By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Grim Fandango Remastered, describing it as “a 17-year-old classic LucasArts game remastered in HD, looking and sounding better than it has ever done.” This was in large part due to the remastered score, with many of the songs now fully orchestrated by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Therefore, AMO is delighted to welcome back the game’s award-winning composer Peter McConnell (Monkey Island 2, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Full Throttle) for yet another exclusive online interview!
Hello Mr McConnell, thank you for your time and welcome back to Alternative Magazine Online!
Thanks, it’s great to be back!
What have you been up to since we last spoke in 2012?
At the beginning of 2012 I was just finishing Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Since then I’ve been lucky to work on a bunch of cool projects: Broken Age, Plants vs. Zombies 2, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Costume Quest and Grim Fandango Remastered.
You’ve continued to have a great working relationship with Double Fine Productions and Tim Schafer – do you remember when you first heard the news about Grim Fandango Remastered?
I sure do. It was at E3 last year. I couldn’t believe it! How often in life do you get a do-over of something you really care about?
How did you feel when you realised you were going to get the opportunity to remaster the soundtrack? Was that always part of the original remastering plan?
Well I had always wanted the opportunity to revisit Grim because, while the original jazz music came out great, the “orchestral” music was all done with 1997-era samples and didn’t come close to what I imagined it could be like. But I had long given up on the idea that it could ever happen. Then it turned out I was wrong – it turned out that there were folks at Disney, at LucasArts, at Sony and of course at Double Fine, who wanted to revisit it, too. Some of these people had worked on it, some had grown up with it as a favourite game. It’s truly amazing how many “friends of Grim” there are out there.
What condition were the original audio files in when you got your hands on them – did you manage to recover everything from the original game?
From a musical point of view I like to call Grim Remastered “Grim re-arranged, re-voiced, re-orchestrated, re-recorded, re-mixed, re-mastered and – most of all – retrieved.” Getting that data actually took months. Finding the people who knew which inner recesses of the archives might contain the data was a job in and of itself.
I owe a lot to a guy named Rob Cowles who had been in Marketing at LucasArts and had rescued the sound department backups when LucasArts was acquired. Then there was Derek Williams of LucasArts who actually found the box of DLT tapes which contained all the data. But DLT tapes are an old medium requiring a DLT drive and an old Mac with SCSI connectors, and old software called Retrospect Remote.
I have Jory Prum at Studio Jory to thank for having just those things, and more importantly, for having the expertise to go through several drive units and get all the data properly extracted from those 16-year old tapes. In the end we got everything – every single bit of recorded music and session data – all except for two cymbal hits. As you can guess, it wasn’t much of a problem to replace those. All in all it was a chain of miracles, and if any of the links had not held up, we would have had very little to work with at all.
You’d previously worked with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Broken Age. What was it like working with them again on new recordings of classic Grim Fandango tracks?
It was like working with old friends. They are such a tremendous ensemble, and from working on Broken Age, we had developed a great rapport and rhythm in the studio. That said, it was a miracle we were able to get those sessions to happen, especially under such a tight schedule. I was truly fortunate.
How did you approach re-recording the soundtrack? How much of it was re-recorded?
Well we didn’t have an unlimited budget, so I had to choose very carefully which pieces would get the most attention and how. We ended up doing about a half hour of the score with live orchestra, and 45 minutes of re-mixed jazz tunes, including a few new live parts and some new solos, and then 45 minutes of music in which we replaced parts that were sampled with new, state-of the-art samples. Over two hours of the three-hour score was overhauled. The remaining hour had originally been done live and I thought sounded good enough to keep as is.
Do you have a favourite piece of music from the soundtrack?
Yes a favourite, and another favourite, and another… but if you ask me to choose one it would be “Casino Calavera”, which we were able to add a number of live parts to, including two new killer solo sections. It really feels like a proper swing tune to me now.
How did the creative process work when you created the original soundtrack – were you given much direction or did you have quite a lot of freedom to experiment?
Tim Schafer leads mostly by inspiring. At the beginning of the project I saw some of Peter Chan’s amazing concept art, and Tim loaned me his collection of Humphrey Bogart movies and a vinyl record of some very special Mexican folk music called Son. I brought to the table my love of swing and black and white movies. I went through a process I still like to employ, of humming tunes into a hand-held recorder, then sending Tim a rough recording of my singing the tune to the piano, then doing a mockup, and then a final recording.
What’s the most unusual instrument featured in the game’s soundtrack?
Probably the charango, a mandolin-like instrument made from an armadillo shell. Tim had gotten one from his brother who I believe had picked it up on a trip to Mexico. I played it in a couple of the pieces in the Mayan Temple area of the game, and a charango strum was used as a menu/transition stinger.
How has composing video game soundtracks changed since 1998?
It depends very much on the project. For a project on the scale of Grim Fandango, it’s changed a lot. We didn’t consider doing live orchestra for Grim back in the day, not because there were no live orchestras, but because games didn’t occupy a place in the culture that could obtain that level of production.
Now AAA titles pretty much carry the expectation of a major music production budget – in the case of orchestral music that means not just live orchestra, but a world-class orchestra in a world-class studio, with all the preparation and support that entails. On the other hand there are parts of the industry that remind me very much of the early days of writing game music. Mobile games have similar constraints when it comes to storage space and budget, and to a lesser degree screen and audio tech. Necessity being the mother of invention, a lot of creativity and innovation can happen with these projects, especially when it comes to grabbing the player’s attention by the simplest of means.
Finally there are projects where you have a choice based on aesthetics – a choice to limit yourself because of the type of statement the game is making. Plants vs. Zombies comes to mind – we could do a big orchestral sound or a live rock band if we wanted to, but that would not match the charm of the 2-D visuals. So we stay “low-fi” in our musical sound palette. I call that kind of thing invention by creating your own necessity. All in all, composing music for games now means having many more choices than we once did, which is all the more reason to take inspiration from our own past.
You also contributed to the new commentary mode – was it fun to get back together with the old team and chat about making the game?
Of course it was! My part was chatting with Tim. It brought back a lot of memories of how things were in the LucasArts days. That said, I think that Tim keeps that same spirit alive at Double Fine. Less has changed than one might think.
Why do you think Grim Fandango (and its soundtrack) has stood the test of time so well?
For many reasons. There are cultural accoutrements of course. Grim came at a time when Latin culture was becoming a hip part of mainstream Anglo culture in North America – Buena Vista Social Club came out a year later, for example – and there was a big swing revival at the time as well. But I think the main reason is that the story and the world are so rich and potent, and deal with timeless themes on a level rarely attained in a game.
On the musical side, there is the rich heritage of Film Noir scores and freedom of jazz, which is like the lifeblood of American music. All of these elements came together so effortlessly. In fact all of the musicians who played in the original score – the jazz players, the mariachi guys, even the Peruvian flute player – played or lived in the same section of San Francisco, the Mission District. The score was literally in the air, like it was meant to be. All you had to do was catch it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I usually can’t answer that question, but I just finished work on Act II of Broken Age and recently did a bit more music for Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. The upcoming stuff isn’t announced yet.
Thank you for your time! As you know I’m a massive fan and it was such a pleasure to replay Grim Fandango and hear one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time sounding brand new after all these years.
You’re very welcome! The pleasure is mine.