How does the music for Telltale games come alive? Jared Emerson-Johnson of Bay Area sound, composer for all of Telltale's games to date (except Texas Hold'em), holds the answers.
How did you go about capturing the essence of the comic books and their characters in the soundtrack to the Bone games?
I started by reading the whole comic. I'd heard a lot about the Bone comics, but I'd never read any of them until Telltale contacted me about writing the game's score in early 2005. From the first couple of pages it was clear to me that the score would best serve the story if it was built thematically--from motifs that could return and morph as the story shifts from carefree, cartoonish innocence toward the more serious and epic story arc that emerges as the books progress. Very early on, I set myself up with a barrel of musical themes that were distinctive but malleable, always with an eye toward the upcoming episodes--you'll be glad to know that the score should expand quite a bit in any future installments.
As far as musical genre, I recognized that the score wouldn't really work if it was bound too strongly to a single musical idiom. Drawing from the comic's dual nature, I wanted to keep a balance between a rustic folksy sound and a more sweeping orchestral one. Smoothing out these two vastly different musical languages was the only major obstacle, something I worked through with the use of what I call "adventure game orchestration." I'll elaborate on this a bit more in later questions, but essentially it is the hybrid style pioneered in the early 90s by Michael Land, Peter McConnell, and Clint Bajakian in the early years of Lucasarts adventure game scoring.
I know next to nothing on how music works, and even less than nothing on how soundtracks are made. So how was the Bone soundtrack created? How long did it take and what tools did you use?
Because I wanted to ground the music thematically, as my first step I mocked up simple piano versions of the main themes. In some cases I had specific instrumentation in mind (baritone saxophone for the Red Dragon, clarinet for Phoney's theme), and in some instances I just had a tune--a melody, or a recognizable harmonic idea.
After writing five or six of these, I felt I had enough material to start thinking about the specific music cues for the first game. I talked through the game, beat by beat, with the writers and drew up a rough list of how many discrete tracks we'd need. Then, I just launched into the composition--one piece at a time.
I work on a Mac with a MIDI sequencer and use various collections of sample libraries. After the pieces are drawn up, I go in and do live recordings to replace parts in the mix. I do all of my mixing and mastering in ProTools and Peak.
If I recall, the whole composition process for Bone--from the preliminary meetings up through the final mastering of the tracks--lasted somewhere between 6-8 weeks. Cow Race may have been a little shorter, since I already had many of the Bone themes worked out. It should be noted that because I collaborate with my partner Julian Kwasneski on the sound effects and voice, not all of that time was spent with my composition hat on.
Was Smiley's theme inspired by the infamous cook-chase music in Monkey Island 2?
No, but I love all of that music. When writing for Telltale I do spend a fair amount of time looking back at the classic crop of adventure game scores from LEC in the early 90s. Throughout all of those games Mike Land, Peter McConnell, and Clint Bajakian articulated a solid precedent for adventure game scoring. I try to fit my scores somewhere in that pocket—taking cues from them on instrumentation, form/structure, and foreground vs. background.
For Smiley's theme, I wanted to write something as carefree and silly as Smiley himself. I always read him as the most classically old-timey cartoon character in the series. Especially since Telltale included his little banjo tunes in the first game, I wanted to incorporate snippets of as many American folk and early tin-pan alley nods into Smiley's theme as possible. Not sure if anyone's counted, but there are upwards of 20 different references in that piece—everything from snippits of "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah," to "Side By Side," to "Old Grey Mare."
This kind of referencing goes back to Carl Stalling's scores for classic cartoons, of course, but it was always an integral element in the scores for Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit The Road, etc. So, while I wasn't actually modeling Smiley's theme after any specific track from any earlier game, it does follow the stylistic rules of earlier adventure game scoring.
A lot of different instruments and styles are used in the Bone soundtrack. How did you decide which ones to go for, and how did you get them to work together so seamlessly?
To answer the last question first, I think it helps that I used a lot of the same instruments in the tunes. Even though the musical genres jump around a bit, you can bet there will be guitar, mandolin, violin, banjo, harmonica, and jaw harp in most of the cues. One of the bigger challenges of the Bone score is in maintaining that balance between the rustic, and the mysterious—the serious and the comic.
It was important to me that the sound be allowed to ebb and flow in instrumentation. Certain sections needed smaller/folksy/bluegrass/jug-band instrumentation, and certain others cried out for more lush orchestration. It made sense to me to try to keep the rustic instruments in the mix even when the score needed to swell into a fuller orchestra.
What's your favourite song from the Bone soundtrack?
It's pretty silly, and surely it's disappointing to hear, but unfortunately asking that's sort of like asking me to pick my favorite child. Melodramatic, I know... I really do enjoy them all pretty equally in their respective locations and contexts in the story. In general I always do my best to write music that I really like.
I especially love the wide range I'm allowed to explore in the Bone games. I can confidently say that I had a ton of fun working on each and every piece and that I'm already looking forward to working on any future installments.
What other music have you done apart from Bone?
It's a pretty eclectic mix: I've done everything from the soundtrack to America's Army: Rise of a Soldier, to working with Michael Land, Pete McConnell, and Clint Bajakian on the songs for The Bard's Tale, to transcribing old school midi arrangements of Star Wars music for Star Wars G.B.A. games. A full list of my credits is up on http://www.basound.com
I've also done quite a bit of sound design and voice work, including the sound design for Psychonauts, cutscene scoring for the Narnia and Return of the King games and some work on God of War. In addition to the credits list, there are some clips of music, as well as other sample audio up on basound.com
Has any other music influenced your work, perhaps from other games?
Like I mentioned, I've been careful to keep my scores for Telltale in the "adventure game music" genre. Mike, Pete, and Clint set a strong precedent, and a very high bar of excellence.
However, mostly I look at the music on a cue-to-cue basis, judging the needs of a particular location or character first, looking for the style in which the music needs to be, and then sketching out the tune.
Part of the reason I love working in game audio is the variety of musical needs from project to project. I'm influenced by so many artists. A list of some of the music I admire will appear down toward the end of the interview.
I love the occasional vocal stuff we hear in the Bone soundtrack, like in "Dinner Conversations" and "Fair games". Why did you decide to use voices in this way, and who's voice is used for those sections?
I'm so glad you liked them, I had a lot of fun writing and performing those. Believe it or not, all of those voices are yours truly. In my opinion there are far too few games that use voice tracks in their scores. Since voice is such an important element in American folk music, and since the Bone score draws a lot from that tradition, it seemed like the right place and the right time. Plus, who doesn't want to put "Doo-Wak-A-Doo-Wak-A-Doo-Wak-A-Doo" into a tune? Incidentally, if you like voice parts, you'll almost certainly enjoy a couple of the tunes in the first episode of Sam and Max. There's one, in particular, that will almost certainly make your smile.
How much of the game do you get to see whilst you're making the soundtrack?
Almost every game is still being put together even after all of the music and sound assets need to be delivered, so I get my reference material in fits and starts. When I first start, there is rarely much to look at aside from a bit of concept art. If I'm lucky (or entering production a bit late), I have access to most of the game location maps.
Also, since I also work in the voice production for many of the games in question, I get to hear most of the dialogue before I'm finished writing the music--that gives a lot of context to the whole package. Once the game starts to take form I usually keep an up-to-date build of the game handy. By the end of the music production process, I usually have a version of the game that can be played most of the way through.
Are you going for a particular mood or genre for the Sam & Max music?
One of my favorite things about the Sam and Max series is how open-ended Steve Purcell makes the universe. From one episode to the next our heroes can move from Europe, to the Amazon, to a road-trip across the U.S., and the music gets to cut a similarly wide trail. Since the first few episodes are likely to center around Sam and Max's base of operations in NYC, the score for the first episodes will be in the classic noir, Henry Mancini-esque jazz sound. That being said, I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised by some of the other genres that pop up because of the other elements of the game's story and characters.
I loved hearing the Sam & Max theme tune at the end of the trailer. Will any other tunes from Hit the Road be coming back for the episodes?
Lucasarts still owns all of the original music for Hit The Road, and Telltale's Sam and Max series is definitely blazing new ground for the characters and their universe. Keep your ears open, though. There will definitely be a few nods.
What sort of music do you like personally?
It's a cliché, but I like a little bit of everything. I think there are people doing interesting and worthwhile work in pretty much every musical genre out there. Here's a sampling of the artists I'm enjoying a lot these days: They Might Be Giants, Miles Davis, Tom Waits, J.S. Bach, John Coltrane, Frank Zappa, Steven Sondheim, Pink Floyd, Beethoven, Aaron Copland, Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, The Beatles, Chopin, Richard Rodgers, Mahler, Bernard Hermann, The Hot Club of France, Daft Punk, Green Day, South Austin Jug Band, Steve Reich, Tool, Alan Menken, Parliment, Stravinsky, The Billy Nayer Show, Tom Lehrer, Dvorák, Louis Armstrong, Philip Glass, Jurassic 5, The Asylum Street Spankers, Schubert, Geroge Gershwin, Woody Guthrie, Mozart, David Bowie, The Hot Club of Cowtown, Björk, Guns N Roses, Sibelius, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Alban Berg, Danny Elfman, Spike Jones, Debussy, James Taylor, Mose Allison, Queen, Nirvana, Henry Purcell, Bob Dylan, Weezer, The Cure, Charlie Parker, Offenbach, Mendelssohn, The Grateful Dead, Nick Cave, The Pixies, The Bothy Band, Brahms, Squarepusher, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Huayucaltia, John Adams, Edward Elgar, Charles Mingus, The Even Dozen Jug Band, The Firehouse Five Plus Two, Kate Wolf, Shostakovich, The Postal Service, Glen Miller, Sir Arthur Sullivan, The Holy Modal Rounders, Samuel Barber, Paul Simon, Stephane Wrembel, Herbie Hancock, Astor Piazzolla, Harry Partch, Alan Hovhaness, Rossini, Madonna, Irving Berlin, Joe Venuti, Jim Kweskin, Edith Piaf, Kurt Weill, Witold Lutoslawski, Bucky Pizzarelli, John Williams, The Pogues, Henry Mancini, Angelo Badalamenti.
What do you typically eat for breakfast?
2-3 cups of tea on a good day. Too often it's nothing at all.