An Interview with Video Game Composer and Violinist Jeff Ball
Jeff Ball is a composer and a classically-trained violinist. His passion for video game music has led to him composing for a wide variety of video game soundtracks. I talked to him about how he got started with music, the creative process that he goes through and where he finds inspiration.
Interview with Jeff Ball
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in making music?
Jeff Ball: I think for me a lot of influence came from my parents and school friends when I was a kid. My mom would play the piano for us as kids, so I was always interested in learning, and she gave me some lessons as early as four years old on piano. Eventually, I got into violin playing when a classmate showed me the violin she had. I began writing music on my own at age twelve. At that point, my mom got Cakewalk Home Studio, which I quickly became addicted to. Some friends of mine in seventh and eighth grade were planning to make a video game, and I suggested that I could write the music for it. Nothing ever came of that project, but that was where it all started.
I'm a completely self taught composer. I wrote tons of MIDI music in high school, and even some music for an unreleased mod for Dungeon Siege. By the time I graduated high school, I had created over 600 different MIDI files. I studied violin performance at my university, and wrote a handful of pieces for my classmates there, as well as arranging music for faculty concerts.
KM: How did you start to become interested in video game music?
JB: Video game music was sort of a natural progression for me. I grew up with Nintendo systems, and was exposed to a lot of video game music as early as five years old. I'm pretty sure my first experience writing music was in Mario Paint. A lot of it was similar to classical music, but I liked that it was new and fresh and connected to technology. I would play some games just to hear the music. Once the internet came around, I joined communities like vgmusic.com, and made many connections there that I still have today. It's awesome how many people in the video game music community have been connected for decades. Going to the Game Developers Conference ends up feeling almost like a big family reunion.
KM: Who are some of the composers and musicians you've found inspiring and why?
JB: My biggest inspiration is probably the music of Ravel and Prokofiev. So much of their music inspired film and game soundtracks. Prokofiev was actually one of the first early film composers. As far as media composers go, I'd definitely have to say the standards like the Squaresoft composers: Uematsu, Mitsuda, Shimomura, Sakimoto, Hamauzu. Others would include Yoko Kanno, Jeremy Soule, John Williams, Harry Gregson Williams. There's almost too many to list.
I think what draws me to all these composers is that their music is very uniquely theirs. You always know it's them when you hear them, and that's fascinating to me. My video game music career has been built on imitation, so I end up digging into what makes these composers tick, and I've learned so much from them just by listening.
KM: Tell me more about how you approach the process of composition and music creation.
JB: Music is a language to me. There's lots of interconnected relationships that sound has to color, texture, pacing, emotion, memories, and I've spent a lot of time amassing a dictionary of connections that I can draw from to create music using these relationships. When I'm writing music for a video game project, I like to get as much information as possible about the environment, characters, situation, how the player should feel, and sort of throw it all into a hat to mix it around. It can take a few attempts to really get the right feel with some sketching, but usually I'm able to combine things in a way that works for the project. The developer always has the last say and I respect their desire to create their best project above all else.
KM: What are some of the projects that you've worked on of which you are especially proud?
JB:Definitely one of my proudest moments was getting to work on Monkey Island 2: Special Edition. I played that game as a child, and to be part of the official remaster was really something that made me feel like I had achieved a real "game composer" status. Lately the Timespinner soundtrack has been incredibly well received. I spent many years of research creating the right sound for that game, and wrote music that was attempting to be inspired without sounding too ripped off. I was unsure how it would be received, but pretty much everyone has had great things to say about it. Many game reviewers who don't usually mention music have been commenting on the music for Timespinner, and that's a pretty high honor.
KM: Where does video game music fit into the broader world of contemporary music?
JB: Video game music is such a wide, diverse spectrum of every kind of music you can imagine. Because of that, it has really developed a sort of globalizing feel to it. Festivals for video game music bring people and cover bands together from all over the world who love video games, and the concerts at these festivals can range from string quartet classical arrangements to techno DJ sets to death metal shredding. There's a strong appreciation for all of it, because it all belongs in games. I think as games go further, we'll just see more and more experimentation of unusual combinations in a collaborative sense, which I'm pretty excited about.
KM: Where do you want to take your music going forward?
JB: I usually end up taking work as it comes, though I'm really looking forward to hiring more people to contribute as musicians to my game soundtracks. Having a live human playing your music is always a special thing, and it adds so much to the feel of the music. Since finishing Timespinner, I've been taking a bit of a break, though I do have more projects coming down the line. I would say that my goal is more collaboration because it's such a good thing when you work from home by yourself.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
JB: I watch tons and tons of anime. I'm an avid fan. I also love to read fantasy novels and really flex my imagination muscles in those stories. I practice violin and piano as well to keep my brain fresh with new musical ideas. Of course, I also play video games. Lately I have been streaming now and then on Twitch which has slowly developed as another hobby that I enjoy. I'm generally a homebody, but I love interacting with people, and Twitch is sort of the best of both worlds.
Other than that, the thing that can really refresh my entire being is heading out to the beaches of Malibu and sitting by the ocean. It's so beneficial to spend time away from screens and just bask in the beauty of a natural landscape once in awhile. It's so beneficial to let your mind relax and explore itself without being bombarded with constant media stimulus, and beaches really give me that much needed mental space.