Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - Grant Kirkhope

We talk to the former Rare composer who's now making fantasy music for the upcoming title Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.


Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

The next composer in the Sound Byte spotlight has been around the music-making block longer than you might think. Grant Kirkhope was an old-school alum from renowned development studio Rare, where he lent his prowess as an audio director, audio designer, and composer for titles like Banjo-Kazooie and Viva Pinata.

Right now, he's busy composing fantasy pieces for the upcoming EA and Big Huge Games role-playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. We managed to get a few words from the composer about his past, present, and future works.

GameSpot: Tell us how you got started in a career in music.

Grant Kirkhope:Truth be told, I didn't really have a career! I left the Royal Northern College of Music, where I studied the trumpets, and played in metal bands, mostly. I did this on and off for 10 years or so.

Grant Kirkhope will be making music for this upcoming RPG.
Grant Kirkhope will be making music for this upcoming RPG.

GS: How did you land a job in Rare back in 1995?

GK: The last band I was in that was making any money folded, and I was left playing in cover bands. Robin Beanland, who I'd known from playing in local bands with, was already at Rare, and he suggested I have a go at what he was doing. He recommended some equipment for me to buy, and I started trying to write music. I sent five cassette tapes to Rare over the course of a year, and never got a reply.

And then out of the blue I got a letter asking me to come for an interview. Much to my surprise, I got the job!

GS: When you found out you were going to work on GoldenEye N64's OST, how did you feel? How tough was it to work with limited space on the N64 cartridge and system for GoldenEye's music?

GK: I didn't really know what I was doing. I started at Rare converting Dave Wise's compositions in Diddy Kong's Quest and the sound effects to the Game Boy. Graeme Norgate then asked me to help him out with GoldenEye, as he was doing Blast Corp at the same time and was really busy. I just started writing music using the Bond theme.

It was great fun, and I couldn't believe I was actually getting paid to write music. It didn't seem like a job!

The memory restraints were pretty tough back then; we just had to reduce sample rates and compress everything as much as we could to squeeze it all into as tiny a space as possible. Listening back to it now, it does sound pretty rough.

GS: Concerning Viva Pinata's music, what was the thought process behind the Day and Night music? Did you draw anything from your childhood while composing such tunes?

GK: I really wanted to convey the sound of an English country garden, if that makes any sense. I love the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and in my own way tried to capture that sound.

I really enjoyed writing music and doing the sound design for that game. I suppose I was thinking about the time when I played in my local orchestras, and when I was at school, too. It was in these ensembles that I got introduced to that kind of music, and I've never forgotten it. Some of my favorite music that I've created is in the Pinata games.

GS: Let's switch gears to your latest work on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and the company behind it. What drew you to move to Big Huge Games--from being comfortable in England, then moving all the way to work in Baltimore, USA?

GK: I felt that my time at Rare near Ashby-de-la-Zouch was done. I loved working there, and I never thought I'd ever want to leave. It really broke my heart to do it.

I always thought it would be great to have a go at working in the USA, so I just applied for jobs, and Big Huge Games flew me over for an interview. I really liked the way the studio felt and thought it was somewhere where I could make a contribution. They offered me the job, so my family and I packed our bags and made the move.

GS: How much different was the culture of working in a UK studio compared to a US studio?

GK: I like the way Americans have that positive attitude; they really have that will to succeed. I sometimes feel that the UK has that attitude where there's no point trying, and we're bound to fail; it's a bit of a generalisation, I know. Americans are just as likely to fail, but they just go for it!

GS: What are the main instruments used to compose Kingdoms of Amalur's music?

GK: Right from the outset, it was obvious that Reckoning was going to need a fully orchestral score; it was just that kind of game. I just started the way I always do--I write the main theme, and then write some of the early ambient pieces.

GS: What are your inspirations for the world's music?

GK: Each of the regions of the game is very different. I would read the design docs, and look at the artwork, and get an idea for how they should sound. I have to say that in the early stages, it's probably more important to get the sound design up and running. It really roots you in the world, and brings it all to life, so I'd write a bit of music and then concentrate on the ambient sounds with the other two audio guys, Mark Cromer and Ian Smith.

I tried to make the music as diverse as the regions looked. I wanted to try to use different sections of the orchestra to be featured heavily in certain areas so that players would associate different music with different places. The game is pretty dark in its content, so the music reflects that on the whole.

GS: What tracks in the game took the longest to compose? Why?

GK: The boss pieces, without a doubt! I really wanted to "push the boat out" with the boss music. I listened to a lot of John Williams, in particular his Harry Potter scores, as he writes fantastic action music. I love the way he hits you with "the big tune" for a few bars, and then goes into really complex music that's all over the place but doesn't get in the way. I think a lot of people miss this about him and think he's just a big tune writer, which is completely wrong.

So, in my own way, I tried to get that level of excitement into my pieces. I really wanted to make the boss music complement the action and add that extra layer of urgency. We did some early play testing, and a lot of people commented on how the music made the big fights feel more epic, so that spurred me on! These pieces take longer to write, as you get through a lot of ideas in a short space of time, and I have to keep coming up with new music all the way through.

GS: Personally, which tracks should gamers look out for while playing the game?

GK: Definitely the boss pieces! I have to say I think all of the different flavours in the game turned out great, and the City of Prague Philharmonic played it all fantastically, as always.

I just hope that people get far enough into the game to hear the music, as it's such a huge world to get around. Or they could just buy the soundtrack, of course!

GS: Was the decision to do the OST for Kingdoms of Amalur due to the "creative fatigue" from composing music for all-ages titles like the Viva Pinata and Banjo-Kazooie series?

GK: Not really. I love to write all kinds of music, and I've been very lucky with the projects I've been given. It was nice to do a non-broad-appeal title, as I had not done one since Perfect Dark. It gave me the chance to write some very dark music, which I love to do.

GS: Let's talk about what's in store for 2012 and beyond. Will you be undertaking future big projects after Kingdoms of Amalur, or will you be taking small ones?

GK: Who knows? Whatever Big Huge Games decide to do next, I suppose. I just like to make sound design and write music, so whatever we decide to do I know I'll enjoy it.

GS: What kind of genre do you wish to work on for your next project?

GK: I would like to score a movie at some point. How I would go about doing that, I haven't got a clue!

GS: If you had to pick a video game franchise to compose new music for, which would it be? Why?

GK: That's a good question. I'd probably like to write some music for a Zelda game. Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is one of my favorite games of all time; the main theme is just fantastic! I'd also like to do one more Banjo game, but it would have to be back in the classic Banjo style of the first two games!

The OST to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will be out on February 7 and is released through Sumthing Else Music Works. Check out Sound Byte's Twitter page (@gs_soundbyte) for further updates.

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