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

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

Q: When did you start working at LucasArts?

A: April 1990

Q: How did you get your job?

A: A newspaper ad. It was actually placed there by a headhunter who wasn't really authorized; the Lucas people hadn't asked her to fill the position. But she managed to get me an interview anyway, and the match was so good, with both music and computers, that they went for it.

Q: Who are your heroes?

A: Beethoven, first and foremost. Over time I've become more and more appreciative of how gigantic his accomplishment is. As I've become more skilled, the music of other composers has seemed more attainable. But Beethoven is like a mountain in the matter how much ground you cover, it's always just as far away. I've also been a big fan of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. I find Hendrix more mellow and sophisticated material to be just visionary. As for The Dead, they have a musical rootedness that is very physical and foundational to me.

Q: What was the first game you worked on at LucasArts?

A: The Secret of Monkey Island. It was a great way to get started in the industry.

Q: What exactly is the iMUSE system?

A: It started out as essentially a souped-up MIDI sequencer, and has evolved into more a methodology than anything else. We currently use iMUSE for streamed music only. It's a way to organize all the different music cues, and see how they relate to each other by using a graphic layout. It also allows the composer to specify transitions and other types of musical responses at a pretty detailed level.

Q: What is the process of composing the music for a LucasArts game from start to finish?

A: It varies from game to game, but generally the composer will start by reading design documents early on, and meeting with the project leader to get a feel for the style and mood of the title. Based on this information, the composer will propose a musical style to the project leader, and they might go back and forth a bit until they settle on something they both like. Then the composer will listen to a bunch of material in that style, and then start coming up with ideas for musical themes. Then the real work begins. The composer goes through the game in great detail, coming up with a list of all the music cues that will be needed. He then begins composing MIDI sketches for those cues, a process which can take several months. Initially he will deliver placeholders to see how the material is working in the game, making any changes as needed. Eventually, he will do final production on the pieces, which involves bringing in live players into our on-site studio to reace MIDI parts. This is followed by mixing and mastering (to make sure the music sits well in the sonic space defined by the voice and sound effects). The whole package is delivered in a single giant music bundle containing all the music files, as well as an iMUSE script file which defines all the interactive control. Then we fix the bugs, and we're done.

Q: What is a typical day like for you at LucasArts?

A: It varies greatly. When I'm composing, I usually spend an hour or two doing email and dealing with department issues. Then I put out the "do not disturb" sign and spend the rest of the day on music. When I'm between composition products, I spend most of the day dealing with department issues, doing email, and working on some department project such as a database or some technical issue.

Q: Do the producers/writers of the game tell you distinctly what they want, or do they give you and idea and let you go with it?

A: The amount of direct input from project leaders is totally a matter of personal style. Some of them give us total freedom and let us come up with everything ourselves, giving only minor suggestions. Others are very specific about what they want, and keep at us until they get it.

Q: Clint Bajakian once said that he likes pushing the sound and music of games to higher and higher levels of quality with each product. How has the production of music in these games evolved since you first started working at LucasArts?

A: It's evolved a huge amount. When I first started, there was no digital sound. Everything was MIDI and depended on the synth in the user's machine for playback (which in some cases was a mere PC internal speaker which could only play one note at a time). Over time we started using more and more digital sound, at higher and higher resolution. Now, we are doing work that truly deserves the term "soundtrack". Everything is digital, generally 16-bit 22K. The music is produced in a studio with live players, all the voice is recorded by professional actors, there are sound effects for everything and then some, and rich ambient sound gives you a sense of place. And finally, all the elements are carefully mixed and mastered to work in harmony with each other.

Q: I know that in many games, music credit is given to you, Peter McConnell, and Clint Bajakian. How do you divide up the work? Are you each given a certain part of the game to write music for?

A: We used to collaborate on game scores in a very intricate way. Sometimes we'd divide up sections of the game, but more often we'd all be working on everything in a collaborative way, where everything was all mixed up (sometimes one of us would do the initial sketch of a piece, and another of us would finish it, etc.). That got pretty confusing, and eventually we decided that it should be "one game, one composer", which is how it is now.

Q: Do you ever find it difficult to write so many different songs for just one game?

A: It's not the amount of music that can be difficult, but rather the tight schedules. It's relatively easy to come up with ideas, but a fair amount of work to develop those ideas into pieces that work well in the game.

Q: What piece of music are you most proud of?

A: I'd have to say that The Dig is probably closest to my heart in terms of musical style. It's a bit brooding and ponderous, but then again, so am I. It's also the most integrated score I've done in terms of how all the themes and melodies fit together, and evolve over the course of the game. In terms of just plain fun though, I'd pick the opening theme for Monkey Island.

Q: What was the hardest project to write music for?

A: The hardest was TIE Fighter. We were trying to stay true to the sophisticated vision of John Williams' Star Wars music, but also to give it a bit of a rock and roll edge. That was a tough challenge.

Q: What was it like working with Ron Gilbert?

A: Working with Ron was great. He really had a thorough understanding of all the elements in his games, and how they all contributed to just the right personality and attitude. That understanding of how gameplay and attitude intersect is Ron's greatest talent, in my opinion.

Q: What is it like working with Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley?

A: It was a lot of fun. They had tons of really creative ideas, and it was really enjoyable to add a musical element to them. They also have an excellent sense of long term structure, so the forward momentum of the game was always clear, which helped the composition process a lot.

Q: Are the people at LucasArts really as friendly and outgoing as they seem?

A: Nope. (Just kidding. They all really are.)

Q: The music you composed for The Curse of Monkey Island is fantastic. Many fans want to know if you were the one who wrote the main theme to Monkey Island.

A: Yes, that was me.

Q: What part of The Curse of Monkey Island was the most fun to work on?

A: The most fun for me was bringing all kinds of great live players into the studio to record instrumental overdubs. After working in MIDI for so long, it was a real eye opener. They brought the music alive in ways that synths just can't do.

Q: Are you aware that there is a petition on the Internet to get a soundtrack released of The Curse of Monkey Island? What do you think about that?

A: I think it's pretty cool. It feels really good to know that my music is getting a positive response.

Q: Are you composing the music for the new LucasArts game, Grim Fandango?

A: Nope, that will be Peter McConnell's project. He's got some great ideas brewing.

Q: What kind of music do you like listening to when you're relaxing?

A: Classical (especially Beethoven), Renaissance Choral Music, and rock.

Q: What is your favorite LucasArts game and why?

A: I'd say Monkey Island 2, because it was our first game with wall to wall music, and full iMUSE interactivity (ok, so I'm biased).

Q: Do you have any long-term future plans?

A: I want to keep refining my skill as a composer and instrumentalist (piano, violin, cello). Music is a very deep art, and I want to get as far into it as my potential will allow. Someday, I hope to release a CD of my own music, done not for games or videos, but just on its own.

Q: What advice would you give to people who want to compose music for computer games?

A: Practice and study music hard, and work on developing your compositional voice, since ultimately your skill and talent will be what makes the difference.

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