Thursday, March 18, 2010

Interview: Mike Albanese of Audio Aggregate

By Kirk Hamilton

Music has the capacity to affect us more than perhaps any other single aspect of a game. As we work through level after level, we hear the game's themes over and over, and the grooves and melodies inextricably attach themselves to our experience of the game itself. The soundtracks of our favorite games hit our emotional cores as surely as the scent of an old lover or a childhood hideaway - when a longtime game-lover hears the theme from Mega Man, Metal Gear Solid, or Monkey Island, the floodgates of memory open, and things can get emotional.

The capacity for music to make games more emotionally engaging is certainly not lost on today's developers. Last week's GDC was overflowing with audio designers and composers, all of whom are dedicated to pushing game music to new levels. Several of the panels pulled back the curtain on the composition process, and in doing so, showcased the remarkable directions that today's game composers are heading.

Mike Albanese is no stranger to the world of game music. A longtime drummer and producer on the scene in Athens, GA, Mike's first entreƩ into the gaming music scene was as a founder of the band Bit Brigade. Perhaps best described as "Extreme Game-Rock," the Brigade takes the shredding chiptune anthems from the classics of the 8- and 16-bit era and performs them live as their "badass gamer" plays through the games on a giant screen in the background. They are quite a quite a sight to behold. No, seriously - check them out.

Mike's latest venture is the indie game-focused audio collective Audio Aggregate. Their roster currently stands at eight members, with music backgrounds ranging from hardcore chiptune programming and industrial post-rock to classical composition and rootsy guitar blues. According to their press release, Audio Aggregate's goal is to draw upon each of their members' familiarity with disparate musical genres in order to create game music using "a wholly new palette of fresh, genre-crossing collaborations not already saturated in the mind of today's gamer."

Last week, Mike and I chatted via email about Audio Aggregate, the past and future of game audio, the state of the indie game scene, and the super-awesomeness of Ron Gilbert.

GM: Can you tell our readers a bit about your musical background? 

MA: Growing up in New Jersey, you have some recreational options before entering high school. We ripped through invented sports, fort construction and AD&D before discovering that a moving neighbor didn't think it was worth it to move his drumset or bass rig. Joel (Hatstat) picked the bass. I got the drums. Two years later we got ADATs. Two years later we had a monstrous collection of broken ADATs and a wealth of crappy unbalanced outboard gear. Two more years and we inexplicably lived in Georgia, owned a 16 track 2 inch tape machine and had a console made by Manley. Somewhere in there we started Cinemechanica and started touring.

And Audio Aggregate - how did you guys come together? 

How long can one person devote their life to music and work at Gyro Wrap? In Athens, the answer is: A pretty long time. Regardless, while putting my time in hanging AV equipment and testing Crestron control systems, it dawned on me that I wasn't kidding myself in believing Athens to be an anomaly of uncompensated talent.

So that was when you went recruiting?

We've lived in Athens for eight years now. Over this time, Cinemechanica gained a pretty respectable presence nationally ... and played about a hundred-thousand shows locally, give or take. To live here is to be integrated into the music scene and party, form side projects with, date, etc... just about everybody worthwhile in town. It's a pitched battle between musicians and mindless frat culture, and if you fall on the right side of the fence, pretty much everybody immediately knows who you are and what you do. The game audio collective grew pretty naturally out of the communal mindset the town already promotes. Basically, I put the word out that I wanted to get professional with game audio, and none of my first picks turned me down. Quite to the contrary. The fact that I got a group as talented and dedicated to the nitty-gritty of their particular fields of expertise is testament to the "do your thing to the absolute fullest of your ability, at the expense of monetary gain" culture that dominates Athens.

Sorta Like The Blues Brothers. Putting the band back together.

Like that, but without a talentless brother to step into my long-since overdosed shoes and trample upon my corpse ... incurring the wrath of David Cross. But yeah, otherwise more or less like that.

So like the first Blues Brothers. Is there any sort of precedent for this kind of thing? 

There are collectives of composers who do game audio, yes. To my knowledge, there isn't another collective focused on collaborative writing and genre interplay in a game audio-centric context, let alone one that has as diverse and exhaustively mastered a palette as we have. Until I met Coley, for instance ... I was only vaguely aware of Krautrock as a genre. Now that I've immersed myself in it, I can't see how it -isn't- driving game audio. It's an under the radar influence ... not one they bother to cover in theory class in college. Or Jace's obscenely voracious appetite for chiptunes. These are the sort of combination that I can't imagine another collective of people coming up with.

What does your workspace look like?

Two years ago, I knew how to mount a projector pole in drop ceiling. That was the extent of my construction knowledge. I went on YouTube, learned how to frame walls, drywall, hang doors, do basic electrical and lay hardwood floor. Thus, we now operate out of an extremely sweet studio that is copiously photographed in the about section of the Audio Aggregate website

So it's a significant step up for you guys.

After living and recording in another studio with far crappier construction and far better gear, I've simplified my setup substantially. Today I roll logic with an ensemble front end, a pair of Distressors and a small collection of sweet ribbon + condenser mics. I use the UAD suite of plug-ins because they sound about as legit as you can hope for with software and have a intrinsic familiarity after working with the real gear. With AA, my gear focus has been on having the right instruments in the right room for the job. Rhodes. Marshall Plexis. Echoplex. This is what matters to me now. I've got my channels of API, and frankly my days of going back and forth between eight different boutique mic pres are behind me.

I take it that means no more all-analog productions?

Our old studio was completely analog. It was an amazing experience, but one that has somewhat jaded me every time I hear some stoner-rock band talking about "doing it all analog". It's almost a running Athens joke. All-analog is a beautiful way to record a full band that comes in outrageously tight and fully aware of the fact that they'll be losing that perfect drum take because the floor tom channel fell out of alignment and got helicopter noise midway through. It is not the way to record production audio. Ever. Also: the band I just mentioned does not exist, and if they do, they are probably recording their record themselves. They are probably contemplating how they should get Pr Tools to help mix it down. Right now. Fact. Also: anybody want to buy a tape machine?

You've contributed to a number of independently released games (Outer Empires, Spanish Gold!) - what was the first project that you worked on as a collective?

Luke (Fields, of We Versus the Shark) and I cut a track for a GameMaker game called Sentinel when I was first knocking around the idea of building the collective. It's only moderately-to-completely sweet, but it was a first stab. Like everyone else, we had to get our start at the most basic conceivable level, groveling to even be allowed to contribute work to something that was game-esque.

It gave us something to show that had spaceships flying around in time with it ... which landed us Outer Empires, the first MMORPG (first non Mafia Wars-clone MMORPG I should say) which was our "real" test run at collaborative audio and was without question one of the most exciting times of my life. We put our theories into practice on something that was actually going to come out, and low and behold, it worked. Melding Jace's chiptune sensibility with ambient soundscapes ... it was exactly how I had imagined it would be.

In you guys' music, I hear a lot of influences from the 8- and 16-bit games of the 80's and 90's...

As Bit Brigade, we learned note for note more or less all the music from Megaman 2, Ninja Gaiden 1 & 2, Castlevanias 1, 2 & 3, and Contra. And I mean -all- the music. The cues, the cutscenes, all of it. There is no possible way, given the inordinate amount of time it takes to even learn one of the stereo guitar runs from Ninja Gaiden, for instance, that all that time isn't going to have some sort of lasting influence. Those scales are just -memorable-. Even played without chiptune sounding voicing, they subconsciously associate themselves with "epic airship battle" tonality in the mind of any gamer.

Personally speaking, which composers have been your biggest influences, and why?

This would be an insanely exhaustive list. In keeping with the 8-bit theme, if I'm only naming one guy,  I'm going with Neil Baldwin. Go, now .. and next time you think your trakker program is cryptic and hard to use, you'll have Neil to remind you to shut the fuck up and stop being a baby. Politely.

Also, before there was Clint Mansel, there was this. Ok, granted there was still Clint Mansel, but he was in Pop Will Eat Itself and was too busy pouring water on his synths live to score amazingly hot jams like this. When I drive the van on tour, this is the mental soundtrack. How the Detroit Red Wings not picked this up is beyond me.

Bit Brigade performs music live with a freak-show gamer ripping through levels in the background.  Do you have any such performance aspirations with Audio Aggregate?

We've talked with the Video Games Live crew a few times, but they are seriously big business at this point and every time we start getting excited and pin down a date, something falls through. Merging our live runthrough with their orchestra would be pretty much as righteous as it sounds: EXCEEDINGLY RIGHTEOUS. I think Tallarico plays guitar and isn't looking for a showdown. Hopefully he reads Gamer Melodico. The GAUNTLET IS DOWN, TOM.

Most AAA titles these days are moving in a more cinematic direction with their OSTs - you guys seem pretty committed to more old-school 8- or 16-bit music. Do you see that as a viable long-term approach from a business standpoint?

It isn't that we don't see cinema-esque music as part of our profile, its just that stock cinema-esque music is among our biggest pet peeves in any media outlet. You know what I'm talking about. Stock, transparent music is a missed opportunity ... and every year thousands of composers graduate with the tools to spit out endless permutations of the soundtrack to Avatar.

I don't see the point in trying to compete in an already insanely saturated market of faux-cinema sounds. If we do cinema-style music, its going to take influence from more than just other derivative cinema-style music. It's going to be inspired ... possibly by 8-bity roots, but possibly by something completely unprecedented ... as that's the only kind of cinema music I notice and care about anyway.

What do you think about the rise of social gaming, and the kind of music those games might require?

I would rip a vicious rant about how I'm tired of being notified that my friend Sally "just baked 20 apple pies and would like me to have one" if my girlfriend wasn't bugging me to get off the computer and let her update the menu of her cafe. As such, I think that they are the wave of the future, are amazing from a social psychology perspective and I am extremely excited to work on any Facebook app that comes our way. The last part is mostly true.

If you could work with one game designer, who would it be?

Since I'm knee deep in researching indie upstarts with pedigree, I'm going to go with Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame.


He's clearly a fan of sweet jams (the opening of Monkey Island 2 is still only example of Caribbean music I regularly remember). Is it possible to go wrong working with that guy? Anybody know Ron Gilbert? Does Deathspank need amazing metal jams? CAN YOU PLEASE MAKE THIS HAPPEN AS SOON AS POSSIBLE?

The first Monkey Island was one of my favorite game soundtracks of all time. Some of my friends out here in SF actually got to record the horn parts for the updated version.

Your friends have won sir, well played. Now give me the contact information I desire.

Last question - what is your favorite game of all time?

Brain freeze. Don't have a favorite. How does one compare Baldur's Gate to King's Quest 4 to Day of the Tentacle to Pirates! to Eve Online to Vagrant Story? One can't, and that's why I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say Final Fantasy Tactics ... because I got the goddamn Genji Glove and you didn't. I've beaten that game something like eight times. Sick music. Legitimately dark, religious-politico storyline. The fact that Yasumi Matsuno went bonkers after being forced to make a Final Fantasy game for the masses sorta seals the deal. Add him to my list of devs to work with in my lifetime. WE WILL MATCH YOUR CRAZY, MATSUNO.

Thanks for taking the time, Mike.

It has been my absolute pleasure. Thank you immensely for covering our humble beginnings. When the time is right, get ready to do some hot collaborative sax overdubs. Not kidding.

Mike Albanese is the head of Audio Aggregate, an eight-member game-focused composers' collective based in Athens, GA. He can be contacted through the Audio Aggregate website at