The moment I first listened to the compositions of Steph Nguyen, I was immediately blown away by how complex and powerful they were. The recent Full Sail University graduate shows immense talent and promise in her field. I had the great opportunity to interview Steph, where we talked about realizing your potential, powering through last-minute panic, and admiring the emotional impact of RPGs.
Thanks for doing this interview!
Steph: Yeah, thanks for having me!
Let’s get right into it! How did your career in music start? Do you have much formal training?
Steph: Well, I’ve been playing piano since I was four. I played the violin for maybe two years when I was eight. And I did some choir in middle school and high school.
Okay. What was your very first composition? What made you want to write music for the first time?
Steph: I actually didn’t start writing music until I went to Full Sail University. I had no idea how to write music at all. So the first time I did it was for an assignment. I kinda surprised myself—I didn’t think I could do it, until someone actually showed me how. I guess I always had the tools, but I just didn’t know how to use them.
“I kinda surprised myself—I didn’t think I could [write music], until someone actually showed me how. I guess I always had the tools, but I just didn’t know how to use them.”
Right, okay. So what did you go to Full Sail for initially, if it wasn’t composition?
Steph: Well they have a program called Music Production, and it’s basically composition and audio engineering, so they kinda teach you everything.
Okay, interesting. So what or who are some of your musical influences and inspirations?
Steph: Okay, definitely Nobuo Uematsu, like everyone. Yoko Shimomura… Joe Hisaishi.
Yeah! He’s one of my favorites too.
Steph: Yeah, I love him. When I was growing up, I listened to quite a bit of Evanescence, actually. I’m big on the whole orchestral sound.
Yeah, definitely. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Steph: I use Logic Pro X, and my 25 Midi keyboard. That’s all I have so far, but I’m hoping to build it up.
Yeah. So what was the first video game soundtrack you ever wrote? How did you get the position, and what was the experience like?
Steph: It was actually last month, for the very first time, for my final project. The school program has this new thing where they want their students to collaborate with the other departments. So I got the opportunity to work with game dev students that were doing their final projects. The music that I did for them also served as my final project, so it was a huge final project collaboration.
Yeah, that’s so cool! Which one was that? What was it called?
Steph: It’s called Twisted Nightmares. I don’t have it on soundcloud yet, but it’s up on my portfolio.
Okay. You had other soundtracks on your website too, like Angry Bots?
Steph: Yeah, those were for an assignment. I don’t really count those as game projects, because the school basically gave everyone the same games, and we all composed music for it for an assignment.
Oh okay. So talk about the soundtracks you’ve written. How do you go about writing different themes? What’s your creative process?
Steph: Well first I find a really good reference track that I’m in love with, that I feel fits. And I just kind of get the vibe of it, and then when I start composing, I start out with a chord progression first, and build my way up. And I always write the melody last, for some reason.
Oh okay, interesting. So which composition of yours are you most proud of, and why?
Steph: Probably the boss theme for Twisted Nightmares. I think my first attempt making game music was in April, so this is all fairly new to me. And I didn’t think I could do it, but I pulled through somehow.
Yeah. So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while writing music so far, and how did you overcome them?
Steph: Definitely writer’s block and time management—they kinda play hand-in-hand with each other. So that’s been my biggest challenge. A lot of my pieces have been written around last-minute panic, I guess because I’ve been in a school environment for so long, so there’s deadlines and stuff. So that’s been a motivation to push me. So in the future I hope that I’m not motivated by the deadline, and I just create because I want to.
Mhm. So which composition of yours is the most different than your others, and what did you learn from writing that piece?
Steph: I would definitely say the boss theme for Twisted Nightmares, just because I’ve never used the organ before. I’ve always wanted to use it for something, cause it’s so epic. I was able to put all of my favorite instruments into one piece. I got to use the organ, lots and lots of strings, and lighter instruments like the glockenspiel. You wouldn’t think they’d work together, but I somehow made it work. So that was definitely my favorite.
Awesome. So have you had any powerful moments, or aha moments, while you’re composing, whether in the studio, alone at the keyboard, or with other creative minds?
Steph: Well definitely by myself, when I’m at the keyboard. I’ve never worked on music with other people. Usually, I don’t know what the piece will sound like until I start writing out chords. And usually that’s when I start hearing melodies in my head. I can just already hear it, and that’s when I’m like “Aha!” and I have to try to find it on the keyboard, and make sure I don’t lose the idea.
Yeah, definitely. Okay, so now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! Okay?
Steph: I’ll try!
Favorite video game protagonist!
Steph: Sora, from Kingdom Hearts!
Favorite animal in a video game!
Steph: Moogles, from Final Fantasy. They’re so cute!
Yeah! Favorite video game series!
Steph: Final Fantasy!
Nice. Favorite Pokémon!
Hehe favorite time signature!
Nice. Favorite battle theme!
Steph: There’s so many… I would have to say the one from Final Fantasy VI, “Dancing Mad”.
Right. I might recognize it if I heard it… The title sound familiar. Okay, favorite church mode!
Steph: I’m probably gonna go with Dorian.
Yeah, that’s a good one. If you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would you choose?
Steph: Antagonist… I would have to say Kefka from Final Fantasy VI. I feel like he just needs someone to understand him. (laughs)
“I feel like [Kefka] just needs someone to understand him. (laughs)”
(laughs) Yeah. If you could make an entire video game world inside any instrument, which one would you choose?
Steph: Inside any instrument? Probably the cello. I feel like there’s a lot of room in there. (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah. If you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which one would you choose?
Steph: Okay, definitely the trombone. It just looks like trouble!
All right, cool! End of rapid-fire questions. So what are some of your future plans? What are you working on now?
Steph: Right now, I’m working on music for a virtual reality game, and also a mobile game. So those have been consuming my time at the moment. But basically I plan on composing my butt off. And hopefully eventually moving out to LA or San Francisco for bigger game opportunities.
Yeah, definitely. Cool, so what are some of your aspirations as a video game composer? Do you have any dream projects?
Steph: I definitely want to work on RPGs. I feel like those games have the most emotional impact on the player. And I like writing music that’s emotional.
Right, awesome! Well those are all the questions I have. Do you have any final thoughts?
Steph: No, this was cool! Thanks for talking with me.
Yeah, thanks for doing this!