An Interview with Video Game Composer Troy Strand
Troy Strand is a video game composer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He creates music that evokes a wide range of moods, themes and musical styles and fits seamlessly into almost any style of game. I talked to him about how he got started as a composer, his approach to the craft of composition and how he recharges his creative batteries.
Interview with Troy Strand
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in music and composition?
Troy Strand: I’ve played music and sung for my whole life. I’m not much of a singer now, but I was when I was a kid. I got really hooked into band when I was a sixth grader. I played the trumpet for a little bit before I switched over to tuba and bass trombone. I really got into composition when a composer named David Holsinger visited my high school. He’s a band composer and I just fell in love with the idea of writing my own music, so I decided to follow him to where he teaches in Tennessee. It’s a small liberal arts university called Lee University. I studied composition with him there and went on to get my masters degree in music education and composition.
KM: What lead you to want to compose music for video games?
TS: I loved playing Megaman, Castlevania and Final Fantasy as a kid. I went to grad school for music composition and told my professor that I wanted to be a video game composer. He said, “I think you should write for film!” He told me that I had a really great film sound, so I tried a little bit but it never clicked for me. There was an event put on by the American Composer’s Forum called Game On: An Insider’s Guide to Video Game Scoring in St. Paul where I live. I went to the two day event and met some local game developers and heard from nationally recognized composers like Jason Graves. They also interviewed some composers and developers for the event who talked about combining the two media.
One of the lecturers talked about the fact that 90 percent of the people in the room weren’t going to do anything with the information, they’d just think it’s kind of cool. I was like, “I’m not going to be one of those people!” After that, I started to connect with some game developers here in Minneapolis and started making music for games.
KM: Why do you enjoy composing for video games?
TS: It solves the composer’s existential question of what to write about for me. Music is a physical experience and an intellectual experience. For many composers, musicians and listeners it’s a deeply emotional experience, but for me it doesn’t seem to happen as much as it does for other people. Writing something that expresses some deep personal emotion has never been part of it for me, it’s always been about saying, “I really like this because it sounds super cool!”
I enjoy the process of making music and I enjoy seeing other people listen to it, but coming up with new ideas for live performance has been challenging. When a developer tells me they need music to convey a certain emotion, I write it and they say, “Oh! That’s it!” I want that.
It’s a very satisfying thing for me. It also becomes a part of someone’s gaming experience and for me play and games are very important. We have the time and resources as a species to devote to enjoy ourselves, so I want to contribute to that and enrich the lives of people who enjoy playing games.
KM: Where do you think video game music fits into the broader tapestry of contemporary music?
TS: I feel like it’s very similar to popular music. I’m really encouraged and inspired by video game music in the concert hall, but live orchestral performances are just dwindling in the U.S. It’s unfortunate but it’s really cool that the biggest performances are Video Games Live style concerts. I really feel that it reaches people like music on the radio does. I don’t compare myself to Beyonce or anything, but the music that I write reaches a lot of people. It doesn’t need to challenge them or push the entire genre of instrumental music forward like a concert performance piece would have to. It’s music that people get to experience. It might be confirmation bias from all the people in my life who love to go to events like MAGFest, but they buy video game soundtracks, they arrange it, they play it, they listen to it on their way to work.
KM: How do you approach the process of composition?
TS: I always begin with selecting the instrumentation. For video game music, I personally feel that 70-80 percent of the composition process for a game is choosing the right instruments and the right sound palette to make sure that it fits the action on the screen. Once that’s established, I move on to getting the right mode and settling on the texture of the music and how much action needs to be happening in the music to match what’s happening on the screen.
After that, it’s crafting a melody that’s repetitive enough and sparse enough to get stuck in someone’s head. Depending on the gameplay, creating really interesting moments throughout a long series of repetitions so that it doesn’t become the same two minutes for half an hour over and over.
It’s a really long dialogue process with the developer to make sure that it’s what they want and what they’d envisioned. It involves a lot of interpreting their non-musical terms into music, so if they want it to sound happy, I’ll go with a major key, for example.
KM: Talk about some of the projects with which you’ve been particularly happy.
TS: I really was challenged and inspired by my most recent release called Verdant Skies. It was developed by a local team here in the Twin Cities and it’s a Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing life simulation type of game. It has a diverse cast of characters, takes place in the distant future on a planet you’re trying to colonize and my challenge with that was to create music that fit what was happening on the screen, but was going to work for really extended play sessions. If the music was too busy, it would get stuck in somebody’s head.
It was a small team so we didn’t have the budget for hours of music. I wrote the twelve character themes. All of the characters are from different parts of the world and have different musical tastes built into their biographies. I had to create something that could evolve, shift and change and that drew from a variety of different sources.
We used Unity and the Wise Audio middleware engine to create a series of overlapping stems that could be arranged and rearranged to provide a busy bassline, a really relaxed bassline or no bassline at all. In addition to the different arpeggios, pads and melodies, we had to create a sonic identity for all of the different areas of the game. The marshland, for example, had its own theme music but because we had three different tracks with these different layers that could be drawn in and out, we also had to come up with a musical motif for each of the six different areas.
The themes had to be “key-agnostic” because they had to fit into these three other long tracks with multiple parts. What we did was base it on texture more than anything. There’s a piano part that plays in each of these different areas, but it has these interesting chords that can be transposed and get the job done. When I described what it was like to be on an open plain, I went with a Breath of the Wild style subtle arpeggio thing, for the caves I did these diminished chords that were very dense and rich and so it was really a fascinating way to work through the problem of ear fatigue with a long play session.
KM: Talk about some of the composers (video game and non-video game) that have had an influence on you.
TS: The biggest influence for me would be the American post-minimalist composer John Adams. My college composition professor recommended that I listen to a piece of Adams’ called Short Ride on a Fast Machine. It was one of those, “I remember where I was when…” moments. I was listening to it in the college’s music resource centre. It doesn’t have a melody for the first 2/3rds of the piece and at the end it isn’t a very memorable melody, but it’s a piece of music built entirely on rhythm and harmony. It has all these flourishes, arpeggios and accompanying effects. It completely changed the way that I thought about music. It doesn’t need to be one melody that carries it, it can be textures and shifting interest and evolving feelings or moods that propel a piece forward. I’m also inspired by great Russian composers like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.
In the video game music world, Ben Prunty is my number one inspiration. I absolutely love his use of synthesizers, the patches he creates and the ways in which he uses textures and soundscapes. I am also inspired by Nobuo Uematsu because I grew up loving his Final Fantasy scores. Michiru Yamane is another big inspiration for me. She’s unparalleled as far as I’m concerned.
KM: Where do you want to take your composing career in the future?
TS: For a long time, my career goal was just to save money to write more music. Even though I got to study with David Holsinger, Lee University didn’t have a formal music composition degree program. Instead I went for a music education degree because I’d be exposed to all of these different instruments and I’d know their techniques and ranges. After that, I did my Masters in composition. I taught band for a number of years and fell in love with working in public education, so my goals is to continue to write video game music.
I haven’t put the pressure on myself to become a full-time game composer on a studio contract because I’m really happy here in Minnesota and there’s no big studio that could afford a full-time composer here. That’s okay because I’m doing freelance and contract work. I want to continue to build a portfolio of console games, so that might be happening the future which is exciting. It’s really just so satisfying to hear someone playing a game with my music in it.
Really it just comes down to continuing to do this work. I don’t know if I have the style of a triple-A composer like Jason Graves, but that’s okay because I really enjoy the intimate nature of working with indie developers and knowing that I’m directly helping their games to sound like they want them to sound and really trusting in their decision making process.
I have a personal connection with all the developers I’ve worked with. I’ve become good friends with them and sometimes it leads to more gigs and sometimes it leads to playing board games together and getting coffee because we enjoy each other’s company.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
TS: I pursue a lot of different interests and the best thing I’ve been able to do for my creativity as a composer is to not worry about my creativity as a composer. It’s really working on other things that interest me. I do a little bit of freelance journalism, I write blog posts, I paint miniatures and I have a couple of different startups that I’m involved in. All of those things perpetuate the creative spark for me and allow me to engage my brain in different things every day, build these connections subconsciously and bring that back to the music that I write.