leonardpaulgdc_478.jpgPresenting on sound design for Vessel at GDC 2012

Leonard J. Paul is the lead composer on Vblank Entertainment's Retro City Rampage chiptune score and has designed and implemented the dynamic audio found in Strange Loop Games' Vessel. He will be performing at a pre-PAX showcase in Seattle on August 30 and speaking at the Gamercamp festival in Toronto this November.

We caught up with the audio engineer and musician to hear about his contributions to independently developed titles.

When you are creating a pastiche of '80s sounds, evoking NES games like Paperboy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, how do you find an appropriate balance between emulating a classic game soundtrack while creating something unique to Retro City Rampage?

Leonard J. Paul: I grew up with the Commodore, not the NES. So when listening to Virt's FX3, I do not hear the references. It's like kids that were listening to rap music and adults going, "That's rare groove and funk. That's Parliament, Funkadelic and James Brown." I think for Matt (Norrin Radd), he will often study existing NES music and try to duplicate the sounds and notes as a reference. But for me, I go for the feel, which is how I avoid that issue of imitation.

We have also done the modern thing of having other indie games make appearances. I actually looked at the score for Super Meat Boy and did a chiptune cover, while for Bit.Trip Runner I duplicated the feel. I am really quite happy with that particular track, the "Bit Happy Song."

Do you have general observations about the stylistic difference between music generated by the Commodore 64 and the NES console?

The NES has two pulse waves, a triangle wave, a noise channel and a crappy sounding sample channel. That gives it a consistent sound, a lot more melodic and less about the effects. The Commodore has three channels, and an analog filter that you can assign to any of them. It grew out of the Euro scene, so it's drawing on Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway, all those other Commodore guys. Whereas with the NES, you have people like Neil Baldwin and a few others, but primarily it's a Japanese sound.

The soundtrack to Retro City Rampage on Bandcamp features a selection of the songs that appear in the game. Are you considering a supplementary release, considering you have this massive collection of music tracks composed for this game?

Yes, though a lot of it is 10 or 15-second stingers. Norrin Radd has his entire Anomaly album in the game, but he has actually remixed and polished it to the point where it is almost like a remix album. There's around two hours of music in total, so there is a lot of remaining material.

Retro City Rampage is on the way to Steam, WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation 3 and PS Vita. Is all of the programming across these various platforms being done by Brian Provinciano?

Yes, he is doing the whole thing. He tried to farm out some of the programming before and he found that it was problematic. As far as I know, he has basically programmed anything and everything in that game from the coding level and did all of the ports.

You are both based in Vancouver, Canada, where a number of independent game studios are located. Klei Entertainment, makers of the Shank games are local, and there is the Full Indie meetup group. Do you find it to be a suitable city for your creating games independently?

Vancouver, on a world scale, is a great place to be for games. I really like that working at EA, in the past anyways, a lot of people would go there, then graduate to bigger and better things, like independent games. As far as the community, it is super solid.

In California, the Bastion developers had experience working on Electronic Arts' Command & Conquer titles.

The Vessel team came from Electronic Arts as well. It was a good way to sort of get your chops, making a few mistakes on someone else's dollar and then put together your own studio. The publishing model of Steam, iOS and downloadable content for the consoles has flipped everything around, so that one person can create, market and complete an entire game on their own.

When it comes to discussions of gaming audio for indie titles, you have been in a position of prominence in recent years, both speaking at GDC on sound design for Vessel and having your score for Retro City Rampage nominated for an Excellence in Audio award. In the past, what were some of the creative roles that you pursued in the game industry that have helped establish your position as an independent creator?

When I started out, I was most interested in computer graphics. But having done music in high school, I became very interested in the audio side of things while working at Radical Entertainment. I found it was a nice combination of the technical and the artistic. Then, there is the educational side, which I have been doing for the past ten years.

Outside of composing for Vblank Entertainment's first console game, you have also been implementing the adaptive audio for Vessel by Strange Loop Games. What was entailed from a design standpoint in taking Jon Hopkins' music compositions and making them behave interactively within the context of the puzzle platformer?

Jon Hopkins is a well known electronic music artist from the UK, nominated for a Mercury Award, which is a big deal over there. Vessel was released for Steam at the start of the year and will be out on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 later on in 2012, but the developers actually contacted the composer three years ago when he was on the cusp of breaking through. Since then he has become quite popular. When I tried contacting him just recently about the licensing, it took me the greater part of eight months to secure the stems, while working out the compensation details between his record label and management.

That being said, we have amazing music for the game. It is an integral part of the game because they basically built the world of Vessel around his songs. He would send 30 tracks or so, and I would collapse those down to about four tracks, organized by drums, harmony, bass and melody. Then, I would make it so that those layers come in and out depending on how you are solving a puzzle. If you solved a part of the puzzle, that would actually cue the drums, but only once it was time for a proper musical transition. Just working with the quality of Jon's electronic, avant-garde material was inspiring to me.

When it comes to puzzle gameplay, is it important that while the player is attempting to progress that the background music not add to the frustration by becoming repetitive?

That is a massive concern. Percussive elements easily become repetitive. In Vessel there is a part of the system that will fade out looping music. If you are not progressing in a certain puzzle and you're stuck, it will fade those layers out and then just sort of go back to an ambient score.

Now that you have experience with multiple independent titles, do you find that indie development lends itself to a different kind of atmosphere than working within the studio system?

Working in indie games, I find that I don't have to explain myself as much, when compared with corporate structures. If the budget for a game is $20 million, you can't justify your intentions by saying, "I don't know, I just want to do something that sounds cool." It was great having the leeway on Retro City Rampage to put out a vinyl album. I love that level of control you get with indie games. Whereas, working on Death Jr, I really wish I could release the soundtrack but I don't own the material. There's all that music now that no one can listen to.

At the same time, something that some people coming into indie games don't seem to be able to balance is that they need to sleep, they need to eat, they need to see their friends. Watching Indie Game: The Movie and observing the Super Meat Boy guys, I was like, "Man, that sucks." But I see things improving, as publishers are getting smarter and understanding, "Yes, we are making money off you guys and we are going to treat you like a valued resource."

Follow Leonard J. Paul on twitter. Catch his music at the pre-PAX showcase in Seattle on August 30 and Gamercamp festival in Toronto in November. Photo by Jeriaska.