Retro Game Crunch Interview: Matt Grimm

Today I am talking with Matt Grimm, the final member of the Retro Game Crunch trio. You can also read the previous interviews Shaun Inman and Rusty Moyher. There's still a few days left to help push the Retro Game Crunch to the finish line. Pledge now!

Josh Before we talk about the Crunch, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Matt I'm just your average 28 year old. I grew up playing every video game I could get my hands on. The Dreamcast was my last console. I didn't touch video games for around a decade, got into music and cars. Within the last two years I've started falling in love with old video games all over again.

Josh Where did you go to school?

Matt I attended a local community college, Rose Sate College. I got my associates in Web development. And that's it for school. It is increasingly apparent that real life experience trumps attending college when it comes to the web or similar technologies. I'm glad I never bought into the idea of needing to attend school for years on end while racking up huge amounts of debt. If you can't tell thats a subject I'm very passionate about. Schools are becoming irrelevant (for certain fields of study) and I hate debt.

I currently have a day job working in web development. I work for LightCMS as a software engineer. I get to do really nerdy stuff with JavaScript / CoffeeScript and love it.

Josh What did you do before you started making music?

Matt I don't know that I can really answer what I was "doing before music". Music has always been a part of me. I'm always writing and recording small ideas since I was a kid.

Josh Your bio says you are a sound designer. How is that different than a musician, composer, or game developer?

Matt Sound design is kind of new to me. I don't claim to know anything about it professionally. I kind of stumbled into it because it's part of game development. You need sound effects. And I wanted to make my own. So I started really "listening" to things in the real world and tried figuring out how I could make a believable version of that with the NES sound chip. I think the best sound effect I've created to date is probably a crow's caw. (It's for an unannounced game Shaun Inman and I have been working on, before retro game crunch that is).

Sound design is very interesting, it's a totally different mindset from writing music. If you're trying to emulate a sound from the real world, you have to slow down, listen to things over and over and try to break them into little components. Then you need to know your tools well enough to translate that into a believable version of the sound. The other side of sound design is even tougher. Coming up with a totally abstract sound to represent an action or character on screen is crazy. I second guess a lot and probably make 4-5 sounds before finally choosing the one that "feels right". With the NES, players still have to use their imagination because it's pretty limited but that's the fun in it.

Josh Do you think there is a lot of overlap between game audio and other genres of music?

Matt There's a ton of overlap with game audio and other music. Its funny how in the 8bit and 16 bit era all the game music was trying to sound as real as possible. Now we can have actual music tracks play in games. But the tables have turned. Now real music wants to sound digital and "chippy" like old video games.

Josh Do your skills in one cross over to the other?

Matt Skills for writing music (at least on a computer) totally cross over when trying to make old game music. From the technical side of things it's all basically the same skills. When I was in high-school I had one of my first experiences with making music on a computer using FruityLoops (FL Studio now). That helped set a foundation for my understanding of music creation software in general. And honestly I could even go back further and say Mario Paint on the SNES was my first real experience creating music on a computer. If your comfortable with programs like Garageband, Reason, etc. moving over to something like Famitracker will be easy. If your comfortable with programming and writing code (understandably a different skill set) there's options like MML to compose NES music. MML is currently my preferred way of making NES music.

From the less technical and more musical side of things, it all translates skill wise. The fundamentals of making good, interesting music are what's important no matter the medium.

Today I write all my music with a keyboard and GarageBand using the YMCK 8bit plugin. From there I recreate the song in MML code and compile it into the nsf format.

Josh What's special about game audio?

Matt What's special, at least in my opinion, about game audio is the limitations. A lot of modern chiptune artists make music with real hardware and use the low-fi sounds produced by these sound chips but what I'm talking about is the actual limitations of the format as it was in 1985. You only have a few channels to work with and the sound engine in your game (that you had to write from scratch) has to manage playing music and sound effects at the same time on those 5 channels. So not only is the audio sonically limited because of the sound chip but the storage of data and usage of music and sound effects introduce a lot of unique challenges. With the modern technology we use to build games we don't have any of these problems but I try to impose those limits on myself when composing. While the stuff I'm doing is not 100% accurate to the true limitations I want it to be as close as possible. It makes everything feel more authentic for sure. The main reason I nerd out hardcore about this stuff is because it's one of my life goals to make a real NES game. I'm essentially training and preparing myself for the real thing.

Josh Can audio be a part of game interaction beyond background music?

Matt Definitely. The lack of music can be just as important. Some of my favorite moments in games are when music cuts out and simple sound effects are all that's there to set the mood. It really makes things dramatic. Especially if music had been playing the whole time up until that point. It can make a scary area of a game intense.

Josh What other games have you worked on? What was your favorite?

Matt Flip's Escape is the only real commercial release I've been a part of. I worked on Super Clew Land and two other ludum dare games I did alone. Behind the scenes I've worked on 3 of my own personal projects. There kind of in limbo right now. Not sure what will happen. Finally, the unannounced game with Shaun. That one is my favorite. I think it contains some of my best work to date. I hope we get to continue with it after Retro Game Crunch and you all get to hear it someday.

Josh What musical work have you done outside of games?

Matt Like most guys, growing up I was in a lot of bands. The last one being Finding Chesterfield. It was just me and a friend writing emo, piano rock tunes. I've played guitar since about 7th grade and have always goofed around on the piano. I don't have any formal training (except for band in jr. high and highschool). Not many people know this but I play the alto sax, and pretty darn good too.

Josh How did you first get into gaming and what is your favorite game (retro or otherwise)?

Matt Well as far back as I can remember we had an Atari 2600 in our house. I was probably 4 or 5 years old. I remember playing Pitfall, Frogger, Kaboom, Night Driver, Kangaroo, Yar's Revenge, maze craze and many more. My parents (or whoever in the family owned the Atari) had some great taste in games. A year or two later I remember seeing the NES at Sears. I played the first two levels of Super Mario Bros and my mind was blown. It's all I asked for after that. Maybe a year later I got an NES for Christmas (1991). Best. Christmas. Ever.

Oh man! Choose just one favorite game?! Impossible. Well if I have to narrow it down... it will be on the NES because that's my favorite system. And the best memories I have, are with Battletoads. I still haven't beat that game to this day. I will though. Some. day.

Josh I've always been a fan of Final Fantasy's themes (the S/NES era). What game has your favorite music?

Matt Well let me say I am a sucker for slow, ending music. The type of song that makes you tear up a little because you just beat the game. The end themes for Super Mario Land (Gameboy) and Dr. Mario is what I'm talking about. Give me more of that.

There's a ton of games that have killer music so I'll list a few.

  • NES:
    • *Duck Tales - "The Moon" easily the 3rd best song on the NES (behind Super Mario theme and Zelda theme)
    • *Battletoads - everything about the music is killer. And don't miss out on that amazing pause screen beat.
    • *The Blue Marlin - a true hidden gem in the NES library. I stumbled across it last year while building my NES collection. Gameplay not so great. The music is mind blowing.
    • *Mother, Balloon Fight & Gyromite - Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka. My favorite composer of the era. He's worked on a lot of my favorite games but I really like these.
    • *Little Nemo - it's just so dreamy and perfect
  • Gameboy:
    • *Donkey Kong - a special DK game just for the GB that most people missed. It's Epic. I look to it for constant inspiration.
    • *Kirby's Dream Land - the game I probably played the most on GB. Super catchy (and happy) tunes
    • *Super Mario Land - "Hip" Tanaka!
  • SNES:
    • *Super Mario World - Masterpiece. This is my childhood.
    • *Earthbound (Mother 2) - more by "Hip" Tanaka. He's a legend.
    • *Donkey Kong Country - everyone on earth probably knows "jungle hijinx". SO. GOOD.
  • Genesis:
    • *Rocket Knight Adventures - another hidden gem. Only this game rules! Gameplay is great and music is too.

Josh How do you create music for a game? Do you have music ideas first or does the game come first?

Matt Well it can work either way really. I constantly write ideas as they come to me. If it doesn't fit the current project then I save it for later. That said, the game does need to come first for me. It doesn't need to be totally polished or even a finished idea. I just need something to go on. The music has to "fit" the game. I'm not sure there's a way to explain how you know what fits, it just feels right. Seeing visuals really helps me get in the right mindset. It's a mysterious process even to me. You just trust your instincts and go for it.

Josh I see your partners in crime have thousands of tweets but you only have three. What's up with that? Too busy composing to tweet?

Matt Haha. I guess you could say that. I do write a lot of music. You're probably looking at my old twitter account. I recently got the username 8bitmatt. Check it out. There's thousands of useless tweets for you over there. :) I do tend to be a man of few words though.

Josh What's the one question I should have asked you and didn't?

Matt What are my musical influences?

I've grown up listening to all geners of music. Prog rock, guitar gods, rap, metal, punk, country, jazz, big band, etc. Everything has probably influenced me in some way. I'll list some of my favorite artists, well the ones that I think have had the most influence on my style as a musician.

  • Dream Theater - crazy time signatures, fast soloing, breakdowns. It's all thanks to them.
  • MXPX - masters of melodies and songwriting.
  • Larry Coryell - I wish I could play like him.
  • The Secret Handshake / Mystery Skulls - we're the same age but I look up to this guy. He's a genius. Probably the most influential on my style. I hope to work with him on a project someday.

You can read more about Matt on his website and follow him on Twitter.

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Posted December 8th, 2012

Tagged: interview game kickstarter