q: Every Monkey Island fan knows that the developers of CMI wanted to have a large musical number during ending credit sequence called Plank of Love. We've seen the lyrics written for the number, but was any composing actually done? And if so, is there any chance it will ever be heard?

A: Unfortunately that was one of the things we didn't have time to do, but I would have really enjoyed it. In fact, I was trying to persuade Jonathan Ackley to sing it himself, and I think I almost had him convinced.

Q: You mentioned before that you initially had to compose MIDI sketches for cues for CMI. How do these MIDI sketches sound when compared to the digital music?

A: The MIDI sketches sounded pretty cool when I first wrote them, because I had really good synths to work on. But once I got the live players going, the MIDI started to sound kind of flat and lifeless. The actual sound of the MIDI hadn't changed, but my perceptions of it had.

Q: With MIDI becoming more reliable in terms of playback quality, do you think there is any possibility LucasArts will ever go back to MIDI one day?

A: MIDI is far less demanding in terms of disk space and/or CPU, and so there are still situations where it's the right approach (and probably will be for some time). But I don't think we would ever choose to deliver MIDI as a first choice if digital music is an option, because digital music encompasses everything you can do with MIDI and so much more.

Q: When making the MIDI music for games, was the music "programmed" in, was it performed on a MIDI keyboard and recorded into the computer, or was it a combination of both?

A: We always performed it on a keyboard, since that resulted in a more human, musically natural feel, which is what we've always been after.

Q: Though several game publishers were providing MT-32 support, only LucasArts and Sierra On-Line took advantage of the MT-32 capability to play user-defined sounds. Did you create the additional MT-32 sounds (i.e. "Jacob's Ladder", "ReggaeBass") used in some of these early games? Why were so few additional sounds used?

A: I created "ReggaeBass" and Peter created "Jacob's Ladder". I think the reason we used so few originally programmed sounds is that the MT-32 had so many great sounds to begin with. And of course there's always the schedule pressure, which makes you find cool ways to use what you already have (when what you have is pretty good) rather than fishing around for new options.

Q: Did you originally sequence the score for The Secret of Monkey Island and LeChuck's Revenge for the MT-32?

A: Yes, pretty much everything from both games was done first on MT-32, with one exception. I did the rework of the main theme for LeChuck's Revenge using the Adlib driver on the PC. I guess I just wanted to optimize that first tune of the game for FM, since FM was so predominant at the time.

Q: Here's a technical question: Unlike other MT-32 supported games, LucasArts' games contained ever changing patch dumps, often during the same track or theme. Was there a reason for doing this rather than using a single patch dump at the start of the game?

A: Yes, the reason had to do with iMUSE. One of the things iMUSE did was standardize the way common information was maintained for several different sound cards, trying to capitalize on commonalities so as to minimize the amount of work needed to create the different versions of each tune for the different cards. As a result, we sort of "dumbed down" the MT-32's higher level abilities, and handled them in driver software like we did with the other cards. To implement this, we needed to talk to the MT-32 using the more low-level language of system exclusive messages, not just for patch dumps, but for various other changing parameters as well.

Q: What is the best way for you to compose music? Do you sit at a piano and play until you find something you like, or do you compose the music in your head first?

A: It's an interesting question. I actually go back and forth a lot while working on any given piece. What works best for me when coming up with initial ideas is to sit at a piano or synthesizer and play until I find something I like. I do this in my head sometimes, but I've found that the initial ideas I come up with that way don't resonate with me as much as when I'm making real sound, so I end up not using that approach as much. Once I have a basic idea, I go back and forth a lot moment to moment. When I work in my head, I don't have to worry about where to put my fingers, so I can get a better sense of overall shapes and flows. When I'm on the keyboard, I hear real sound, which helps me stay grounded and in touch with the specifics. Eventually, I always end up at the keyboard to really nail down the final version.

Q: Also, do you consciously connect different scenes with "leitmotifs" to signify similarities? (examples in CMI like the Voodoo Cannonball theme (Voodoo Lady theme) and the Barbery Coast (Monkey Island theme) spring to mind :) )

A: I do that a lot, but not always consciously. When you work on a project for many months, you're swimming in a musical world of themes that represent various people, places or emotions. These themes get so internalized that after a while there's almost no such thing as a new idea, just new variations of what's already in your head. You become a filter letting out different parts of your internal musical world, rather than composing on a clean slate. Sometimes the connections are totally intentional (like the Barbery Coast), and other times it's a similarity of feeling that results in similar music. I must say it can get pretty strange sometimes, like in CMI when the LeChuck theme starts creeping into the main theme just before his sudden entrance. That wasn't totally conscious at first.

Q: How does writing music for a game compare to writing music for, say, TV or film? Is it harder since you have to work with separate MIDIs and other audio files in an orchestrated sequence instead of scoring it all together?

A: I've never composed for TV or film, so I may not be qualified to talk about those media. But in comparing the music I've written for video cutscenes with that of interactive gameplay, I can definitively say that scoring the interactive parts is much, much harder. The two main challenges are the unpredictability of time durations and the vast number of potential connection points between pieces. And of course there's the challenge of writing a looped piece of music that doesn't drive you nuts after a couple of times through the loop. So with those ground rules, you need to put together a complex network of more than a hundred pieces of music (composed of thousands of individual tracks) that flow in and out of each other in ways that feel natural, comfortable and coherent, while enhancing the overall plot and interactively defining the mood of the moment. If the computers didn't crash constantly and the schedules weren't so unforgiving, it would still be pretty difficult.

Q: You mentioned before that the tight schedules are stressful for you. Just how tight are the deadlines for the music in games?

A: To be perfectly honest, it's not that the schedules are really that tight; it's that we're so ambitious about trying to do as much as we can in the time we have. We get quite a few months to score a game, which is pretty reasonable, and by some standards even luxurious. But if you look at the task as I described it in the last question, it's a tall order to fill, even with a few months of time. It may be that we're crazy, but we try to push the quality as high as we possibly can, and that always seems to lead to a real crunch near the end of the production cycle. Just the nature of the job, I guess.

Q: Have you done any non-game compositions? And if so, where can we find them? :)

A: I've been doing some non-game music at home for a few years, kind of on and off (it's really hard to compose at home when you're composing 80 hours a week at work). It's still at a very early stage; I'm mostly just coming up with initial ideas and rough directions. I wish I could tell you the style, but there really isn't a style out there that it fits into. The best I can do is to say it's sort of a cross between classical chamber music and acid rock. I plan to keep working at it and eventually get it to the point where I can release a CD.

Q: Do you think there's ANY chance that a CMI soundtrack will available in the future?

A: I wish it were my decision, but since it isn't, I'll have to pass on this one.

Q: If you had to pick your favorite song from CMI, what would it be?

A: Gee, that's a tough one...I guess the town music in Puerto Pollo. The thing I like about it is that it's light and airy and easy to listen to, but also has an aspect that's deep and maybe a little nostalgic.

Q: Here's a similar question: If you could pick a single piece of music out of all the games you've composed that you're most proud of, what would it be?

A: I've been very lucky in that I've had the opportunity to write lots of tunes for LucasArts' games that I really like. But I guess I've always been especially proud of the Monkey Island main theme, so if I had to pick just one, I guess that would be it. On the other hand, I've always thought of the whole score to The Dig, including the soundtrack CD, more as one giant piece rather than separate tunes. So if you look at it that way and take it as a whole, that's what I'm most proud of.

Q: The one thing that all LucasArts fans can agree on about The Dig is that it contains some of the best music ever found in a computer game. Was it your idea to use samples from Wagner in The Dig?

A: Yes. Back when I was in college I did an electronic music piece where I took samples of orchestral Beethoven and played them backwards and forwards and spliced them together to make a musical collage. I really liked the effect, and always wanted to do something like it again. During the early stages of The Dig, Brian Moriarty, who was project leader at the time, mentioned that he wanted a Wagnerian approach to the score. I remembered that piece from college and realized that doing something similar with Wagner could be very effective.

Q: Is there any other game music you admire as a musician? Speaking of other game music, will Clint Bajakian ever go back to composing? It seems like his recent projects have all been in sound effects.

A: I think the music that Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian come up with is really great (and yes, Clint will be doing more composing in the future). I love the fact that I work with two musical collegues that I admire so much. They're two of my favorite musicians, in any medium. And I also really admire the music of The Fat Man and Team Fat, especially their rockin' live instrument stuff. They bring a lot of fun and spirit to the game music world.

Q: What do you do for recreation other than music?

A: Actually, I really like working outdoors in my yard, anything from pruning plants to moving rocks. It can be very zen.

Q: Do you ever surf the net to check on your fans? :)

A: I've done a little of that lately (I just recently became net literate). People have written some very nice things about my music, and I feel really thankful and appreciative. But I'm not at all used to it; most of the time I feel like it's about someone else's music.

Q: How do you feel about people arranging and recording your music as MIDIs for distribution on the net?

A: I take it as a real compliment and I appreciate the interest very much, especially since it's coming from other musicians.

Q: Can you tell us anything about your current and/or future projects?

A: I probably shouldn't, but thanks for asking.

Q: Do you think you would ever want to "move on" to other things and leave LucasArts behind? Please say no. Our favorite game company wouldn't be the same without our favorite music composer! :)/

A: Thanks so much for the thought. And to answer your question, I think LucasArts makes the best games in the industry, and doing music for them is a great opportunity and privilege that I hope I always have.

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