Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory talks background, Journey, and upcoming games
Austin Wintory is the first, and only, Grammy-nominated video game composer of all time. Despite his work in both video games and film, he is arguably most known for his work on Journey, Flow, The Banner Saga, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
Wintory has a career on over 11 years in video games, with multiple soundtracks on the horizon. We sat down to talk with him about his process, background, and upcoming work, Luna, which releases on October 17.
- How did you get interested in music initially? how did that lead to making music for video games?
“It’s kind of a long story. When I was growing up, music was not a part of my life in the slightest. I didn’t list to bands, I didn’t go to concerts, I didn’t play any instruments. Both of my parents were music lovers, but I didn’t grow up in a musical home. I was really into movies and video games, comics, things like that.
“We had an old keyboard in the corner that was gathering dust, and my sister had gone through the trying out lessons and quitting process. One day I realized I could kind of pick out melodies by ear. So I started fussing around with it.”
“My parents asked if I wanted to start piano lessons and I thought, ‘sure, why not’. I had this piano teacher, big Irish guy, who was a jazz musician, showed up and asked what I wanted to learn. I had no idea because I didn’t know anything about music.”
“The next week he showed up with a stack of LPs, all film scores. Instantaneously, that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I was so blown away by this writing. I had no idea that there was such thing as making a living writing music.”
“From that day forward, since I was about ten or eleven, everything became about how I could apply my energy towards pursuing this.”
- How did that lead to making music for video games?
“I was explicitly looking for a career in games, even though I was such a passionate gamer. It intrigued me, but I didn’t know much about the path to get there because I was obsessing over Hollywood and the film industry. I didn’t know about games, especially since, back in those days, there were only a handful of video game composers.”
“I thought at one point, that maybe I wanted to be a game designer. I started studying programmer on my own with the idea of designing games that I could score as well. I quickly realized that I enjoyed writing music much more than I enjoyed programming, so I gave that up.”
“Really, it just kind of seemed natural that those two passions would cross paths, and they did.”
- When you sit down to write music, how does it start? What source material do you work with?
“Well, it really varies widely. Sometimes the game has some sort of working prototype, or maybe it’s just a few pieces of concept art. For a game like Journey, they had nothing. Literally, all they had was the idea and the music kind of served to set a tone for the development of the game.”
“Something like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was nearly finished when I got hired. They had everything and I had to work around that. So, it really just depends.”
- What kind of tools do you work with?
“So, it generally starts on the computer, but I really like to use real instruments if possible. I have a rack of servers that have a bunch of sounds and stuff and I kind of rough out what I want in Digital Performer.”
“Really, it comes down to the budget. If the publisher doesn’t have the money to spend on real musicians, then we’ll find a way around that with the score. I don’t want to compromise the sound of a real musician playing, especially with something like strings, if it will save a few dollars. There’s always a creative solution.”
- You have a ton of awards, not the least of which a Grammy nomination for Journey. How was it being nominated for such a prestigious award? Did you expect anything to come of it when working on the game?
“It’s kind of funny. Of course, I was so honored to even be nominated, but it’s not really about that. Video games have been accepted for consideration since 2000, but it took until 2011 for something to be nominated, and nothing has been since.”
“It’s a shame because there are so many great video game scores out there. Bioshock, for example, is one of my favorite scores and more than worthy of the nomination.”
“I’d be lying to say it wasn’t nice. I was up there with John Williams and Trent Reznor, but the process isn’t really about that. No, I didn’t even think that the score would make it on that level. I’m thankful it did, but I’d be happy with it either way.”
“What’s shocking is that it’s still relevant. You know, I’ve been conducting the soundtrack live, five years after release. The fact that you asked me about it, even. It’s shocking.”
- Anything upcoming or exciting you want to let PC Aficionado readers know about?
“Well, I’m wrapping up The Banner Saga 3 right now, and I have a couple of unannounced projects in the works. I’m really excited about a game called Luna that I scored that’s coming out October 17th”
“The game deals with personal loss in kind of an interesting way, and I has some of my own struggles with loss during the process. They told me to pour all of that into the score and I’m proud of what came out.”
“I remember going into a studio and sitting down at a piano for a couple of hours and just playing. Usually, I don’t really believe in writing through improvisation, but that seemed natural then.”