Interview: Composer Joel Steudler

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This week, I caught up with the multi-talented Joel Steudler, one of the composers who has created a plethora of music packs for us, to talk a little bit about his projects, with some special insight into his latest creation: the Survival Horror Music Mega-Pack, coming soon!

Welcome Joel, it’s good to be talking with you. I unfortunately haven’t had the chance to talk to you before myself despite all your work with us! Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?

I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am him that walks unseen. Wait, no… that’s Bilbo Baggins. I do live on a hill, though. That’s probably as close as I get to being a hobbit. Then again, hobbits have a fondness for crafting things, and I do too. I create both music and art in many genres including sci-fi, fantasy, horror, superhero, and beyond. I’m a fan of videogames, boardgames, card games, and even sometimes games where you throw things outside. Imaginative storytelling is very important to me in whatever media that I am consuming or creating.

Storytelling has always been a big thing for me as well. It’s really one of the reasons I got into RPG Maker, how did you first get into using our program?

I’ve always been interested in making my own games, so I’ve known about RPG Maker for a long while. It wasn’t until this year, though, that the time seemed right to see if the surprisingly large community of developers would enjoy my music.

You’ve done a lot of music for us. It’s one of the few things I knew about you before I started this interview! How did you get involved in composing music, do you have any formal training, or is it all self-taught?

When I was quite young, my aunt gave me a two LP set of the soundtrack for The Empire Strikes Back. That music stayed with me a very long time as I pursued other creative interests (like publishing my comic book, The Rabid Monkey) until in the late 90s, two things happened. First, I got interested in the StarCraft mod scene where all sorts of people were creating cool stories with custom assets using the game’s built-in editor. Second, tools became available that enabled home users to compose music using high-quality computer based instruments. Aside from some guitar and organ lessons, I had no musical training, but I really wanted to see if I could compose music, myself, that sounded any good. I set off making graphics and composing music for StarCraft campaigns, working with all sorts of cool people. I’m self-taught as a composer, mainly learning by composing a whole lot of music.

With teaching yourself, I’m sure there must have been a lot of bumps. When you listen to the first musical pieces you composed, how do you feel about them now?

I don’t listen to my old music very often, but when I do, I can hear some good ideas amid a whole lot of inexperience. Any time an artist is just learning their tools, the product of their work isn’t likely to be up to the standards they achieve when they mature. I was no exception.

Additionally, the technology from back then wasn’t half as good as it is now at producing music that actually sounds nice. It’s comparable to the leap from SVGA graphics to, say, Far Cry… or from Final Fantasy to FFXIII. Of course, the RM audience appreciates the oldschool 8bit and 16bit look. It’s funny, though… chiptunes sound great because they don’t seek to emulate real instruments. They have their own distinct, timeless sound. Music technology went through a sort of awkward phase for about a decade where it was becoming possible to get your computer to sound like actual instruments, but not really. In the last five years, though, the tech has advanced to such a point that it sounds really good. The artistry and skill of a trained musician will always top a computer rendition, but today’s tools can produce exceptionally musical results. That was a bit of a tangent!

So with all that self-taught experience, what all have you worked on in the RPG Maker arena?

My music packs are probably the most visible thing I’ve worked on so far, including the Cinematic Soundtrack pack, Futuristic Atmospheres, the Wild West Variety Pack, the Modern Day Music Mega-Pack, and soon the Survival Horror Music Mega-Pack. I’ve got several more packs in the works, which I’ll tell you a little about later.

I’ve also had the good fortune to work with about a dozen game developers from this very forum, creating original music for them. Most of those projects are as of yet unreleased, but I can mention Labyrinthine Dreams (which just ran a successful Kickstarter) as a game I’m very happy to be associated with. The creators have a very moving story to tell, and the gameplay is interesting and challenging.

Finally, I’ve also been able to stretch my illustration muscles. I’ve been doing cover art for various products available in the store here, which should be showing up soon. Looks like it’s not in use just yet, but you should see new art for Kain’s ‘The Blackheart Power’ and ‘The Nothing Battles’ albums, Thalzons ‘Egyptian Myth Battlers’ pack, and some fun zombie art for the new Survival Horror Music Mega-Pack.

I wasn’t aware that you had worked on the cover arts as well. Do both music and art interest you equally, or do you consider yourself more of one or the other?

Music is my main focus and interest. There was a time when I wanted to be a pro comic book artist, and thought that was what I’d be doing with my life. I derive much more satisfaction from making music, though. I still enjoy working in 3D, creating illustrations, and doing logo design from time to time. I’ve found that if I take too much of a break from music, I am really not happy about it. It’s been really great to have opportunities to do both with RPG Maker, but I’m a composer first and foremost.

So, your latest pack is being released soon, the Survival Horror Music Mega-Pack. How did you go about capturing the feel of the genre with music? What kind of challenges did this present?

Before and during the process of creating the pack, I listened to a lot of horror movie and game scores. Lunarea linked me to quite a few great examples, and I drew from my own knowledge of the genre. I had the opportunity to cover a lot of ground, since the battle, town, dungeon and thematic music all called for different approaches.

I wanted the battle tracks to make you feel scared for your life, to really carry a sharp edge of immediate threat. The dungeon tracks were more ambient and subtle. For the town music I aimed in a bit different of a direction, invoking eerie dread but also at times a hint of beauty and the grim majesty that a deserted city might convey. The themes were the most fun, and the most varied tracks in the pack. Horror doesn’t always have to come from an in-your-face jump scare. It can draw from seemingly simple and innocent like a music box melody that twists and turns into a much more sinister listen. Alternately, horror can just beat you over the head with alarming sounds, so I have one of those, too. I also included a large selection of musical events, short phrases for those jump scare moments or for other creepy happenings.

Finally, the sound effects were a load of fun to make. Cracking eggshells and ripped cabbage turn readily into snapping bones and gutted flesh. Some rotten apples and peaches were quite handy for gory squishes, and the chainsaw sounds came from… a chainsaw! That one was 100% real.

The biggest challenge was just stopping myself from making more and more. This pack was really enjoyable to fill up with crazy, scary sounds. If it goes over well, I’ll definitely do a followup at some point.

With all those projects, which one did you enjoy the most? Was any of them particularly challenging?

I’ve enjoyed each of the projects I’ve worked on since they all pose unique challenges. One thing that I find always keeps me creatively energized is working in different genres frequently. Fortunately, the music that’s been requested of me has been very diverse. I’ve gone from epic fantasy to gothic horror to metal to traditional Asian music and more.

Any hints about things you might have in the works for us in the future?

I have plans for many more music packs, several of which are already underway. I’ve been taking inspiration from classic JRPGs and J-rock for one. I’ll also have two new bargain priced music mini-packs coming out this fall/winter. Lots of recent movies have given me ideas for musical exploration, too, like Oblivion and Elysium. I also have some graphical resources in the works, which are a longer-term project. There’s no shortage of forthcoming material on my hard drive!

Have you been working on anything outside of RPG Maker?

Outside of RM, I compose music for sale through various online library sites and royalty-free stores. I also design instruments for use in various software that you can check out here.

I’m currently working on an instrument bank for the synthesizer Massive, too. I am usually juggling a number of other game music / art projects at any given time.

Outside of your work with music and art, you mention being into a lot of board, card, and other tabletop games. Anything in there you’ve gotten into recently that really grabbed you?

I’m going to cheat a little and say Card Hunter… which, yeah I know it’s a browser based f2p game, but it is a faithfully nostalgic and perfectly crafted emulation of miniature games, CCGs, and D&D. I’ve been playing it a whole lot since late in their beta. But as for real games, the ones that require an hour to set up all the pieces… Eclipse is a recent hit with my gaming group. We’ve had some epic six player games that took all day. In the more traditional German boardgame vein, I also recently enjoyed The Castles of Burgundy, though I’m not sure it’s a classic. Pandemic gets a fair amount of play, too. We also never seem to get tired of Race for the Galaxy, probably because it is so quick and easy to get a few games in.

Though you didn’t ask, I’ll offer that my favorite boardgame of all time is Samurai, particularly with four players. It is kind of like a cross between chess and Go with some luck mixed in. With solid planning and good tactical awareness, though, even the unluckiest tile draws will work out fine.

Thanks for talking with us. As a parting question, do you have any advice for aspiring composers?

My advice for aspiring composers is: take advantage of the incredible tools at your disposal and write lots of music. If you intend to make a career out of composing for media (games, TV, movies) get used to writing a lot of music in a variety of genres at a robust pace. You can compose music without going to school for it, but if you get the chance and can afford it, you would probably benefit from it. That said, everyone learns in different ways, and self-study can be a viable path to take. Either way, dedicate yourself to your craft and stay intellectually curious. Don’t ever assume you know it all. Listen to music in a variety of genres, keep an open mind, and always continue to grow as an artist.

Thanks for the chance to talk to the fans and developers of RPG Maker! I’ve been having a great time making music for all of you so far, and am looking forward to composing even more. It’s been very rewarding getting to know the developers I’ve worked with personally, and to have my music used by those I haven’t had the fortune to meet yet, too.

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