July 21, 2015 Some of us knew Jillian Aversa from years ago as "pixietricks" on OverClocked ReMix, where she was well-known for her vocal talent and contributed some amazing arrangements to the community. She has since gone on to work on huge franchises, like God of War, Halo, Civilization, and more. Now an award-winning songwriter, vocalist, and performer, Jillian also works with husband Andrew "zircon" Aversa on numerous projects, on top of touring with Tommy Tallarico's Video Games Live. Somehow, she found some time to chat with us a bit about her career, favorite music, and even offer up some advice for people looking to get into the music scene themselves.
Editor's Note: This interview was conducted in May 2015, with changes made later in the month. In an effort to not conflict with other content, we pushed back our post date until now. Since the original interview, Jillian worked with percussionist Doug Perry on the new NieR video seen at the end of this page. Don't miss it!
Jillian: I haven't been able to play a lot of games from start to finish over the past few years, but I always make time for the Zelda and Mario franchises cover to cover. (Journey was a welcome exception since it was so short, and Ni no Kuni was also captivating with its Ghibli style!) I'm always up for casual and party games, though, and my nighttime ritual is to play Tetris until I fall asleep. What most people probably don't know about me is that I'm really into tabletop gaming. Some of my all-time favorites: Dominion, Settlers of Catan, and Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride... and of course, I have to own all the expansions. ^_~
Jillian: Before I became professionally involved in the industry, I was arranging and recording game music on OverClocked ReMix. I attribute so much of my musical (and marital!) development to that site, and most of my closest friends today are people I met through the OC ReMix community. It's a great resource for learning about music production (which I never did during my classical training at Peabody Conservatory) — and meeting Andrew during my college years was the best thing that could have ever happened to me!
My first professional gig was for the Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword soundtrack. Firaxis Studios isn't far from Peabody, and they were looking for a choir to record some of the music. I was already thoroughly enthusiastic about game music at the time, so taking notice of my fangirlism, composer Michael Curran gave me a solo. Between that gig, the OCR community, and the support and business savvy of my dear future husband, I gained enough confidence to start learning and networking at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco every year. GDC is absolutely invaluable for meeting other game audio professionals.
Jillian: My favorite game of all time is Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and it also has one of my favorite soundtracks — not by coincidence! To choose just one soundtrack is totally hard, but if I had to narrow it to a top ten list, that would also include Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, Super Mario World, Super Mario Galaxy, Halo, Journey, Nier, Katamari Damacy, and Skyrim. Action-Adventure and Action RPG are generally my favorite game genres.
Jillian: I would really love to do some straight-up Celtic music. My favorite genre to compose and perform in often incorporates elements of Celtic and other World music, along with symphonic and electronic sounds. I feel like you really need all live players to do Irish music justice, though, so the logistics of sourcing all those professionals have held me back thus far.
Jillian: Non video game music? What's that?! ^_~
I don't listen to a ton of "normal" artists, but some of my favorites are Loreena McKennitt, Andreas Vollenweider, Jesse Cook, Yo-Yo Ma, and Christopher Tin's original work. If I'm not listening to VGM, then it's usually something in the New Age, World, Classical, or Film Soundtrack genres.
Jillian: I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I love. If I had been born a few years earlier when video game audio was limited to MIDI, I may never have considered a career in vocal music for games... because it wasn't technically possible yet! Recording this music is rewarding in and of itself, but the visual and theatrical creativity involved in making music videos for YouTube is invigorating. And to be able to perform with a live symphony orchestra, among my colleagues and friends, in a venue full of die-hard game music lovers? The best part of the job, hands down, is being a part of such a vibrant, positive community of VGM fans and professionals alike.
Jillian: Writing and recording original music is very special to me, but I must say that I enjoy doing video game music more. It's easy to lose perspective when holing up in the studio for a personal project. With game music, I feel more alive and connected to the outside world.
Jillian: My favorite composers basically correspond to my favorite soundtrack list, but if I had to narrow it to the fantastic four: Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, and Hiroki Kikuta.
Jillian: Bjork. She sings, writes her own music, and does some of the wildest videos I have ever seen. She isn't afraid to break every norm there is. I really admire the incredible energy and passion she puts into her work; working with her would stretch every creative muscle in my body!
Jillian: Definitely! OCR is full of creative people who enjoy helping others, regardless of how much experience you have. The workshop forums are a great place to get constructive feedback and tips. I learned so much about arranging, recording, and production because of this supportive community.
Jillian: If you're a vocalist interested in recording for video game soundtracks (or anything else, really), I think the best way to make yourself available is to have a good home recording setup. Most game companies have a budget they've allocated to music and sound, but it's up to the audio team to decide how to use it. Recording live musicians can get very expensive when you factor in studio rentals, recording engineers, union fees etc. If you can provide great, clean recordings from home as your own engineer, it saves them a ton of money and hassle. This also allows you to collaborate with anyone, anywhere in the world. Believe it or not, you don't have to live in LA to get all the gigs!
Jillian: Andy and I have worked together in lots of different ways over the years, but our most frequent approach is something like this:
First, we come up with a concept for a new remix or original song together, deciding on the overall feel early on. Next, we'll work on some basic elements of the song side-by-side in FL Studio, with Andy taking point on production. I'll usually record scratch vocals early on — and if we don't have lyrics, I'll just sing everything on "la" or "ooh." Once the core arrangement is done, Andy works on fleshing out the instrumentation and production while I work on lyrics & vocal recording. Finally, we come back together to do the last tweaks, mixing, and mastering!