Alexander Brandon Interview: Game Audio Networking
Alexander Brandon has done immense work in almost all aspects of game audio, from composition on games like Unreal, Deus Ex: Invisible War, and Alpha Protocol, to voice acting to sound design to his heavy involvement in the Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.).
At the beginning of the year, I met up with Alexander Brandon at MAGfest for what resulted in a fantastic two-and-a-half hour long conversation on the wonderful world of game music networking. Below is the transcript of our in-depth discussion of G.A.N.G.
Interview Subject: Alexander Brandon
Interviewer: Emily McMillan
Editor: Emily McMillan
Coordination: Emily McMillan, Chris Greening
Emily: So can you tell me a little about the origins of G.A.N.G.?
Alexander Brandon: I’ve been with G.A.N.G since it was formed. It was originally proposed by Tommy Tallarico at a project barbeque in Boerne,Texas, with the goal of of exploring what music and computers were going to be like in five years, and how we will influence that. These really great movers and shakers in the world of synthesis and music technology were there. When Tommy showed up, his goal was to create an organization that would focus on composer opportunities. At this forum he’s really trying to help, which is funny because he’s got this cowboy hat and it’s a campfire, and he stands up and he says, “This is what I want to do for the industry.” And that had turned into a working group. I know that he was at the launch event in 2002. I can’t remember if he was at that working group. The name G.A.N.G. was started there, which led to the 2002 launch committee.
Emily: I’m a little bit ignorant here – still new to this!- but were you vice president of the organization since the beginning, then?
Alexander Brandon: No I started as a Launch Committee member, and then I contributed to various working groups like the education committee, and some website stuff. At the same time we wanted certain shifts in the executive committee which was Tommy, Jack, and Dennis first, and then it turned into Tommy and Jack being director of development moving to VP I believe. Then Paul became president, Tommy was CEO at that point and it was all very confusing. [Laughs]
Emily: [Laughs] It certainly makes me feel better about not knowing!
As for what roles mean, that’s a whole other issue. Tommy eventually got really busy with Video Games Live. He is still active, he still attends to the officer calls, which are held on an almost weekly basis. We will miss a couple weeks if he is doing shows the whole time, but he is very active. I’m helping out with that and things like bylaw changes, so I became VP. Before me, it was Michelle Sorger.
I should also mention Brian Schmidt, the current G.A.N.G. president. He works tirelessly to ensure a ton of work gets done, particularly during G.A.N.G. awards seasons. He also spearheaded the G.A.N.G. scholar program which is happening right now, where we get to send 5 students to GDC! Brian also has been around long enough to have done music for pinball games, arcade games and also headed up audio for the original Xbox!
Emily: Have you been trying to take it in a certain direction or do you continue what people before you had?
Alexander Brandon: It always has to evolve and change. For example, our the awards are becoming more inclusive, and one of the goals that we had in the summer of 2015 was to hire someone to actually be an employee. Like have a salary and be 100% dedicated to G.A.N.G. because it has all been mostly voluntary. The membership juice and sponsorship money that comes in contributes to running the website which is not cheap, and to helping host G.A.N.G. events and to the actual people like our treasurer and to Savina Ciaramella, who does a ton of work. I get a certain amount for it, a certain amount of hours that I put in and it’s actually a lot less than my standard hourly rate but it is a non-profit organization and that is how it works.
Emily: So you’re looking to have maybe one or two employees?
Alexander Brandon: Savina currently works as Director of Business Development at Formosa Interactive as well as her role as Executive Director at G.A.N.G. and bills hourly for her work as a contractor, but the goal is to have a full time salaried position that runs day to day operations. She has done more for sponsorship than just about anyone else in G.A.N.G., as well as guiding us towards a more membership driven organization, meaning we have more member exclusivity. Without active membership we really can’t exist.
The goal is to have a period of time that we then get enough sponsors, get enough members, create an overall set of plans based on these four pillars that are actually going to be going up on the website, like advocacy, recognition, education and – ahhh, the fourth pillar I can’t remember. But yeah, all of those things are going to support the overall organization.
Emily: Like mission statements!
Alexander Brandon: Yeah, exactly. There is a vision document and a mission statement, and they are going to include these four pillars, so then moving forward the transition is going to be from Savina setting the example of the job description skillset into an actual employee that is paid as an employee. So that is part of the thing that we’ve been working on; I am permanently focused on getting things done, and she’s been great about helping with sponsorship. I connected with Steinberg and Tencent China, there is Spitfire that I connected her with and they are going to be a platinum sponsor, and its great that they are going to be on board; we are going to provide discounts to our membership.
The goal with certain sponsors is like “Hey, connect with us, you provide a discount to our members but that means you get more connects or whatever you are looking for based on that discount. We help them promote their products as well, specially when it comes to game-specific things. We want to be able to provide tutorials. There is stuff that is going to happen at GDC that we’re going to hopefully launch, video series that we are going to provide to our membership – we want to be able to tell people how to deal with templates of contracts so people that is going to be hired for something learn how to negotiate and what to do.
Emily: So there are a lot of resources, and it’s not just for composers right?
Alexander Brandon: Composing, voice acting, sound design….
Emily: You begin the process of the G.A.N.G. awards each year – can you tell me a little bit about that?
Alexander Brandon: We have a committee for the awards which are made up of industry volunteers; the music awards are headed by composer Chance Thomas. They review the submissions and narrow them down to nominees – they are the equivalent of nominees, but we call them finalists. So, the committees are made up of quite a few people and they all listened to the submissions. They spend an awful load of time reviewing everything and considering what are the criteria that makes a submission worthy of being a finalist.
There are a lot of rules, some of which are created on the fly – for example, things that changed in terms of the independent community versus AAA and major mainstream publishers and so on. So we consider all of these factors and after a ton of work, we finally have our finalists which got announced 3 or 4 days ago. Voting is in a very short window so we can actually have our winners in time for GDC.
Emily: Do voters need to be G.A.N.G. members?
Alexander Brandon: In order to vote you also need to be a member of G.A.N.G., but the amount of inclusion is still pretty unprecedented, particularly for submissions. For example, submitting something for a Grammy has a lot of requirements, and I’ve heard that you even need to pay money to submit, which we don’t want to do.
We want to be able to give independents just as much opportunity as mainstream games. It is not easy – but for example we have an indie category and there are a lot of people asking about Undertale, which I don’t think actually ended up being a finalist even though…well, the game itself is amazing, but I haven’t actually played it yet, so I don’t know. Especially since it wasn’t submitted, I didn’t actually consider it, so people are asking, “Why didn’t it get submitted?” and well, it’s because you need to be aware of the awards if you are also a fan of Undertale, that’s naturally how it works!
Emily: Have you listened to the score since then?
Alexander Brandon: Yes – brilliant stuff! My son Connor – age 10 – is in love with the game and the music. I’m still working my way through Chronicles of Time.
Emily: I listened to your arrangement on that one!
Alexander Brandon: Oh, you did!
Emily: Yeah, I listened to yours and Stemage’s tracks first since I was getting ready to come and talk to you both here – the quality of them, and the album as a whole, was incredibly impressive.
Alexander Brandon: Yeah, the album was very impressive.
Emily: The artwork on it, too – I was going through the pictures and they are absolutely amazing.
Alexander Brandon: It is good stuff; Nate really pulled it together. I don’t know how he does it; it is just such a labor of love, and he does it for no money, and that’s what blows me away.
Emily: Yeah, so all the proceeds on that go to Doctors Without Borders?
Alexander Brandon: Yeah, he reached out to the team to the entire group asking which charity we would prefer.
Emily: And people voted for that one?
Alexander Brandon: Yeah, somebody said Doctors Without Borders, then someone else did too, and then everybody pretty much agreed. Thankfully, it’s taking off. Sebastian Wolf set up the licensing with Square Enix, so Square Enix gets licensing royalties, but other than that…
Emily: I really like these big community projects that seem to be becoming more and more popular with the VGM community.
Alexander Brandon: Exactly, and I have been doing what I have been doing since 1994, so I know it’s easy to say “I never believed anything like this would happen,” but it blows me away – the level of passion that people have for this stuff on a non-professional basis.
Emily: I’ve seen you talk a lot about the development of the game music industry as separate from the film music industry, and sometimes there is this overlap between them. Have you noticed the overall industries developing differently in terms of independent composers or collaborations and fan work? In regards to a project like Chronicles of Time, I’ve never seen anything like that for movies.
Alexander Brandon: I would say there are more opportunities in films than by far than there used to be when it comes to just being able to work on something, if you really look around. Just the fact that I worked on games and and then moved on to films. One of the projects came from a friend who went from an animator position in Midway to one of the most successful previsualization artists in film. He worked on Avatar, Star Wars – so he is pretty good as a previsualization artist. I think he sets up environment, maybe it’s more than that now, but at least in Avatar he got previsuals up. There are pictures of him with James Cameron – I’m thinking, “You bastard!” [laughs]
Well, he asked me to do some music on an independent film he was working on about zombies and I submitted something and then never heard back from him. I think he used somebody who was more local to L.A. I was disappointed, but I got over it because I’m not the biggest fan of zombie flicks. Like, I don’t watch The Walking Dead, and I’m kind of sick of zombies.
Emily: Yeah, it’s an oversaturated franchise.
Alexander Brandon: Yes! People would say, “You should just try The Walking Dead” because it really is a good show,” and I’ll accept that maybe I will see it one day. Anyways, so the opportunity is there, but as far as the level of community fervor and inclusion I’ve never seen anything like this in films, and that makes me even prouder of that kind of inclusion in the game industry.
There are personality conflicts, of course, but there is no real elitist mentality. I always have gotten that impression of films as a whole, but never on a personal level.
We met with one film composer – we were going to hire him for Alpha Protocol back when I was with Obsidian. We met up with him for lunch – he was an incredibly professional and nice guy, and so no problem, right? But then he went to his agency and that’s when things fell apart, because there is this whole set of rules that the film industry was used to, like rights for merchandise and all that, while the game industry was used to just buying out, saying “We pay you what you think is fair,” and while it’s a decent amount of money, the film industry had these royalties that are associated with working on something.
So that helps the composer but at the same time that ends up being a little bit elitist because not everyone get that same deal, so that’s not inclusive at all. I ended up talking to the agent, who was very nice but then she connected me with a lawyer that really did sound like a snob. He used the phrase “above the line,” and I didn’t know what it meant. To me, it sounded like, “Much better than you, and you need to understand stuff that I understand because you should be me,” and no one likes that right? It doesn’t feel good, it’s frustrating, so we end up using Jason Graves and Rod Abernathy. Jason is fantastic and Rod is a real nice guy. They were working together at the time, and I loved working with both of them.
So that is just an example of some of the differences that we were talking about. I went on Facebook as I wanted to start an initiative on trying to breach the gap between games and film and it turns out it often actually works. I reached out to John Ottman and he responded to my Facebook message saying, “Hey I’ll be glad to be part of the group.” So I guess it depends on the person, right? I don’t think I can do the same with any film composer, you know, but John does not know me by any means and he is interested, Bear McCreary is interested, a couple of other people are as well.
[Editor’s note: In the past year since we spoke, Brandon has started on a contract at Retro Studios, a Nintendo developer in Austin. He is also collaborating with Michiel Van Den Bos, working on music and sound design for a few VR games, and completing his work as an audio director on Torment: Tides of Numenera, a game slated for a 2017 release. Additionally, Brandon was cast as old Obi-Wan Kenobi for the Sphero Force Band BB8 toy.]
Posted on December 6, 2016 by Emily McMillan. Last modified on December 6, 2016.