Isaac Schutz is a composer from San Antonio, TX who has been composing and arranging music since around 2011. He plays viola and violin, and sings.
Isaac has been fascinated with video game music since playing Pokemon Colosseum as a kid. Some of his other favorite game soundtracks include the Monster Hunter franchise and League of Legends.
As a student of both games and music, Isaac has a unique perspective approaching the problem of game audio from both directions. He has been inspired by the evolution of music in the Pokemon and Monster Hunter series, where the same or similar themes have been reused in clever ways tying back to classical composing methods.
We talked with Isaac about how he got into music, how the Pokemon and Monster Hunter soundtracks inform his compositions, and the different mindsets required for producing sound effects and music.
Click here to show interview transcript
We’re talking to Isaac Schutz, a composer from San Antonio, TX who has been composing and arranging music since 2011. Good to have you here, Isaac.
Thank you for having me.
What inspired you to get into music, and particularly composing for games?
I started off with music pretty young, enjoying it to a greater extent than most people. I’d repeatedly play all of these CDs that I had as a kid. I think that’s where the interest started, and I started playing viola in fifth grade and it expanded from there with playing around in different softwares and trying to arrange stuff.
In terms of games, I was always playing video games and that was also what made me interested to start arranging music, trying to arrange Pokemon soundtrack music for string ensembles.
In terms of doing original compositions, my friends in high school were into ROM hacking, so I would try to write some music for their games.
You mentioned you started getting into different composing software. What was your earliest software, and what have you been using recently?
I started in MuseScore, and I actually still use that. I could transition into something like Sibelius, but for what I actually use it for, there’s no real need for that to me. I do pretty much everything in Logic, currently, and I’ve been pretty happy with that process.
So what games, composers, and other music have influenced your work the most?
Mostly Pokemon is where a lot of my influence and background have started off, but also Monster Hunter is another big influence in terms of what really got me to start focusing more on game music and hearing how they used sound to bring the worlds to life that they’re created in. More recently, the Persona 5 soundtrack has been very cool to me in how they’re using the voice to create new experiences in games that aren’t as frequently present. People singing is one of the more absent things in general within game music.
Yeah, absolutely, that is a very unique soundtrack. So you mentioned Pokemon and Monster Hunter. Are there any specific style cues or ideas that you’ve gotten from listening to that music?
I think the simplicity of some of the older Pokemon games, like the GBA games, but also the evolution of that over time into the more complex and more realistic sounding musics as the games have progressed, especially with some of the spin-offs, like Pokemon Colosseum and XD.
For Monster Hunter, what I think I enjoy most about that is the fusion. They have a base of a standard Western orchestra but then they’ll incorporate traditional Mongolian instruments and other traditional Asian instruments, and more recently stuff like electric guitar, [and] make that work together to create the soundtrack for the culture that they’ve created within the game. They stuck to just a couple real core themes throughout the [about] 15 years of the franchise at this point, so in a way they’ve constantly reinvented the same old themes but the ways in which they have done that…
“We’re going to take the main theme from this original monster from one of the first games, and here’s this completely different scenario, but we’re going to take that same music, make that the countermelody to this here, and then create a new way to make this still feel like Monster Hunter.” It’s still very cohesive, and still within that world of sound, but it is very different sounding and a very different piece of music in general.
That’s a thing that’s borne from classical music and that background, is taking that one idea and turning it into as many different things as possible.
Which of your past projects was your favorite, and why?
The educational game that I’ve been working on for my university because it was a situation where we’re trying to create a library of different music that the player can choose from to put into because it’s a thing where they’re creating their own games through the software. That was really fun, because it was literally, “Just write as many different types of things as you can come up with.”
On the flip side, what is the most significant challenge that you’ve faced while composing or working on a project?
Communication, in general, especially when doing contract work. A lot of issues can be developed when communicating with people. More frequently, I would say from the developer’s side and them not necessarily understanding how to get what they want from the composer into the words that they need to tell them exactly what they want from them. I think that’s generally the biggest issue.
Other than that, I would say possibly my inexperience as well since I’m fairly new to this in terms of game stuff. Transitioning my general musical background into the more technically oriented stuff that I need to be able to do now to accommodate the requests I get.
The most important thing there is probably just as long as you’re willing to keep revising and communicating with each other, and everybody is still respectful of the process and each other’s work, then I think most of the time you’ll be able to work it out.
Yes, communication is absolutely the most important thing across all jobs in game development. So, more generally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to get into game composing?
If you’re already experienced in music, then I would say listen to a lot of video game music, which I’m guessing if you’re interested in getting into games, that would be something that you’re already doing.
For somebody that’s completely new to music in general, listening is the most important thing. Think about more specifically why you like the thing that you’re listening to, and [think], “How can I make that.”
I started off transitioning from playing and listening to music to writing through arranging as a segue, so doing some of that–not writing from sheet music, but listening to the thing and trying to recreate that through scoring–is one way that can be productive for people in terms of trying to get really into seeing the music physically and how a score looks. I think you can get a lot greater understanding from looking at others’ work, recreating that, figuring out what makes it tick, [and] how they did these things.
Everything is based on influences over time. There’s no real way to be completely original in a sense at this point, it’s just how much exposure everybody has to all of these ideas. So, it’s really just trying to figure out your own voice within that, but also understanding where you’re getting these ideas from, and why it works the way it does.
I saw you worked quite a bit on some sound effects. How is working on those different from working on music?
A lot of the sound effects that I create, I would just do through another MIDI instrument. You can create some of the things that you’ll need for expressive stuff and emotional moments just through creating sound effects using actual notes. On the other side of that is the, “I’m going to sit here in Audacity and trim this voice down.”
I think comparing music versus SFX would be definitely [sound effects] I think of a lot more technically and literally: “What does this sound like? What have I heard in my life that could make that sound?” and then going to either record that or finding it online and editing from there, whereas music I think of more as an emotional thought process rather than a mechanical thing.
It’s not to say there’s not creativity in sound effects. There’s really more creativity in that. You see all the videos of “I got a shoe, threw it against the wall three times, then drenched it, and recorded the sound that it makes when scraping it against this surface. That’s how I made the gunshot sounds for this.” I don’t understand how any of that works, but it sounds fantastic and that’s amazing. But that’s still more in the technical side of my mind.
That is definitely a creative side to the sound effects, that Foley. Throwing shoes and things. Are there any projects that you’re working on now that you could talk about?
We’re finishing final testing on the [game] for the Michigan Supreme Court which I did recording for voice actors and some sound effects. I believe that’s finishing up today [March 9, 2018]. I’m also working on an 8-bit game. It’s set in an office so it’s to discuss sexual harassment in the workplace. I’m doing music and sound effects for that.
I’m also working on three other projects. One is an X-COM inspired game that I’m doing sound effects and music for, as well as two others that I’ve just started on, so I don’t have as much details to discuss those with. Keeping busy, for sure.
Where can people find out more about your music?
There’s my website, and through Twitter, and also links on my SoundCloud to either of those places. That’s where I publish most of my stuff. I think it’s probably easy to find me just through my name.
Talk about your experience as a games and music student, and what that’s been like.
That has definitely been interesting and very helpful because it’s allowed me to understand more things from the design side in terms of how games are made and function, and understanding the process behind that. It’s definitely been a process in terms of having to switch back and forth between, because it’s not just doing game music with the music degree side of things. Switching between those three is kind of separate worlds: design games, music/sound effects for games, and then music generally.
Thank you for talking to us, Isaac.
Thank you very much for having me.