Interview with Ben Prunty, Composer for FTL: Faster Than Light
Ben wouldn’t give me a clear answer on which picture he wanted used, so please enjoy this pixelated version instead.Ben Prunty is, at the risk of spoiling his interview a little, an independent game composer, best known for the FTL: Faster Than Light soundtrack. I hunted him down, threw a large sheet of questions at him, and ran before he could say no.
SPS: Could you talk a little about yourself, your job, and the projects you’ve worked on?
Ben: I’ve been making music with computers since about 2000. I’ve worked many different jobs, including but not limited to Manager at GameStop, Data Center Technician at Google, and Production Guy at Learning Ally, a non-profit that records books on tape for people with learning disabilities. Recently I’ve switched to writing music for game full-time. The project I’m known for is the music and sound for FTL. I’ve done a number of smaller projects and several canceled games before that. I just finished up sound effects for Devolver Digital’s Dungeon Hearts. I’m now working on music for Erin Robinson’s Gravity Ghost.
SPS: How did you get started in game audio/development?
Ben: FTL was my first big game, but there was a lot leading up to that. I spent many years writing and producing music before that. I went to school for audio engineering. I moved from Maine to California to be closer to the game development world. I got the FTL job because a former co-worker at Google and friend of mine went to college with Matt Davis, the programmer for FTL. Matt was looking for music and my friend knew I was looking for work, and he introduced us. There’s a lesson in there: tell everyone you know that you make music, because you never know who they’re going to know. Of course, I still had to present great music to the FTL team, but knowing a friend of a friend was a great boost.
SPS: What was your background in music before you went pro? How much is self-taught, vs. what you learned in school, that sort of bit?
Ben: I went to school for audio engineering, which consisted of mostly recording rock bands. My music theory is almost entirely self-taught. There is no way I would be where I am now if I hadn’t studied music theory extensively. I read several different books on the subject, but The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory turned out to be the best one.
SPS: I know you’ve always done freelance work, as far as music is concerned, but do you find major differences between how you work/ the amount of input and control you have over your music / etc. compared to what you hear about from full-time composers? (Or, if you don’t know any of those, what do you feel are the standout things about working freelance compared to full-time?)
Ben: I really have no idea how much creative freedom AAA composers are given. I can tell you that I’ve had a ton of freedom as a composer for indie games. Working freelance has the benefits you would expect: I get to make my own hours, I can take time off when I want, and selling the soundtrack myself means I have a machine of sorts that generates money even when I’m not working.
SPS: What are the most common tasks you’re assigned? How about the more unusual or most challenging?
Ben: Generally I’m asked to do music and sound effects, and I’m usually given free-reign to approach that however I want. Sometimes doing the sound effects calls for some strange stuff. In Gravity Ghost we needed the sound of footsteps in shallow water, so I spent an hour in my closet splashing water around in a bucket and recording it. For FTL we needed the sound of crew members dying, so my roommate and I spent quite a lot of time in that same closet, making the most convincing death-grunts we could muster. It was hilarious.
SPS: What skills do you think have most helped you to get where you are now?
Ben: Besides the obvious ones like a solid understanding of music theory and technical skills, I’d say my ability to socialize and make friends was probably my biggest asset. Every gig I’ve ever gotten was a direct result of my friendliness and my ability to make friends.
SPS: What’s the best general advice you could give to people who want to get into the game development?
Ben: The most important thing you can do is shed the nerd stereotype of being antisocial! You absolutely must get out there and meet people! Shake hands, smile a lot, be genuinely interested in what other people have to say. If you’re the kind of person who likes to correct other people when they make small factual errors, now is the time to drop that kind of behavior. Here’s what you should do, step by step:
1. Look up game developer events in your area: game jams, developer meetups, conferences, conventions.
2. Make sure you have sharp-looking clothes that fit. I’m not saying you should dress up, but dress stylishly, like you know what you’re doing.
3. Make sure you’ve got a way for people to easily hear your music, either from a demo CD or a business card with an easy to type URL on it.
4. Go crash those parties!
5. If you don’t live near a major metropolitan area, now might be a good time to consider moving to one, especially if you’re young and have nothing tying you down to your current location.
SPS: For people specifically hoping to get into audio, what other advice would you have?
Ben: Keep writing music or doing sound effects all the time! Never stop. challenge yourself with new personal projects when you’re not working on a specific gig.
SPS: Are there any specific programs or hardware that you think aspiring audio folk should absolutely know?
Ben: There’s no specific program. As long as you can make professional-sounding stuff, it doesn’t really matter how you got there.
Ben’s current studio set-up. Barely pictured: The famed banjo.SPS: On a related note, what do you use the most (in either personal or professional work, or both)?
Ben: I wrote an article about this! You can read it here: http://benprunty.com/2013/01/03/heres-what-i-used-to-make-the-ftl-soundtrack/
SPS: Any skills you have that aren’t really expected of someone in your position, but that you feel have really helped you in your career?
Ben: I already mentioned the skill of being friendly and social. Super important.
SPS: Was there anything that, once you actually started working in games, completely blindsided you or that you felt incredibly unprepared for?
Ben: I wasn’t quite prepared for the number of failed projects I would be a part of. I now fully understand that something like 95 percent of game projects are unfinished, but when I was younger, this was harder to grasp.
SPS: For someone who only has a short amount of time to put together a portfolio (or wants to rapidly iterate, or what-have-you), what would be your best advice? Or how would you go about it?
Ben: Simply never stop writing music. As you keep adding music to your repertoire, you’ll find that you’ll have plenty of material to put into your demo CD or website.
SPS: Since I suppose it has to be asked, what games do you find the most inspiring, and why?
Ben: EarthBound was one of the first games to really inspire me. I love the music in that game. I even wrote about that too! http://livelyivy.com/gravityghost-com/2012/03/
SPS: What (or who) are some of your biggest inspirations outside of game titles?
Ben: I listen to all kinds of music outside of games. Some of my favorite musicians are Queen, Camille Saint-Saens, and William Orbit. As for non-musical things, I’m greatly inspired by novelists Stephen King and Michael Crichton, the TV show Twin Peaks, and movies from the 70’s.
SPS: Do you have any resources you particularly love? Books, websites, tutorials, etc.
Ben: I love beginner’s guides to subjects. In my opinion, the best book on music theory ever written is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory. I’ve read several theory books but that one is the best.
SPS: Do you practice anything outside of work or have any side projects to keep your skills sharp, or do you find what you’re paid to work on to be enough?
Ben: I’m working on a solo album, and I practice playing the banjo at least an hour each day. For a while I was trying my hand at game development, learning programming and math and such. Now that the music biz has taken off for me, I’ve decided to focus pretty much only on my two biggest strengths: music and writing.
SPS: What was your favorite thing you’ve ever gotten to do for work?
Ben: Going to IGN’s offices to represent FTL at their Game of the Year event was wicked fun. I showed the game to one guy and he went online and bought it on the spot.