Though there are a few big videogame companies with large staffs of in-house visual and sound designers, engineers, composers, etc., by and large, the industry is populated by thousands of independent contractors who do specialty work out of home studios. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where so many games originate, these contractors are numerous, and making a living in the field usually means piecing together multiple gigs — big and small. Anna Karney (www.karneymusic.com) knows this well: Last year was good for her. She wrote music and/or did voice-over recording and sound design for two major games, Backbone's Death Jr. and Smart Card Wrestling, and several smaller online ones. She also gets steady ongoing work in a field I was unfamiliar with — writing music for video slot machines — and she plays guitar and leads her hard-rocking band, Karney.
Anna Karney in her San Francisco–based Karney Studio
She came to the gaming world after being a composer and accompanist for dance; she has also scored industrials and TV and radio ads on the side. “I had friends who were involved with CD-ROMs and interactive media, and they suggested I look into it as another income source and use of my skill base,” Karney says from her one-room San Francisco studio. During the course of her development as a composer, she became adept at using synthesizers, MIDI and MOTU's Digital Performer, so she was well-equipped (literally and figuratively) when game music assignments started coming her way, creating MIDI versions of college fight songs for a football game, writing songs and themes for Maxis' popular Sim City franchise and many other projects. Among the titles she's worked on more recently are LucasArts titles Armed and Dangerous and Monkey Island IV, two versions of Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided, and Skunk Studios' Tennis Titans and Mahjongg Adventures.
“Gaming music is all about character,” she says. “If you listen to the Armed and Dangerous piece, that was all Celtic and I hired a Celtic band for that. For a lot of the extreme, violent games, the character is street, so that can be hip hop or metal or whatever. But I've done everything from Hawaiian and other world music to more classical-sounding pieces, which is both part of the fun and a lot of the challenge. And, of course, music will have different functions within a game — sometimes you want to sort of lull the player, whereas other times it's this frenetic action pace.”
Karney's studio is based around a Macintosh G4 running OS X and Digital Performer, “which I really love because it's geared toward a composer's sensibility,” she continues. “I've got an old-fashioned Mackie mixing board and Mackie speakers, and the only outboard gear I use are synthesizers — the Roland XV-5080 and a JV-1080, mostly for its added soundcards. I have a GigaStudio Advanced Orchestra setup; you can't beat the samples, especially if you beef it up with good 5080 sounds. I have a huge database of really good SampleCell sounds, which have all been moved to MOTU's MachFive sampling software. They're not quite as rich as GigaStudio, but they're good for various textures. For mics I have some Neumanns, AKGs and Shures. I have a PC on which I have Sound Forge [digital editing software from Sony], and I also use Waves' Gold bundle for processing and mastering. I sort of work in the old world — i.e., five years ago — and in the new world. My thing is that being an independent, I'd like to keep up with everybody, but I don't have major corporate money so I can't stay on top of everything all the time. But if it's working, I don't see what the problem is.”
To accommodate voice-over work, Karney built an alcove that is deadened by large pieces of velvet, while the main room has worked fine for everything from drums to acoustic instruments to her screaming electric guitar. “I've recorded everything from single-voice to four-piece Dixieland here,” she says. “For Armed and Dangerous, I recorded one person at a time and one instrument at a time, and it really sounded quite symphonic.”
Finally, what about this music for video slot machines — for Las Vegas' bZillions and C2 Gaming, and even the huge Australian company Aristocrat? “That's my bread and butter,” Karney notes. “There are different levels of slot machine. Besides the basic, old-fashioned mechanical, there's a whole group of video slots that are trying to attract people other than your usual tourist player. We worked on a game called Monkey Business, and to attract the player to the game, they created minute-long animations that were playing randomly on an LCD screen, so I scored that and then the music was also integrated into the game-play, meaning if you had a low, medium or high win, you had a different type of music for each. If you had a bonus game, there were other sounds and music. That work has also been a lot of fun and has allowed me to be super-eclectic.”
Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.