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Rare’s Former All-Star Composers Talk About Reuniting For Yooka-Laylee

by Zak Wojnar on Mar 24, 2017 at 12:30 PM

Nearly two years after it brought in over $2.6 million on Kickstarter, Yooka-Laylee is almost here. The project has been a labor of love for the folks at Playtonic, a team comprised of ex-Rare developers who worked on a number of N64 classics like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64.

One of the key ingredients of the mascot platformer genre is a charming soundtrack, and Yooka-Laylee has an all-star team of ex-Rare composers, including Grant Kirkhope (Banjo-Kazooie, Viva Piñata) David Wise (Donkey Kong Country, Battletoads), and Steve Burke (Kameo: Elements of Power, Jetpac Refueled). Laced Records is pulling out all the stops for Yooka-Laylee’s soundtrack, opting to release the score on digital, CD, and even 180g vinyl for hardcore audiophiles.

We spoke to this trio of video game music veterans and asked them about the new game, what it was like to reunite for a brand-new, old-school adventure, how composing for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One compares to the old NES and Game Boy days, and how Chris Sutherland’s cake shop helped them found a game company.

(Left to right: Grant Kirkhope, Steve Burke, David Wise)

How did Playtonic come about?

Kirkhope: Gavin Price is the head of the studio, and he was the guy who put it all together. It’s a bizarre story. Back when they worked at Rare, he and his wife had a cake shop. They made cakes. He was used to doing the business thing, getting business loans and all that. Without Gavin, it would never have happened, because he was like, “I’ll put it together, I’ll form the company, I’ll settle the business loans; I’ve done it all before with the cake shop.” And that’s what kicked it off. He said, “I can pay wages for a little while, but let’s try Kickstarter to see how it goes.” If he hadn’t done his cake shop, this probably never would have happened. And the cakes were great.

The three of you, Grant, David, and Steve, are the Playtonic music team. For Yooka-Laylee, are any one of you taking the lead?

Kirkhope: Yooka-Laylee is a Banjo-Kazooie-type game; it was natural that I did more on this one because it’s right up my alley.

Wise: This was definitely Grant's domain – continuing on from the Banjo Kazooie days – but executed with so much more finesse. Also, I believe our main sound designer Dan Murdoch added a few mini tunes and stingers in places.

Back in the day, how did you each get your first gig at Rare?

Burke: I picked up a copy of Edge magazine, somewhere towards the end of 2000. At the time I was working as an assistant to a film composer in London, and thought it would be interesting to try and work in the video game industry. Rare was advertising for an in-house composer and sound designer role, and after a visit to the studio and writing some audition music, I got the job in early 2001. I was hired to work as the composer and sound designer on Kameo. At the time it was going to be a Nintendo GameCube game, but eventually came out as a launch title for the Xbox 360.

Wise: I was working in a Music Shop in Leicester – decades ago – when two people came in (Tim and Chris Stamper) and asked me to demo a very early music computer, the Yamaha CX5. They didn't recognize the music I was using to demonstrate the gear, so they asked who the artist was. When I explained that they were my compositions, they offered me a job at Rare.

Kirkhope: I left university (The Royal Northern College of Music) at 22, and I played in lots of bands for 11 years, with on-and-off unemployment benefits. One of my best friends was Robin Beanland, and he was the keyboard player in a local band. One day, he announced that he’d gotten a job. He went to work at Rare. He said to me, “Grant, you’ve been on unemployment for, like, 11 years. Don’t you think you should get a job? Why don’t you try doing what I’m doing? I’m working on video games and writing music.” I had never once dreamed about being a composer. I wanted to be in Judas Priest! But I spent about a year writing music that I thought was video game-centric, and I sent Rare five cassette tapes, but never got a reply. Then, out of the blue, they said, “Please come in, you’ve got the job.”

Fast forward to just a couple of years ago: what was it like when you got the call to do Yooka-Laylee? What was it like getting the band back together?

Wise: Very much like getting the band back together. We worked together for so many years, so it was very reassuring to be able to pool our creative talent together once again. Also, when we were no longer at Rare, it gave me time to reflect on exactly how much I had enjoyed working there – especially the people I was working with – and had just taken that experience for granted at the time.

Kirkhope: A lot of people said I was crazy, it was never gonna happen, people don’t want that game anymore, and I’d gone on about it for quite a lot of years. And, to get to the point where we’re all actually doing it again was just unbelievable. It was a set of fortunate disasters that got us to this point. Some guys got laid off from Rare, some guys quit… People were available for the first time in 15 years to do this.

Burke: One of the most fun games I’d worked on at Rare was the music to Jetpac Refueled, and it felt like I could go down that retro route again with Yooka-Laylee.

You've all worked with each other on Rare games, but this is the first time all three of you are together for one game. How does that collaboration work?

Kirkhope: When we first got the gig, it was obvious the bits I should do, obvious the bits that Dave should do, and obvious the bits that Steve should do. So it was really easy. That was as far as the collaboration went.

Burke: We worked independently. Each composer had a particular part of the game to work on, and we brought along our own styles to fit in with that. My boss tune was a little closer in style to what Grant was doing, as this needed to sit alongside his level music. I asked Gavin and Chris at Playtonic what sort of music they’d like for each of Rextro’s Arcade games (I called them “Yook-arcade-lee” while we were working on them) and then I’d keep them updated with each version of the track until everybody was happy with the final version. This way of working was exactly how we did it at Rare when we had a few composers sharing a project.

David's first game was Slalom for NES, Grant’s first gig was on Game Boy, and Steve goes back to Star Fox Adventures on GameCube. Do you miss the days of retro consoles? Or is it liberating to work on more modern tools?

Burke: I miss the retro consoles and the sounds they produced. On Yooka-Laylee I had the chance to write in the style of music that I grew up with on the Commodore 64 and Amiga games. The first drafts of all the Rextro Arcades are entirely synths, no orchestral sounds. Pretty much 4 note polyphony. Once I was happy that they reminded me of old game console music, I started adding more orchestral and modern sounding synths to mix in the old and new.

Kirkhope: We have more memory space now. You can use bigger samples, and you can get close to CD quality, 44.1 kilohertz. Nothing in those old Rare games is anywhere near that. It’s 16 kilohertz if you’re lucky. Probably 11 or 8. That’s why it sounds like crap! During Viva Piñata, I got to use a proper live orchestra. It’s spectacular to get to that level of quality. To go from working on 3 note channels and a noise channel on the game boy in 1995, to using a full live orchestra in 2005.

Is a ukulele incorporated into every tune in the game?

Burke: Not so much in the Rextro tracks, but a little bit finds its way in to one.

Kirkhope: I’ve been doing a little bit, of course. Not much, but the main tune is me playing ukulele.

Wise: I used Ukulele in every track I composed for Yooka-Laylee. I went and purchased a LAG Tenor Uke, along with a few very good Ukulele VBST sample instruments. I may however have used the instrument in creative ways. For one tune I recorded the ukulele chords, drowned them in reverb, edited out the initial attack and used the frozen reverb tails as a pad sound, which then got enhanced more by using a rhythmic filter to create movement.

One of the highly-publicized stretch goals was the GK Rap, kind of a modern take on the sensibilities of Grant’s DK Rap.

Kirkhope: Nobody even asked me about that, they just put it on the page, and I was like, “What?” I didn’t even know it was there. The plan is to make it as cheesy as the DK Rap. It’s not going to be a credible rap song. I hope people take it in the spirit it’s intended.

Yooka-Laylee comes out on April 11 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, and for Nintendo Switch later in 2017. For more on the game, check out our hands-on preview.