Rafael Dyll Interview: Mixing Retro and Contemporary (December 2010)
Rafael Dyll is among the most successful game composers to have hailed from the European demoscene and remix scene. Over the last five years, he has hybridised various influences — orchestral and electronic, modern and retro — to create the scores for the arcade-style shooters Last Hope, Söldner-X: Himmelsstürmer, and Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype. All three titles have impacted on the game music fans through their exuberantly presented soundtrack releases.
In this special interview, Dyll recollects his journey from Atari player to professional musician. He elaborates, in particular, on how he tributed his favourite musicians such as Chris Hülsbeck and Tim Follin with remixes for the Remix64 and Revival ST series. He develops how he subsequently aimed to tribute classic game music with his score for Last Hope before offering various stylistic and technological innovations on the various releases for the Söldner-X series.
Interview Subject: Rafael Dyll
Interviewer: Don Kotowski
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Don Kotowski
Don: Hi Rafael and thanks so much for speaking with us today. For those who may be unfamiliar with you, could you please introduce yourself and explain your musical background? How do you feel your upbringing influenced your musical direction today?
Rafael Dyll: Being born in 1973 gave me the opportunity to pretty much witness most of the gaming industry's evolution. When my father came home with an Atari VCS 2600 for my 9th birthday, things became quite obvious — I was hooked right from the start. I later grew up in South Africa and, like most kids in the 80s, I started playing games on the Spectrum but mostly on my Commodore 64, which I received as a present for Christmas during a return visit to my family in Germany. That year, 1987, I suddenly realised that the C64's music chip (SID) was the biz. At the time I listened to the usual 80s teenie pop music like Depeche Mode, but I also loved electronic instrumental and film music by Vangelis, Jarre and the usual candidates.
My grandfather was quite the music buff, conducting and writing big-band arrangements, and my mother even studied classic vocals, so no one really took my interest in electronic music seriously in the family. This was a blessing, since I could play games and do my own thing, without getting piano lessons. In fact, I completely omitted any musical education, despite the family heritage.
I remember that Rob Hubbard's music in the Commodore 64 game Lightforce inspired me to start dabbling with composing tools. But it was years later on the Amiga, when I returned to Germany at 18, that I really started figuring out how the whole thing works, both in technical and musical terms. My favourites at the time included Chris Hülsbeck, whom I already knew from his C64 work, but on the Amiga he really reached his zenith. I also really loved just about anything by the Maniacs of Noise, a dutch game music company (perhaps the first in the industry), in particular Jeroen Tel... and Martin Galway's brilliant Wizball music. All of this was mostly Commodore 64 stuff. Amiga game music was heavy on sampling in the late 80s and early 90s, and Hülsbeck's music for the Turrican series was simply brilliant, but on the Amiga the best music came from the demo scene, in particular from Tip & Mantronix.
Don: From this background, how did you ultimately enter the demoscene and, later, become a professional in the gaming industry?
Rafael Dyll: Yes, I wrote some tunes for the demoscene myself later, learning by studying Protracker modules from other musicians. But after finishing school, I applied for business management training at a local Amiga hardware developer. I ended up being with that company for some years, managing export and sales. I finally ditched the Amiga and turned to consoles for gaming. This was when the SNES was taking its last breath too. The PlayStation came and I played a lot of games back then. So writing music and producing audio was just a semi-professional hobby during that phase. From around 2001, I started using a Mac for production and began promoting my music by entering game music contests on the web, print magazines and so on — you know, re-arranging existing game music. I grabbed a few prizes, but it wasn't really satisfying.
I also sent a few demos to some game companies in Germany and actually submitted some tracks for an existing game, which I was asked to do. I learned some valuable lessons in those days, such as 'don't get ripped off'. One company, which will remain nameless in this interview, actually let me write music, took the demos, and then never even answered the phone, let alone repond in any way. At least, they didn't have the guts to use any of the tunes in the final game, which I actually saw at the GamesCom in Cologne some four years later. Maybe I was really bad and they just left the country. Who knows? Ha ha.
Don: Focusing on your remixing activities, one of the earliest published works in which you are featured is the indie remix album entitled Remix64 V2 Into Eternity. Could you please describe your thoughts on the album's production and elaborate on your arrangement of Chris Hülsbeck's "The Great Giana Sisters"?
Rafael Dyll: I had made some game music remixes that people seemed to like and was asked to join the Remix64 arranger team, to produce a remix for the second CD. It was to feature professional studio versions of classic Commodore 64 games music in an emotional style, hence the subtitle. Although an independent album, it was actually a very professional production, with almost all of the musicians on that CD in some way connected to the game industry or demoscene. The production was excellent, almost ahead of its time in 2002, with vocals, orchestral elements, and movie-style arrangements. The remixes were mastered by Thomas Detert in his studio 'Airbase', who used to write music for C64 games and today produces dance hits for major labels.
I initially wanted to remix the Parallax in-game music by Galway. But after Fabian Del Priore dropped out of the project, I quickly grabbed the opportunity to rearrange The Great Giana Sisters' high score music. Chris was always very supportive of my work and later helped me with some original Turrican samples for a remix, so I wanted to do something connected to his music... and hey, it's not going to get any more Hülsbeck than Giana Sisters. The CD was a great learning experience for me and one of the reasons I started selling off my old equipment to improve sound quality.
Don: Another independent remix album was released entitled Revival ST. You served as both an arranger and a producer on this album. Could you please detail your work on this album, both from a producer's standpoint and from an arranger's standpoint?
Rafael Dyll: All three Remix64 CDs were very successful in the remix scene and highly professional. So Neil Carr, a friend from the UK that I met through the scene, set up a music label called 'Music by Design' and began hiring musicians for a new project aimed at Atari ST game music fans. There was yet to be an ST remix album. Due to the size of the project, I ended up helping out with most production issues, as a co-producer with Neil; my responsibilities included booklet layout direction, getting a former Thalion (game company from the 16-bit-days) manual author to write the booklet texts, sorting out mastering issues, and more or less pulling the whole thing together.
Although I must admit, I never owned an Atari ST myself, I knew most of the music, as many musicians ported their compositions to the ST's Yamaha FM hardware from the C64 or Amiga. I produced the remixes for two well-known pieces: the Lethal Xcess menu music by Jochen Hippel and the LED Storm title track by virtuoso Tim Follin. Both composers were legends in the 8-Bit C64 and 16-Bit Amiga/ST era. Sadly, there is yet to be a follow-up CD, but after MbD closed and another game record label, High Technology, took over the distribution, its probably unlikely.
Don: Moving towards your composing activity, you founded soniQfactory in 2009. Could you please describe the founding of the studio and your overall goals when creating video game music?
Rafael Dyll: The story goes like this: In 2005, out of the blue, I received a request for music for a shmup after the developers liked my demos. The job turned out to be Last Hope for the NeoGeo. From then, it took some four more years — writing music for further games and attending my regular office work at the same time — before I quit my regular job and decided to give it a shot full time.
I thought that much of the current game music had lost its magic, being mostly comprised of Hollywood-type scores. My approach was to write game music that actually sounds like game music, which lends itself to the more retro-themed games I guess, hence the number of shmup soundtracks I have made. My company, soniQfactory, continues to pursue this focus today.
Don: You recently revisited this debut score by re-releasing the Last Hope Original Soundtrack. Could you please describe your work on the original soundtrack? In addition, could you also discuss the bonus arrangements, both in general, and the two that were specifically arranged by you?
Rafael Dyll: The original music for Last Hope was written before 2006, produced in my old project studio with quite limited equipment. Some of the pieces were actually older and were licensed from my 'catalogue' by NG:DEV.TEAM for the game. In the reviews of the game, the music was praised as being old-school game music and I received generally very favourable marks. This is why the manufacturer later released a limited Dreamcast version of the game packaged with the soundtrack in a vinyl-record look.
But after writing more music for other games I had always thought about going back to the Last Hope tracks and re-writing them in a way. Timm from NG:VEV.TEAM approached me in 2009 and we discussed re-releasing the music on a stand-alone CD with a digital remastering of the originals and some new remixes by other musicians. At the time, I was heavily involved in the Söldner-X 2 music work and setting up my business, so I could only produce two arrange tracks and manage the mastering, due to time limitations. I basically made them the way I would produce them today. The fourth level theme, "Dark Seed", was always quite popular, so I remixed that and the title track. I really loved the remixes by the other musicians and, in particular, RSC Team's remix of the Boss music was great. It really caught the spirit of what I intended with the original composition.
Don: In 2007, your soundtrack to the PC game Söldner-X: Himmelsstürmer was released, followed by a more complete addition in 2008 that contained the new tracks composed specifically for the PlayStation 3 version of the game. Could you please describe your approach to creating the score to the horizontal shooter influenced by Gradius and R-Type?
Rafael Dyll: When I first started writing the tracks for the PC version, I envisioned something along the lines of Japansese shmup music. Gradius V or R-Type Final in particular comes to mind. The mix of electronic sounds, orchestral and pop influences is highly entertaining both for listeners and for me as a composer. Plus, being something of a shmup fan I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to hear in a modern shooter. There are some retro elements and influences from my home computer days and 16-Bit game console games thrown in too.
Don: When composing the music for the PlayStation 3 version, what was the impetus for creating individual boss themes and berserker themes for each stage?
Rafael Dyll: We (the development team and I) felt that a new PS3 release of the game could do with more boss music and berzerker themes, to give the game more variety in terms of music. With the PS3 version of the game I was able to implement the music directly into the game using a test system and basically try out what works. In some cases, we also ended up switching tunes around that sounded better in a particular level or boss fight. Looking back at both scores, I tend to see "The Lord of the Wind", "War above the Clouds" and most of the PS3 extra tracks as my favourites. There is distinct arcade game sound in there I generally appreciate, but I'll leave that to the listeners rather than elaborate.
Don: Recently, the sequel Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype, was released for the PlayStation 3. Not only did the game see a drastic overhaul, especially in terms of difficulty, the soundtrack also seemed to get an overhaul as well. Could you reflect on the decision to change the soundtrack to a more electronically focused soundtrack and your overall approach for this soundtrack? Could you also reflect upon some of your favorite compositions for this game?
Rafael Dyll: The word 'prototype' already suggested a more technological approach. And when something is 'final', it better be big. So when I started work on the sequel, I invested in some sexy new hardware and software instruments, in particular the Waldorf Blofeld, which is a right sound beast, with its raw and cutting-edge sound engine and new sound banks for my rom-sampler. I also started tuning some sounds to give them my own signature. I wanted to expand on everything people liked about the first soundtrack — bigger pads, more retro-styled leads (I used some typical Gameboy and Commodore 64 waveforms here and there), more aggressive arpeggios and synths, but also more organic samples in the form of symphonic interludes.
Being able to work hand-in-hand with the developers throughout all stages of the game's development, I really enjoyed doing the music for SX2 — it just felt so much better and more complete as I knew exactly where I wanted to go with this. The music was well received, so 'The Final Soundtrack' was released as a CD to accompany the Playstation Network download game and was mastered by Danish pop producer Holger Lagerfeldt. So right through to the actual CD production, the values were much higher this time around.
In terms of favourites, that's tough. Most people love the "Entering the Complex" and "City of the Fallen" level music, but I also really had fun making "Woods of Ellje" and the title track "Final Prototype". It's also the little bits and pieces that underline what this soundtrack embodies, like the short spherical piece "The Challenge" used for Trophy hunting.
Don: In late 2010, an expansion to Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype was released entitled The Last Chapter. Featuring three new stage, boss, and berserker themes, could you please describe your approach for composing the expansion music? In addition, are there any plans, either digitally or physically, to release this music for fans of the music?
Rafael Dyll: It was more or less decided to continue work right after the release of Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype, so I just went on from where I left off. Again, being able to access WIP stages and game mechanics really helped. I think that the new music blends in perfectly with the previous stages and that is the way it was intended. I also spent some time recording vocals for the in-game actors and also engineering some effects, jingles, and sounds required. At the moment, the publisher eastasiasoft is considering a digital release of the new tracks, but there is no definite decision yet. A physical release for a handful of tracks is unlikely and probably not economical unfortunately.
Don: Having grown up listening to music by famous German game composers, such as Chris Hülsbeck, what do you think of the evolution of video game music as a whole? How do you envision game music to sound in the future?
Rafael Dyll: Things will become even more interactive. For instance, we would have loved to make the music in SX2 gradually change as the player progresses or as situations change, but this would also distract from the stand-alone quality of the music, which were designed as single tracks.
Generally, with the advent of download platforms such as PlayStation Network, WiiWare, Steam etc., the market for game music is splitting in a way. There are independent, smaller studios creating creative games with unique soundtracks that are bold enough to experiment. See Braid, Shatter, or maybe the Söldner-X series. On the other side, the market for big budget games has reached Hollywood quality. We can now see even established film composers entering the market as game makers aim to provide Hollywood style entertainment.
There is a market for both sides. In any case, as with most things in life, there are also advantages and disadvantages. Today, the audio quality is tremendous. Even smaller budgets can make your music shine, given the right tools. Anyone with a decent sound card or sequencer can create music that sounds good — so much more than back in the 90s or 80s. But making good melodies and driving, emotional music is still down to hard work and perseverance, plus a hint of talent.
Don: Thank you very much for speaking with us today, Rafael Dyll. If you are able to reveal any details, what does the future hold for Rafael Dyll in terms of game projects? Would you be opposed to scoring other types of media, such as film or television, at some point?
Rafael Dyll: I don't oppose other media at all and, given the time and projects, would gladly write a score for a film of course. But games are and have always been my driving force. It's simply more interactive — players more actively 'live' the game and the atmosphere the music creates. This is exactly what my clients are striving for, when they hire me for writing a soundtrack for their game.
I am currently working on a PS3 title and another, yet to be disclosed, game. A number of game projects are in talks for 2011 — I think you'll be quite surprised. Ideally, I hope to widen my work's appeal and to produce music for other genres, with a different approach. I was really fortunate to grow up in a really special time and witness all these gaming technologies come and go, or evolve, and today also to be a part of an industry that is so much fun and bears so many opportunities. Thank you for listening to my work — I hope you're enjoying it!