Q&A: C. Andrew Rohrmann and the Galak-Z soundtrack

The electronic musician and sound designer known as scntfc fills us in on his latest project.
Publish date:
Galak-Z 2015-03-13 15-07-35-86


Based in Seattle, Washington, C. Andrew Rohrmann is the electronic musician and sound designer known as Scientific American, a.k.a. scntfc. After getting his start as a live performer, Rohrmann moved into work for film, television and interactive, with clients ranging from Adidas and Microsoft to Lionsgate Films and Volkswagen. As his horizons expanded, Rohrmann began to migrate into creating music and sound design for videogames; his work has graced the main menu screens on Xbox 360, as well as the soundscapes for titles from Superbrothers, DeNA, Funktronic Labs, PopCap, and Night School Games. His most recent work is the soundtrack for Galak-Z, an upcoming space shooter from indie development studio 17-Bit. We sat down with Rohrmann to chat about his work on Galak-Z, and getting into the world of interactive music for games.

Before getting into composing music for screens, you started as a performer, right?
I started out playing drums in a few post-whatever—rock? punk?—bands in Seattle, veered into DJing hip hop and ’60s soul. As I got into sampling and more esoteric electronic music—Warp, Schematic, Ghostly in the IDM heyday—I started performing a sort of hybrid live-DJ set using Ableton Live.

"I settled on the idea of the music for Galak-Z sounding like, 'If John Carpenter made beat tapes.'"

What was your introduction into the world of music for games?
The audio director for Microsoft Game Studios had seen me perform live, and introduced himself while at our local coffee shop. Turns out he’s my neighbor. He has since moved on to PopCap, but he brought me in to Microsoft to do the remixes of Seven Seconds, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan for Crackdown 2. At around the same time I got a random message from Brandon Boyer of Venus Patrol, who connected me to Superbrothers for doing a bit of work on Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery.

How did you initially get involved with the Galak-Z project?
I was introduced to Jake Kazdal by our mutual friend Craig Adams, a.k.a. Superbrothers. Even though at the time Jake and I lived in the same city—and the 17-Bit office is only two train stops away from my studio—we had never actually met. Craig was in town, Jake had picked him up at the airport, and I went to the 17-bit offices to meet up. It just so happened that it was at the exact time that they were thinking about composers for what would become Galak-Z.

A corner of scntfc's studio

A corner of scntfc's studio

What were some of the first music-game–anything else influences you guys vibed on?
I think the first big connection was Star Blazers. Jake and I both grew up in the Seattle area around the same time, and we both remember waking up early to watch the latest episode of Star Blazers (aka Space Battleship Yamato) on KSTW. So it was really amazing to come in and see the Galak-Z prototype and be reminded of this thing from childhood, and surprising to learn of that early-a.m. ’80s Seattle connection…how many American kids were waking up at 6:00 AM to catch an episodic Japanese animated series?
The other thing we vibed on was musical influences. ’70s and early-’80s Japanese animation scores are a total grab bag of musical styles, so there’s not something you can really call “anime music” to draw inspiration from. In lieu of that, we both connected on synth scores being emblematic of the era—John Carpenter, Italian horror films, etc.—as well as contemporary bands who pull from those influences, like Boards of Canada, Zombi, Com Truise, Pilotpriest, etc. I think that’s how I settled on the idea of the music for Galak-Z sounding like, “If John Carpenter made beat tapes.”

You gave a Game Developers Conference talk about creating adaptive soundtracks with Galak-Z. How tough was that for you, from a compositional point of view? Did you learn a lot from the experience, and/or did you know a lot going in?
It’s been challenging, but in a good way. As was stated in the talk, my previous lives as a DJ and performer—as well as always loving sample based/collage music—lent itself well to the concepts of modular/adaptive music. I just have to keep in mind the “song-ness” of a track, while simultaneously keeping track of all the different ways the constituent elements snap together. It’s basically music as Legos. So long as you make sure that all the grids—tempo, key, and musical phrasing—line up correctly, you can take things apart and put them back together as much as needed. It’s not totally open-ended, however, and the options given to the player are carefully curated in order to keep the end result as musical as possible.

What were some of the main instruments you relied on for the project?
I generally work about 50-50 between hardware and software, but Galak-Z employed more hardware than usual. Synths: Roland Juno 60, Moog Voyager, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Arturia Minibrute, Alesis Ion, Korg EX-800, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, and a few more miscellaneous bits and pieces. I know a lot of people worship old analog gear, but I really don’t care. If it sounds good and is fun to play, I’m in. Most everything is written and assembled in Ableton Live prior to being dropped into Audio17, which is an adaptive music system that 17-bit developed alongside Galak-Z. It makes it really easy to drop music loops into a game setting, hook them up to various game parameters, and have it all play back in sync and matched to the game action.
I also incorporated a lot of vintage recording techniques in order to help get things sounding right for the game. TEAC reel-to-reel, BIC cassette deck, re-amping synths, old delay boxes and whatnot. Basically just a bunch of stuff to help trash the sound quality.

"I spent a lot of quarters on Xevious and Tempest, but to be honest I’ve probably spent a lot more money on pinball: Addams Family, Twilight Zone, Funhouse, etc."

What are some of your favorite games of all time?
From the arcade days: I spent a lot of quarters on Xevious and Tempest, but to be honest I’ve probably spent a lot more money on pinball: Addams Family, Twilight Zone, Funhouse, etc. On PC and console in recent years, I’d say Eufloria, Osmos, Ico, Halo 1 and 2, and like a lot of other people I’ve been really into Bloodborne lately.

Are there any that particularly influenced the Galak-Z soundtrack?
Not really! I feel like the influences on the Galak-Z music are mostly from outside of the videogame world. I don’t think I have the same nostalgia for videogame music that a lot of people do, so it’s easier for me to pull from the non-game world for inspiration.

Was it difficult wrapping your head around Audio17?
I helped with the concept for Audio17, which is in turn heavily influenced by Ableton Live, so it was actually very easy to grasp. I also can’t stress enough how good a job Paul Schreiber at 17-Bit did with its design and development. He did a great job of making making something easy to grasp for music makers who might not have much development experience.

What would you say to aspiring electronic musicians looking to get into the games space? How can they acquire those skills and expertise?
Work hard on your own music. Make music constantly. Put in some more work. Sharpen sound-design skills, as being able to tackle anything game audio-related is increasingly a necessity for getting jobs. Make more tracks. Try writing in styles that are outside of your comfort zone. Work harder. Be lucky. Learn Audiokinetic’s Wwise. Don’t work for free! Unpaid internships are 90 percent bullshit—even getting coffee for your favorite composer is a job that deserves compensation. Work. Do some game jams—but get a cut if the project goes commercial! Don’t be an asshole—no one wants to work with an asshole. I’m probably forgetting something.