Month: February 2015

The Interview with Jim Guthrie

Jim Guthrie “Head” -er via Noted

Jim Guthrie is a Canadian singer, songwriter, and composer of the brilliant Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP indie hit. Jim is one of my favorite video game composers (even if he might not consider himself one) and it is all thanks to his Sword & Sworcery LP – The Ballad of the Space Babies soundtrack. Before I even played the game, I listened to this incredible soundtrack and was blown away. Never have I heard so many musical ideas in a video game that surprised me.

The more I listened to the Sword & Sworcery LP, the more I wondered about its inspirations and music theory. About a month ago, I contacted Jim for an interview via Twitter. I was ecstatic that he was happy to oblige. To my amazement, within a day of my email, he wrote back answering all my questions about his musical career, his new projects and eye-opening aspirations. Below are the questions I asked him and his reply with little notes thrown in for good measure.

Pretty High Up There by Game Pressure

Casey: Thank you for taking time to read my email and random tweets. It is not everyday you get a chance to talk to people you admire! What made you the musician we see today? Did you go to school for music?

Jim Guthrie: Self-taught. I can’t even really read music but I’ve always heard music in my head like it was playing on the radio. I started playing guitar when I was 16 or 17 years old. I started recording my sloppy ideas on a little pink tape recorder and bought a cassette 4-track (Fostex X-18) soon after. All of my friends (at the time) didn’t play music so I taught myself bass, drums and keyboards etc. I also experimented with writing songs and instrumental music and learned how to arrange it all on the 4-track.

The Fostex X-18 via AVF

Looking at your Bandcamp page, you have an album from your former band In Royal City. I would label your music in the indie genre, but when you were up-and-coming, indie wasn’t a household name like it is now. Did you think you guys would make it big, or were you ahead of the times?

We weren’t “big,” no, but the album ‘Alone At the Microphone’ was nominated for a Juno (Canadian Grammy) and we were signed to Rough Trade in the UK for the album after. We were very ‘DIY’ and didn’t have any outside funding. We booked our own tours and made our own CDs etc. We were all really good friends and we were having the time of our lives booking these scrappy little tours and playing all over North America and Europe. We never got rich but that wasn’t the point. I was making music everyday of my life…and still do.

What led you to writing video game music?

In all honesty it found me. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I wouldn’t even really call what I do “video game music.”  It’s music and it’s in a video game but it’s not “video game music” you know what I mean? I’m speaking in the context of S&S. To further explain: right from the start we described our idea for the game as “an album you can walk through” so that’s partly why the music works as an album.

Music Generator Cover via GameFaqs

Before you worked on the music for Sword & Sworcery, did you have an idea for the music before seeing the game?

I had some instrumental music laying around (that I recorded on Playstation 1 using MTV Music Generator) when I met Craig (creator of the game) and he really liked it so we used a few of those tracks as a launch pad.

Note: The following questions are about specific songs off of the Sword & Sworcery LP.

 

Dark Flute’ is one of my favorite tracks from Sword & Sworcery. It reminds me of the Neverending Story. Where did the inspiration come from? The intro was very different from anything I’ve heard. The rhythm is simplistic and repeating, but that is one of the best parts about it. If you look into music theory a little more, it almost makes no sense to include it with such chords, but you pulled it off masterfully.

Yeah, the bed tracks (the loopy sounding flute at the start) was made on the Playstation and I just loved that sound. That dreamy pulse is the sound that inspired the loop. I just went where it led me. Then I overdubbed the melody in Garageband using bass, guitars and more synths. And I think you’re right – if I knew anything about music theory, I probably wouldn’t have made this music. All the credit goes to my quirky, self-taught nature. That goes for everything I’ve ever written.

Lone Star,’ talk about a great track walking/driving to. It is mellow, clean and upbeat. The song is very catchy. Where did that come from? Did you hit some keys and think, that may work?

That started off as a guitar song back in 2000 and long before the game. I just was playing a simple progression and noodling over top of it. I even home recorded a song with a friend of mine where we both sang on it with those chords and that hook. It wasn’t until a year or two after that I transposed it over to the MTV Music Generator and then it wasn’t until years after S&S came along and I just sort of made it longer, added more instrumentation and found a place for it in the game.

The Prettiest Weed’ is a great title for a powerful song. Your crescendo with the background organ building was perfect. The drum beat is perfect and the synth was entered in after the break was satisfying. When writing music, do you keep in mind all of the dynamics? With this song in particular, how did you go about create the drums?

I play the drums but I’m not exactly John Bonham so I use a mix of my own playing and drum programming with midi to get the performance I want. ‘The Prettiest Weed’ was also a song that just wrote itself once I had that piano part I just heard the rest of song in my head so I spent a week trying to figure out how to replicate it.

‘The Ballad of the Space Babies,’ you knew I was going to have to touch on this song right? Vocals in the beginning, is that you or did you hire a vocalist? Whatever you did, it was an incredible effect that fits perfectly with the ambiance. This may be the most relaxing song on the entire soundtrack. Where did you inspiration come from on this piece?

I like to have lots of different instruments and noise makers around. I used an old keyboard called an Casio SK-1 on this song. I sampled notes from my piano into the SK-1 and looped them to get the pulse. The voice is my voice sampled using the SK-1 and pitch up. I also used the portamento feature to give it a cooler sounding slide up to the note. It all just comes from experimenting with all the sounds I have at my fingertips.

Casio SK-1 via Wikipedia

‘And We Got Older,’ your ideas in the intro is exactly what I was a doing on my ukulele a year or two ago. How did you do it? Where did it come from? I was in shock when I heard this song.

Again, you’ll be shocked to know that I recorded this song in 1997 or ’98? This exact version. I released it on a homemade cassette in the summer of ’98 and then put it on a CD in 1999 called ‘A Thousand Songs’ (which was basically a best of compilation of all the cassettes I put out in the 90s) and then Craig loved the song so much that we made it work with the game. It’s just another weird little tuning I had made up on the uke and then I layered drums and synth strings on a cassette 4-track. I don’t even remember how I managed to pull it off but it’s one of my personal faves as well. But yeah, it’s around 18 years old!

Sword & Sworcery was hugely successful and the soundtrack especially caught gamers’ attention. Did many people try to contact you afterwards? Did you consider doing another project?

I’ve had people email me almost everyday since the game came out. Some asking me to compose for other games, some asking questions for blogs and some just saying how much it all means to them. It’s really quite amazing. Since S&S I’ve done the music for the film Indie Game: The Movie, I’ve also done music for another game called Sound Shapes (one level) for PS3, PS4 and Vita.

If you don’t mind me asking, how has sells been on Bandcamp with the Sword & Sworcery extras that come with it?

The sales have been very good. Between Bandcamp and iTunes it’s sold around 30k digital copies. It’s crazy.

Current and Future Projects

Are you working on any new indie game soundtracks today?

I’m currently working on a game called Below with Capy Games. I have no idea when it will be done but here’s one of the many trailers for it:

Your newest album, One Of These Days I’ll Get It Right, featured many of your tracks remixed by Solid Mas. One reason I really enjoyed this album was because it actually reminded me of The Avalanches and their album Since I Left You. How did this project come to be? Did you overlook the entire process or did Solid Mas roam free? Do you believe this album helped you gain more listenership?

I met Cooper (Solid Mas) last year at a Christmas party and we hit it off. He was a big fan so we decided to do this remix album because he’s an insanely gifted hip hop producer. He sent me ideas and did most of the heavy lifting for each song. I would just give feedback and say ‘it should get choppier here’ or ‘it should blow up here’. I would also hum melodies I heard into my phone and send them to him and he would put them in. It was very fun and easy to work on this album. It hasn’t sold as well but we’ve still managed to sell a few hundred copies so far.

 

Do you have an idea for a video game project with your own music involved? If so, will you pursue?

I’d like to make a little music app of some kind but I’m too busy with Below so it might never happen but maybe…

 

If you want to hear more of Jim Guthrie’s work, please visit his Bandcamp page here. You can listen to his newest album collaboration with Solid Mas here. Also, Jim provided me with two interviews he did with Create Digital Music and The Verge that go into detail about his music process and how he was chosen to compose the Sword & Sworcery soundtrack.

 

The Future Of PAX South

The Beautiful Convention Center via 4Player Network

In case you did not know, I was born and raised in Texas. I was quite pleased to hear that the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) would finally make its way down South since Seattle, Boston and Melbourne are a little out-of-the-way. When PAX South was slated for San Antonio, it shocked me. There are numerous cities that could host PAX South, and I wish I knew the real truth behind the choosing of San Antonio.

I want to divulge from video games for one post to talk about a few positives and negatives for having PAX South in San Antonio, Texas. I will touch on different cities that could host this convention, why the size of the venue matters and price point for both PAX and attendees.

Badges Were Everywhere by PAX South

Registration Please

The numbers speak for themselves, according to IGN, PAX South beat out attendance records for first-year PAX shows in Boston and Melbourne. That is a big feat, but how big was it really? San Antonio papers and the news estimated that roughly 40,000 attendees came to experience PAX. I believe that most of the people who attended were from Texas, but I have no proof unless more numbers are released.

I remember when I bought my tickets from the PAX South website. I could not believe how reasonable the price was and had to snatch two tickets quickly. I decided to buy two 3-day passes which cost me $65 a piece; this would be my very first gaming convention and I thought I should attend the entire weekend. However, I do not believe many people were keen on the idea of having PAX South so far South.

Sold out? by PAX Prime

Usually, PAX tickets sell out immediately, but not here. PAX South tickets never sold out, which is unreal. The 3-day passes sold out, partially because it was the best deal. If you wanted to attend a specific day, it would cost you $30 for one day; still a reasonable price unless you had to buy one for each day. Before I left for PAX South, I noticed that Friday and Sunday were not sold out. How is that even possible?

I can understand why Friday took so long to sell out (I believe Friday sold out on Thursday before the event), since it is during the workweek and it was the day most people were either driving or flying to San Antonio. If that is the case, why did Sunday not sell out? The most notable Gearbox panel at PAX South was on Sunday, it was the final day of the Omegathon (a tournament that pits random attendees against each other playing the most random of games), and it hosted the second Q&A from Penny Arcade.

It boggles my mind to see how successful the convention was without it truly selling out. I think PAX South started off great with the attendance, but it does need some improvements. Reports are coming out that San Antonio will host PAX South until 2017.

Lines On Lines At Panels by mySA

Size Means Everything

PAX needed the perfect size shoe to make this convention fit. Did they find it in San Antonio, or are there others out there more suitable? San Antonio houses roughly 1.4 million people in its 465 square miles.

PAX South was held at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention center that is 1,300,000 square feet. The convention center has four floors and navigation was simple enough (signs everywhere). Two of the four theatres they used as panels were too small (which is why I missed out on seeing Markiplier’s panel with Bob and Wade). I was not able to attend a panel in the Main Theatre, but I did get a chance to watch the Fraxis panel in the Falcon Theatre, which was pretty massive. The main expo was big enough to house the 120 exhibitors and the tabletop area was bigger than I expected it to be (people sure love tabletop games).

I want to compare San Antonio to a few other major cities and convention centers that could have hosted PAX South.

George R. Brown Convention Center via Library of Congress

Houston, Texas – George R. Brown Convention Center

Houston, Texas houses around 2.2 million people in 627 square miles. Houston is a little bigger than San Antonio, but not by much. The only thing I dislike about Houston is their traffic problems, but it can be overlooked for a convention of this magnitude.

PAX South would most likely be at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The convention center is 1,800,000 square feet, which makes it one of the largest convention centers in America. Based on the size of the town, PAX might have thought the town was too big and that it would be crowded. However, the bigger venue could have brought in more exhibitors and possibly, more attendees.

The Neal Kocurek Memorial Austin Convention Center via Levy Restaurants

Austin, Texas – The Neal Kocurek Memorial Austin Convention Center

Austin, Texas is much smaller compared to San Antonio. The city houses nearly 900,000 people in 271.8 square miles. Austin is very compact near the downtown area and houses the University of Texas and all 40,000 or so students.

The most notable convention center in Austin is the Neal Kocurek Memorial. This convention hosts South By Southwest (SXSW) every year, but is much smaller than most convention centers. The convention center encloses a total of 881,400 square feet. 40,510 square feet is dedicated to one of the largest ballrooms in Texas, which could be perfect for huge events at PAX. The main reason I could see Austin not being used for PAX is based on its small size and crowded downtown area. First and foremost, Austin is a college town. It already hosts SXSW, and PAX wanted to shake things up a bit since Austin already has a gaming convention (which is tiny compared to PAX).

Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center via FaceBook

Dallas, Texas – Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and AT&T Stadium

Dallas, Texas is monstrous compared to most cities in Texas. Dallas is 385.8 square miles and houses around 1.25 million people. Even though Dallas is huge, it does not have as many people as San Antonio (which should be a plus).

There are two venues PAX could use: Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center (Dallas Convention Center) and AT&T Stadium (aka Jerrydome, the Death Star, or Cowboys Stadium). The Dallas Convention Center is over 2,000,000 square feet big and has a huge exhibit area, while the AT&T Stadium can fit over 105,000 people with standing room. The reason I bring up two venues is the fact that the main events/expo could be located at the Dallas Convention Center. Any PC gaming, the Omegathon or other huge panels could stay at AT&T Stadium. It is roughly a twenty minute drive from the convention center to the stadium, and imagine using the huge screen there. Playing video games at AT&T Stadium is by far, one of the coolest things.

It’s A-Me, Washington via Game Front

Where The Money Comes Into Play

A theory that I will touch on now is the money in the attendees pockets who attend PAX. One thing PAX had to consider were the flights to the convention. For many Texans, the drive is not so bad, but a drive from Boston or Seattle could be tiresome.

Based on data obtained by the United States Department of Transportation, the average airfare in 2014 (quarter 3) was $396.37, which sounds pricey when traveling for a convention (but what do I know?). I went to look at the average amounts for each city and their airports that sheds new light on the airfare price for attendees.

  • Tickets to Austin, Texas would roughly cost: $395.61
  • Tickets to Dallas, Texas would roughly cost: $425.89
  • Tickets to Houston, Texas would roughly cost: $450.07
  • Tickets to San Antonio, Texas would roughly cost: $407.11

Based on flights alone, it would have been cheaper for attendees to fly to Austin than any other major city. Flying is not the only expense attendees have. What do hotel prices look like?

Stylish Hyatt Hotel Room via Hyatt Regency Columbus

My next theory revolves around the average prices for hotels in each city. I looked around the convention centers and found rough averages of the price. Many PAX South attendees most-likely shared rooms. I decided to take one scenario and look at major hotels surrounding the venues I listed above. The search criteria was that one room would be occupied by four people for three days.

Austin is home of many motels and smaller hotel chains. On average, per-night, you are looking at spending roughly $200 for semi-decent places, and $100 for a motel room. If you want to stay in luxury, those can cost anywhere from $300-500.

Dallas can be a little pricer. The surrounding areas of the convention center and stadium house some of the nicest hotels (motels are not really located around here). On average, you are looking at spending $200-250 no matter the hotel. Much nicer hotels such as the Omni or Marriott are increasingly more expensive.

Houston’s price range is very similar to Dallas. The surrounding hotels would most likely cost around $250-300 in price with motels a little further from the convention center.

The Menger Hotel in San Antonio by Menger Hotel

San Antonio hotels had some of the best deals out of each city. I had a friend who booked his hotel, well in advance, and only paid $100. This hotel was within walking distance of the convention center. On average, many hotels around the convention center were priced around $100-150. If you wanted to be on the Riverwalk or next door to the convention center, it could cost upwards to $300 per-night.

If PAX was thinking of the attendees and how much they would have to shell out to attend, then yes, San Antonio might have been the best choice. It is hard to determine since I do not know how much the convention centers cost to occupy for huge events like this. However, PAX could have raised the prices if they were in a larger convention center (I thought the price point was really cheap compared to large events like this).

For my convenience, I would have liked PAX South in Dallas since I know the area and it is not that far from my home. I did not have a big problem with PAX South in San Antonio, but I truly believe PAX missed out on some larger opportunities based on location.

Mario, Where Am I? via rllmuk

Location, Location, Location

While attending PAX South, I noticed some Texas-based companies, but not as many as I would have liked. The largest company from Texas at PAX South was Gearbox. Many people might not know this, but Gearbox is located in Plano, Texas (which is right down the road from Dallas). Their presence at PAX South was monstrous. They had a specific play area where you could demo old-school video games, look at consoles that do not exist anymore and try to win prizes from participating in a drawing. They also had the biggest panel on the last day of PAX South where they talked about the re-release of Borderlands on the Xbox One and Playstation 4 (PS4). They were probably the biggest deal at PAX South.

The other company that started in Texas (they have since, moved away), was Stoic Studio. Stoic created The Banner Saga and are currently working on their sequel. Drew McGee, the head writer for The Banner Saga 2, was their to talk about their first game and speak vaguely about their next game (I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with him that I will be typing up later in a blog post).

Gearbox Office by Gearbox

Other noteable Texas-based companies were the lackluster Funimation booth (not a single voice actor was there), the over-popular Rooster Teeth booth (I admit, I love Red vs. Blue though), the Digital Devolver booth and an eye-opnening BioWare room (tons of panels were held and it was always packed). Funimation Production is located in Flowermound, Texas, which is a stone throw away from Dallas. Rooster Teeth, Digital Devolver and BioWare (Austin)  are based out of Austin, Texas.

I truly believe that if PAX chose a more inviting city that is easier for developers to get to, then we would have seen much more. In my opinion, Dallas would see tons more of booths, panels and games. id Software is located in the Dallas area and would have been an incredible experience for them to be there. 3D Realms is based in Garland, Texas and could easily make the trip.

One of my biggest disappointments was the fact that Blizzard did not attend PAX South (even though Twitch had a line of computers for people to play Hearthstone the entire time). The biggest news for MMOs was based on a free-to-play game called Guild Wars (I am not a big fan of MMOs not named Destiny), and not something from World of Warcraft. Blizzard has a location in Austin, but if PAX South wound up there or in Dallas, I believe they would have came out

Yes, For Real by Zombie Shop

The Fear Is Real

I fear that PAX could have done more. I fear that not enough people want to go to South Texas compared to the benefits in North Texas. I fear that it will be a long time until PAX South comes more North. I fear that PAX will grow exceptionally well further South. My fear is real, but what really shook me was the publics opinion.

I stayed with some family in San Antonio and none of them knew about the event. I invited my cousin to attend PAX South with me, and he had no idea about the event (Note: My cousin lives in Edinburg, Texas).  I was watching the late night news in San Antonio and there was no mention of PAX. Where were all the flashy signs, publicity and utter chaos that defines PAX? If you did not follow video games in South Texas, you may have never heard about this huge event.

Pokemon Never Ends via Photobucket

Conclusions

I cannot predict what will happen at the next PAX South. I hope that the news spreads about the next one so more companies, celebrities and people attend. I looked through comment sections from people who attended and most said it was “dull” and “lackluster.” While I do not want agree with them, I have to.  This was my very first gaming convention and I expected more.

I will say this, it was a great first show, but it has to be better. I wish I could afford to go to other gaming conventions to compare because PAX is something that is hard to put into words. I have hope for PAX South and will try to attend next year. An added bonus for attending PAX was this great picture with Markiplier!

Look, Markiplier!

Look, Markiplier!