Interview with Nikhil Koparkar

Nikhil Koparkar’s stylistic range as well as epic and gorgeous orchestrations immediately intrigued me when I first heard his music on soundcloud. The brilliant composer took some time from his busy schedule to speak with me about a variety of fascinating musical topics, including the ever-changing nature of games, creative deadlines, and the beauty of deliberate exposure to unfamiliar music.

Hi, thanks for doing this interview! How are you doing today?

Nikhil: I’m doing great! It’s been a crazy busy day. I was actually just finishing up Game Jam. They have this thing every year, it’s called Ludum Dare, which is one of the biggest game jams. So there are 4,000 or so different teams participate from around the world. So it was like a 72-hour challenge, where you write all the music and the sound effects… You basically make a game from scratch! It was a cool thing, I’ve never done it before! We just finished up with that a couple hours ago.

Awesome, cool! Sounds like quite an adventure!

Nikhil: Absolutely. Sometimes having deadlines like that can bring out really good creative possibilities.

Yeah, definitely, that push. Cool, so how did your career in music start? Do you have any formal training?

Nikhil: Yeah, so I took classical piano for most of my childhood, from when I was eight years old. That left a huge impression on me, especially because I was watching a lot of films at that time, and I started getting really interested in film music, and I started playing video games around that same age. So it was kind of all this convergence of different music that I was exposed to. I kind of always had an inclination for music, but I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to do it as a career. I went to college for something completely different—I got a degree in math, actually. They say that math and music kinda go together, so I guess that works.

But it was around college I decided that I wanted to make the push for music. So shortly thereafter, I got a job in LA, and I started doing film projects and video game projects. For me, growing up, it was a few seminal things that made me think, “Hm, this could be a cool job! I’d love to do this!” You know the game Zelda: Ocarina of Time?

Yes, oh! I just finished playing that a few months ago! (laughs)

Nikhil: Oh, nice! It never gets old, it’s timeless! And so that was one of those games where I remember I was just enthralled by how incredibly melodic the music was, and just so broad… Every track you could listen to, and it would bring you back to a certain place in time.

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“[Ocarina of Time] was one of those games where I remember I was just enthralled by how incredibly melodic the music was, and just so broad… Every track you could listen to, and it would bring you back to a certain place in time.” (Photo by Irving Ong)

Awesome. So what was the first video game soundtrack you wrote? How did you get the position, and what was the experience like?

Nikhil: I just transitioned to games couple years ago—I was doing films for a few years before that. And basically, I kinda always wanted to do that anyway. I ended up volunteering for this thing called the Game Developer’s Conference. There’s something like 400 people who volunteer every year for this year. It’s up in San Francisco, at Moscone Center! So all the volunteers are actually in the games industry, even some of the speakers. So it’s a cool community within a community. I ended up meeting a fellow volunteer, who was making games independently. And he said there’s kind of a trust built into the fact that we’re all there, because we all care about the industry—that’s why we’re all volunteering. We’re giving back to the community. So there was an inherent rapport there, so we were like hey, let’s work on something!

So the first game I worked on a couple years back was a game called Sticky, which is like a little mobile app game, on Android and I think iOS now. Basically it’s like Tetris, in 3D, in outer space, if that makes sense. (laughs) There are colored balls, and you have to rotate your center piece, to the beat of the music, to match up the different colors.

Yeah, it’s always cool when the game interacts with the music!

Nikhil: Absolutely, yeah! It was really cool, because it was my first experience doing sound design as well. I was thinking it would be kind of cool to make the sound effects be musical notes as well. So when you hit the different pieces, you have different notes, so it sounds like it’s part of the musical score, but at the same time it’s a sound effect. It was a really cool experimentation period, in that sense.

Yeah, cool. So what was your very first composition? What made you want to write music for the very first time?

Nikhil: Senior year of high school, actually. I took an AP music theory class. It was pretty chaotic… The teacher would give us a couple assignments, but nobody would pay attention, nobody wanted to be there… (laughs) They would give us this program Sibelius, music notation software. It would be simple exercises, like “Do these types of intervals.” or “Make a little one line piece that has a melody that uses these theory techniques.” And I used to always finish early, so I started tinkering around on there, and I’m like “Oh, maybe violins could go like this!” I’d been listening to so many orchestral scores, so I started arranging things on there in my free time. It just felt so right, in the way that nothing did up until that point, and really since. So I just kept doing it more and more.

The first piece I actually wrote was on piano. My sister was learning violin, so I wrote a violin part so we could do a little duet! I think I still remember it, kind of. It was fun! After that, it was no turning back, really.

Yeah, okay. So what or who are some of your main influences and inspirations, musical or otherwise?

Nikhil: I guess musically, it’s so diverse. I listen to so many different kinds of music. I’m really into the John Williams, the classic orchestration approach—I just love the way he orchestrates things. His melodies and everything are brilliant of course, but the way he orchestrates things are very unique. I love the way he is able to make the music stand on its own, but still be really a part of the movie. Koji Kondo, who did Mario, Zelda, Star Fox… That was huge for me growing up. Even stuff as diverse as rock & roll: I love the Beatles, Pink Floyd… A lot of classic rock. Gosh, there’s just so many different types! Chopin is my all-time favorite piano composer. So it’s all across the map, which has been helpful as well when writing, because a lot of times with game music—and music in general—they always ask for a specific thing, and sometimes it’s out of your element. So there comes a learning curve along the way.

So that kind of ties in with the next question… In your opinion, what are some of the main differences between video game soundtracks and other kinds of music, like… You do movie scores, and you’re in a band, or you were? I was looking at your soundcloud. (laughs)

Nikhil: That’s correct! I’m in a band called Dream Alive, which is more rock influenced. I would say the differences are starting to become less and less in a lot of ways, in the sense that in the last, I would say maybe ten, fifteen years, there’s been a much more cinematic approach to gaming. The budgets have increased for live orchestra recordings, things like that… So they are definitely taking it very seriously as an art form, which is great to see.

I think one difference is that in movies, you are a passive observer of the events. The events are the same every time. The same sequence… And that’s great, in a lot of ways. But in games, it’s very different because events will play out of sequence, they’ll play completely differently… Let’s say you have a boss battle. Somebody may beat it in two minutes, somebody may take twenty. From a musical standpoint it’s quite interesting, because it’s like you’re creating building blocks that can work in a variety of different situations. So I would say that is the biggest key difference: the player is participating. And because they participate, they change the game every time, so the music also changes.

Nikhil Koparkar 02
“From a musical standpoint it’s quite interesting, because it’s like you’re creating building blocks that can work in a variety of different situations. So I would say that is the biggest key difference [between video game music and other kinds of music]: the player is participating. And because they participate, they change the game every time, so the music also changes.” (Photo by Irving Ong)

Right, yeah. What programs and equipment do you use to make your music?

Nikhil: I use Logic Pro, which is a work station, for recording different tracks and things like that. And I use a lot of sample libraries, where they will take different samples of different instruments. So let’s say a violin player will play an E, very slow, very fast, long, short notes, etc. And basically I will work to make the programming such that the sound is as realistic as possible. So that when the violin player plays, the way they hit the bow, the upstrokes, the downstrokes, those types of things. It’s very challenging to do, especially when the budgets aren’t high, and you can’t afford live instrumentation.

But I will also use a lot of real instruments as much as I can. I’d rather write for real instruments, and use less of the sample libraries, just because it creates a much more compelling sound in the end. And it’s human!

Yeah. So talk about some of the OSTs you’ve written for video games. You started talking about Sticky, and you have a playlist on soundcloud that has a bunch of various things—I didn’t see any titles though. I really liked “Over the Edge” and “March Into War”!

Nikhil: Oh, thank you very much! Those were actually just demo recordings I was doing when I was pitching to some different game studios. But basically right now, I’m working on a medieval adventure RPG, very influenced by Zelda, Final Fantasy Tactics… Unfortunately I can’t go too much into detail at the moment. But it’s got a lot of those types of influences. I think the soundtrack is going to be medieval influenced, but loosely so. It won’t be completely in that period, it’ll have a fantasy element to it too.

So what’s your creative process when writing game music? Like character themes, map and field, battle themes…

Nikhil: Usually what I try to do is have a lot of discussions with the game developer. Sometimes they’ll send me artwork, sometimes they’ll send me a rough layout of what the scenes are going to be like. Sometimes they’ll send a whole design document, which will basically tell me like oh these are the types of instruments we want, this is how much music we want—it’s a little bit more detailed.

I really try to get into the characters as much as possible—I think it’s very similar for how I would do it for a film. With a game, you’re starting on much earlier in the process, whereas films, you’re kind of the last one in. (laughs) So with games, you’re kind of waiting a little bit… Oh, we just created some artwork! And from that, it’ll be inspiring enough to write some ideas. So that’s how the creative process starts to work, the themes come that way. And then, it starts to be a little bit more about… How is it going to interact in the game? And that becomes a completely different set of rules to abide by.

Let’s say you’re walking through and exploring a field. Suddenly, you come upon an enemy. The battle lasts for maybe five seconds, it’s a quick thing. You don’t want the music switching back and forth between two different pieces like that, because it takes the player out of the experience. So it becomes a lot about how the music interacts with the game. And then it becomes a different way of writing. So it’s like I want to write it so that there are many four or five different layers, that come in and out as you enter different areas of the game.

Right, like in Ocarina of Time! (laughs)

Nikhil: Exactly, exactly!! (laughs) That was one thing I feel they did brilliantly in that game, and in all the Zelda games, really. They had a very seamless transition. So that becomes its own set of constraints to write under. So it starts off with the themes, a lot of discussion, seeing the artwork, things like that. Then focusing on the mechanics, seeing how to bridge those together.

Yeah, awesome. So which composition of yours are you most proud of, if you had to pick one!?

Nikhil: It’s so tough… I don’t know! I always feel like that quote: art is never finished, only abandoned. (laughs) So I’m always a perfectionist when it comes to stuff that I’m working on. So I think there’s always a little bit of that like, oh this is something I could do better next time. So it would be tough to pick… One I was working on for an RPG game, called “Quest for New Adventure”. I was getting really into polyrhythmic stuff at the time, when you have different metering and stuff.

Yeah, I think I noticed that… It’s the second one in that playlist?

Nikhil: That’s the one! So you have 5/4, 6/4, 5/4, 6/4…

Right! I was actually thinking “Wait, what time signature is this!?” (laughs)

Nikhil: Yeah, I was really interested in that kind of stuff. It’s fun to make it really complex underneath, then have a simple melody on top—gives it a little bit of push and pull. I was really happy with how that one turned out.

Yeah, so it’s not too avant-garde! (laughs)

Nikhil: Exactly. I feel like if you juxtapose something very complex with something very simple, it allows both of them to shine in a different way. So it was a fun experience working on that.

Yeah, awesome. So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while writing video game soundtracks, and how did you overcome them?

Nikhil: There’s probably a couple challenges… One is that, because you’re working very early on, the developer is also figuring out how the game is going, as they’re developing it. They’re coming up with the artwork, the storyline… Sometimes things change. Variables change quite a bit during that process. In films they do too, but a lot of times they’ll give you a final cut. So everything is locked to picture, you have the time stamp, you know where you’re going. But with games it’s a lot more influx. So being able to adapt very quickly to those situations, and being able to change your writing style to adapt to that, while still maintaining your artistic integrity… It’s always a balance. So that’s one thing.

The second thing I would say is what I was going back to before, the interactivity. You want to create something that sounds really good, but doesn’t sound repetitive. If it starts looping over and over again, like after the tenth time of hearing it in that one span of exploring this level, people are like okay we get it! (laughs) So you want it to be compelling, but at the same time malleable. So it’s weird, it’s almost like a Tetris game in a way: you’re creating layers that sound great on their own, then when you put them together in different permutations and combinations, they also sound great but in a different way.

Right, yeah. Getting mathematical! (laughs)

Nikhil: That’s exactly right! That’s probably why I gravitated so much to game music, to be perfectly honest. (laughs) I love the right brain, left brain part of it.

Awesome. Cool, so this question might be a little odd, but if there was one most powerful moment, or epiphany, or memorable experience you’ve had in your compositional career, whether in the studio, at the keyboard, or with other creative minds… If you had to pick one, what comes to mind?

Nikhil: I would say, this was actually a film music project. The first feature film I worked on, I had a seminal moment, because I basically had three and a half weeks to write, record, and mix an orchestral score. And it was like 90 minutes of music. So I basically didn’t sleep for those three weeks. It was just… Every day, it was like, can I do this? I don’t know. Is this crazy? Am I insane? What is happening?

But I think it made me realize something, from that experience. It was something I take to all projects that I work on now. I try to sometimes self-impose those crazy deadlines. I realize that you never know what you can do until you’re under the gun like that. I found that at least creatively, imposing some sort of limitation can be the most liberating. Because within that construct, you’re like okay, I don’t have to take three months on this, and drag it out… If you give yourself three months, it will take you three months. If you give yourself three weeks… You’ll struggle probably, but you will get it done. So that was something very cool, something I definitely try to use in projects since.

Nikhil Koparkar 04
“I try to sometimes self-impose those crazy deadlines. I realize that you never know what you can do until you’re under the gun like that. I found that at least creatively, imposing some sort of limitation can be the most liberating.” (Photo by Irving Ong)

Yeah, that’s awesome. Okay, so now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! Okay, ready?

Nikhil: All right, cool! Let’s do it! I’m ready!

Okay, favorite video game protagonist!

Nikhil: Link!

(laughs) I figured you’d say that! Okay, favorite animal in a game!

Nikhil: (laughs) Hm… Yoshi?

Okay! Favorite Final Fantasy game!

Nikhil: Tactics was really good! It was a big influence on me.

Okay, favorite time signature!

Nikhil: I would say probably 6/4.

Favorite battle theme!

Nikhil: Hm… These are tough!! I’d probably say Ocarina of Time, the final fight with Ganondorf.

All right, favorite video game series!

Nikhil: Legend of Zelda, the most consistently my favorite.

Okay, favorite church mode, like Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian…

Nikhil: Another tough one… I would say Mixolydian. There’s something mystical about it that I like!

Yeah, the flat 7. (laughs) If you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would you choose?

Nikhil: Antagonist… Bowzer seemed pretty cool, I think I could hang with him. (laughs)

(laughs) All right, if you could make an entire video game world, INSIDE of any instrument, which one would you choose? Like which instrument would you want to live inside?

Nikhil: Oh, I think that’s pretty easy. I would say piano. It’s the most versatile. I would be down with that one.

All right, so end of rapid-fire questions. So you already mentioned some of your future plans… What are you working on at the moment, that you’re able to talk about? (laughs)

Nikhil: Yeah, totally. So I can’t say too much about it, but I can say that I’ve been very interested in—in the last year—and have started to work a little bit on virtual reality projects. Basically what has been really interesting for me about that whole experience so far, is that it’s starting to make the participant even more of one. You’re actually in the world now, rather than playing it and watching it on a screen. So from a sound perspective it’s been very interesting. Every day there are new advancements in the way sound is going to be implemented into this medium. They’re investigating something what they call 3D sound. Let’s say you’re wearing headphones. If you play certain games, you may be able to get the surround sound experience. But it’s an experience where you feel like you’re actually in the room, and as you turn your head from left to right, as it does in real life, the sounds change in real time.

Oh, wow, that’s crazy!

Nikhil: Yeah, so you feel like you’re actually in it. But you’re not just visually feeling that, you’re also aurally feeling that as well.

Yeah, my boyfriend is super hyped for virtual reality! (laughs)

Nikhil: It’s so cool! Have you tried the headsets or anything?

No, but he wants me to! I’m more inclined to, now that you’ve mentioned the sound aspect! I can’t believe I didn’t consider that! (laughs)

Nikhil: Yeah, and you know, a lot of the developers didn’t either, until very recently. It’s kind of all like the Wild West right now. Everybody is trying to figure out the best approach. So starting work on those now, it’s been very interesting trying to figure that out for myself as well, and asking other people, and realizing that nobody knows and everyone’s trying to figure it out! (laughs) But it’s the marriage of the two senses together that makes it convincing.

Yeah, totally. Awesome, well those are all the questions I have. Any final thoughts, parting comments?

Nikhil: I would say that for people who are into game music, or are looking to get into game music, one thing I found very helpful was to stop listening to one type of music. We all kind of gravitate to one style that we like to listen to, and I definitely do too. But the minute I started opening my mind to different styles of music, different time periods, the more… You know, you hear all of these things influx, and they’re all in vacuum. But then suddenly, you’re writing, and they come together in weird and interesting ways. And the more you open yourself up to those possibilities, the more likely something interesting can happen.

Yeah, awesome! Thank you so much!

Nikhil Koparkar 03
“I started opening my mind to different styles of music, different time periods… You hear all of these things influx, and they’re all in vacuum… But then suddenly, you’re writing, and they come together in weird and interesting ways. And the more you open yourself up to those possibilities, the more likely something interesting can happen.” (Photo by Irving Ong)

Listen to Nikhil Koparkar’s wonderful music on soundcloud:

 And check out his website: http://www.nikhilkmusic.com/.

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