Fascinated by a captivating array of electronic and acoustic tracks, I immediately fell in love with Julie Buchanan‘s music. The innovative, friendly, and eloquent composer took some time to have a conversation with me, where she shared her thoughts about last-minute audition music, inspiration from stories and narrative, the importance of implementation, and creating her own instruments.
What is your music about? How would you describe it?
Julie: Each project calls for something different, and I really try to bring out aspects of the narrative that can be enhanced by the music—and that’s different for every project. You know, that might be something to drive the player, or something to make the player feel nostalgic… Any variety of emotions that you can enhance with music. I would say for music that I write for myself… I’m really interested in minimal electronic music. I like to sample music a lot, and sort of mix the organic and electronic elements. I’m a big fan of Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins…
Okay. Do you have any formal training, or do you play any instruments?
Julie: I mainly play the computer right now. (laughs) I studied piano and film scoring and video game scoring at Berklee College of Music. I’ve been playing piano for a long time, since I was… Ye high. I also play electric bass. But yeah, I really play the computer a lot, I work with synthesizers a lot, do a lot of electronic music.
Awesome, so what was the first piece of music you ever composed, and what inspired you to compose for the first time?
Julie: (laughs) I can’t remember what it’s called, but when I was younger, I had two good friends who also played piano, and we used to get together and write stuff. It was like a dual piano piece, and we wrote it together, and we’d play it for our parents and friends. I’m sure it was incredibly embarrassing. Let’s just say it was two like 10- or 11-year-olds sitting at a piano, playing some nonsensical piece of music. Yeah, I would say it was always a thing that I did for fun with my friends, and then it sort of turned into less of a hobby, and more of a career.
When did it start to become more of a career? In high school, or…
Julie: In high school, I actually participated in jazz band and all the high school music stuff… But after high school I wanted to take a break from it, so I went to school somewhere else—I was gonna study literature or something. While I was away from that, I was like ugh… I don’t really want to be doing this. I found that I really missed music as a part of my life, so I decided Berklee or Bust! (laughs) So I applied, and luckily I got in. And right before I got to Berklee, what I played for my audition piece was a piece that I wrote like five days before the audition. (laughs)
Oh my gosh!! (laughs)
Julie: So I was like “I don’t know what I’m gonna play!!” I had been practicing all these classical pieces, but that’s not really my thing, and I wanted to do something that would help me stand out. So I just wrote something, and I guess it worked. (laughs)
“What I played for my audition piece was a piece that I wrote like five days before the audition. … I had been practicing all these classical pieces, but that’s not really my thing, and I wanted to do something that would help me stand out. So I just wrote something, and I guess it worked. (laughs)”
Awesome, wow! I have never heard of that! (laughs)
Julie: So I would say that’s when I started to take it seriously.
Cool, so who are some of your main musical influences?
Julie: Oh my… There’s so many!
If you can narrow it down!
Julie: Okay, so I already mentioned Brian Eno and Jon Hopkins… I’ve always been a big fan of 90’s alternative grunge music, and 80’s pop synth. So I’ll group those two together as genres that have inspired me. As well as some more film composers, like Joe Hisaishi, who’s worked on the Miyazaki films. Tan Dun, who did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon… I’ll stop there!
Okay, so what sorts of things inspire you outside of music?
Julie: That’s a good question… I’m really inspired by stories and narrative. I think that’s the reason why I fell into composing for media, as opposed to just composing for myself. Before I left the English world and went to music, I was basically that kid who read books all the time, 24/7. What I was drawn to in that was the ability to put you in another world and connect with the characters, all of that stuff. So that’s what I’m really drawn to in film and video games. And with my background and knowledge in music, I can help the story-telling in that way, and enhance it.
“I’m really inspired by stories and narrative. I think that’s the reason why I fell into composing for media, as opposed to just composing for myself. … What I was draw to in [books] was the ability to put you in another world and connect with the characters. … I can help the story-telling [with my music], and enhance it.”
Yeah, interesting! So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Julie: For music, I primarily use Digital Performer. That’s what they had us start out with at Berklee. It’s sort of stuck with me. It’s kinda old… They keep releasing new versions, but it’s one of the older ones. But I like using it; it has a lot of flexibility. And it does take quite a while to get up to speed with it, but so far it’s served me well. I also use Pro Tools, for recording, sound design, sound editing… Pretty much anything that isn’t strictly sequencing music, I’ll do in Pro Tools.
Okay. What was the first video game you contributed music to, and how did you get the position?
Julie: Like outside of school projects?
Either! Maybe both!
Julie: Okay, the first video game I contributed music to was at USC, where they have a program called IMGD, or Interactive Media and Games Design. The first music I contributed was for an undergrad game there—I got that because I was taking a class at Berklee that hooked you up with one of those students. And the first game outside of school… That’s a good question… It’s a game called Temporality, by my good friend James Cox. It’s an interactive music video game where there are only two controls that allow you to move the character forward or backward in time. That game was actually inspired by a track by Jon Hopkins, called “Immunity”. James brought me in to create some original music for that, which was really a lot of fun, and you can actually play the game online—it’s free to play on PC or Mac, it streams.
Oh, interesting! Cool, so what’s your compositional process when writing different tracks for games, like character themes, battle themes, map/field… What’s your compositional process?
Julie: Also a big question… I think the number 1 thing I try to think about first is, how is the music going to work in the game? Because I can sit down and create themes based off of personalities or emotions from the game, but all of that is sort of useless if I don’t have a plan for how it’s going to be implemented. I’ve found a lot of the time that implementation is going to help craft the music. This is more noticeable in noticeable in middleware programs like FMOD or Wwise. But also, if you’re just implementing straight into the game, sometimes you have restrictions and sometimes you have opportunities to make the music more or less interactive. So I try to think about, how does this fit into the game world? What sort of interactivity can I create within the music? And how is it going to enhance the gameplay? That’s generally where I start before composing.
“I can sit down and create themes based off of personalities or emotions from the game, but all of that is sort of useless if I don’t have a plan for how it’s going to be implemented. … So I try to think about, how does this fit into the game world? What sort of interactivity can I create within the music?”
Okay, interesting. So talk more specifically about game soundtracks that you’ve done, like Tetheron, Temporality—you started to talk about that one—or any other projects that might have a special place in your heart? (laughs)
Julie: I’ll talk about Tetheron—it does have a special place in my heart. It’s one of the first games I started out here in LA. It’s a game by my good friends Patrick Quah and Julian Ceipek. It’s basically a local multiplayer game, where you control different balls as the player, and you can knock into platforms, and generally cause a lot of chaos and destruction. You’re sort of moving the pinball in the pinball machine. When thinking about doing music for that, I wanted to harken back to retro video game music—8-bit, chiptune styles, while also incorporating modern EDM feels. So I had a lot of fun incorporating both of those elements and trying to get them to work together, as well as keeping in mind that the sound design was also going to be in that style, so trying to carve out spaces for the music and sound design to sit together.
But the very first track I ever made for Tetheron, I made very quickly, since they had a deadline coming up. We took a hiatus from the project, and didn’t come back to it for maybe like a year. But over the entire year, when they finally came back to it, they were still okay with that track. I was like “But guys. We need more music.” And they were like “But we’re still listening to this one, it’s good.” (laughs) I’m really glad they liked it so much, and it was so successful. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that again, where you can listen to the same music for a year, while you’re working on a game, and not get sick of it!
That’s pretty impressive!!
Julie: Yeah that’s intense. Yeah so Tetheron holds a special place in my heart. And we’re still working on the game! We’ll hopefully get it out in the next year or so.
Are there any others that stand out to you?
Julie: Yeah, there’s one I’m working on right now that I can’t talk about too much—it’s by my good friends Thomas Lu and Greg Chen. It’s two robots you control, and the music and sound design is going to be very industrial, with factory sounds… It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Julie: And there’s one I can talk a little more about, called “You Must Be 18 Or Older To Enter”, by my friend James and Joe Cox—they’re brothers. Basically it’s about looking at porn for the first time, as like a kid in the 1990’s. And the game sort of emulates an old Windows OS, like all the art is all the art is ASCII, and it scrolls down as you open a new page. So it’s sort of a part art experimental, part horror game. A lot of the interest comes from playing that game in a public space, where it’s sort of tackling a taboo subject matter. It’s interesting to see how the reactions of people change as you’re playing as the character in the game. The anxiety of someone catching you, someone looking over your shoulder—and in a public space, someone IS looking over your shoulder, watching exactly what you’re watching.
I had a lot of fun doing sound for that game—some of the sounds you can probably already imagine, but I also had some fun doing like chatroom music, with real cheesy bass lines and stuff like that. (laughs)
Yeah. So which composition of yours is the most different from anything you’ve written before, and what did you learn from writing that piece?
Julie: That’s a good question. I feel like I need a list of them. (laughs) I think I’m gonna do that actually… Which composition is the most different… All right.
In terms of anything, like how it ended up being, like the genre, or even just the compositional process.
Julie: Okay, I would say probably the Chef music.
Ooh, the one with the accordion? And it’s like clay-mation?
Julie: Yeah, exactly. I would say that’s in the realm of most different. I can’t say I write too much accordion music. (laughs) But that was a lot of fun. I definitely had to research a little bit. The interesting thing about the accordion is, in writing for it, we tend to think it’s a keyboard instrument, when in reality it’s much more of a wind instrument, because the sound is produced by pumping the bellows, right.
So it was interesting coming at it from a pianist’s perspective—but I also used to play saxophone. I realized that I had to rely on my knowledge of woodwinds more than piano to make that work. So that definitely stands out.
Yeah, wow. So what’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve had as a composer, and how did you get through it?
Julie: I’d say one of the biggest challenges I’ve had is having restrictions in what you can do. Sometimes that’s because of an engine you’re using, sometimes it’s a project budget. One of the ways that I try to get around that is… For example, if it’s a project that needs strings, of course there’s a variety of string libraries available that you can go out and purchase and sequence. But sometimes your project doesn’t have the budget for that, you don’t have the budget to record them. So it’s kind of an opportunity to be creative in how you write the music. I’ve tried to use those opportunities to create my own instruments, or work with what is available.
I think that a lot of composers probably run into that same issue. As composers, you play a couple different instruments, you have a variety of libraries you can use to sequence, and you have your digital tools available to you. I think that’s probably the greatest obstacle, to try to get the best music for the project with the resources you have available.
Yeah, so you’ve mentioned creating your own instruments—is that combining different sounds together? Give some examples of that!
Julie: I do a lot of musical sound design, creating synth instruments, I like to sample things a lot… Basically any aspect of sound can be turned into music, right. Like I can bang on some pots and sample it and map it out to my keyboard and make a piece out of it. So that’s the kind of stuff that’s exciting to me. If I have the opportunity, I love to create my own sounds, whether it’s digital or recorded. People get tired of hearing the same things over and over. Especially among composers, it’s pretty easy to pick out, “Oh, they used that sample library.” That gets boring. Of course, sometimes you have to do that, because of deadlines or whatever. But if I have the opportunity, I like to create fun stuff.
“Basically any aspect of sound can be turned into music, right. Like I can bang on some pots and sample it and map it out to my keyboard and make a piece out of it. So that’s the kind of stuff that’s exciting to me. If I have the opportunity, I love to create my own sounds, whether it’s digital or recorded. People get tired of hearing the same things over and over. … If I have the opportunity, I like to create fun stuff.”
For example, for Temporality track I mentioned earlier, I made an instrument of my own voice, which was weird because I’m not a singer. (laughs) I had to go back in there and nudge every one—I was sharp on every recording!! (laughs) I had to pitch it all down just a little bit. But that was a really fun thing to do. You know, I could just sing the parts, but with sampling you can get different textures that you wouldn’t be able to do just with your own voice.
That’s why I like sound design as well—I like to be able to create sounds. I use a lot of libraries, but if I had all the time in the world, I’d like to just dedicate it to making my own sounds.
Yeah! Now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready?
Julie: Oh boy. Okay!
Favorite video game protagonist.
Julie: Commander Shepard.
Favorite video game series.
Julie: Mass Effect!
Favorite character theme.
Julie: Oh… Midna, Twilight Princess.
Favorite dungeon, in any video game.
Julie: Twilight Princess, that dragon thing in the Sky Temple!
Julie: Oh, that’s so hard!!! Umm… Dragonite!
Okay, favorite battle theme!
Julie: It’s gonna be Twilight Princess, that sky battle!
Most frustrating boss battle!
Julie: I’m gonna say Skyward Sword… The guy with the diamonds and white hair…
Aww I haven’t played that one yet!
Julie: Ghirahim! That Wii controller drives me insane—I can’t do the sword things right. You have to move your arm in specific ways. It’s so frustrating! (laughs)
Okay, I haven’t played that one yet, but it’s on my list! If you had to befriend any video game antagonist, who would it be?
Julie: I’m gonna go with Midna—she’s a bit of an antagonist at the beginning of the game.
Okay. If you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you choose to fight with!?
Julie: I’d fight with… I feel like I’d probably do one of those Mad Max guitar things, with the fire coming out of it—I’d turn that into some sort of blowtorch weapon.
Okay, awesome. End of rapid-fire questions! What are some of your future plans? What are you working on now?
Julie: I’m going to continue working on video games, ideally doing both sound and music. In the next like six or seven months, I’ll be working on this robot game that I told you a little bit about, sort of inspired by Paper Mario, Undertale… We have quite a bit of work coming up on that. And the music is gonna be sort of inspired by old video games, but also incorporating heavy industrial machinery percussion.
That sounds pretty cool!
Julie: Yeah. And I think soon I’m gonna be working on Tetheron again, which I mentioned is not out yet. We have a little bit more stuff to do in the level design there, and I have some more music to write for that. But long term plan: keep doing video games and music.
Do you have another job on the side, or do you do music full time?
Julie: I do a combination of things. I do music, sound design, sound editing. I may or may not start teaching recording and piano.
Yeah! Teaching is awesome—I’m a music teacher!
Julie: Yeah, I used to do a little bit of teaching maybe like a year and a half ago, but the studio closed down… But I might pick that up again. I like to work with kids, and there aren’t too many female composers or sound designers who are teaching recording and digital music software… I would enjoy putting myself in that network, and hopefully inspiring some little girls to be weird musicians like me. (laughs)
Yeah! Sounds awesome, good! Thanks for doing this interview!
Julie: Thanks for interviewing me! This was a lot of fun.
Great, have a good day!
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