An Interview With Video Game Music Composer Calbert Warner (Schematist)
Calbert Warner is a self-described "audio architect" based in New York City. He composes music for video games that fuses electronic and orchestral elements in order to help tell the game's story. In an email interview, I asked him about how he became interested in music, his composition process and where he finds creative inspiration.
Interview with Calbert Warner (Schematist)
Karl Magi: Talk about some of your formative musical experiences.
Calbert Warner: Well, my dad has always been an audiophile. Not one day would pass when his colossal music station wasn’t on full blast in the house. I was exposed to reggae, country, rock, hip-hop, jazz, and classical music at a very early age and I think this is where the wheels started turning for me.
Once I started playing video games, I noticed I was incredibly drawn to the melodies. Even after the games were off, I would catch myself humming or whistling the melodies to a point that drove my mom up the wall. I also found myself spending unnatural amounts of time in the Sound Test Menu of games like Donkey Kong, Sonic, and Castlevania.
As I got older, I got far more interested in the small details of these songs and thought more about their role for the story and the characters. Final Fantasy IX became the game that really pushed my desire to write music over the cliff as the soundtrack was beyond perfect and enhanced the player’s experience.
KM: What are the factors, for you, that make video game music compelling?
CW: The storytelling capabilities of video game music is the biggest pull for me. There is always a beginning, middle, and end and when it is properly placed in gameplay, it makes the experience extremely more enjoyable. I’ve actually stopped playing games that had great gameplay, but uninspiring music because I didn’t feel as attached to the experience as I should have been. I also love when a video game soundtrack makes use of different genres to highlight different emotions during gameplay.
KM: Where does video game music fit into the realm of contemporary composition?
CW: I feel as if video game music still has some challenges to overcome, but it is becoming more normalized and mainstream which is very exciting to see. There are still some unfortunate roadblocks, but I am loving that there are more and more video game soundtracks being released after a game’s development cycle. We are even seeing piano adaptations and orchestral performances of video game soundtracks, which shows that the community of VGM enthusiasts is booming.
KM: How do you approach the process of composition?
CW: If I am writing for a client, I try to get as many details as I can to help with the creative process. Concept art is one of my biggest aides in getting inspiration for writing music, but I also can work with detailed adjectives and descriptive words that allow for imaginative freedom. Truthfully, in some cases it is easier to write music for clients because they have a general guideline for you to follow, but if I am writing something for fun, it can be very hard for me to commit to an idea. I tend to scrap a lot of projects for this very reason. Pictures help my composition process quite a bit, but there are times when I already have an idea that I want to make come to life and I do my best to write that melody in before I forget it five minutes later.
KM: Who are some of the different composers who’ve had a strong influence on you?
CW: Nobuo Uematsu, Yuzo Koshiro, Shoji Meguro, and Yoko Shimomura are the greatest of all time in my opinion. Considering the length of their careers and masterful contributions to the VGM community, I would imagine several people might agree. However, there are other composers in the independent field that have pushed me to really take the plunge into composing and they are Aivi Tran, Andrew Aversa, and Laura Shigihara. As silly as it may sound, I thought composing for video games was only done in Japan, so it was nice to see individuals in the area making brilliant contributions to the VGM scene as well.
KM: What are some of your future goals for your musical career?
CW: I am a huge fan of Etrian Odyssey, so naturally one of my dream projects would be writing for a dungeon crawling RPG. I also would like to score an animation/cartoon as well. Lastly, I really would like to build a safe space for aspiring composers or composers who are new to the scene. Mainly because I know how intimidating it can be to enter this space and it is such a specific niche, it is unlikely your closest friends and family would understand your passion for this craft. Having a group to bounce ideas with works wonders for your development as a composer.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
CW: I got into photography recently and it has been a great way to recharge and break writer’s block. I also love watching movies and documentaries, so binging away on Netflix is a great way to reset my brain. Some people stay as far as away from music as they can if they want to recharge, but sometimes I find myself searching on SoundCloud for new musicians I have never heard of. Hearing other works inspires me greatly and I would highly recommend it to get your motivation rising again. A solid gaming session also never fails to get me back into the swing of things. Monster Hunter World has me in a grip now.