Music Spotlight: Sly Cooper Composer Peter McConnell

by Matt Helgeson on Feb 12, 2013 at 05:50 AM

Sanzaru Games’ Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is one of the early gaming highlights of 2013, no small thanks to the excellent score which balances a jazzy, big-band feel with elements of historical and world music. We recently spoke to composer Peter McConnell about Thieves in Time’s score, his musical background, and his past and upcoming work with Double Fine.

Talk a little bit about your background, how did you become involved with music as a child?

My mother tells me I was singing before I could talk. My early years were spent in Basel, Switzerland, where my dad was a grad student in theology. My earliest musical memories were of European church music and the music he used to play on his Sony reel-to-reel tape deck, particularly Mozart and the Sons of the Pioneers. I always wanted to play some kind of music. I started violin when I was 8 and picked up banjo and guitar as a teenager. So I’ve always had a classical side and a folk or rock side. 

You went to Harvard for composition, talk about that experience and what it helps you bring to your video game compositions?

I think the grounding in classical keyboard-based composition has always been valuable. That tradition has such a heavy influence, especially on classic movie scores, which inform a lot of my work. At Harvard I also studied electronic music with Ivan Tcherepnin, who was a one-of-a-kind. He had a unique combination of old-school depth, avant-garde complexity and modern pop awareness (I recall him saying once that he had wanted to bring in John Lennon to give a series of lectures) plus an organic, lo-fi approach in the studio that is still a part of me.

You’ve also performed with some popular and rock artists, talk about that experience.

I love playing electric violin on stage. My favorite setup includes a Marshall half-stack and wah-wah pedal, and Jimi Hendrix was a big influence on my sound, although I have traditional folk sensibilities as well. A couple of years ago I played at a big bluegrass festival in San Francisco with a band called Freakwater. They have a sort of dark, soulful country vibe that’s very edgy. But I’m not playing live so much these days since composition takes up such a huge chunk of my time.

Your biography says you worked at LucasArts and helped create “the iMUSE interactive music system”…what is that? Talk about that project?

iMUSE (Interactive Music and Sound Effects system) was LucasArts’ adaptive music system in the ‘90s. Developing it was a big part of my early work at LucasArts. It was the brainchild of my friend Michael Land, who brought me into the company to work on it. Together, I think we pioneered some of the capabilities that systems like FMOD and Wwise have today, like beat-synchronous musical transitions and layering of multiple tracks to create smoothly changing levels of excitement in the game. It was also fun to be able to design the system and then go and use it to create music in a game that lots of people could enjoy, such as Monkey Island II, which was the first game to have iMUSE. Those days doing both technical and composition at LucasArts were tremendous preparation for creating the music I do now.

Obviously, you were pretty early in the digital recording movement, are you 100 percent digital now? How do you feel about the digital vs. analog debate, or is that a dead issue at this point?

Well, my mixes still get bounced through a British mixing board, because I like the sound. And I still have a rack of ‘80s gear that I use to spice things up every so often. But besides that, it’s Pro Tools and plug-ins all the way, just like most folks. I don’t know that there is really such a debate any more about digital and analog. I think that each has its place, and most recording is best done in the digital domain, although for some classic instruments and sounds you just want to find the original analog instrument if you can.  

You also worked on some of the classic LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, I imagine those games were really fun to work on, just because they have such a different vibe than the usual action-movie type game experience. Do you have fond memories of working with Tim Schafer?

Absolutely. I still work with Tim, and have worked on pretty much every game he has done from when he was one of LucasArts’ designers on Day of the Tentacle, to when he was their lead on Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, to his work at Double Fine, including Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. I’m working with him now on his new adventure game. We’ve done a lot of awesome projects together, and I hope there will be plenty more.

I was really blown away by the Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time soundtrack. It has so much variety, but at the same time it all has a jazzy vibe that almost reminded me of Henry Mancini and the Pink Panther type film scores of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Thanks, and good noticing – Mancini was a huge influence on all the Sly Cooper scores. With Thieves in Time I think we were able to really take things to a new level. I love that campy ‘50s and ‘60s spy sound. It was a thrill to be able to write so much music, and to have such an incredible team of producers and musicians to work with. I can’t tell you how proud I am of what we were able to do on this score. For me it’s a real landmark, a magnum opus.

There’s an incredible volume of music for the game, more than most games. How many pieces did you write?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But it was about 2 ½ hours of music, and every bit was done live.

Do you work closely with the developers to learn what they need for specific gameplay segments? Do you help implement the soundtrack in the game, in terms of streaming it in dynamically according to events in the game, or do you just hand over the tracks?

With the Sony team, I just got to be the composer, which was a true pleasure. They made sure I had all the art, gameplay footage and documentation I needed to score the action just right. And they put together everything for the recording sessions, including orchestrator, conductor and the musicians. Jonathan Mayer and Michael Bricker were my guys at Sony, and they made sure everything from initial scoring to final implementation went without a hitch. And they have a deep bench of mixing engineers. I think in the heat of mixes they had just about the whole Northern California audio crew working on it. 

Talk about the recording process, the recording sounds pretty live, was it all tracked live with real instruments?

Yes! Unless you count the one koto sample. The whole thing was real people moving real air.

Where was it recorded?

At Ocean Way Recording in Nashville. It’s a fantastic facility. I believe we had five winds, five brass, two double reeds, horn, bass, drums, guitar, piano, 2 percussionists, mallets and 30 strings in the sessions. 

One thing I noticed was it sounds like a live drummer with a trap kit, almost like old big band drummers like Gene Krupa. Who played drums on the soundtrack?

Yes, we had a couple of guys playing drums in different sessions. Serious Nashville veterans. There is definitely a Krupa homage in the track called “Tavern Tomfoolery.”

While the entire soundtrack retains that jazzy soundtrack vibe I mentioned, I was also impressed by how diverse it was. In the different time periods, the score definitely reflects the setting, be it Old West or Middle Eastern.

That’s what made it so fun to write! That’s part of the Sly Cooper world, too. He’s always been an international traveler, and in this case, a time traveler, as well. All the different worlds are different parts of me and musical experiences or musical friends I’ve had. For example, The oud parts were played by my friend and former band mate Larry Klein, who currently lives in Turkey. The harmonica tracks were recorded in Darfur, Sudan, by my friend Damien Masterson, jazz harmonica player extraordinaire. 

I lived in a number of places as a kid – I’ve already mentioned Switzerland. Right after that we moved to Eastern Kentucky, where Flatt & Scruggs had a live half-hour local TV show. That banjo sound stuck in my ear, and I learned to play the instrument in Topeka, Kansas. Then we moved to New Jersey in my high school years, which probably had something to do with the pop rock parody in the Sly Cooper track called “Getting Stronger.” And a lot of the exotic world sounds were of course influenced by old Hollywood parodies that I grew up with such as those that you might hear in Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes work.

I listen to a fair amount of game soundtracks, and this one really felt like a breath of fresh air, a much more playful vibe than usual. Sometimes I think I’m going to go crazy if I hear one more soundtrack that is some combination of tribal drums, ominous synth pads, orchestral stabs, with mournful Middle Eastern world music female vocals over it. What’s your take on the state of game music today?

Hey, thanks. I hear what you are saying, but I also think we’re now getting a lot more variety in game music as well. I think of Steve Kirk’s work in Voodoo Vince and more recently in Farmville. Then there is Austin Wintory’s amazing work on Journey. There’s incredible diversity, and you don’t have to go farther than the Grammys to find it.

Are there any future projects in video games that you have lined up that you can talk about?

There are of course a couple I can’t talk about, but one that has been announced is Tim Schafer’s new “Double Fine Adventure” game. That promises to be a very cool return to a beloved style of game with a story and perspective that are hard to describe. I haven’t seen anything like it.