Impressed by the grandiose, and gloriously epic orchestrations and compositions of Emmanuel Lagumbay, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with the talented, ambitious composer. He shared his thoughts about the comical story behind his very first composition, drawing inspiration from MMOs, and working with The Summoner’s Orchestra.
Thanks for doing this interview! How did you first become a musician? Do you have any formal training?
Emmanuel: Yes, I actually started in middle school—I played trumpet in 6th grade. When I was in 5th grade, the middle school band director came to our elementary school, and brought a bunch of instruments in. It was like a petting zoo kind of thing, we got to try whatever. And actually I wanted to play either French horn or clarinet, but then for some reason when I got into 6th grade, trumpet just kinda stuck with me, and I ended up doing that.
And I’ve been playing brass since then: I’ve worked a little bit with French horn, baritone, mellophone for drum corps. I took a little bit of piano, choir, and percussion when I got to college. I conducted a piece in middle school when I wrote something for fun. It was actually funny, that was first ever live performance kind of thing. I wanted to do a piece about a character I made in like middle school. I was playing a lot of Guild Wars back then, so I’d always make characters, and this one character kinda stuck. I made a back story for him… Like all right, why don’t I tell a musical story about that?
That was probably the worst composition I’ve ever done, by far. I literally handed it to my band director, she looked through it, and she handed it back and said “Well this is what dissonance is.” And you shouldn’t do that for about five minutes straight. (laughs) Cause you know, in middle school I had no idea what music theory was, I was just putting notes down in Finale, trying something out… A bunch of cluster chords are happening, I don’t even know what’s going on. It was fantastic!
“I conducted a piece in middle school when I wrote something for fun. … That was probably the worst composition I’ve ever done, by far. (laughs) … I had no idea what music theory was, I was just putting notes down in Finale, trying something out… It was fantastic!”
But then I started self-teaching myself theory. Like okay, I understand what a scale is, I’ve played scales all my life, and now I know why things sound the way they do and don’t. So I started applying that.
Okay, so when did composition become part of your life, and what was the first piece of music you composed—that thing? (laughs)
Emmanuel: Yes, yes, the dissonance piece. That was technically the first thing I had ever written; it was me just screwing around on Finale. It was called “Selus of Amoe”, based on a character I made, Selus, from Amoe. It was a symphonic wind piece, cause you know concert band stuff in middle school. We had it performed by the advanced group, our 8th grade ensemble.
That was also my first experience in conducting, which was hilarious. My three pattern when I started out was down, then inside, then up. (laughs)
(laughs) Oh no!
Emmanuel: So I had to get taught how to do a three pattern, which was fun.
Yeah. Well, you gotta start somewhere!
Emmanuel: Well the funny thing, when you think about… Logically, a two would be inside, because in a four pattern, two is inside. But you don’t think about those things in 8th grade. I’ll just use the same thing as two in a four pattern! I got quickly changed by my director—I’m so grateful she was able to help me with that.
Yeah, that’s awesome. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Emmanuel: Nowadays it’s mostly Cubase 6.5—I’m a couple years behind, represent! And I use sound libraries like East West Quantum Leap. I’m not the biggest fan of it, but it’s what I have. And I use Cinesamples, like Cinebrass Pro, Cinebrass Core. I use something called Cinematic Strings. It’s pretty good for the value. I do also own a Focusrite Scarlet 2i2, if I wanna do any kind of recording with some mics. What you’re hearing me through right now is a Blue Yeti microphone, which I’ve also used to record stuff with. I try to do a little bit of Live here and there, with some random instruments I’ve collected.
Okay, so who are some of your main musical influences?
Emmanuel: Definitely the music from Riot Games, so League of Legends—that whole team has been an inspiration, especially in the last few years.
Is it one main composer, or do they have a lot of different people?
Emmanuel: They have a team of about five people now, at least. I think they’re up to five now… A handful of them who have their own unique styles that show up for each champion of the game, or whatever they need at the time. I’m definitely a fan of the Blizzard music, which is also a team of composers. World of Warcraft has been a definite inspiration to me, growing up. Basically in 8th grade I was listening to a lot of Guild Wars, World of Warcraft… That kind of stuff got me writing.
All right, nice. So what other things inspire you, outside of music?
Emmanuel: Well that’s pretty much a life question. Anything, honestly. You can take inspiration from anything, whether it’s just looking at scenes of the world, being out there, taking stuff in. People: being around certain personalities. It’s kinda like how an artist, when they see a face, they like to draw that face and remember that for something they might use. Same thing, personality-wise, when I hang out with somebody, I remember the feeling when hanging out with this person. And if it’s something I can connect with, you know, they’ll influence my writing somehow.
“People: being around certain personalities. … When I hang out with somebody, I remember the feeling when hanging out with this person. And if it’s something I can connect with, you know, they’ll influence my [musical] writing somehow.”
Nice. What’s your compositional process like? How do you go about writing a new piece, if there is any formula?
Emmanuel: It’s a yes and no thing. Honestly I do have a process, in a sense, but I hate the word “process”, because it’s the never the same when I write something. You’re a composer, I’m assuming, as well, right? You understand that. It’s never gonna be the exact same thing, how you boot up your computer, and load up your libraries. I have a template of all these libraries that I use, though I’m starting to find myself not going back to this template anymore, just because I want to find a new sound for everything.
It’s a matter of trying to find out what I want something to sound like, what kind of feeling I want to have portrayed, in whatever I’m scoring. And from there I’ll play around. I’ll do a piano track, or I’ll get my strings… I’m a huge French horn fan, so a lot of the time I’ll mess around with melodies on French horn, and see if I like something. But again, it changes every time. Sometimes I’ll do the melody first, or other times I’ll do the chord structure first. Maybe other times percussion, just to get a rhythm going… It’s never consistent, but it’s a matter of what kind of feeling I want to portray, what kind of instruments would I want to use for that feeling? Then I start doodling around for hours and hours.
Yeah. So what was the first video game you composed music for? How did you get the position?
Emmanuel: Technically the first one I composed for was a student project, called Super Kawaii Turtle Fighter. I met this lady at Game Developer Conference in San Francisco. After a few months, we talked a little bit and she said hey, my boyfriend is making a game for a student project, would you be interested in scoring it? And I said yeah sure, that would be fun. It was just a student project, little pay. It was right up my alley, because it was like DDR music, and I grew up playing DDR. Yeah so it was a lot of J-Pop, high-energy, bass drum bumping kind of stuff—that was basically my childhood, from kindergarten… Even now, I love that kind of stuff.
Awesome, me too. Okay, so talk about the League of Legends symphony tribute that you did.
Emmanuel: Yes, that was The Summoner’s Orchestra. There’s a fan-made community convention called Summoner’s Con. That ran two years ago for the first time. When I bought the ticket to go, a little chat pop-up came up, and it was one of the co-founders saying hey, thanks for buying a ticket! Which was kind of weird and creepy, but it was awesome technology that this guy is getting notifications when people buy tickets, and he can say thank you. So jokingly I said hey if you want music for this, just let me know, and I can send you tracks you can use between panels. And for free, I just sent him a bunch of tracks that I had written, and gave him permission to use them for the convention.
And then the year after, I said I want to do that again, but I want to do something a little bit bigger this time. I want to put together an orchestra and do a live performance of music from League of Legends. And he said yeah, that sounds great, let’s do it! It was literally just as easy as that. Why not, let’s try it out, see if it’ll work! They helped me recruit people: they have a following on twitter and facebook of a few thousand people, and I went through my network of friends as well. And we put together a 25-piece orchestra to perform at Summoner’s Con.
There’s a short documentary that was done by Riot Games themselves. So the people that make League of Legends were asking for stories about their players doing something cool related to League of Legends, but not actually playing the game. So I sent them my story, saying I’m making this orchestra. And they picked that story, out of like over 7000 applicants, alongside 11 other people from around the world.
Wow, that’s so cool!!
Emmanuel: Definitely. That was a huge honor for me.
Cool, so which composition of yours is the most different from your other pieces, and what did you learn from writing that piece? Either in how it was created, or the end result?
Emmanuel: Let’s see, in terms of original composition… I’ve got a playlist of trolly music, when I kinda put stuff together… I’d probably say the Venture Verse theme. That was actually my first time implementing a live musician into my work: oboe player Damian Nguyen, from Materia Collective, and also The Summoner’s Orchestra now. That one was actually a lot of fun, because I used a lot of ostinato stuff that I love using, but I also tried using different chordal progressions that I’m not used to trying.
Venture Verse isn’t out yet—it’s on early release on Steam. It has a Greenlight campaign, that I also did trailer music for.
Into the Infinite is also really one of the tops one. That became more of a soundscape vocal adventure, cause I used my girlfriend’s voice in it, like an intergalactic GPS. She’s booting up the system, there’s a countdown and everything… That’s probably the most out-there that I’ve done, because I did more with voice than with instruments. It has an actual narrative in it.
Both of those pieces are out there. In terms of more original, I would say Into the Infinite, because it’s like campy, narrative, fun music. It has a very sci-fi feel to it, though some say that Venture Verse does too.
Okay, cool. So what other activities or hobbies do you have outside of video games and music?
Emmanuel: Outside of video games and music… I teach marching band. I guess that kind of counts as music, but I teach the marching part, so that actual physical aspect of you know, technique how to hold my instrument while moving, and how to make forms correctly.
Oh okay, like for field shows?
Emmanuel: Yes, exactly, for field shows!
Nice! I was in the pit in marching band. So I never marched, but I was in that world.
Emmanuel: Oh no way! Yeah, you were part of it! You know exactly what I’m talking about. I love pit, they’re really the backbone for any ensemble. So I teach the visual part of that for the field shows—we just got done for the season. Our group finished 2nd in 6A. I’m pretty proud of them, they’re a great group of kids this year too.
And that’s high school?
How long have you been doing that?
Emmanuel: Six years now…? Oh my god. Six years. As soon as I graduated high school, a couple of the instructors from where I graduated from were teaching at another school, and they wanted to bring me on, because I had marched Drum Corps. So they brought me on, and I’ve been working since then.
All right, awesome. So what’s one of the biggest compositional challenges you’ve faced, and how did you get through it? Either in the studio, with other people, or just by yourself?
Emmanuel: Let’s do both!
Emmanuel: Since I get to work with The Summoner’s Orchestra, I get to hear how my orchestration plays out. I did an arrangement of Worlds Collide, from League of Legends, so that we could perform it with Nicki Taylor, who sang the original on their soundtrack. That was at Summoner’s Con. That was tough, because it was a very electronic-heavy track, which would be great if I had a heavy electronic orchestra. But we had four string players, like three trombones, a French horn player, two trumpets… This weird conglomerate of musicians. To make it sound authentic was going to be very, very difficult. So the way I approached it was to do my own arrangement, and see where it goes. And it ended up being very pep band-y, which I wasn’t too proud of, but at the same time it worked for what we were going for. It’s just… Having to balance the strength of the ensemble, or the strength of the people performing it. A lot of the stuff that I’ve performed live, I’ve had limited access to musicians. It’s not like I can say okay here’s my 40-piece ensemble that’s completely well-balanced and everything. I had to score particularly to the ensembles that I was working with.
“A lot of the stuff that I’ve performed live, I’ve had limited access to musicians. It’s not like I can say okay here’s my 40-piece ensemble that’s completely well-balanced and everything. I had to score particularly to the ensembles that I was working with.”
In terms of, by myself, the biggest issue is… Getting over it, I guess. I think you know what I mean, where you know you’re gonna be stuck on something for hours. You can constantly be stuck on something for hours, until you decide well it’s okay, I have to move on. I have to try to move on! That happened a bunch of times when I was working on Venture Verse, just because there’s so much possibility. I was given so much power to do what I wanted to do, which was great, but it’s also dangerous for a composer. (laughs) Cause you’re like oh wow, I can do anything! And you literally start doing anything, and nothing sticks, and nothing is consistent. But eventually you make a decision, and you have to say okay, I have to go with whatever it is I feel will work. And just get over the fact that I’m gonna not like it perfectly, even after it’s released and perfect the way it is.
“Eventually you make a decision, and you have to say okay, I have to go with whatever it is I feel will work. And just get over the fact that I’m gonna not like it perfectly, even after it’s released and perfect the way it is.”
Okay, yeah. So what goals or aspirations do you have as a game composer? Do you have any dream projects or collaborations?
Emmanuel: Absolutely. I don’t really want to talk about the big collaborations that I have in store, cause I don’t wanna burn that bridge by bringing it up. (laughs) But I have aspirations to do, at least within the next two or three years, a AAA game, and to keep working with great composers… Not necessarily make a name for myself, but to have a good reputation not only in the industry, but amongst other composers. Like I don’t want to be that ass hole composer. I want everybody to understand where I’m coming from, and not brush anybody off.
In terms of collaboration, I would love to work with some of my indie friends that have been an inspiration to me, who have been great mentors. Like John Robert Matz—fantastic indie composer, he just finished up Fossil Echo, he scored Gun Point, Rodina, a lot of indie games. He’s been an idol to me, in terms of personality, because he’s just a really nice person, so I’d love to work with him on a project at some point.
And yeah, it’s obvious that I’d like to work with Riot in a bigger caliber than I have as of now, whatever that means! I mean I’m not really banking on anything, but it would be cool to do something with them, whether with The Summoner’s Orchestra, or like some kind of cue for their music… Something. (laughs)
Yeah. Okay, so now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible!
Emmanuel: Sure, got it. This is the speed round!
Favorite video game series!
Emmanuel: The Elder Scrolls!
Okay, favorite video game protagonist!
Emmanuel: Oh my gosh… I’m like the anti-protagonist! Hold on… Something from World of Warcraft… I’m going to say Sylvanas.
Okay, favorite character theme.
Emmanuel: Oh… Anduin’s Theme, from Legion.
All right, favorite battle theme.
Emmanuel: Battle theme!? Oh my gosh. Let’s go with the generic Final Fantasy VII boss battle theme.
Okay, favorite dungeon in any video game.
Emmanuel: Does this include raid?
Emmanuel: I’m gonna go ahead and say Icecrown Citadel, from World of Warcraft.
Okay. Power, courage, or wisdom?
Favorite time signature.
If you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would it be?
Emmanuel: Ooh… Arthus.
If you could live in any video game world for a week, which world would you choose?
Emmanuel: I can’t say World of Warcraft, cause I’ve already lived in that for a week, technically… I’d probably say the Overwatch world, that’s pretty fun.
Yeah, lots of different places.
Emmanuel: High-tech stuff, yeah.
Which one specifically from Overwatch?
Emmanuel: Which world? Oh shoot… Numbani. I’m a Lucio main!
Okay, if you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you fight with?
Emmanuel: Okay, that’s a tough one… I would probably fight with… I don’t think I would do a violin, because it’s too soft, so it would have to be a brass instrument. So maybe trombone, cause I could extend it really far. If anything, I could bend the pipe, to act like a crowbar. I have a lot of pipe to work with that’s malleable enough, instead of like a French horn, where I’d have to work with every inch of it!
Right. (laughs) All right, end of rapid-fire questions.
Emmanuel: Whew, that was tough!
So what are some of your future plans, immediate and distant?
Emmanuel: Immediate: right now I’m working a lot with The Summoner’s Orchestra to get them more paid, contract gigs. I’m trying to find work for my musicians, essentially—so I’m working as a contractor for The Summoner’s Orchestra. We’re planning workshops for local musicians: people who are interested in learning a little bit about their instruments from people who are in the industry. Some of my performers have played on tracks from like Frozen, Finding Dory, League of Legends, stuff like that. So I’ve got a handful of talented musicians who are willing to share their talents! Now I’m trying to find work for that, and also try to sustain myself by finding music work. Aren’t we all? (laughs) Preaching to the choir!
Yeah. (laughs) So what’s one rule that you like to live by?
Emmanuel: Hm… There’s so many! One of them is to break the rules, to not be afraid to break the rules… Heh, if it’s not gonna get you in prison…! (laughs) But yeah, to not be afraid, to go for it. I think that’s probably my rule, to just go for it! Because you never know what’s gonna happen. I worked a job where my job was to ask people questions, and I had an hourly quota of how many people I had to get to answer these questions. In that job, you really had to go for it, you had to ask anybody and everybody, no matter what their response was going to be. You never know what’s going to happen until you do something!
Cool! So those are all the questions I have. Do you have any final thoughts? Parting comments?
Emmanuel: Well for one, thank you, definitely. If you could, check out the Venture Verse stuff—that would be my thing to send people to, I’m really trying to get that going with my partner in the UK. If anybody who happens to read your blog has any questions, they can feel free to contact me about anything. I’m very open to answering, and just talking to people in general, not necessarily business only, but just as a friend kind of thing!
Awesome! Thank you so much!
Listen to Emmanuel’s majestic tracks on soundcloud: