Vincent Diamante Interview: Interactive Indie Scores (May 2012)
Vincent Diamante is an American game developer and composer whose gorgeous soundtrack for Flower has found its way onto the playlists of many gamers and non-gamers. While at a relatively early stage in their career, Diamante has worked on numerous projects including Castlevania spinoffs, Cloud, and, most recently, the "dark deco" 2D-fighter Skullgirls.
In this in-depth interview, Diamante talks how the beginning of his career and how it developed through his work on Cloud and Konami titles. He discusses his role as a music composer on a game project, the technological challenges he's faced working on various games, and the details of his collaboration with Michiru Yamane on Skullgirls.
Interview Subject: Vincent Diamante
Interviewer: Simon Elchlepp
Editor: Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Simon Elchlepp, Chris Greening
Simon: Vincent Diamante, thanks for taking the time today to talk about your work. To start things off, could you give us some information about your musical background and education, and how this lead to your work on your first game soundtrack, Cloud?
Vincent Diamante: My formal music education started with piano performance, back when I was a little kid. I liked it enough to keep going with it, but I always knew that I wanted to be, very specifically, a video game music composer. I ended up attending USC on a piano performance scholarship, but shortly afterwards, I switched over to their electro-acoustic media major... which was basically piano performance with a little bit of electronic music stuffs thrown in.
After graduation, I ended up staying at USC, lured by a relatively new place in the cinema school called the Interactive Media Division that offered MFA degrees in Interactive Media. This was comprised of various things ranging from mobile experience design to telepresence to location-based entertainment as well as video games. Entering into that program and finding other people in the program of like mind, really aggressively pursuing the borders of the video game possibility space, resulted in Cloud as well as Dyadin the year before. Both games were accepted into the IGF Student Showcase.
Simon: Cloud's soothing gameplay and design style was meant to evoke a different emotional response than what most other video games provided. How did you and the development team map out the role that your soundtrack would play in this and how did this guide you in determining the music's general style? Was writing a soundtrack for a rather unusual game like Cloud as your first soundtrack a daunting prospect?
Vincent Diamante: Despite Cloud being the first "real" game soundtrack I worked on, it didn't really feel like the first time I had worked on something like this. I had been writing computer music for about seven years by the time Cloud came up. True, it wasn't in the context of a video game, but I always thought about video game integration while writing music. There are plenty of MODs and S3Ms that are sitting in my archives that are just 1-2 minute loops of music, written as if for a game, even though there was no game there.
Cloud itself was a great experience. Jenova Chen, lead designer, really put a lot of trust in me to establish the tone of the game through music rather than just try to follow along with the visual and interactive aesthetic.
Simon: Both Cloud and Flower feature beautifully calming music that manages to be both melodic and atmospheric. On both titles, how did you manage to walk that tightrope between subtly enhancing the mood and providing melodic hooks, while keeping the music unobtrusive enough to not dominate the experience?
Vincent Diamante: Hah... a lot of work? The music went through lots and lots of slow cooking: in my head, on paper, and in the music sequencer. Once it got to the right flavor... boom. Take it off the heat. Sometimes I'm thinking about the game experience as it exists in my head while I'm writing and listening to the music. Other times, I've got the dev kit running with an early version of the game while I'm doing my music work. Either way, the music always follows the game.
Simon: Again, both Cloud and Flower are similar in how they create quite a lush sound that is still delicate and never overblown. When writing the different melodies and layers of both scores, how did you tackle the challenge of orchestrating the music and how long did it take on both projects to find the right timbres and instrument combinations?
Vincent Diamante: Cloud was easier in this regard. You could always count on the music to play the same way every time. The interactivity of Flower meant that the orchestration was always different with each player's unique playthrough of the level.
Orchestration for Flower started in the music sequencer, but it was really hammered down in the Lua scripts in combination with final mixing and mastering for each level. Of course, this meant lots and lots of time spent playing the game to properly inform the changes I was making in the score and the scripts.
Simon: Do you feel that your increased experience as a composer changed the way you tackled Flower compared to Cloud?
Vincent Diamante: In terms of music composition, I definitely changed. If anything, though, I was very stubborn in how I worked with the development team. On Cloud, which was a student project, I stayed very close to everyone else on the team and worked alongside them. On Flower, despite the structure being a bit different, working as a music contractor for Sony, I continued to work alongside the team. I wrote most of the music for Flower on a laptop in the offices of TGC.
Simon: What was the motivation for this close collaboration, and what role was the music assigned to play in the overall experience that is Flower? In previous interviews, you have emphasised the emotional arc that the game — and thus its music — try to accomplish. Could you elaborate a bit on what that emotional arc looked like?
Vincent Diamante: Well, studying level designs is just one bit of it. There was a lot of stuff that happened working with the development team. I was actually there near the very beginning of the project, well before the game was established as a game of flying flower petals. I worked a lot with the engineers in creating interactive systems for sound and music, and I spent a lot of time working together with the game's sound designer, Steve Johnson. We really tried to carefully orchestrate the whole audio experience, each of us filling in where we could and helping each other out where we could.
The actual arc of the game changed a lot over the course of game development. I'd like to say that there was a magic bullet to it, but I think simply staying in the game development process for the entirety and being ready and willing to adjust to what the game developers find and what the game desires itself to be during that time was key in the soundtrack being as coherent as it was.
As for the motivation? I fiercely believe in myself as a game developer that happens to use music and audio as his primary tools. Some game developers are programmers, some game developers are visual artists, some game developers are fiction and world designers... there are many game developers out there. I'm a game developer first, a music composer second.
Simon: Given that Flower's in-game soundtrack is composed of a complex web of layers that change to reflect the gamer's actions, how did you prepare Flower for its album release and cast its music into linear tracks? Given that some of the tracks on Flower are considerably longer than those found on Cloud, how did you decide about a track's 'right' length?
Vincent Diamante: In terms of the levels, there's more music there, but the individual loops within each level are quite a bit shorter than the loops in Cloud. When it came to the right length of the track in the game, that came just from really hammering on the game and seeing what resonated best.
For the PSN soundtrack, well, I actually took a crack at it and came up with a soundtrack that had... ambitiously long tracks, let's say. Eventually I got convinced by many, including the music supervisors at Sony, to really trim things down to the length they are right now. Honestly, I wouldn't mind if they were a bit longer, overall. Maybe some time in the future I could have an opportunity to revisit the album.
Simon: Cloud turned out to be an amazingly successful title and brought you your first accolades. How did this influence your career as a game composer and in how far did it lead to your composing job for titles such as Castlevania?
Vincent Diamante: Well, the Castlevania job was a bit untraditional. As part of my coursework at USC, I was required to take an internship class in the cinema school. Of course, film and movie production internships are just a piece of the well-established movie system out there in Los Angeles. In any case, I had to take an internship at some established company.
Well, years prior, I had worked with a small mobile company that ended up becoming part of Konami. Once this class started, I asked my friend: "Hey. Do you guys need anything? I need to fulfill this internship requirement of my major." With that, I found myself doing things like Gradius, DDR, Contra 4, and other game soundtracks for mobile phones. Castlevania: Order of Shadows was one of the many games that was made while I was there.
Simon: You were one of the first Western composers to compose for many of these Konami franchises. Castlevania, in particular, is a series with one of the richest musical histories in gaming history. How much of a challenge was it to rise to this extraordinary occasion? How much inspiration did you take from earlier Castlevania soundtracks and how much freedom were you given to inject the score with your own personal style?
Vincent Diamante: While I was working on the soundtrack, I thought about how the sound would change as the franchise would make big jumps between consoles. That really relaxed my inhibitions about tackling the game. Working on the soundtrack was very much me just, sort of, doing stuff and saying: "Hey, is this cool? Sure..."
Simon: You composed these mobile phone titles some years before the format really took off on iPhones and Android platforms. What were the technical challenges in writing music for a mobile game back then?
Vincent Diamante: The Castlevania soundtrack was written with something called SP-MIDI, with the SP standing for scalable polyphony. You never knew what would be the capabilities of your target device, so you had to inject some heuristics about what would sound or not sound given a particular phone. This wasn't a huge problem.
The most annoying problem was that certain sounds, even though they were the same instrument, would just not sound the same between different manufacturers. Really, these were just little hangups, but it infuriated me nonetheless. It wouldn't be so much of a problem if I could be really active with some of the instruments... but there was actually a very low ceiling on how big each individual MIDI file could be on each stage. I could only really afford to have super active files really dense with note data on very short loops. That was definitely the biggest frustration.
Many times I would find myself trimming away note data, pitch bend data, volume data... then throwing the song away in disgust because there was just no way to get under the limit, or having to live with the fact that the song is now a totally different piece of music because of the necessary changes.
Simon: Your latest project is Skullgirls, a downloadable 2D fighting game published by Konami. Could you give us some information about how your involvement in the project came about and why the decision was made to have several composers working on the score? What was your reaction when you heard Michiru Yamane would be composing for Skullgirls as well?
Vincent Diamante: For Skullgirls, I actually started out as just a contract sound designer before eventually stepping into the role of Reverge Labs' Audio Director. By that time, the composer relationships we had were already established. Of course, working on this game with Michiru Yamane was incredibly satisfying.
Simon: Skullgirls' soundtrack features an eclectic mix of jazz and electronica that is both unusual for a fighting game and quite different from your previous output. Why was the decision made to go with this particular style of music and in how far was it a challenge for you to write in this idiom?
Vincent Diamante: The "dark deco" concept was well in place before I joined Skullgirls. In addition, some of the tracks in their final form were in place in the game. I think it's a really cool and different approach. As a big fighting game fan, I enjoyed the feel that the soundtrack created from the very beginning.
My favourite fighting games as well as my favourite fighting game soundtracks are more off the beaten path. I've always thought the world of Baldwin and Duckworth's recreation of the Super Street Fighter II Turbo soundtrack for Eurocom; even though it's the same Street Fighter music we've known and loved for years, its uniqueness really struck me as so self-assured.
Simon: With four different composers working on Skullgirls, how did the developers ensure that the finished soundtrack would be coherent, particularly considering that it is quite a diverse mix of styles (jazz, electronica, Gothic)? How much interaction and collaboration was there between the different composers and how did it take place on a technical level (Skype conversations, online exchange of musical drafts etc.)?
Vincent Diamante: I had a lot of e-mail interaction with all the composers. When I first talked with composers Brenton Kossak and Blaine McGurty, it was getting in touch with the things that influenced Michiru Yamane and her musical tendencies rather than her actual music. We didn't necessarily want or need the non-Yamane tracks to perfectly match her music.
It was much less about initial direction and more about shaping the things that they wanted to naturally do, I think. They might come at us with a full track that's really great, and I'll say it's really great, but I'll poke at things like the shape of the synth counterpoint or the tone of the snare drum... things to get the track to sound more it rather than more like Yamane.
Simon: Did you have many interactions with Michiru Yamane herself?
When it came to directing Yamane, that was just fun. It was very edifying seeing the transformations of early drafts into finished tracks. Many tracks required a minimum of direction from me, which I expected going into it. Sometimes the other guys on the dev team would have ideas about how the music should go, and I would try my best to relate those ideas in a concrete musical way to Yamane so she could efficiently act on it.
I was sometimes surprised how technical music notes could have stuff lost in translation and would result in very different outcomes for late iterations. As an example, the very end of "In A Moment's Time" was a result of some of the nuances I was trying to convey getting mistranslated... but it ended up a really cool way to end the piece and the credits nonetheless.
Simon: Many thanks for your time today, Vincent Diamante. Is there anything else you'd like to say about Skullgirls or your work in general? Do you have any messages to readers from around the world?
Vincent Diamante: Thanks to everyone who's checked out the Skullgirls soundtrack. There will be some exciting stuff happening in the future for the game as well as for me in the game world so keep a lookout!