Composer Matt Creamer Talks Slayin 2 Soundtrack, Chiptune Music, and NES Influences - ArticleEvan Norris , posted on 13 May 2020 / 2,152 Views
If you're a follower of indie titles and a fan of retro video game music, you're probably already familiar with composer Matt Creamer — if not by name then certainly by his classic chiptune sound. Some of the games under his belt include Anomaly, Slayin, Treasure Buster, Venture Kid, Shakedown Hawaii, and, most recently, Slayin 2.
In honor of the launch of Slayin 2, now available on Switch, Creamer shared some thoughts with VCGhartz about his craft, his signature sound, his influences from the NES days, his song-writing process, and what comes next.
Q: How important is music and sound design to the personality of a video game?
Matt Creamer (MC): Oh man, it's huge! Personality in a game is kind of a subjective thing, but in my experience the music is almost like the punctuation of a language. Without it, you don't necessarily know what the inflection is or what the direction is. You can have a creepy spaceship game, but if the audio isn't swelling the closer you get to an enemy, you wouldn't really know how much dread you are supposed to feel, or how much danger you are in. In games, you aren't able to have the peripheral or intuition we benefit from outside of games, so it's a very good way to fill in those gaps for the player.
Q: In your recent live stream, you talk about the unique rhythm of chiptune. Can you share more about how the genre is different from other types of video game music?
MC: Absolutely! For any of your readers who might not know, broadly speaking, chiptune is a genre of music that seeks to emulate the sound of old console video game music. The NES is my personal favorite console to emulate because of its very specific limitations, and the body of music that was created for that console. But personally, I think a lot of the confusion surrounding chiptunes is that it is a genre, but in my case, it is actually more or less an instrument the way I am using it.
The genre of chiptune I actually find I don't share a lot in common with. You might think of happy bleepy blippy dance music or something. It's not necessarily the bleeps or bloops. It's the tone, or the mood that is usually associated with the chiptune genre that I don't have much affinity for. I have always been much muuuuuuch more fascinated by the badass tracks of the NES like the "Alien's Lair" track from Contra, or boss themes or flat out scary tracks like "Dracula's Castle" in Simon's Quest. Enough so that it caused me to wonder if it were possible to create death metal on the NES.
I tried my hardest to dissect the genre of death metal and find ways it could be interpreted through the specific limitations of the NES. You'd be surprised how little a direct transcription would do the job. It gets to the point where you have to start thinking through a lens of limitations you construct yourself, in your mind. This might sound frustrating, or literally limiting, and it definitely is. But you would also find that the more limitations you place on your creative process, the more creative you will be forced to become. It's this really bizarre thing, kind of similar to thinking moves ahead in chess. Only you are thinking in terms of notes, and you think of notes ahead of the current note, to find out how to resolve a melody of whatever genre you are creating in the best possible way for *this* chiptune instrument.
Interestingly, every chiptune artist, regardless of whether or not they are writing chiptune genre music, wields their chiptune instrument in a very unique way that is almost like a fingerprint unique to them.
I could go on, but you should see how much I have deleted to save your readers time lost, haha.
Q: Also in your live stream, you share a story about how the developers of Slayin 2 added a background visual to complement the thunder clap you wrote into the graveyard theme. Is this kind of synergy common in the video game music arena?
MC: I don't think it is that common, though there is no reason for it not to be. In our case, I know the whole reason I added a thunder clap into the song in the first place was a direct result of the level having thunder in it. One of the fun things to do in music for games is to find a way to incorporate SFX into the melody (like drips that are in tune with the song for a cave level, or a siren alarm that goes off rhythmically with the song). It wasn't something I ever thought about until I sent the developer the track. For much of the project, I was creating audio as the developer was creating the content, so in this case it worked out perfectly that our ideas fed off each other. His art inspired my song. My song inspired some specific art. When it works, man, there is nothing more fun to see :)
Q: Many of your signature tracks echo musical stylings from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Which composers of that period had the greatest influence on your career?
MC: Just going to stick to the NES composers for now, or else this list would balloon out of control. Needless to say, finding who was behind the NES music I loved was not always an easy task. 20 years ago there was next to no information about who these composers were. And, often times, the credits didn't use their real names. I remember scouring Japanese text websites trying to get as much info as I could, as well as save-stating my way through so many games just to see what name was at the end. You could start to hear certain tendencies of a composer when you would listen to the NSF file for a game. So the only way to find out who did it was to beat it, and even then sometimes you'd get nothing. Fortunately a lot of this info has been fully uncovered. Though, there is no information as to whether or not Shigamasa Matsuo worked on Simon's Quest or Track and Field 2, since neither of them had credits. But I hear a VERY strong tendency of that composer in those games. All of these names are legit celebrities to me:
Iku Mizutani (Shatterhand, Shadow of the Ninja), Hidenori Maezawa (Contra), Shigemasa Matsuo (Rollergames, Basewars, Simon's Quest, Track and Field 2), Keiji Yamagishi (Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Super Bowl), Kyouhei Sada (SFX for Contra), Akito Nakatsuka (Zelda II), Kazuo Sawa (Super Dodgeball), Neil Baldwin (James Bond Jr., Erik the Viking, Hero Quest), and Tim Follin (Silver Surfer).
Q: Likewise, which modern composers inspire you?
MC: For as ferociously dedicated as I am to the old composers, I am not really as die hard for new composers. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE a lot of new composers, but I think I end up being more jealous of them than anything, haha. Especially for some of the games they have scored. But, I know great work when I hear it, and I gotta give my props.
Jason Graves can do no wrong. After what he did with Dead Space 1, 2 and 3, he's got my vote from now on. They didn't just record an orchestra. He recorded a sample library with an orchestra so he could use those recordings to create textures in the game engine itself according to what was happening (or about to happen). That's some magical and prolific stuff. Most of the scores are pretty dissonant and cacophonous, but the intro to Dead Space 3 got me soooo pumped. That long walk in the snow with this song playing? Oh my!
Jack Wall may be responsible for me wanting to push hard to get in to making non chiptune music. I was making chiptunes exclusively from 2006 basically up until the release of Mass Effect. That snapped me out of my daze, where I was purposely putting off learning how to make music outside of my familiar applications. That game hit me so hard, I think it knocked me out of every orbit I was ever on, and I have been hurtling toward something beyond ever since.
Kow Otani. Shadow of the Colossus is just one of those games that gets tangled up with you forever. It's one that I will never stop being fascinated with. The score embodied so much of what was special about the game. It's kind of crazy how much I think about this game, still.
Yuka Kitamura. This is such a savage track. Velstadt sat for decades waiting just for you to try to enter the throne room, and this is the song that plays as he stands to confront you.
Andrew Hale produced one of my favorite title screens ever. This song kills me. Fun fact, Andrew Hale is also the keyboard player for Sade, and has been since all the way back in the "Smooth Operator" days. Hearing this score, knowing it was Andrew Hale, it was pretty damn magical.
Gustavo Santaolalla. Speaking of title screens, this was one of the best ones as well. This guy literally came out of nowhere and exploded onto the video game scene. The score is about as heavy with dread and emotion as any we have ever had.
Q: You've described your composing process as a bit of "trial and error". How do you finally arrive on the ideal sound?
MC: This is such a great question! I've been making music for the last 20 years, and hilariously, I don't "know" a single song. I can't pick up a guitar and play you a song, even my own, and I can't sit down at a piano and play you a riff from my latest track. I literally have no songs stored in my head at present. The problem I have is that I don't care at all what note was just hit, I only ever find myself fascinated with what the *next* note will be.
Part of the nature of chiptune writing the way I had been writing it all these years is that you start with a small section, and loop it. Then add to it, and add to it, and carve from it and carve from it, until you have turned this cube of clay into a statue. Part of how you do this is you have to listen in your mind to what the next note should be. It's quiet, but it's there, always there. The more you practice hearing it, the louder you will hear it too. But it's not necessarily always a note you hear. It's more like a feeling. Like, if you go outside in the sun on a sunny day, you don't have to look at the sun to know it's there. You can feel it. It's all around you. But sometimes for me to know what note it is, I have to physically hear it on the instrument first. So often times, if I can't hum the note, or just know which one it is I am hearing, I will often have to just hit notes around where I think it us until I hear it. But also hilariously, sometimes when you are trying to hit that note that is just out of reach, you hear another note that triggers the whole process again in another direction. And so a decision must be made. Follow that new idea, or keep hammering out the old one.
Now, if I don't know a single song, then the same logic applies to an idea I am currently trying to conclude. If a new idea presents itself, it gets the majority of my interest, and I kind of give it priority, almost as this weird recursive way of coming up with the best song. I guess I just unofficially believe that if I can't hear any other ideas, then I must be at the highest tier of an idea, and it's probably the one I should go with. I have just learned to trust this process over the years, and at the very least, it results in songs I like hearing. Even if I have to work on songs I would never otherwise want to write, I still find this way of arriving at the version of it that meets my approval. But, yeah, it takes a lot of trial and error at times.
Q: Is there one soundtrack or song you're particularly proud of?
MC: Slayin 2 is by far my proudest moment as a composer. I tend to like to escalate my music, always, and I am constantly walking my ideas back before I send them in to a developer, or even input them into a track while I am writing. In some projects, I have to artificially set up a diverter in my own musical instinct to not let me go down the paths I want to hear initially, because they will always lead outside of the developer's vision. At one point, I had to install an application that would turn all the white keys of my keyboard into any scale I wanted, so I could literally force upon my brain the intervals that I am not set up to want to hear. These usually end up being more happy sounding melodies. I just don't have a taste for it. So, for Slayin 2, I can't think of a single track where I wasn't allowed to follow my musical instinct. Not since I was writing as a hobby have I written music that was from such a genuine place within me.
Shakedown Hawaii was another soundtrack I released recently that was also a very liberating score for me, as I was finally able to flex some sci-fi and synth-cinematic muscles. Both soundtracks I was working on concurrently for two years, while peppering in a host of unrelated smaller projects. At one point I was working on five projects at once. Different project every day just to pay the bills. But coming back to Shakedown and Slayin 2 was always a treat.
Treasure Buster is another soundtrack by this same developer, and in a lot of ways, it was my favorite soundtrack to date before Slayin 2. The dev really doesn't shy away from the rowdier ideas I have, and that was the first time I was able to work on something using the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive sound. I still listen to it quite a lot simply because it's what I wanted to hear.
I used to get a lot of rejected tracks in my early years of making game music and I was in a pretty dark place worrying about how I was supposed to keep making music if every idea I had was costing me time and money. I sometimes joked that my brain was like the Containment Unit in Ghostbusters, just full of bad ass ideas. I was always waiting for the day where I could flip the switch and let all the ghosts out, and for me, these three soundtracks were it. Slayin 2 though is the epitome. I could not be more proud of what I did here in the sense that, it's exactly what I wanted to do.
Q: Can you tease any future projects?
MC: The future is a little uncertain these days. I wish I could say I had some big projects lined up, but it seems like short run projects are my destiny for the time being. Part of the reason I have tried to make a much bigger social media presence is to just let people know I am out there. Though now I spend most of my time doing video stuff just to promote my audio stuff. What a wild world we live in. What I do know is that there is a surprisingly large number of NES tracks in my future, and if I play my cards right, and I am playing as right as I can, there might be some legit sci-fi in my future. *fingers crossed*
I'd like to extend my thanks to Matt Creamer for his time and thoughtful answers. You can follow him at www.mattcreameraudio.com and @norrin_radd22.