We talked to three co-hosts of Sound of Play, a podcast dedicated to video game music, about the origins of the show, their favourite eras of game music and advice for others thinking of launching a pod.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Unless you’ve had your head in a pillowcase for the last few years, you can’t have failed to notice the recent boom in interest around podcasts. For some, it’s been a revelation to explore this sort-of-new medium and discover hit shows like Serial and Marc Maron’s WTF; others have been listening to podcasts for over 10 years. And whilst the Cane and Rinse posse have *only* been going since 2011, they could be considered middle-aged in terms of video game podcasts.
Since its inception, the Cane and Rinse team have thoughtfully been covering games in a meticulous way that runs counter to the weekly crowd of ‘news plus what we played’ pods, chalking up an impressive 2.5 million downloads in the process. On the main show, a panels discusses a game (or series) as a whole work — but this format tended to leave them feeling that they had given short shrift to the soundtrack in the interests of brevity.
Thus, in 2014, the Sound of Play podcast was launched in order to celebrate the wide world of video game music. We spoke to the founders and revolving cohort of co-hosts Leon Cox, Jay Taylor and Ryan Hamann to chat about what they’ve learned by opening their ears to the community’s favourite game music over the course of 130+ episodes.
Truly faces for radio: Sound of Play co-hosts Leon Cox, Jay Taylor and Ryan Hamann.
NB: Your author has appeared on Sound of Play #32; I’ve also had two podcast episodes published through the Sound of Play feed (as well as appearing on three other Cane and Rinse shows): An interview with PlayStation's Principal Composer Jim Fowler (12th May 2017 – the episode after Sound of Play #93); and an interview with STRAFE composer Amos Roddy AKA ToyTree (9th June 2017 – after #97).
Sound of Play: Origins
Whereas the Cane and Rinse podcast is a methodical chronicling of video games, most Sound of Play episodes are a joyous, scattergun celebration of the breadth and depth of game music — from traditionally ‘video gamey’ chiptune through to the exquisitely recorded orchestral works that could pass muster as contemporary classical music — and everything in between.
The idea for the VGM pod was concocted between Leon, Jay and fellow Cane and Rinser, Tony Atkins, before they had launched the main podcast, but the project didn’t coalesce until a few years later. Leon explains: “We eventually decided to create Sound of Play once we’d nailed the idea for a fortnightly show. We knew we’d follow through once we committed to that idea.” Jay adds: “It got shelved for a while because first we wanted to make something that covered all aspects of a game, rather than just a particular element like the music.”
Of course, a deep love of video game music has fuelled the whole endeavour. Ryan explains: “Game music is created to be enjoyed in a very specific context. It soundtracks genuinely life-changing experiences and adventures: it soothes us while we rest; it invigorates us in times of battle. We each have a deep, emotional connection to these pieces, and it’s difficult to communicate that to someone else without having them first spend a dozen hours experiencing a particular adventure for themselves.
“A podcast feels like a great way to share our own stories related to this music; and hope that, by adding that personal context, it’ll make these pieces a bit more special for listeners that are new to them.”
Bathing in an endless ocean of game music
Listening to a huge range of VGM picked by a wide array of guests has opened the Sound of Play hosts’ minds to the possibilities of the medium. Ryan explains: “I’ve been continually surprised and impressed as I learn more about composers of ‘early’ game music, particularly those who worked on the Commodore 64 and systems of its time. Writing music is hard — damn hard. People study and practise for their entire lives to approach greatness in that one field alone. To not only write music but also be able to program it to be synthesised by those early computers is beyond impressive. It requires mastery of multiple disciplines.”
“It’s opened my eyes to the sheer quantity of high quality VGM,” adds Leon, “particularly in the mobile space, where I think a lot of players take the audio for granted.” Jay concurs: “Definitely! I always had an interest in soundtracks, be it film or video game, but I’m constantly surprised by stuff that I’ve missed. It’s so easy to miss out on phenomenal music because you haven’t played the game it’s from. Soundtracks such as The Flame in the Flood by Chuck Ragan, which blew me away when I first listened to it, would have passed me by had it not been for Sound of Play.”
One of the most remarkable things about video game music as a ‘genre’ or ‘category’ of music (if you even consider it a unified field) is the diversity of music genres (e.g. rock, electronica) and instrumentation (e.g. solo guitar, full orchestral). To listen to and love game music is to be exposed to all sorts of musical approaches. Ryan comments: “I’ve always particularly appreciated music with easily discernible instrumentation; I enjoy focusing on each layer or individual part and thinking about them in terms of what they each bring to the mix. It’s also fun to catch little flourishes that are easy to miss. I think that the ‘middle’ era of video game music is a sweet spot for this — the N64, Sega Saturn etc.” As an example, Ryan points to Jim Guthrie’s “Lone Star” from his soundtrack to Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP:
For Leon, producing Sound of Play has deepened his appreciation of scores that zag where others zig: “I was brought up in a house with several musicians who had eclectic tastes, which in turn shaped my tastes. After listening to a mountain of game music since launching the show, I’ve become a little bit over familiar with certain types of soundtrack. As with Hollywood, we could probably do with fewer generic orchestral scores, which blend into one in my memory — at least on a first listen. Similarly, as much as I enjoy a good chip tune, I feel that that palette has been employed to an excessive degree in recent years.”
A recent soundtrack that bucks that trend for Leon is that for Splatoon 2: “It’s unlike anything else — a fresh mixture of hook-laden J-Pop and pop-punk with nonsense lyrics, interspersed with some wildly off-kilter and original pieces such as “Deluge Dirge [ω-3]” from the Salmon Run mode”:
Jay has grown fond of medieval-sounding music with an ethnic twist, for instance the soundtracks to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its expansion packs, which mostly comprise collaborations between Polish folk band Percival and musical director/composer Marcin Przybylowicz. “With these older-sounding instruments and styles [e.g. bowed gusle, hurdy-gurdy and renaissance fiddle], composers and musicians can create soundscapes that are out of the ordinary even for a modern video game soundtrack.”
The softer side of the gaming community
Writing and thinking about the video game music niche here at Laced With Wax means we keep ourselves somewhat apart from mainstream video games fandom and coverage. Between Cane and Rinse and Sound of Play, the podcast crew is familiar with both the wider video game community, and the enclave of game music. We asked whether there’s a noticeable difference in character between the two — Leon finds that there is: “Thinking and talking about video game music seems to mostly encourage people to be passionate and celebratory, which sets it apart from some of the pettiness and tribalism around games and platforms. I wish that positivity was the norm across the board. For example, YouTube comments sections for soundtracks tend to reflect positive emotions such as triumph and nostalgia, rather than the nastiness that you see elsewhere.
“More generally, music seems to be a force for good that inspires harmony (although ‘60s mods and rockers may feel differently). For the most part, people seem content to ignore the music that they don’t enjoy rather than berate its devotees for their apparent poor taste.”
Toad from the Super Mario series, catching some good vibes from video game music.
A large number of different guests and interviewees have featured on Sound of Play. Ryan comments: “In particular, I like talking to video game music cover bands. We featured the Super Soul Bros fairly early on [in episode #64], and it was so much fun to hear about their process of reinterpreting game music in their jazzy style.”
The Super Soul Bros performing at MAGfest 13.
Leon adds: “We’ve loved having all our guests on, so it feels a bit unfair to single people out — however, [composer, audio director and sound designer] Kenny Young’s enthusiasm was wonderfully infectious [episode #92].” Jay seconds this: “Kenny’s amazing work on LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway meant I was already a fan but, as a guest, his obvious passion for what he does, and for the work of others, cemented that. Plus, he gave me an absolutely pristine audio file for the show recording which, as the editor, I’m always grateful for!”
“Having [composer and musician] George Sanger on was a treat, too [the episode was published as a Sound of Play Extra also featuring Timothy Knox],” says Leon. “He is such a lovely, funny guy with loads of amazing stories. Jasper Byrne, Michael Levine, Stephan Schutze... Honestly, everyone’s been great.”
Sound of Play past interviewees (left) Kenny Young and (right) George Sanger.
Occasionally, the chaps will be privy to an unheard track that an interviewee treats them to. Leon explains: “It’s always a bit special when a composer brings us an exclusive, something previously unreleased and/or otherwise unavailable. I especially enjoyed Michael A. Levine’s early, extended version of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody from Resident Evil 7 [in episode #89] on which his daughter sings.” Jay adds: “That’s also one of my favourites from the show so far, since I adore the final version of the track in the game. The alternative version that Michael offered up just made we want to go and play Resi 7 all over again!”
Here’s the official version of the track:
Favourite sounds of play
Unsurprisingly, each host has a favourite era or area of game music that appeals to them the most. Leon admits: “I feel a lot of nostalgia and affection for the games and VGM of the 16-bit era [e.g. SNES and Mega Drive/Genesis]. It was the last generation of consoles, N64 notwithstanding, where the technology of the respective sound chips and computer sound cards shaped how those games sounded. I reckon that you can take a track from any game of that era — whether you know it or not — and immediately identify whether it’s from an Amiga, SNES or Mega Drive/Genesis title.”
He partially agrees with the contention, put forward by a few notable video game composers like Nobuo Uematsu, that game music has lost some of its identity in the ‘Redbook audio’ era (i.e. since disc-based games enabled CD quality audio in soundtracks). “I feel that a little bit, but that shift to ‘proper’ recorded/CD audio has lead to game music being taken more seriously by those outside of games. Also, music budgets have increased meaning that more and more highly talented composers are being drawn to the field.
“In terms of ‘classic-sounding’ game music, it’s not as if we’ve left the soundscapes of previous eras completely behind. There are any number of retro-inspired games like Shovel Knight, Undertale and Sonic Mania, and the composers attached to those projects make clever use of retro sounds.”
Jay feels strongly that whatever sense of ‘video gamey-ness’ has been lost since the VGM of the 16-bit days, we’ve seen a massive net gain: “I’m not someone who cares much for rose-tinted nostalgia. The sheer variety of scores we’ve had recently — for example, the contrast between Chuck Ragan’s country songs for The Flame in the Flood (Spotify) and Stafford Brawler’s ambient electronica for Monument Valley: Forgotten Shores, or Mick Gordon’s industrial metal for the DOOM soundtrack — makes me very excited about the direction of modern video game music.”
Ryan goes by feel: “I have always loved the whimsical and catchy music of Grant Kirkhope more than anything else. Tracks from his Banjo-Kazooie and Grabbed by the Ghoulies scores are constantly on my playlist. I’m also a fan of the chirpy sound of early chip music, such as the crunchy tunes of the Commodore 64 and especially the tinny Game Boy sound. Great examples of this are Jonathan Dunn's excellent RoboCop theme, or Junichi Masuda's haunting “Lavender Town” from Pokémon Red and Blue.”
For those about to cast...
Creating a podcast might seem easy — technically, it only takes someone an afternoon to record and post something online. The trick is having a solid initial idea (likely an iteration of an earlier attempt or well-trodden show format); and then following through with a regular and consistent flow of episodes of as high a quality as you can produce.
And if there’s anyone that knows about consistently delivering pod chat, it’s the Cane and Rinse crew. Leon advises: “The reason that so many new podcasts run out of steam so quickly is that there’s a tendency to wildly underestimate the amount of effort it takes to produce regular output. Even a ‘bantercast’ type show [e.g. the traditional — some might say lazy and tired — ‘four peeps chat about games’ setup] can take many hours to prepare, produce, publish and promote. We know — we’ve tried it!”
“While Sound of Play doesn’t require quite as much work as Cane and Rinse does, we still take a lot of pride in making it a proper ‘programme’. Just organising the guests and their tracklists takes time and effort in itself; then editing the multiple audio tracks together takes several more hours, even for experienced producers like Jay and Ryan.”
Jay counsels: “You’ve got to know your limitations. It’s best to commit to a release schedule you know you’re practicably able to maintain — and do your damnedest to stick to it. The reason we made Sound of Play a fortnightly show at first was because, after several years of making Cane and Rinse, we knew all too well how much time even a relatively simple show was going to take to put together.”
He also points out that pulling in additional help can be crucial to keeping pace: “It was only after a year of making Sound of Play that we felt comfortable enough to move to a weekly format, which is when Ryan came on board as an additional host and editor. What he’s brought to the mix, with both his regular shows and specials, has strengthened the show overall.”
Sound of the future
Of course, the Sound of Play co-hosts share dreams of world domination… Jay states: “We want to crush our enemies. See them driven before us. And to hear the lamentations of their women.”
...and some slightly more realistic goals. Ryan jokes: “#1 on iTunes, baby! (Everyone in the vicinity laughs out loud.)
“Seriously though, there are times when I feel I lack the musical vocabulary to pick apart aspects of a song that moves me. There are characteristics that I can feel in my gut, but I can’t always pinpoint what it is within the music that’s causing that feeling. It’s always exciting, therefore, when I can talk to someone who has that background in music theory, and can get to the heart of the phenomena much more effectively. To this end, I’d love to follow in the footsteps of the wonderful Song Exploder podcast: sit down with a composer, get the story of the track from the horse’s mouth and pick apart all of the pieces of a composition — listening to each instrument separately and hearing how they all come together — to highlight and celebrate all the clever little touches.”
Naturally, Leon hopes for a bigger listener base: “It frustrates me that, despite Sound of Play having been running for a few years, it still gets far fewer downloads than sister podcast Cane and Rinse, which is itself a relatively niche affair. People who do give Sound of Play a listen tend to love it; so, with that in mind, we have plans to publish a sampler show on the main Cane and Rinse feed to try and convert some of our audience.
“Beyond that, we have a healthy wishlist of brilliant composers that we’d love to have come on the show — give us a call!”
You can find Sound of Play through all good podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts.
The team’s other podcast is the weekly Cane and Rinse, where a panel of passionate people train their focus on a single title (or series) — games old and (relatively) new that have aged out of the frothy marketing hype cycle, and can therefore be appraised from all angles in the sober light of day. (Apple Podcasts feed)