Recently I discovered Calbert Warner (Schematist), a New York-based video game music composer, on soundcloud. The encouraging and instructional nature of a lot of his videos, and his overall professionalism really stood out to me. I reached out to the talented composer, and was fortunate to have a great conversation with him! Check out our interview here, where we discussed starting off with just the basics, composing imaginatively, and recognizing the merit of every composition.
Thank you so much for doing this interview! Let’s get right into it. How would you describe the music you compose?
Calbert: How do I describe it? I haven’t thought about that! I would say it consists of a lot of electronic, video game, and anime elements if that makes any sense… I never really thought about it too much. I was always growing up with games and anime, so I guess by the time I jumped into music, all of those influences definitely made an appearance somehow.
Ah, okay. And where does your name “Schematist” come from?
Calbert: I meant for it to sound like “sche-MAT-ist”. It was from my Xbox Live gamer tag. I made that up because it’s how I approach difficulties—I tend to make plans, and think about every possible solution. So I kind of played off of the word “scheme” and “schemer”. I just took that, and made it my music handle as well. The way I write songs is similar to how to I solve problems, which is scheming from Plan A all the way down to Plan Z—so “Schematist”, one who schemes!
Yeah, that’s cool! (laughs)
Calbert: Oh, thanks! (laughs)
So what was your very first composition? And what made you want to write music for the first time?
Calbert: My very first composition… Oh my goodness, I can’t even tell you. I mean, it was in college, I guess if that counts. It wasn’t even made with FL Studio, I think I made it with… Anvil Studio? And it was terrible. It was really, really bad. I don’t even know if it can be found online, but I hope not! (laughs) It wasn’t really for anything. I think I made it for newgrounds.com, back when I was more active in that community. It was one of those things that I sent to all my friends, and they all told me it was great… because they’re my friends.
Calbert: When it went public, it didn’t get that kind of feedback… (laughs)
(laughs) Okay. So what, or who, are some of your main influences and inspirations, musical or otherwise?
Calbert: Oohh, absolutely, 100%, #1 is Nobuo Uematsu.
Calbert: He is the MAN. After him, there’s so many others, like Motoi Sakuraba, Yuzo Koshiro, Koji Kondo… There are just so many. What’s funny is like, even though I love all the major composers that come from Japan, I think coming down from that pedestal, to a more humanistic level, I really do look up to a lot of YouTubers. Like the composer for Plants vs. Zombies, Laura Shigihara, and Aivi Tran, doing the work on Cryamore and Soul Saga. And definitely also Zircon, or Andrew Aversa, absolutely one of my biggest influences to date. He’s very versatile… I don’t even know how he does it, he’s a serious workhorse.
Okay, so what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Calbert: Not much. That’s the fun part. I thought that you needed a lot. But I don’t think you need too much. All you might need initially starting off is $1000, maybe $1200, just to get the ball rolling. I use FL Studio 12, but I started out with FL 10. I didn’t even have a midi keyboard at the time. I eventually bought one, which was the Korg X 50—I don’t know if they sell that anymore, but I still love it. Some plug-ins I think everyone should have are Omnisphere, Zebra 2 and Kontakt. Everything else in between is up to you. I started building up with little tiny pieces here and there until I had a functioning studio. I actually just finished making my computer, but that came way later. Don’t worry about too much equipment in the early stages. Do the best you can with the tools at your disposal.
“That’s the fun part. I thought that you needed a lot. But I don’t think you need too much. … Do the best you can with the tools at your disposal.” (Photo by Calbert Warner)
Awesome, good advice! So do you have any formal musical or technical training, or are you mostly self-taught?
Calbert: All self-taught. I did try taking a piano class… It didn’t work out too well. It wasn’t really for me. By the time I took the class, I was so stubborn in the way I did things. My technique is very wrong, but it feels so right to me. Someone looking at me would say “What are you doing? Your fingering is wrong!” I understand when they tell me this, but I couldn’t train my brain to go back. So I just stopped the classes.
But I will admit, when I first started, YouTube did teach me a lot when I first picked up the piano, and had no knowledge at all… I remember following lypur’s channel. He had a lot of piano tutorials. He went step by step, and it was amazing. Once I got a grip on the basics, I started teaching myself songs that I knew from video games, particularly Super Mario, Donkey Kong… And then I started learning that I could actually press other notes that are not part of the song and I could work it in there somehow—that came into the creative process. That’s how I really got started, just hitting keys, and practicing over and over again, driving my parents crazy! (laughs)
Calbert: Oraia Rift was fun, and one of the easier projects because the game was almost done when I came in—I would say 75% – 80% finished. So they just needed music and maybe to touch up a little bit of the puzzles and stages. So when I jumped in, the project lead had almost every stage mapped out. It was easy for him to show me a picture of the stage, or give me a sample demo of it. I would play it for a little bit, it would be completely quiet, I could see all the environments, see how the character interacted with the environment, see what the enemies looked like. So there was a lot of information given to me for Oraia—that one was fun.
Keeper and the Soldier is a little bit different. The game is really in the early stages, so I am going mostly based on adjectives. I’ll get like a script that says “Cal, we want this area to be dank, we want it to be happy… We want this character to be sad here, happy here…” And that is a little more challenging, but it’s still good. I get to see the concept art too, so even though the stages maybe aren’t fully fleshed out, I just use my imagination a little to help create a fitting melody or feeling.
Right, awesome. So which composition of yours are you most proud of, and why?
Calbert: Oh, that’s a hard one, they’re like my babies!! (laughs)
Yeah, like choosing a favorite child! (laughs) It’s okay, I won’t tell the other ones!
Calbert: (laughs) Okay, I think one of my more recent ones… The main theme for Keeper and the Soldier, I like a lot. It was the very first time I worked with a vocalist, so it has a special place for me. It was a long, grueling process. But when it was finalized I loved it. So that’s my favorite as of right now.
So why are you most proud of that one?
Calbert: I love the whole concept of the game. The storyline is amazing—it’s dark, it’s gritty, you know it’s really personal. A lot of indie games these days are always personal and I didn’t think about that a few years ago. I realized it was less about me making a song, but rather me making an experience to match the project lead’s personal journey. It gets really intimate at times, so when she said that she liked it, I was ecstatic.
Yeah, that actually ties in with the next question I was gonna ask. In your opinion, what are some of the main differences between video game soundtracks and other kinds of music, whether your own compositions or just in general?
Calbert: Mhm, Oraia Rift was a little different, because I did get a lot of freedom to write what I felt. But Keeper and the Soldier was way more personality based. Nothing could go through without the approval and understanding of the lead developer. Everything had to make sense in her mind and that is tricky because you can’t really write for yourself anymore. At this point, your opinions are void and it doesn’t matter what you think. She may like something you absolutely hate! That’s happened a couple of times. I’ve written things that I thought were really bad, or too depressing, but she loved it—it fit the narrative. This is common and that’s okay! I think it’s fun, it’s part of the process. I think it is easier if I do my own personal projects, but then again I am also picky, so I do scrap a lot of projects too, so there’s no real easy way.
Okay, so you kinda touched on this, but so what are some challenges you’ve faced while writing video game music?
Calbert: Hmm… You always get writers’ block. And there’s always that moment, especially with soundtracks, where you might end up being asked to write ten, fifteen, maybe twenty songs. Then you’ll notice maybe one song, or maybe five songs, are really, really good. And then you’re like, how can I follow this up? Can I do this again? It can get you depressed a little bit, and then you try and the next song is not as good… But then, I don’t know, I guess it’s fair because everyone is going to have a favorite song. What you think is the best is not what someone else is going to think is the best. So you have to think of it that way. Knowing that helps me keep going.
Yeah. Okay, so I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready??
Calbert: (laughs) No! Okay, go!
Favorite video game protagonist!
Calbert: Zidane, from Final Fantasy IX.
Favorite Final Fantasy game!
Calbert: Final Fantasy IX! (laughs)
(laughs) Favorite mystical creature or animal in a video game!
Calbert: Navi, from Zelda!
Hey, listen! (laughs) Favorite Pokémon!
Calbert: Oo, Sceptile!
Ooh, okay! Favorite character theme!
Calbert: Lulu, Final Fantasy X!
Favorite battle theme!
Calbert: Etrian Odyssey IV: Storm!
If you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would you choose?
Calbert: Oh, duh, Sephiroth!
If you had to make a weapon out of an instrument, which instrument would you use??
Calbert: Well, trumpets look like they hurt! So that’s the one! (laughs)
All right, end of rapid-fire questions! What are some of your future plans? What are you working on right now?
Calbert: Future plans… Good question. Well mostly it is all just Keeper and the Soldier, but I am working on a personal album for myself, that I always wanted to put out. This is going be one of my more serious releases, I’m looking for awesome artists, I’m looking for professional mixing and mastering… I don’t know how many tracks are going to be on it yet. But I also want to put it out there for music licensing as well. I hope everyone enjoys it! It’ll be a nice blend of my favorite musical elements!
Okay, those are all the questions I have. Any final thoughts?
Calbert: You’re a composer, too right? So not everything I’m saying sounds completely foreign to you?
No, not at all! I was with you every step of the way! (laughs) I see you’re a photographer also?
Calbert: Ah, I love it! I’m an amateur! What’s funny is that it’s one of those things I never understood. Like I didn’t get it, until I started to shoot, myself. When I saw other people with cameras and met people who claimed they were photographers, I’m like what are you talking about, what does that even mean? And then you get a camera, and… You just know. Now you finally get it. I can’t put my camera down anymore. I’m not a professional at all—I want to get better. It’s about expression, and just letting people see a different part of the world, from a unique perspective.
Yeah, that’s great! Awesome, thank you!