Unleashing the old school MIDI music of RuneScape onto… vinyl?

Jagex’s music leads chat about finally opening the soundtrack vault, being sensitive to the RuneScape music community, and embracing the madcap idea of cutting MIDI tunes to vinyl.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

In our first interview with Jagex’s music team, we learned about how they continue to populate not one, but two whole MMOs with soundtrack cues — breaking the Guinness World Record for ‘most original pieces of music in a video game’ (over one thousand as of mid-2017).

But there’s more to the story…

In 2017, the RuneScape team decided it was time to crack open the official soundtrack vault and, for a start, put out a selection of albums on physical formats and digital platforms. This includes a set of MIDI tracks entitled Original Soundtrack Classics; and the live recorded album The Orchestral Collection. Both are available on CD and vinyl via Laced Records, and across major digital download stores and streaming platforms. The two collections are joined by the digital releases of albums Menaphos and The Arc. (For all the relevant digital links, click here.)

Ian Taylor (pictured left; sound designer, lead composer, and audio developer) and the Head of Audio, Stephen Lord (pictured right), are both long-time Jagex employees.

We caught up with them to chat about the decision to finally put out official RuneScape album releases, how they’ve been careful not to discourage the RuneScape music community, and why it doesn’t feel weird to put in-browser MIDI-generated music on vinyl.

(For those not in the know, MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is a set of musical instructions — rhythm, volume, etc. — that is interpreted by the end user’s hardware/software using a stock set of instrumental sounds to recreate a track. More on that later...)

The plan

Laced With Wax jokes with Lord and Taylor that of all the big music catalogues held back from streaming services for years, Jagex managed to hold out longer than the likes of The Beatles and AC/DC. Lord quips: “I was waiting for Led Zeppelin to go first!

“I’ve been asked for many years to release RuneScape music officially on iTunes, Spotify, etc. — and it was always coming! For a while, the intention was just to release it digitally, but then the vinyl revival has been happening. That pushed us towards wanting to put together deluxe products, commissioning beautiful artwork — going the extra mile.

“The game’s music catalogue has always been a little bit under cover; we’ve not come out and announced it to the world as such. Obviously, we are well overdue to do that.” Indeed, the initial four albums’ worth of music being released is as much to introduce RuneScape music to a wider audience as it is for the hardcore fans.

Lord continues: “Getting time to do it properly was important because there’s so much material. Where do you start?” By late 2017, the place to start became clear as the team oversaw the recording of some new orchestral music written for the game — laid down at Abbey Road Studios, no less. The mixture of newly composed and rearranged older pieces — all orchestrated by James Hannigan — was performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Pinewood Singers. For The Orchestral Collection album, the Abbey Road tracks have been complemented by several from a 2012 session with The Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, as well as a few produced by Hannigan himself.

Lord adds: “Pulling together James’ orchestral work was an obvious starting point for a release, but it also occurred to us that it would be nice to do a nostalgic album as a companion.”

Democracy in action

Image source: YouTube

Taylor insists: “We’d always considered putting out music, but we didn’t know whether it would be successful or not. As the game has evolved, so has our team and our outlook. There have been initiatives within Jagex to strengthen our ties with the community — that’s the direction that the company has been going for a long time now.”

For those unaware, there are actually two, concurrent versions of RuneScape running: the modern, continually updated game also known as RuneScape 3; and a retro version based on the game as it stood in August 2007, called Old School RuneScape (OSRS). Since OSRS is an engine of nostalgia, any tweaks that Jagex make to the game are voted on by players.

When it came time to start thinking about what to release, where, and how, the natural thing to do was to ask the players. Comments Lord: “It’s very important to be engaged with the community, and for the community to have their say — that’s why we ran a music poll.” 15,000 responses later, and the team had some solid feedback about which direction to take.

The player poll data helped the team work out the ideal tracklist for the most requested album: a collection of old school, MIDI-generated tracks that became the Original Soundtrack Classics album. Given that there were well over a thousand tracks in the game at the time of the poll, it seemed like crowdsourcing A&R to some extent would be a sensible move.

Lord adds: “When you look at the number of views across the various YouTube videos of RuneScape music, the community probably knows more about the music than we do. Obviously, there are some tunes that rose to the top of the pile — for example “Harmony” and “Sea Shanty 2” — but a few of the poll choices surprised us.”

Taylor says: “Whilst there were some tunes that we knew we wanted to add, we were happy to take advice from players about a large number of them. Pretty much all the top matches were included.” Lord explains that a select few tracks from near the top of the poll results are being held back for future albums based around battle and boss cues.

Good vibrations

Here at Laced With Wax, we’ve been cultivating a pet theory that video game music fans are, on the whole, a warmer-hearted, more positive bunch than the wider video games fandom. Controversial, we know.

In carrying out the player poll, a nice surprise for Lord and Taylor was the volume of positive feedback about RuneScape’s music. This reinforced to the audio team just how popular the catalogue was. Taylor beams: “That was amazing — people saying ‘Yes! Please do this!’ Because we weren’t dictating: ‘We are going to do this.’ It was a question: ‘Should we do this?’ — and the response was overwhelming.

“The people that are genuine fans of the music are a polite bunch. They don’t have hang ups about what goes on in the game, and they appreciate the music for its own sake.”

Lord adds: “That affection comes from both of our communities as well — OSRS and RuneScape. We see a lot of positive sentiment about most of the things that we put out, which is reassuring. Fans are also hungry for new music from us — they’re not just holding on to the old stuff. They’re enthusiastic to see what comes next, and, again, that applies to both player-bases. We’ve been writing a lot of new old school music for OSRS that has been well-received.”

Two worlds collide: Pressing MIDI tunes onto wax

Ian Taylor’s original Roland Midi keyboard used to compose all of the early RuneScape music tracks.

There is an undeniable silliness to the Original Soundtrack Classics vinyl release: early RuneScape music sounds… well, it sounds old. Old as in reminiscent of early ‘90s PC games, despite being composed during the noughties.

And vinyl, of course, was the music format of choice for most of the 20th Century prior to digital music; and it’s now enjoying a second life as the preferential format for audiophiles, collectors, and as a must-have merchandise item across pop culture.

RuneScape: Original Soundtrack Classics on vinyl. Available from www.lacedrecords.com

Taylor is comfortable with the oddness of 100% digitally produced music being reproduced on an analogue format: “Don’t forget that this is Jagex and RuneScape: quirky is what we do. The ethos of RuneScape is taking something nostalgic and bringing it up to date — and doing it with a sense of humour.

Lord reflects: “I did think the idea was a bit ridiculous at first. Then we started thinking about it in more detail; the [vinyl pre-masters] came back sounding beautiful; and it all sounded coherent as a full album. I thought: ‘this is amazing.’ It was nice to listen to and didn’t feel retro [Taylor interjects: ‘It did to me!’]. Hopefully that’s the reaction that a lot of players and fans will have when they listen to it.”

Masters of the vinylverse

If you’ll permit a quick aside…

Sound engineer Joe Caithness has been involved in almost all of Laced Records’ releases to date, checking and mastering audio for digital, CD, and vinyl. As a multi-talented musician, a dedicated record collector, and a mad-keen PC gamer, he was the perfect person to handle this initial batch of RuneScape releases.

Caithness says: “The fun challenge regarding the RuneScape: Original Soundtrack Classics vinyl in particular was to respect the original content, yet produce a modern product that any video game music collector could easily slip into their collection.

Runescape's original soundtrack was created to work with a general MIDI unit. ‘MIDI music’ isn’t put together in the same way that we expect digital music to be today, i.e. recorded, mixed, and mastered. Instead, a series of commands is programmed into the game itself for a computer to play back, meaning that a lot of the standard processes we expect in a digital mix can’t be applied.

“What's impressive is how dynamic and varied [original composer Ian Taylor’s] music is, given the limited toolset available at the time; and, when you consider the sheer amount of music, it's mind-boggling how he achieved this!

“The audio that emerges from a MIDI card or device has a certain charm to it, and it’s important not to stamp on it as a mastering engineer. One needs to re-balance it as transparently as possible whilst making sure all the specifications are suitable for vinyl — even though the original audio was never destined to be pressed to wax!

“This soundtrack release was one of the most complicated projects I’ve worked on, and what I learned along the way will come in useful for years to come."

You can read more about mastering video game music for vinyl in our interview with Joe.

You too, YouTube

Things have changed dramatically for music fans and the music industry since Ian Taylor’s tunes were first being added to RuneScape in 2002. The iPod was brand new, the iTunes Store hadn’t launched, and there was no Pirate Bay, smartphones, Spotify, or YouTube.

As it stands, YouTube is probably the largest collection of music ever created (pirate sites notwithstanding). For legal reasons, there is an inherent tension between what users upload to the video site, and what rights-holders prefer to be available there.

As a games company that has a symbiotic relationship with its fan community, Jagex has, over the years, taken a relaxed attitude to soundtrack uploads; and the team has been continually astonished and delighted by the vast array of cover versions that keep cropping up. Says Taylor: “There is a seemingly unlimited amount of covers. Our players have obviously been enjoying RuneScape music beyond the game itself for years — it’s in their psyche.”

Lord adds: “There are a lot of talented composers in the community, for instance OSRSBeatz [YouTube channel], whose Trap remixes do better numbers on YouTube than we do!” You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced “Sea Shanty 2 (Trap Remix)”, which has just over 700k views:

Taylor explains: “We’ve never been active in removing anyone’s videos, and we take a lot of pleasure in seeing people put up creative stuff. And, because we’ve got a sense of humour about it all, we’re not afraid of people using RuneScape music out of context (as long as it’s not offensive!) Some of that stuff turns into memes in their own right.

“We want to preserve what our community do and not tread on their toes, or take it away from them; after all, they’re advocates for the music and the game. It’s very flattering that people are still, to this day, making their own versions, remixes, and covers of our tracks.”

Lord: “It’s the ultimate tribute.”

Endless possibilities

Beyond the release of these four initial albums — Original Soundtrack Classics, The Orchestral Collection, Menaphos, and The Arc — there are any number of possible next steps. Boss music collections on streaming platforms… All the versions of “Scape Theme” on cassette... New OSRS MIDI music on player piano roll...

Taylor says: “There’s just so much. We’ve got choices, which is a very nice position to be in — having this library of stuff that we can do what we like with. But we’d like to involve the community.”

A possibility that has been discussed is gathering music produced by community musicians and releasing it in a collection. Says Taylor: “It would be a nice to gather the best output of the people that are covering RuneScape at the moment and put it on a compilation.”

Watch this space for more news...

Be sure to check our previous interview with Lord and Taylor about scoring two giant MMOs over the decades.

RuneScape music is available for the first time on physical formats via Laced Records, including double vinyl and double CD editions of Original Soundtrack Classics and The Orchestral Collection albums.  

Also for the first time, RuneScape music is available to stream (and buy digitally) on major music platforms — here are all the links you could possibly need.