Interview with Aaron Walz, Composer
conducted by Neal Chandran.
The Aveyond series by Amaranth Games is the series that jump-started the commercial market for RPG Maker games back in 2005. The crown jewel in all the Aveyond games has been the music of talented composer Aaron Walz, who also composed for Amaranth's sim game Yummy Drink Factory. With Aveyond 3 (Orbs of Magic), Aaron's company, Walz Studios, started getting into voice over production as evidenced by the voice pack add-ons for Aveyond 3. We had a chance to sit down with Mr. Walz and talk to him about music, video games, and other fun stuff. Enjoy!
RPGFan: How did you get started in video game music composition?
Aaron Walz: At about eight years old, I was playing NES games, taking piano lessons and composing... and I said to myself, "I want to compose music for games when I grow up!" So I started writing game music. When I started University, I created a website that featured my compositions and game songs I'd sequenced by ear using MIDI. That is how I got my first clients... I freelanced for about 10 years while holding down a non-musical full time job. When I didn't get hired as a staff composer (many of the companies I wanted to work for are Japanese-based,) I started my own audio company and quit my job in 2007 to get more serious.
RPGFan: What kinds of video games do you like to play and what are some of your favorites?
AW: Strategy RPGs and turn-based RPGs. My favorites are the classic Final Fantasy games, Suikoden, Grandia, Dragon Quest and the Shining series. I have to say I was also a master of fighting games back in the day! I won a regional Soul Edge tournament, in fact! I also loved Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct and Tekken. I also have to admit that I was quite good at DDR and Para Para. To be honest, I still love the arcade classics like Dig Dug and Mappy. Alright, and I also have a fondness for puzzle games like Tetris, Columns and Puzzle Bobble. Often what attracts me to a game is the soundtrack. I'll play even a boring game if it has good music. Like, for example, Albert Odyssey... amazing acoustic music, kinda bland RPG. I'll never forget how it moved me.
RPGFan: Who are some of your favorite composers (video game and otherwise) and how do they influence your approach to music?
AW: Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) Koichi Sugiyama (Dragon Quest) and Noriyuki Iwadare (Lunar/Grandia/Langrisser) are my favorite game composers. I also love Miki Higashino (Suikoden) and Masahiko Yoshimura (older Shining games). All of these composers have heavily influenced my work. I especially enjoy the worldly sound of Suikoden. I love French romantics and impressionists such as Debussy, Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Satie and older composers such as Monteverdi and Palestrina. My approach to music has always been melodic. As a singer, I often compose by singing. Long ago, I emailed Mr. Iwadare for music advice and he told me, "Always make good memorable melody from now on." I also love and heavily utilize counterpoint (more than one melody playing together.) I want my tunes to get stuck in your head, but not get annoying. However, most importantly, they must always be art and contribute something to the music world apart from the game. I try hard not to write filler or fluff, even if that is what a game developer thinks he or she wants.
RPGFan: What kinds of music do you most enjoy listening to? Any favorite bands or artists?
AW: Tease me now, but as I child I was enthralled with Enya and it really influenced my Celtic sounding compositions; to this day I use a lot of vocals, harp and flute. Nowadays, I love world music. I love the Putumayo compilations. African, Indian, Arabic, Greek and Caribbean are among my favorites. You can hear this in my newer work. I also love dance music (Disco, Italo Dance, Swedish pop-dance, Lady Gaga, etc.) I perform with some ensembles and choruses so I adore choral music, especially in other languages. I can often be found at a local piano bar singing George Michael, Barry Manilow, BJ Thomas, Tony Bennett, The Turtles, Gordon Lightfoot, Cher, Abba and show tunes. I also listen to classical music and jazz. The funny thing is that I don't often listen to music purely for pleasure... I am usually participating in making it, or I'm studying it, or it is to keep me awake while driving or energized while working out. I'm sure it's just like how a chef doesn't cook anything fancy for himself very often.
RPGFan: The Aveyond 3 soundtrack had some of your darkest compositions. I felt they were much headier than the more airy music from Aveyond 1 and 2. How was your approach to composing for Aveyond 3 different from composing prior Aveyond games?
AW: Thank you! I took risks and did some things differently. Aveyond 3 is darker, so I tried to capture this with its sound. I tried to tell a story with each song, and usually these stories were bittersweet. For example, Harburg is a town with thieves and a rather dark side to it, yet it is also home for Mel so there are sections that are more upbeat. The player often controls the characters at night, so the music is different at night and should send some chills up your spine and stir up uncomfortable worries. I chose some darker instruments, keys and mixing techniques. I really tried to incorporate moods and stories into many of the pieces, which was quite different from Aveyond 1 and 2, where I usually thought about characters and external actions (not inner feelings.) Internalizing everything created a darker mood as well. I threw in some pipe organ, harpsichord, Chinese erhu, Indian sarangi and other creepy mystical sounding things! And I experimented with form and harmonic shifts that differ from the other games. Plus, I'd like to think I'm growing as a composer and always honing my skills!
RPGFan: You also composed music for the sim game Yummy Drink Factory. How was your approach to composing a game like that different from composing for RPGs?
AW: It was great fun... this game actually has some of my favorite work! The forms are longer so as not to repeat as often. RPG's usually have music that loops every minute or two. But with Yummy Drink Factory, levels and screens last longer, so I didn't want the players to be bored or annoyed by the music. Each level has a strong theme, such as the fantasy forest, city of witches, snowy peak, etc, so I really tried to capture the weather and feeling of each area. The music is still melodic, but a bit more background-ish than RPG music. It is simple, cute, and fun.
RPGFan: Are there any genres of music, classical or contemporary, that you feel you haven't explored deeply enough but would like to experiment more with?
AW: Actually I have not composed too many long form pieces, such as concertos or symphonies, and would love to try my hand at that. I'd also love to write some choral music. Finally, I'd love to be assigned to a game where I could try my hand at some rock and pop music. I've written and recorded several pop songs, but never for games.
RPGFan: You had some fine talent playing on the From Another Shore - Aveyond and Beyond CD. How do you find and recruit musicians to play and record your work?
AW: Well I am a performing musician so I know a lot of talented people. I also drew from talent I knew through my University. Finally, for instruments I couldn't find through friends and colleagues, I simply put an ad on Craigslist and auditioned people! Great musicians are all around, looking for work all the time! Some of these people are now regular team members at Walz Music.
RPGFan: As evidenced by the voice packs for Aveyond 3, Walz Music is getting involved with voice acting production. How did you get started with that?
AW: We noticed that more Casual Games were featuring voice acting, so we thought we'd give this service a try. Honestly, since the days of the Sega CD, I have always been fascinated by voice overs. I have a background in theater so I already had a head start. I have a lot of connections through music and theater in San Francisco, so it is pretty easy to find excellent talent.
RPGFan: What was the approach for selecting voice actors for Aveyond 3? I thought Mel's actress was quite good.
AW: We actually had several actors try several parts to make sure we had the right fit and there were four of us on the team casting the roles. Adrienne Foreman is so similar to Mel that every time I see her I call her Mel. I have to say I also love the character Lydia. But I always love stuck up characters. Amaranth Games did an excellent job writing a very funny script to work with. We often went "over the top" with our approach. Take Professor Moo for example. This was a conscious choice. Some fans loved it, some wanted something more subtle. But to my team, there is not much subtle about these loud Aveyond characters or the script.
RPGFan: What are some future projects you have on tap that you would like audiences out there to know about?
AW: As requested by the fans, we are going to release an Aveyond 1: Rhen's Quest Official Soundtrack. This will include all the themes not present on "From Another Shore: Aveyond & Beyond." We hope everyone will pick it up. It will be available this summer on iTunes and may also see a physical release. To stay abreast of all our news and bonus downloads, I recommend everyone visit walzmusic.com and sign up for our periodic newsletter. I have been asked once again to emcee and lead the audio presentations at Casual Connect in Seattle in July, so this will be a very exciting, busy summer!
RPGFan: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians who want to get into video game composition?
AW: Sure! (Stands on pedestal) As I said, I've always wanted to compose for games, since I was about 8 years old. And I've composed for games since 1997. I've studied many aspects of music, in classes and privately, and performed several styles as well. But still, it is very challenging, but also very rewarding! My advice is: do what you love and never give up. Success is a line and you'll get to the front. I know it is cheesy, but it is true. Oh and, if you do what you love, you are already succeeding. Don't forget that. But be prepared to sacrifice anything and work very hard. Never stop learning about music, challenging yourself, and respect the art form at all times. Okay I'll get off my pedestal now!
RPGFan: Any final thoughts you wish to share?
AW: Well, just that I am so thankful to all the gamers and fans of Walz Music. A big thanks also to my team, who are always so helpful, especially when I get pushy! HAHA. And thank you so much for interviewing me. I have been a fan of RPGFan since the beginning., mostly because of the soundtrack reviews! It is so nice to see a site appreciate game music. Honestly, I have always wanted to be the "American Uematsu" and to get there, I will continue to need a lot of support from people like you!