Chris Ballew on Composing for Quantum Conundrum

Last week Quantum Conundrum was released for PSN and XBLA after already being available from Steam. It's a fantastic first-person puzzler developed by Kim Swift, one of the lead designers of the acclaimed Portal

It also features an amazing soundtrack by Presidents of the United States of America basitarist and singer Chris Ballew, who was kind enough to sit down with us via email for a brief interview.

Rocks Off: How did you get involved in the project? Do you do a lot of soundtracks or know a lot of game folk?

Chris Ballew: The music designer on this particular game is Tom Smurdon who was the recording engineer at Bad Animals in Seattle in 1996 when the Presidents made our second record at that studio. He just thought of me when he was looking for someone to score the game and I was interested in giving it a try!

I had never composed for a game before, so it was a bit of a fast learning curve for me. Tom was a patient teacher and I thank him for that. I did get a bit freaked out by the scope of the whole thing at one point and he was great at getting me centered again.

RO: How do you approach composing for a game? How much about what's going on do you need to know to get started?

CB: Well since that was my first one I don't have a process, really. Mostly it is good for me to see and experience as much of the game as I can and understand the atmosphere and feeling of the game.

Then I consider my palette of sounds and grooves. Then I identify all the various spots that need music and the specific feels of those scenes. Then I just start ticking off the list of scenes and shooting over ideas to Tom until he says "THAT'S IT!"

Then we tweak them and do variations of those themes until we have four loops of about two minutes each to randomly run during game play.

RO: Obviously you have to strike a balance between repetition and likability for maximum effect. To make that happen, do you have to listen to your own work on an endless loop to make sure it doesn't become aggravating?

CB: Actually, I really did not line up the various pieces and audition them before hearing them at work in the final game! I just made each piece move in interesting ways and trusted that the game itself would be interesting enough to make the music take a back seat, and not be in your face enough to get boring.

RO: Do you think there's a pressure to make a pop credit song since the success of Portal's "Still Alive," or did "Flip the Switch" just come naturally to you?

CB: I was hired to write the theme song so it was part of the job. It did come naturally though after thinking about the game and a theme for a song that would capture the game play. Once I had a vision for it it flowed right out of me.

RO: Are you a big gamer yourself?

CB: I used to be a HUGE gamer! I had to slow down so that I could get some music work done in my life and have a career! I look at my life as a game now. This interview is a part of the game!! I WIN!

RO: Do you think you'll do more game soundtracks?

CB: I am not sure that my life has time for much more scoring than that. The kid's music thing I do as Caspar Babypants is taking up 99 percent of my time.

I run my own label and make a record about every nine months and play about 150 shows a year with that, so there is not much time after that and being a dad!

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner