Frank Klepacki - Multiple Hats in Game Audio and Beyond
Frank Klepacki is a rare Game Audio Veteran that started in the 90's and has since worked with the worlds top publishers. He is one of the first to be a "composer, sound designer and voice talent" at the same time. Frank is currently the Audio Director at PETROGLYPH and still manages to score several major TV network shows such as UFC. He also toured with Sly and the Family Stone as their drummer and recently released the VI Shreddage Drums.
101: How are you Frank?
FRANK: Doing good man, doing good.
101: I just read your bio again and you are one multiple hat wearing guy! Not just dabbling either. You are going heavy in multiple directions. How are you juggling everything?
FRANK: It's just something I've gradually developed over the years. But I've always been interested in pretty much all of it and it was only a matter of time until I was doing all of it professionally. Like any kid, I started off with the aspiration of being in a popular rock band and tour the world, sell a million albums, you know all that good stuff. I happened to get a job as a tester first and foremost so that was my introduction to the video game industry. I would test the games and figure out what's wrong with them, try to break them, play them a number of different ways, report back to the programmers and stuff. That just kind of opened my eyes to the whole spectrum of what I could do there. I was looking right at the art department or audio department or program and design everything and it was just kind of like behind the scenes of the movies, but this was videogames and that was fascinating to me so. I had already been professionally performing since I was eleven in Las Vegas and I had already done some professional studio demos with a couple of groups that I was in and I was you know already doing my own 4-track recordings and kind of got into starting to write so I slipped my demo to the audio director and said, "Hey, if you can use any help doing anything, you know, I'm looking for job after I get out of high school. So let me know." So he gave me an opportunity to just kind of you know do a little bit audio interning as it were and learn the ropes and kind of see if I could handle it basically and there were no classes for video game developing. In fact you had to learn on the job.
101: So, this was like 95' so you handed him a cassette tape?
FRANK: I did. A good old cassette.
101: This is why actual gamers have a big advantage of breaking into game audio. Testing games is a great way to play them and also meet the developers. You got a nice foot in the door quite early there..
FRANK: Oh yeah, this was that was back when the original Nintendo Entertainment System was the thing. That's a far away time from where it's come now you know. But literally it developed so rapidly over the years. So by the time you know I got a handle on you know developing for the Nintendo and by the time I was doing PC games and then the Super Nintendo. Every year there was another thing to learn and I was just honing my skills, trying to get as good as I could at it that I started dabbling in sound design and post-production and voiceover. I was always acting and eventually, I did a number of characters and managed to do some of our games even and eventually started directing other people. So, it was just a gradual process to wear all those hats - to the point where I produced other bands and artists and games and television performances - I love all of that. It's all great because it keeps you doing different things. It keeps your brain working in different ways so you don't get stuck on any one thing.
101: This sounds like the perfect storm, especially with computers just starting to be used in recording studios.
FRANK: Yeah, there was a company based here called Westwood studios and that's where I got started off and -"Oh, you know, hey, this seems like a fun job until I get famous with a rock band and rock the world." But as I was still trying to do that, the years crept by and you know things happen and you've got an actual career in your game audio. So I got a career and stopped chasing the pipe dream.
101: What would you say is your glory days of gaming? Back when you were just a player in the thick of it all and just a fan of playing games.
FRANK: Well I mean I was always a fan of video games prior to getting involved in it so that definitely helped. I mean I've been I was playing all of the stand-up coin up you know games in the arcade since I was a little kid- eighties and I had the Atari twenty six hundred you know and played the crap out of that. So I was always and I was always interested in computer games specifically when I started seeing more of it on you know Macs and P.C.'s. It was a lot of early game development, arcade-y style game development, on those systems that I thought were fun so I was always intrigued by it. I always had a had fun doing it and then of course Nintendo came along and it was kind of a wild moment because those games looked like they did in the arcade. If you had the Nintendo version at home. I mean Super Mario Brothers was identical in the arcade, so it was kind of an eye opening thing as a gamer to see that was possible and then to start working on it. That particular era progressed rapidly and was it just amazing to witness what everyone considers the golden era of gaming. The whole time I was with Westwood studios, which was twelve years, was really an eye witness account of this whole growth period and I was watching the rest of the industry with other developers and publishers really rising up in a huge wave, with budgets getting more and more expensive and production value going up. More content was being added and yeah when you consider that you only had a finite amount of data you could fit on a cartridge, versus when the CD arrived, and now you've got all of this extra room to be able to store massive amounts of data. Redbook audio and compressed video.
101: In addition to being a composer, You've released your own drum VI Shreddage Drums and toured with Sly and the Family Stone as the drummer. Do you see a lot of overlap between all the hats? How do you approach all these different projects?
FRANK: You know I'm just comfortable to point where I can just take anything on in any aspect of audio and really I see that as more of a need now like in terms of anybody that's looking for work in that industry because what I've noticed more and more, is that developers are always quick to look for sound design more than anything and music is usually the last thing on their list and so is voiceover. To be quite honest, a lot of times it comes down to the very end, but sometimes developers want things to happen midway through development to kind of going to sense of where things are at. It just depends on who you're working with, but the point is that if you're only doing something as a composer, chances are you're going to be always looking for work more often than doing it. As a freelancer, anyway. If you get brought on board somewhere, then so be it. So some studios have in-house guys and a lot of them just use freelancers. But the problem with that is a lot of them aren't needing you until the very end of their project, so it's all about timing. You have to build relationships with people and you have to not only take a genuine interest in what they're doing, but you know just keep in touch with them - not always necessarily about work, but just about "how are you doing?", you know, touching base and eventually the time comes around when they do need something and because of that relationship now they'll pay you because you know there's been a constant rapport there. If you're just throwing out cold calls and hoping something eventually comes - it doesn't necessarily work that way. You have to really keep networking and facilitating those relationships.
As for the multiple hat stuff, this is what I encourage other people to do because it opens up your options if you are indeed into music as well as sound design, game audio implementation or technical work. All of these game audio middleware platforms are becoming more valuable as a skill. You may have an opportunity for some sound effects work now, but they wont need music for six months so remember to reach out to them later. Then you know you're on their radar, you're in their system. They know to keep coming back to you for that and then there's other services you can offer then they're going to consider that too, so it's just a lot more resourceful. Not everybody has the desire necessarily to wear multiple hats, but it's become more of a necessity if you want to keep working.
101: It's like survival. Having multiple side hustles and treating each one equally. I tell game audio newbies to start their own email newsletter. Email is still to this day, incredibly potent. Every business card would be added to my newsletter list. Most were in the game industry, but some weren't. I just built up this up to like eight hundred people and every quarter would send out a well crafted, entertaining and short newsletter highlighting my projects. The goal was simply to remind them that they have an audio guy at the ready. It worked, and people started to respond with game audio work but also random music needs and voice over, etc." My favorite gig came from that, which was Load Runner Classic, a mobile remake of the classic game from 1984 and first game with a level editor. They took the orignal Apple II code and blending it with the Commodore code. I got to do game audio restoration and repair!
FRANK: Oh man, I played the crap out of that game
FRANK: Yeah, it's great to work from a personal studio and then just deliver the assets via file transfer. It's so much easier today than it ever was. And you know communication is easier now so it's really cool that way. I mean I do appreciate being around the same team for the last twelve years. It' like a band, where you have a drummer, a bass player, a guitar player and everyone has a central role but when you play together, it becomes one sound. Well same concept with game development -Everybody's got their own separate roles that they excel at and we all put it together. You present the final product to the masses. It's really cool seeing seeing the product actually forming. It's exciting.
101: How did touring with Sly and the Family Stone come about?
FRANK: Well you know what that that was a dream come true for me and I got to do that for a few years. This is this kind of ties into forming relationships and not necessarily having an expectation from it and you know, eventually something happens. Basically I was a lifelong fan of Sly and Family Stone and when the Internet became more prevalent. You know in the later ninety's, I had a funk band that I played in and were trying to make something happen. There was a Sly and Family Stone fan site that was run by this guy who kept track of what the members of the band were up to the time. There was an occasion where he said, "Hey it's Gerri Martini's 15th birthday- the original sax player- and if you want to wish Happy birthday we'll pass it on to him," and I was like well that's pretty cool I'll write something. So I wrote him a happy birthday note and said, "You know hey your band's been a huge influence on my writing and performing and I have my own funk band and we're trying to do the same kind of thing with horns and everything - Just wanted to say you know I love your playing. Love your work that you did and have a great birthday." I didn't expect to hear anything back. You know I just wanted him to know that he connected with you know the younger generation and you know that funk music is still being played somewhere. And so I was kind of blown away when he personally wrote back to me. "Thanks for the message and I would I would love to check out your band send me a disc." And I was like, "awesome." So I sent him a CD and he loved it and we just kind of kicked of an e-mail friendship from that and I started asking him questions you know it was about the old days
Fast forward a few years later from that and you know he calls me up on the phone after I'd seen him recently and he said, "Frank, we just made some changes. You know with our management and a couple of members of the band and I would like you to be the new drummer" and he just invited me personally and I was just like "let me get my jaw off the floor first, and then I'll answer". So that was pretty awesome when you have mutual respect and you know that the love is there for the project.
101: And the trust just builds over time.
FRANK: Yeah, yeah exactly. So that's an example of just how building a genuine
relationship can turn into something much bigger later. You know I mean I never know when it will happen.
101: Did you always feel like more of a drummer or equally adept at everything?
FRANK: In terms of live performing, drums is what I'm best at out of all the rest of the instruments. But I play guitar, bass, keyboards and sing too. I'm a composer and have always been able to play the instruments well enough to record myself and perform but I don't perform as much with the other instruments as I do as a drummer - that's kind of my first love.
101:These days, game audio folks are looking to explore other markets and you've had success with TV, as the main composer for UFC on Spike TV. There are so many ways to enter traditional media. Any tips for game audio folks trying to get into TV?
FRANK: There's a lot of doors into it. I mean the market is actually very saturated now unfortunately, and because there are so many production libraries available everybody has jumped on the bandwagon. Some people have representation that helps to try to get placements. That's hit or miss as well but you know it's more focused at least and then you've got opportunities where if you can form direct relationships with different television programs. You know, producers and/or networks. You want to be somebody that they go to periodically for music. That's probably the best route, meeting music supervisors and producers. Actually, it's preferred if you control hundred percent of the rights to your stuff. I usually don't custom compose anything unless I'm really being paid to do so, but when there's no money up front. It's a risk. So you have to ask if it's worth the risk.
101: How did you get into the music libraries and the drum software?
FRANK: I've done some guest performances with Video Games Live, which is a touring symphonic show that celebrates the greatest hits of old and new. I'm good friends with Tommy Tallarico and we started in the industry about the same time. So you know we share a lot of the same similar background and one of the shows that I've played was at Comic-Con a few years back. I met a guy there name Andrew who runs Impact sound works which is a library production company and they have a number of really cool libraries. His wife was singing in the same show that I was on so we were chatting backstage about the different things we do. He mentioned wanting to do a sample library based on hard rock & metal acoustic drum style. I told him that's a big part of what I do and I've got a room ready to go with all new mics on my kit. So we went ahead and executed that and he took care of the programming end, crafting the instrument to all of the different samples that I recorded which contained the drum articulations. I was really proud of how it came out. It is natural as is I've heard in a straight up drum library and I was able to take advantage of a good variety of drums, so anybody can take it and run. Shreddage Drums
101: Is there kind of a ritual that you follow in the studio, when approaching new projects?
FRANK: Not really a ritual, but I would just say that I've always worked with the same mentality over the years, which is that I'm going to use what I have. I have some templates that I have created for different cases, like an orchestral template for example that has all of the orchestra sampled instruments ready to go out of the box. I can just immediately have an orchestra at my fingertips and start composing and if I need the contemporary stuff, I've got my favorite go to instruments in sort of a ready to go template just to have something immediately accessible. I changed that figuration fairly often though because there's always new instruments sets coming out. There's always new VST instruments and I'm relatively picky about which ones I'm going to buy. There's a lot of libraries that keep coming out that are still like twenty other libraries out there. I've had enough of that already. Give me something else, you know? So I look. I try to look for things that I don't have in my arsenal or things that really truly updated the sound. How many ways can you repeat sine waves and saw waves and oscillate them to death? I have to keep my focus and find what works.
101: Limitations can really improve focus and sculpting a template is invaluable. Because you know the limitations can actually be a good thing.
FRANK: Yeah you know limitations is exactly what we were faced with when I started in this industry. You know the NES had three monophonic sounds channels and one white noise channel, so that meant all I could do was come up with a bassline, a lead, and a harmony, then use the white noise channel as a little snare drum and that's it. I started with limitations right from the get go and well those have expanded over the years. I can always go back to it and focus on working with very little. Then we suddenly had six channels to work with, instead of three. We could do instrument program changes midway through and template changes and start making things happen and then of course General MIDI was another thing we supported quite a bit back in the earlier days, before we went to mp3 and compressed waves and stuff like that. So all of the above has been in my arsenal for quite some time.
FRANK: And ironically enough to actually literally come full circle to the latest project I'm working on called 8 Bit Hordes, which was made using Super Audio Cart, which is a retro game sample library from Impact Soundworks. The game has this retro, stylized look but it's still in the 3D space with the feel of a classic game. So what I did was use super audio cart for all of the throwback sounds, which sounds exactly like the original consoles. I mixed that with modern day symphony instruments that we're used to today. So it's the two together and really came out sounding awesome.
101: What's the platform ?
FRANK: It's on steam. On PC.
101: I cannot wait to play and hear this game. Really appreciate your time. Thanks a ton Frank!
FRANK: You're welcome sir. I'm sure we'll talk soon.
Get Franks drum VI "Shreddage Drums" below: