There aren’t many music composers that have had quite the successful career as our next Fine Tuning interviewee. Leonard J. Paul, aka Freaky DNA has been producing music since the mid 90’s for some of the biggest titles at some of the biggest studios, to the tune of Rockstar Vancouver and Electronic Arts.
Leonard is as diverse as his musical talents, having worked on indie and triple A titles, to sharing his knowledge of video game audio through lectures conducted all around the world.
His latest work with artists virt and Norrid Radd on the chiptune soundtrack of Retro City Rampage has drawn much critical acclaim and success for its originality, poppin’ melodies and addictive beats. Being the cool down to earth guy he is, Leonard was kind enough to take time out of his extremely busy schedule to share with us a little more about himself and his life’s work.
Hangie: Tell our readers a little about yourself, such as your musical background.
Leonard: As a kid I played in a blues rock band called “Mr. Mustard” and had fun playing the bass, guitar, drums and keyboard. We did a lot of recording on four-track cassette tape so I got used to editing the songs and producing more polished versions that we could listen to. In university I took music classes and focused on electroacoustic music so I got used to working with electronics and computers to make music.
Hangie: How did you get involved producing soundtracks for the video game music industry?
Leonard: I started working for video game companies as a student back in 1994 and quickly switched from audio coding to sound design and composing for games. Back in the early days we were working with the really limited systems of the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo so it has been great fun to compose for older systems like the NES again.
Hangie: What’s your favourite piece of audio equipment to produce on?
Leonard: For Retro City Rampage I basically just used OpenMPT on my laptop. I start almost all my songs with the guitar or a vocal melodic idea so the computer is really just a way to get the songs out of my head. I really enjoy working on a limited system.
Hangie: Walk us through a typical work day in the life of Freaky DNA.
Leonard: I like to balance my work life with other things so I typically mix a bunch of stuff together into a day of work. Usually I’ll get emails and social media stuff out of the way while my mind is getting started in the morning and then start working until noon. I like to get out for lunch and see a friend then work a bit in the afternoon. I’ll have dinner and often work again until I decide I should go to bed so that I’m not burned out the next day.
I often really have to convince myself to not stay awake and push too much as I have such a fun time when I’m working on music. Instead of working on just one song, I usually worked on around twenty at a time for Retro City Rampage by just chipping away a bit at each one until I felt I wasn’t improving it anymore and then moving to the next one. I found this really helped me avoid getting stuck and helped keep the songs fresh for me.
Hangie: I always find it interesting the aliases music composers give themselves and Freaky DNA is certainly one of the more unique ones I’ve heard. I read that when you were part of a power-trio with Patrick Mitchell and Lars Korb, the group picked your names by finding random word combinations that made you guys chuckle the most. If you weren’t known as Freaky DNA, what would you have called yourself?
Leonard: My film composing “name” is “Leonard J. Paul” since the initial helps with search engines like Google. If I were to choose another moniker then it’d need to suit the project and would likely have a humourous tone to it.
Hangie: As with any vocation, there are positives and negatives that come with it. What are aspects of your occupation that you love, and what do you dislike?
Leonard: When making music I find that when I’m in the zone then time just flies past and the results are usually something that I could never really conceive of when I started. I like that I’ve worked enough to get to the point where I’m not too concerned about money and this gives me a clearer mind for composing. I really enjoy playing live and visiting new places to meet new people and encountering different ways of thinking.
One of the most difficult things with music is to try to make any sustainable money off of it directly but if you work at it then there’s often ways to make cash in relationship to music. These days it is easier to use social media to find out where your fans are and what they want so that you can focus your output into areas that will have a better response. I find that the most difficult thing for me with composing music is that I don’t know how long it will take me to make something that I like. Having enough time to make something enjoyable is key when I’m working on music projects which was a bonus with Retro City Rampage since I had a couple of years to really get things polished to my liking.
Hangie: What would you change about your profession if you could?
Leonard: I’m pretty happy with things as they are and tend to tweak things a bit when they don’t resonate with me. I feel that the best way to really change larger systems is to change your view and to change your actions.
Hangie: Which video game music artist if any; inspires you and which are your favourite video game soundtracks?
Leonard: I don’t actually play a lot of new games these days but I might play older games such as Tetris Attack with my friends from time to time. I tend to listen more to chiptune music than game soundtracks these days since there’s a bunch of great stuff on Bandcamp and other places online.
Hangie: Do you ever get a case of ‘writer’s block’, and what do you do to fire up that creative spark when composing?
Leonard: My method of writing music is to come up with something fun on the acoustic guitar or voice and then figure out how to translate that to the machine. In writing music (as well as many other forms of art-making) I believe that there is a creative mode and an editing mode so if I hit a wall with writer’s block then I just switch to the “boring” editing side of things to check for errors, tidy things up and basically do non-creative but necessary tasks.
I like to work on a lot of different projects so I’ll also typically just switch to a different song or another project to stay inspired. If I’m really blocked then I’ll basically focus more on hanging out with friends and wait until I’m inspired again to say anything artistically which is usually only a few days or so. I think that composing is really similar to having a garden in that you can’t force it to grow.
Hangie: You’ve worked with some big name studios throughout your career, with the likes of Radical Entertainment, Rockstar Vancouver, Black Box Games and Electronic Arts. Which studio/s did you enjoy working at the most?
Leonard: It’s a difficult question to say which studio was the most fun since I really had a great time with different people at each studio. If I had to pick then I guess it’d be Electronic Arts since it’s the one that I’ve been at the most. A big part of making the larger studios fun was to find a small group of people that wanted to have a good time and create inspiring work within the corporate environment.
It’s really easy to get swallowed up in a larger company so it’s important to be very active about creating your own space that you can really work within. There will always be people that take more than they give so it’s good to be able to limit your time around these people. If you’re finding yourself drained a a job then it might be time to do something new.
Hangie: Your music composing career spans over fifteen years and over this time, you’ve worked on a number of titles spanning various platforms. Which of these titles were especially meaningful for you to work on, and why?
Leonard: The music that I made for Retro City Rampage has been really special for me to work on since it’s the first time that I’ve really gone the extra mile to release the music on my own. It was a long project but I really needed the extra time to learn how to make chiptune songs that I was happy with.
I took a gamble and decided to self-fund the vinyl release on my own which really put a strain on myself financially but in the end it was totally rewarding. Working on indie games gives an awesome connection to the audience and there’s no way that the music for Retro City Rampage could have been done in any other environment.
Hangie: Retro City Rampage is a massive flashback for me to the good ol’ days of chiptune melodies. The soundtrack pays homage to many popular tunes that long-time gamers would be familiar with. Was it difficult to balance a well-known tune while re-inventing it to be something completely in your own style?
Leonard: This is a bit of a funny question for me since I didn’t really base my songs off of any classic videogame songs at all. For the songs I composed I only used existing melodies for Super Meat Boy and S’plosion Man since they were meant to be remixes but everything else is original. The other two composers had a lot more references to existing classic songs and genres but my point of reference was definitely different since I didn’t grow up with a Nintendo.
My chiptune sensibilities are much more on the Commodore 64 side of things since I had one as a kid. Both Jake and Matt are great composers so they were really able to work off of nostalgia and bring things into a modern context which suits Retro City Rampage perfectly.
Hangie: On the Retro City Rampage soundtrack, you also worked with Jake “virt” Kaufman and Matt “Norrin Radd” Creamer, two other well regarded chiptune artists. How was the experience working with each of them?
Leonard: At the beginning of the project I was only going to do sound design in NES style and we were lucky enough to get Jake’s interest to help out with the music. I didn’t really know how to compose chiptune music at that point and I didn’t want to totally embarrass myself by putting my own songs next to Jake’s since I’d say he’s one of the world’s top composers of NES style chiptunes. While doing sound design I played around a bit with making some songs and Brian felt they were good enough to possibly include in the game so we updated the contract so that I could contribute some music as well.
I heard some of Matt’s Anomaly album around that time and Brian thought he’d be a great fit for the game so it was added, plus it was cool that he was local. Jake had a lot of other projects to work on so Matt and I continued to make new music to suit new areas of the game since Brian was always adding new missions right up until the end. Although Matt was local, it took a while to meet him in person but since then we’ve gone to a couple of events for RCR together including Hollywood for E3 2012 which was totally fun. When I got to met Jake at GDC 2012 in San Fran it was cool to get a better feel for the guy behind so many great chiptunes and chat about a ton of different things. I’m very lucky to have been able to work together with two great composers and I look forward to the possibility of future collaborations as well.
Hangie: In recent years, you’ve expanded into the field of public speaking, becoming a full-time instructor and presenting all over the world. I had a chance to listen to one of your talks that was both informative and entertaining. How’d you get into this field, and was it a difficult transition?
Leonard: While I was working on Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 at Electronic Arts doing the low-level PS2 audio driver, I was contacted by a friend who asked if I wanted to teach a bit at one of the local private new media schools. I tried it out and had a bunch of fun helping people learning about game audio. At around the same time I also did my first presentation at the Game Developers Conference and was able to reach out to an even larger audience.
I really enjoy spreading the knowledge that I’ve accumulated over the years and I think that my interest in the artistic side of game audio in conjunction with the technical side can really help people who want to learn more about game audio. After teaching for a while at the Vancouver Film School I helped to co-found the online School of Video Game Audio in 2012 to help people from around the globe to learn the details of game audio. Working in game audio education was an easy shift for me since it just allows me the chance to share my knowledge with others and also continue to improve my own skills.
Hangie: There must be plenty of unreleased tracks that didn’t quite make it into the final product throughout your career. Of these tracks, are there any that you felt particularly disappointed to have not made the cut? I’d love to hear a sample if there is.
Leonard: I just recently did a twitter and email poll to find out if people are interested in hearing more Retro City Rampage tracks and there’s definitely enough interest to pursue releasing more songs. I’m doing my best to do this in a timely manner but it also is a fairly labourious process to master and release more songs.
There’s also a possibility of a college and community radio campaign as well to try to get Retro City Rampage on the radio globally but this will also take a bunch of time to coordinate. It’s all exciting stuff though since it is really fun and rewarding to have the support of everyone who’s enjoyed the Retro City Rampage soundtrack over the past while.
Hangie: What’s a little known fact about Freaky DNA?
Leonard: In 2001 did a drum ‘n bass track called “Big Ass Beats” which was pressed to the “Hot Sex” vinyl by Pigeon Records out of Munich Germany.
Hangie: What are your future goals?
Leonard: I basically want to continue what I’m doing these days and connect with people through music, education or just hanging out. Life’s short and it’s good to be positive and stay inspired.
Hangie: If you weren’t composing music for video games, what would you like to do instead?
Leonard: I might do more music for documentary film, like the scoring I did for the Canadian documentary “The Corporation”.
Hangie: Do you have any suggestions, advice or pearls of wisdom for those looking to break into the video game music industry? Is it an occupation you would recommend?
Leonard: There’s no set way to break into the industry but I can definitely comment on how I’d like to see the industry continue to grow. Since the industry is really just made up of people, I believe that relationships are the most important thing. It’s nice to make money but you can’t take it with you once you’re dead. I believe that the relationships that we have with each other are the only real resonance of our lives that we leave behind once we’re gone. If you’re a positive person and give more than you take then I think this is the best way to approach life in general.
As far as breaking into the game audio industry, I’ve found that people who continually improve themselves and their craft with focused hard work tend to be the most successful. You should never wait for life to happen, so each day should be an opportunity to improve yourself and the lives of others around you. Many people are afraid of taking risks, such as applying to the job they really want or starting their own business, but risk is a key element in having a full and rich life. The games industry is looking for people with great skills and if you truly have the skills that they’re looking for then breaking into the industry is basically just a matter of time. I hope that I can help people to a small degree along their career path in game audio with my work at the School of Video Game Audio. Anyone that has the passion and drive to make games can do it if they want to, it just requires time and hard work!
Special thanks to Leonard J. Paul for giving up his time for a sit down chat with us. For anyone interested in improving their game audio knowledge, Leonard’s next intake to the School of Video Game Audio begins on the 19th of this month. Applications can be placed here.
To download the full Retro City Rampage soundtrack featuring the explosive work of talented trio FreakyDNA, virt and Norrid Radd, head to the official Retro City Rampage soundtrack page. The full album starts from $7.99 USD for all 35 tracks. Start listening via the link below!