Kevin Riepl Interview: Raw Interactive Scoring (August 2010)
Kevin Riepl is a highly trained and experienced composer for film, television, and video games that currently works with the Max Steiner Agency. His credits span from first-person shooters such as Unreal Tournament 2003 and Gears of War, to game adaptations such as Nancy Drew and Shrek, to, of course, Microsoft Game Studios' latest hit, the Xbox 360's Crackdown 2.
In this interview, Riepl greatly elaborates on his experiences, offerings, and expectations on Crackdown 2. He reflects how he created a cutting-edge synthetic score with an interactive element through building compositions up in multiple stems. He also recollects his past works on the Unreal, Gears of War, and Nancy Drew series and discusses his upcoming projects Huxley, Aliens: Colonial Marines, and Hunted: The Demon's Forge.
Interview Subject: Kevin Riepl
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Jayson Napolitano, Gloria Soto, Christopher Coleman
Chris: Kevin Riepl, welcome to Game Music Net. First of all, can you introduce yourself to those readers who don't already know you and discuss your musical background, education, and influences?
Kevin Riepl: Hi. My name is Kevin Riepl, a composer for film, television, and most notably videogames. My music career in these industries began about ten years ago when I was brought on as assistant and co-writing partner for Kevin Manthei Productions here in Los Angeles. Prior to this I lived in New Jersey where I studied jazz and classical music, and taught piano to students throughout central New Jersey. My studies range from personal private instruction combined with studies at The Mannes College of Music in New York City.
Chris: Your latest major game project is Crackdown 2 for the Xbox 360. Can you discuss how you were selected for this score and what your responsibilities were?
Kevin Riepl: The first time I saw Crackdown 2 was at E3 2009. Given that I loved the first one I was extremely passionate about trying to get on the sequel. During that time, Soundelux DMG, with their new music model, brought me on as their client and them as my agent. Months later, when Crackdown 2 was starting development, I was sending my material through the proper channels to Microsoft in the hope of landing the gig. None of the existing music on my reel did the trick.
So as development was going on and I heard Microsoft still was having trouble nailing down a composer for the right 'sound' for their game, I was given the opportunity to write a few custom tracks of what I thought the Crackdown 2 universe should sound like musically. At the last minute, with the help of the agency team, I was able to get these custom tracks to the audio director, Kristofor Mellroth, at Microsoft Game Studios. Kris and the team seemed to really take to what I had written and found that it was the 'sound' they were looking for.
Chris: Your original music for Crackdown 2 brings a new level of energy and interactivity to the game. Can you elaborate on how you achieved this, with reference to specific in-game examples?
Kevin Riepl: When writing the music for the game, I knew going in that the music would need to be split up in to stems (layers) to be used as elements within the game or as building blocks for intensity purposes. Knowing this prior to writing helps a composer contour their writing process to best fit the game and the music's role.
When it came to creating the tracks, which would range from two to four minutes, I kept this in mind. I would then deliver each track in four stems, broken down into melody, ambience, percussion/rhythm, and bass/low-end. This allowed the audio team at Microsoft Games Studios to use each stem as they chose in creating intensity and interactivity with in certain areas of the game. For example, within the Freak Lairs, the specific Freak music would never start off with every stem playing. The arrangement of stems and layering would depend on the intensity of the amount of freaks attacking or at what point you were reaching a certain goal.
It just so happens that a few of the cues I had written were at the same tempo so, at times, stem elements from one piece were able to be combined or mixed with stems from another piece. This method was used quite a bit with the remixes Guy Whitmore, an audio director at Microsoft, did. These elements can be heard quite a bit during the different styles of races during the game. Rooftop, Car, running, etc. and also during some menu and loading screens. Guy did a great job. Every time I hear a piece assembled differently than I had envisioned it, it blows me away.
Chris: Crackdown 2 is one in the latest of a line of game scores for you. Overall, how do you think your involvement with earlier projects influenced your approach and work on this game?
Kevin Riepl: Well I think, as a composer or an artist, EVERY project you've done in the past shapes or influences everything in front of you. For this one, I'm not sure. It just seemed that everything I've done and learned has helped this project go as smooth as possible. Something like that should hold true for anyone trying to succeed in any craft.
That said, I approach each project and its musical requirements differently and customize my approach according to the project's needs. So I can't say that anything I've done in the past 'musically' has influenced the approach to this game. As a composer I'd like to think I grow musically, but it has more to do with the dynamics of personalities and how the team and composer can relate with each other on a professional and creative level. These are the elements and lessons that I learn and bring with me to each and every project.
Chris: Moving on to specifics, you are a recurring composer of the Unreal game titles. Could you recollect your work on this series? To what extent do these scores represent career landmarks for you?
Kevin Riepl: Well, I'd have to say that, even though I did a few games as co-writer for Kevin Manthei Productions prior to being brought onto the Unreal series, Unreal Tournament 2003 was a huge step for my videogame career.
As you know, Unreal was pretty damn popular prior to UT2003, so there was already a fan base for the series. At the time, Cliff Bleszinski was looking for a different musical sound for the franchise, my demo reel happened to be sitting on his desk at the right time. It was a huge plus for me. I continued to work with Kevin Manthei while, at the same time, building up my own set of credits.
Chris: You have also worked extensively with Kevin Manthei on several projects, including six Nancy Drew titles. What sort of scoring approach is needed for these book-to-game adaptations and how do you individualise each installment? Do you and Kevin Manthei have a close working relationship?
Kevin Riepl: Yes, Kevin and I have a great working relationship. Being an assistant and writing partner for some time, you inevitably become friends and figure out how to best work together.
Personally I approached the Nancy Drew games no differently than any other project. The audio director at Her Interactive would lay out a pretty detailed music document for us to work from and supplied ample amount of reference material for inspiration. The musical approach for each game was different depending on where and when that specific story took place.
For example, one title had a setting that had a 1920s - 1930s vibe. So we took a more small ensemble jazz approach for that one. Another story took place in a haunted mansion, so we created music specifically with an underlying ambient vibe and interleaved old player piano-styled pieces throughout.
Chris: You have also worked on several movie and television scores, most recently Broken August with Kevin Manthei. Could you elaborate on these productions and the novel challenges they bring for you as a composer?
Kevin Riepl: I have done a decent amount of TV work with Kevin. First I started out with helping him with additional music on two of his cartoon series, then I was able to handle the music on his third series, a Disney Channel show called Brandy & Mr. Whiskers. This series was wall-to-wall music in styles heavily influenced by Mexican music to orchestral to rock. Twenty minutes of music was needed per episode. This obviously was the first scenario for me to be able to write and produce a ton of music in a record amount of time, weekly. If weekly television doesn't hone a composer's skills, I don't know what will.
As for films, I've been doing small shorts and independent features for some time now. When Kevin got Broken August he thought it might be a cool project for us to rejoin forces and collaborate on.
Chris: Moving to the end of our discussion of your past works, it seems fitting to mention the best-selling soundtrack to Gears of War. Looking back, what inspired your thematic and stylistic approach to this title? Are you satisfied with how it served as both an in-game score and stand-alone listen?
Kevin Riepl: Yes, I can't forget Gears of War of course. This was big for me, because 1) it was a HUGE title and 2) it was my first live recorded score with an orchestra.
I'd have to say, the biggest inspiration for the Gears of War music was the immense amount of concept material and back story that was created for the game. The imagery alone conjured up SO MANY ideas musically in my head. My main goal as a game composer is to first have the music fit and work with the gameplay. If the result of that is having it be an enjoyable stand-alone listening experience then that to me is a bonus.
Overall, I am very satisfied how the music worked both in-game and out. I would, however, go back and probably do a few things differently, preferably with the final mix, but I think every creator always has hindsight to where they'd want to change or polish things up. Things I wish I could have developed on for the sequel.
Chris: On Gears of War 2, you co-composed alongside Steve Jablonsky. What was it like to engage in this collaboration and to what extent did it affect the approach of the score? Do you think the original Gears of War score was a major influence?
Kevin Riepl: For Gears of War 2, I did not work alongside Steve at all. I was on the project for ten months, writing around 50 or so minutes of music prior to Steve being signed on. At that point, I was not longer writing music for the game. I believe some of the ambient music I created was used in the game, which is the reason for my 'additional music' credit.
I certainly hope some of the stuff I wrote for Gears of War was an inspiration for Steve's score. Personally, I haven't heard much of the score, but I've heard that he did reference some of the themes, which I think was a clever idea to help tie the scores together.
Chris: Crackdown 2 is another production that will be published by Microsoft Game Studios. Should we expect similar production values from the score as the Gears of War series? Did you receive the opportunity to offer any live recordings?
Kevin Riepl: Crackdown 2 is a completely different style of score from that of Gears of War. The score is intended to be completely synthetic and not resemble anything that would be organic sounding in nature. This in turn required no live recording, other than customized new sounds that I created for the score.
Chris: There was also a licensed component to the Crackdown 2 score. Were you involved in any way with this component? What do you feel about this element and how does it integrate with your own compositions?
Kevin Riepl: I was not involved with this process of the music. The licensed music is used at key times and areas in the game, not integrating at all with the custom score.
Chris: I'd also like to use this opportunity to ask about two delayed upcoming projects, Huxley and Aliens: Colonial Marines. Could you give some hints about what to expect from these scores? Are they special for you and for what reasons?
Kevin Riepl: Huxley, even though not released yet, was special to me because it was the first time I was able to write a fully orchestral score and have it be performed and recorded here in Los Angeles with Hollywood studio musicians at the Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Brothers' Studios. I've had the pleasure to sit in on a lot of recording sessions that have been held there. To finally have the moment where it's my music and project being recorded there is something special.
I am very looking forward to finishing up the writing for Aliens: Colonial Marines and recording it. The Alien and Aliens films have always been two of my favorite movies ever, and to be chosen to create the score for this game was an honor. Not only do I get to create a score heavily influenced by Goldsmith and Horner, but I get to add my own voice to it as well. My love for the franchise is what makes the development delay even more difficult to deal with.
Chris: Finally, your scores for the Unreal and Gears of War series have received soundtrack releases. May we expect the same from Crackdown 2 or will it remain strictly an in-game experience?
Kevin Riepl: Well, I can't say if it will be released, but I do know that people on the Microsoft audio team would like a soundtrack for Crackdown 2 to be released. I cannot comment on the certainty of a release, as I have no new information.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Kevin Riepl. Is there anything else you'd like to say about Crackdown 2 and your other works? In addition, do you have a message for readers across the world?
Kevin Riepl: Thank you for taking an interest in my work and career! It was a pleasure. Final words on Crackdown 2? Hmm, "Go Buy It!" As for other works, I look forward to completing Hunted: The Demon's Forge being developed by InXile and published by Bethesda. I also can't wait to be able to share some big news on the film work I'll be doing this upcoming fall.
The only message I have for readers is thank you all for enjoying my music and taking the time to stop by my site, Facebook page, and Twitter feed to leave nice comments and thoughts. Even if I can't reply to all of them, I do read them and I greatly appreciate it.
Many thanks to Jayson Napolitano, Gloria Soto, and Christopher Coleman of the Max Steiner Agency for coordinating this interview. Crackdown 2 is widely available for the Xbox 360 now. To learn more about Kevin Riepl, visit his official site.