Friday, May 15, 2020

Stage Select Start Interview with Vinent Rubinetti

While writing the MIDI Week Single that went up last Wednesday, I reached out to Vincent Rubinetti, composer of the music to the indie auto-side-scrolling shooter from Mike Studios, High Noon Revolver.  I wanted to use one of two songs and after purchasing the album from his Bandcamp page, I sent him an email asking for permission to post his music on our site; not something that I admittedly am able to do for all of our MIDI Week Single articles, but I figured I would give it a shot.  What started out as a request turned into a number of back-and-forth emails culminating in today's interview.  While not conducting the interview in-person, I gave Vince a handful of questions to which he graciously responded to them all, as well as some follow-up questions I had and just general conversation in-between.

I pre-emptively apologize if some of the transitions between questions and answers seem disjointed.  I gave Vince a choice of questions that he could choose to answer and amazingly he not only answered them all but a few follow-ups I had later on.  I did go with the majority of his answers in how he presented them, although I did move some of the questions around to fit better as an article, or at least that was my goal.

So now I present to you our interview with Vincent Rubinetti who has composed music for indie games like Ink, Gemstone Keeper, and High Noon Revolver, and well as the educational series on YouTube 3Blue1Brown.

This interview was conducted through emails between Monday, April 20th, 2020, and Saturday, May 11th, 2020.  Any edits from me to Vince's responses will include brackets [...].

[Stage Select Start]: What instruments do you play, and if so, what would you consider your primary instrument?

[Vince Rubinetti] I've been playing drums for as long as I've been into music, so I guess I would consider that my primary instrument. Though later in life, it's a harder instrument to maintain playing, unless you own a house out in the woods, due to the noise. So now I just have an electronic drum kit up in my attic that I play once in a while during the day to keep my skills up (while hopefully not bothering the neighbors).

A lot of composers also play piano pretty well, but I'd have to say I only dabble. But being able to play block chords and some medium-difficulty melodies on the right hand is often enough to sketch out songs during brainstorming. As for sequencing music in my DAW, at least half of it I just do manually with the mouse, as opposed to doing it with the midi keyboard. Some composers seem to use the midi keyboard for everything, but I find that that can also be a trap sometimes. When you write with a keyboard, you tend to write things that are idiomatic to keyboard instruments. When you're writing for horns, for example, it might be better to try to hear it in your head than to try to pluck out the part on a keyboard.

[SSS] How long have you been composing music (personally &/or professionally)?

[VR]  I think I started sometime around 2002 or 2003, with a basic MIDI program on my parents' computer called Noteworthy Composer. This would've been my freshman year of high school. It started off with basic jingles, just messing around; then moved on to trying to write full songs, then trying to construct full albums and game soundtracks. Over that time I switched from Noteworthy Composer to FL Studio, a more fully-fledged DAW, and tried to upgrade my plugins and sample libraries whenever I could. Something else to note is that I started making my own games around 2003 as well, with a program called Game Maker (at the time, it was only at version 4, and still run by Mark Overmars!). So sometime around 2005 (junior year of high school), I went on a pixel art forum called Pixelation to find an artist for a game I wanted to make. I met a person there that liked my drive or personality or something, and we became friends. He introduced me to a bunch of other programmers and artists and composers; people who are still my friends and contacts today. Over the next several years I worked on half-dozen or so games with those people, sometimes as a group or sometimes individually. But unfortunately, due to lack of funding, none of them were ever completed. 

I actually ended up going to college for something completely different from music and did that for a while (still composing as a hobby for fun though). It wasn't until 2014 that I decided to actually try music as a career. It took me a year of hustling, but I was able to finally land a gig for a game [...]. That game was Ink, and I was very fortunate that it did get green-lit and released on Steam in August of 2015, and actually sold pretty well (~100k sales on steam and like another ~400k through Humble Bundle I think). All of the games I worked on after that were a result of knowing that developer, [...]. In the past couple of years, I've changed career focus yet again, but I still do some professional composing on the side as well.

All of this long-winded story is to say, peoples' lives and careers are often not a straight, predictable paths. I'm not sure, given the on-off nature of it, how long you would consider that I've done it. But it also sort of doesn't matter.

[SSS] Looking through your discography, this looks like the first game you've scored for Mike Studios, did you apply for this specific gig?  Did you already know someone with Mike Studios who reached out to you?

[VR]  High Noon Revolver (HNR) was kind of a weird situation. It came about because Spaceboy Games, the small company that I was doing other games with (HackyZack and Fara), decided to try its hand at publishing/promoting games as well. Mike Studios was a friend of the head of Spaceboy, and had a new game that was almost done, but that had barely any music. The levels, programming, art assets, sfx, etc. were all there, but there were only two sort-of placeholder tracks ["Trigger Finger (Desert)" and "Wanted"]. So the Spaceboy team sort of "provided me" as a service along with the publishing, and that's how I ended up doing the game.

I'm not the most successful or prolific indie game composer at all, but it seems like most gigs come through other gigs or people you know. If you were a game developer, and you had a choice between a composer you've known as a friend for years (or maybe someone you know through a trusted friend) vs some random person who cold-emailed you asking to do the music, who would you pick? It makes it tough for people starting out though because someone at some point has to give you a chance. But the good news is if you're professional and easy to get along with, and try to keep people as friends, not just as an ends to a mean, things can slowly snowball over time.

[SSS] I know that with film music, sometimes the composer is brought on during production for them to get a feel for the atmosphere and tone, other times composers have been given a rough cut of the film to score to.  When were you brought on to score High Noon Revolver and what was that process like?

[VR] When I was brought on, the game was basically already finished [...]. But I did get something like a month before release to write the soundtrack to HNR, which was a good amount of time given that the soundtrack is only 20 minutes or so. I know film composers sometimes only get like 3 weeks to write an hour and a half of music, which is crazy to me. I don't think I could handle the stress of that.

[SSS] Were there any guidelines you were given in regards to instrumentation, tone, or melody?

[VR]  I think because of the quick nature of the job, and because I was the only one on the Spaceboy team that was directly working on the project, I didn't get much feedback or suggestions. The Spaceboy guys were great in terms of discussing what they wanted for music, and iterating back and forth to find the right sound. This project (HNR) was much more in my hands. But it was also more straight forward since the game is so staunchly western themed. I think the only guidance I was given, by Mike Studios, was fast-paced. So we decided on fast-paced, spaghetti-western rock.

[SSS]  The Title track "High Noon" sounds very western, like Enrico Morricone western with the trumpets, whistling melody, and the driving/chugging snare drums.  What were the influences you drew upon while composing this song and/or the music for the game?

[VR]  Definitely Ennio Morricone, very heavily. I re-listened to a lot of his old soundtracks while doing research for the music. The whistling, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, etc are all taken directly from those films. The very beginning timpani notes and big opening hit specifically came from just the visuals of the title screen of the game. The title flashes in like a crack of lightning, and it seemed necessary to accent that with a big musical opening hit.

[SSS]  On the album page for High Noon Revolver it lists about collaborating with Joshua Balane on "Trigger Finger (Desert)" and "Wanted," what was that experience was like.  Had you two worked together before and/or how did that connection come about? 

[VR]  I never actually met him or heard anything about him through Mike, the developer of the game. [...] My understanding was that he was a friend of Mike's or someone he found on Soundcloud to do the music for HNR (before Spaceboy came into the picture).

When I came onto the project, the game had a few pieces of music already. There was some title screen music by another composer (I don't remember the name, but I think he's credited somewhere in the game). It wasn't appropriate for the style of the game though, and we didn't end up keeping it. Then there was the level intro music and the world 1 music, by Joshua Balane. I thought these were good, so I remade them with my tools to make it sound consistent with all the other tracks I had already written or would write. I also diverged from the original composition of the world 1 music about 30 seconds in, to keep the song a bit more fresh and varied for long play sessions, and to match it more to my compositional style as well.

[SSS] How did the different environments influence the music that you wrote?

[VR]  This is actually my favorite part of the game and the soundtrack. While the music has a western undertone, I got to make various "tints" of that tone (for lack of a better description) for each level. We had a regular desert level, a forest level, an underwater temple level, a haunted pirate ship level, and finally a ruined town level. In each of them, I tried to invoke the feeling of that setting mostly through the choice of instrumentation. Desert world had typical western instruments, forest world had flutes and marimbas, water world had dulcimer and ambient choir, pirate world organs and epic choir, and the final world had tubular bells and muted guitar.

[I would never make it past Stage 2, the forest stage.]

I'm glad you asked about this because I feel like no one got to hear this music or see those levels, unfortunately. There were a lot of problems surrounding the release of this game. The game had fatal bugs where it would crash halfway through the second world, but the developer didn't want to share the source code with us to let us help him fix it (he had gotten screwed over by someone stealing his game in the past). The game was also way too difficult for even really good players, but the developer thought it was too easy (probably because he was the one playing it so much) and didn't want to change it. All of the streamers too who tried to play it couldn't even make it past the first level. Then, there were internal problems with Spaceboy that lead to it being disbanded months later (these were some crazy times that could merit a separate article on its own), and this game never got marketed that well. Because of all of this, the game completely flopped. It's really a shame because I think the game had a lot of potential to be good. It had great world and enemy designs, and a simple and fun game mechanic. It just wasn't meant for this world.

[SSS]  Are there types or genres of games you like to write for. If there is a genre you haven't written for, what would it be?

[VR]  I love all genres of music. I've always felt that every genre has something to offer if you look for it and are receptive to it. But to truly answer the question, different genres are fun to write for different reasons. It's fun to get a full, rich, balanced production sound for an electronic song. It's fun to try to write really catchy guitar melodies for rock. But one thing I haven't gotten to do yet, for a professional project, is write a really ornate, intricate orchestral score. StarFox 64 I think remains my favorite video game soundtrack of all time (and that's a very hard choice to make between all of Koji Kondo's and David Wise's stuff), and I would love to write something like that.

[SSS] I love the music from StarFox 64 as well. Do you have a favorite track(s)?  For me, the tracks for Aquas and Zoness are two of my favorites.  Even when the game starts to slow down due to all of the stuff happening on screen (you know, N64 issues), it only seems to make the music that much more impactful.  Maybe that's just me though being more forgiving.

[VS]  [T]hat is really difficult to say since I love them all so much. Aquas, Meteo, Star Wolf, Sector X, and Boss theme 2 are among my favorites. Hajime Wakai really knows how to write battle music. I was so into this soundtrack that many years ago I planned to reorchestrate the whole soundtrack (sort of like the Zelda Re-Orch project), but unfortunately the music is too fast, complex, and agile to be well-executed with sample libraries. Maybe one day if I become rich, I can hire the LSO or some other really good orchestra to record it all.

[SSS]  Last question.  Is there anything that you are currently working on that you are able to talk about?

[VR]  These days I'm mostly doing music for the Youtube math channel 3Blue1Brown. New tracks for that come out sporadically, so you can check the album on Bandcamp to see if new stuff has been added. I also recently did some promo music for a "cloud laboratory" company out in San Francisco called Emerald Cloud Lab, which was a gig I got through the person who runs 3Blue1Brown. 

In closing, I want again to say an enormous "thank you" to Vincent Rubinetti for taking the time to answer these questions in more depth than I was expecting and have enjoyed every minute of our emails.  I look forward to listening to more of Vincent's music from his existing and growing discography as well as seeing where his already varying avenues lead him.   So go check out his Bandcamp page and give a soundtrack or remix a listen or follow him through various social media channels on his webpage.  Good luck Vince, and I aim to keep in touch.

Thank you so much again!

~JWfW/JDub/Cooking Crack/Jaconian

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