Dan Rodrigues is a composer and multi-instrumentalist hailing from Toronto, Canada who has composed the soundtracks for several indie video games, works on music for TV, and has for a long time contributed his tunes to numerous advertising campaigns and other TV projects through The Eggplant Collective, a production company co-founded by Olympus Has Fallen composer Trevor Morris. His latest project is Runbow, an indie title developed by 13AM Games and distributed through the Nintendo eShop for the WiiU.
Hello Dan, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you! First up, would you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
Sure thing! I’m a lifelong musician, composer, and sonic experimentalist. Went through college twice – once for music, where I focused on jazz and classical, then again for film scoring at Berklee. It was the video game music classes with Michael Sweet that piqued my interest in writing for games.
Fast forward: I went back to Toronto, got a job working in-house, and wrote music for ads for almost three years. I went freelance to focus on expanding the type of work I was doing to include more television and video game projects. That worked out really well for me, and now my work includes ads, TV shows, video games, and producing records where possible. I like the variety – it helps me stay focused and keeps things from becoming too monotonous.
13AM Games’ upcoming game Runbow is your latest soundtrack project. How did you get involved in its development, and what can you tell us about the game from your perspective?
I met the guys at 13AM Games during the Toronto chapter of the Global Game Jam. That’s where the idea for Runbow was born. At its core, it’s a 9 player racing game with a really fascinating game mechanic, involving a constantly changing backsplash of colour. If this colour happens to match an obstacle or platform, then that object ceases to exist!
As you can imagine, with 9 players, it gets insanely chaotic and fun when everyone is battling. The music is meant to help support that feeling and push it over the edge, while still maintaining a fun, nostalgic vibe. Dave Proctor, producer and audio director at 13AM Games, wanted the music to feel familiar/timeless, but also fresh and new. He had a few really solid sketches laid out and a strong idea of where he wanted me to take things, which really helped take a lot of the guess work out.
What did creating the music of Runbow involve for you?
The gang at 13AM already had a musical direction in mind when I was asked to join the project. It was largely informed by the art style of the game, which was influenced by the vintage 60’s poster art. That got me really excited because my job was to help make it feel like you were stepping into that world.
We ended up with many styles of music on the table that all had that nostalgic sensibility. I was writing a little swing, some bossa nova, a dash of surf rock, and a pinch of mambo. It was a lot of fun to put together. Once we had these retro tracks in place, we actually used them as source material to remix and make new music with a modern twist.
The combination of old and new yields some obvious results, like swing house or electro swing, but we also ended up with some music that really defies any sort of genre. It was a really interesting experiment that helped give Runbow its own unique sound. We’re very excited about the OST release.
I got my good friend Marcus Huyskens from Bad Cat Sound involved, so he could mix all the music to spec for the WiiU, YouTube, and Commercial release, while I focused on the writing. It’s a great way to make sure you’re not spreading yourself too thin on a project. Marcus and I have done a lot of work together over the years, most notably, the Bad Cat Sample Libraries.
Are there elements of the Runbow score tied into particular characters, levels, or locations? All or none of the above?
Yes! Definitely locations. There are four worlds and a game mode called The Bowhemoth that each have their own sound. Runbow has many guest characters from other Nintendo indie titles, and there are as many as 9 on screen at any time, so the music was always meant to help sell the location, pull the players into the game, and let the characters do their thing.
The Runbow OST will also be released alongside the game. Did you have to do anything differently for the soundtrack to work away from gameplay as a listening experience?
We did, actually. The tracks for Runbow, especially the remixes, are pretty full on from beat one. We wanted to make sure we dug into the arrangements and gave the music a wider dynamic range for the soundtrack release. The first iteration of the music is exactly as it is in game. It’s in the loop that we attempt to breathe some extra life into the standalone listening experience. We also arranged a definitive ending to each track, instead of simply fading it out. I think these extra details help make this OST more compelling overall.
What’s the buzz around Runbow and its OST like? How has the gaming community been reacting to them, and how do you and the 13AM Games team anticipate it being received upon release?
We’ve been really excited about the reaction we’ve been getting regarding both the game and the music. There are a number of trailers that 13AM Games has released over the last few months that feature the game’s soundtrack, alongside new game modes and new playable characters. The comments we’ve received regarding the music have all been really positive. Of course, the true test is how the music functions in game. People all over the world who have had a chance to play Runbow at various events and showcases have been bobbin’ their heads and asking about the music, so that is a great sign.
How do we expect it to be received? Well, we know there is a lot of interest … but don’t expect it to go platinum! Really, we just wanted to release it so fans of the music and game would be able to add it to their playlists and get some enjoyment out of it.
What’s been the most exciting thing you’ve experienced in working with indie game developers?
Honestly, there is a sense of freedom and creative independence when working closely with indie developers that I really enjoy. Dave Proctor gave me really strong briefs, but I had a long leash when it came to my interpretation of them, and I respect that. We had many conversations about the sound of Runbow, and there was genuine excitement when we found our stride. Working with indie developers allows me to explore sonic territories that I don’t really have the same freedom to experiment with on other gigs.
Part of that is because most other gigs have such strict and short timelines. In TV and ad land, a composer is part of post production, and time is usually of the essence. In indie game land, a composer can potentially be a part of the process much earlier, and that allows for more time invested in the end product. Also, in my experience, indie developers like 13AM Games are very open minded, easy to get a hold of and excited about new ideas, which makes the creative process flow a lot more smoothly.
As composers, we hear (and sometimes experience) a lot of interesting stories about working in advertising. Since you’ve worked on more than a few advertisements, what’s one of the most interesting experiences you’ve had?
Good question! Yeah, I’ve worked on more ads than I can count, and it’s an interesting medium to write in, that’s for sure. It’s the Wild West in many ways, because you really get the chance to write in many different styles, and occasionally try to make sense of some… unique requests. I remember one time, I was asked last minute to go into a session that was in progress with my ukelele, and sit there coming up with short arrangements of public domain Christmas stings. They tossed every song in the book at me. I can’t remember what we settled on, but every year around Christmas, I get a little surprise cheque from the reuse of that short sting, and it pays for a good chunk of my Christmas shopping!
What are your favourite noise-making toys in the studio – real instruments, synths, sample libraries, plugins, or anything else you can reach for? In what unusual ways might you find yourself using them?
I use a lot of organic stuff in the studio. I’m surrounded by various string instruments, wind, percussion, and keyboards. It’s kind of a museum of musical stuff where you’re allowed (and in fact, encouraged) to touch everything. It’s a really creative space, and I have microphones permanently patched in and ready to go at a moment’s notice. I like to keep things streamlined so I don’t lose the art of recording, because sometimes it’s tempting to use that sample, loop, or amp simulator if you don’t have the real thing handy.
I do love synths. I’ve got a eurorack full of goodies and take advantage of a lot of virtual synths as well. I also have a lot of the sample libraries available, in addition to creating my own. I’m a big Spitfire Audio fan for the orchestral work I do. Really, it’s just too much to get into in depth, but I’ll let you in on one of my best kept secrets. I call it my “soap on a rope”:
It’s just a humbucker pickup wired directly to a patch chord. It’s a great way to get interesting sounds out of electronics. You can hold up a handheld fan, a remote control, play something through your cellphone speaker, handheld tape recorder, or a little thrift store toy. The humbucker can go right to your preamp, a mic’d up guitar amp, or even a chain of pedals. Some really cool sounds have come out of my “soap on a rope”.
Work/life balance is always a tricky issue in the life of a professional creative. Is there anything particular you do to effectively keep your life balanced?
Well, I try to get up early. I find I’m more productive in the early morning hours. If I have a mountain of work, I use an internet blocker to rid myself of online distractions and silence my phone. The most important thing you can do, in my opinion, is to simply take the time to not be working and spend it with family and friends. Because if you don’t, you may find that you are losing objectivity on your own work, and it’s suffering as a result. So why not enjoy the company of your loved ones, and get the added benefit of maintaining objectivity on your work? I find that when I pull long hours without a break, I experience diminishing returns. Often a problem that I can’t solve in two hours one night, is solved in 5 minutes the next morning.
Are there any video games, movies, or TV shows that are particularly grabbing your interest these days? Are there any composers whose work in these mediums intrigues you?
I recently started watching Humans. I really like what Cristobal Tapia de Veer is writing for that show. It’s really quite something. It’s minimalist, impactful, well crafted, emotional, and extremely dynamic. Lots of detail and variation make for a truly compelling score in my mind. Plenty of sonic experimentation happening there. Truly beautiful stuff. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s worth checking out.
What’s next for Dan Rodrigues?
Lunch! Seriously though, I’m just going to keep working away. I’ve got two shows I’m working on right now, and I’m fortunate enough to have a network of clients who call me on a regular basis, so I’m just going to continue to write and get better with each gig. As for what lies ahead in video game land, I’ll make sure to let you know when I get there.
The Runbow OST can be purchased and directly downloaded through 13AM Games’ Bandcamp.
Many thanks to Marcus Huyskens of Bad Cat Samples for his role in making this interview happen.