Remastering a masterpiece — Interview with Stephan Vankov on remixing the music for Spyro Reignited Trilogy

Recently, we had a chance to visit Toys for Bob’s studio to check out Spyro: Reignited Trilogy. While there, I had an opportunity to sit down with Stephan Vankov, the man responsible for remastering the iconic music in the trilogy originally composed by Stewart Copeland.

What was your process for starting this project? Especially with these beloved tracks already out there.

As you said, the music really is beloved by fans and initially when we started the project I wanted to find, like, “what do people think about this music? What is the music all about? What gives the music its unique character?” Because, especially on this project, music has been such a big part of it, and a huge part of why people remember Spyro as they do, is because of the memorable music that was in the original titles.

Off the bat it was all about finding out what I could about what makes the music what it is and part of it was listening to all of the music for days on end, analyzing what the music is all about, and some of the adjective that kept coming up were “charming,” “fun,” “innovative,” because at the time not a lot of games had this music that was really like attention demanding, like “hey listen to me, I have something to say here!”

Secondary was just analyzing the style of the compositions, like “what are the different instruments that give the music its sonic character and its fingerprint.” Some of the things were bells, organs, drums, some of the synthetic sources he started using in Spyro 2 and 3 to give some of the tracks a more electronic flavor.

That was sort of the start of the process, just doing a lot of research, looking at the mirror with a magnifying glass, trying to figure out what it’s about, and just getting immersed into the music to just get a better sense of how to approach this or do anything with the music that will give it a faithful feel with the intention of the original.

The music sounds exactly as it should in this day of age, how did you manage to get it to sound so “on the dot?”

Our mantra, if I had to sum it up in one sentence, was “how would Stewart Copeland remake this music in 2018 if he had the same access to the tools we had 20 years after he made the original compositions?”

Part of that was keeping a lot the original elements that really worked, that were really these signature sounds, like a lot of the ethnic flutes, and just instrument lines that were obviously not played on a synthesizer at a time. So we really wanted to lock these down to stay as they were in the originals because they really work. And with some of the other instruments, we thought that updating the soundsets would benefit those instrument lines. We have a big, virtual instrument library, so a lot of that was finding the right sound. We went through many iterations of what the right sound was, or what the right bass was.

A lot of that was also tracking fan feedback with the early stuff we made public, just seeing what people’s reactions were. For example, the bass was a big sticking point at first, because a lot of people thought in Dark Hollow, “hey, where’s the bass?” And I’m sitting here on my nice speakers like “What are you talking about? There’s plenty of bass,” but as soon as I started listening in different environments, I realized that the type of bass sound I was using was too sub-bassed to where if you had a nice audio system you would hear it but if you’re listening on your laptop or phone, it just wouldn’t come through, because the bass was being played in too low of a register. So we went back to the drawing board to create a better bass sound that would showcase well on different speaker systems.

The more I work on these tracks, and the more I got comfortable with the style and capturing the essence of the compositions, the more it started crystalizing what sounds were really working. I would go back on previous sessions and apply the same sounds so it was a continuous refinement of method of the sounds that we were using. Also, I do a lot of music production work, so I produced the music as if I was creating a piece that would play in isolation without anything else, which meant that I was employing a lot of audio mixing and mastering techniques to get the music to sound as good as possibly can on its own. Granted, music plays in game with environmental sounds and sound effects on top, in some ways, when you’re playing a game, maybe that level of polish isn’t obvious right away, but I know that some people will listen to this music in isolation and it’s really important to get it sounding as good as possible on its own.

Could you tell me more about the Dynamic Music system?

Dynamic music is one of the main reasons we decided to reconstruct a lot of the original music. Twenty years ago [the composers] were limited by what they could do with game audio technology, so the original music just played statically in levels so it wasn’t reactive to gameplay. As game audio technology improves a lot of people’s expectations have changed in terms of how music should support gameplay.

So we wanted to take advantage of that. We thought we could provide a refreshed music experience for the player by working with the music in a way to make it more reactive with what Spyro is doing in levels, where he is in the level, locomotion, how long you’ve been in the level. Essentially, how the dynamic music system works is once we’ve reconstructed the tracks, that gave us access to do variations on the content of those tracks. We ended up having four different variations on each theme.

You have the base variation that plays when you’re running around doing your thing, we have a stripped out ambient version of the music that plays when you’ve stopped moving. Maybe you’re taking in all of the beautiful, lush environments. After a few seconds, the music will fade into the ambient, textural piece.

We also have a charge variation. Playing as Spyro, you’re going to obviously be doing a lot of charging around, so we wanted to really play up that energy. What we did was we take the base variation and apply a rhythmic effect to the music. One top of that we’ll layer it with percussion loops to give it a forward momentum. It feels good when you do your charge move and all of a sudden you hear the music escalate more from what it was before.

The last one is an inside variation. Anytime you go into a cave or any interior we apply a gentle reverb to give the music a sense of space. All of these are subtle, so players amy not necessarily notice them consciously right away, but it adds to the experience of the game.

The last thing we’re doing with dynamic music is, in addition to these four version of the theme, we’ve created another set of four variations on that theme that we call the “alt” version where we take the base theme, duplicate it, and for certain sections spotlight a different instrument. Say for two bars we drop out the melody and just have the drums and the base play, and maybe for the next four bars we bring in a little bit of the melody, maybe contrast that with another instrument so that way we’re giving the theme a slightly remixed feel. The way that that’s handled in-game is that you’ll get the full version of the theme playing through once and we’ll then seamlessly go to the alt version of the theme once and it keeps ping ponging back and forth. For us, we thought that it was a good opportunity to add more to the musical experience, especially for some of the levels where you’re playing a level for a good 20-25 minutes, we wanted to add a good variety to your time.

There’s a lot of musical content to this game, but it’s all subtle. We wanted to have this good variety to the music, but keep it faithful to the original yet provide a good, refreshed experience. And you can switch to the original soundtrack at anytime. And, if you choose to play with the Reignited soundtrack, you can choose to play without the dynamic music.

How did you go about deciding to use Stewart Copeland’s versions of the music as an option?

It’s twofold. Me personally, I’m a person that likes to offer players as many options as possible, within reason. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done with the music, but I’m also aware that people have a deep emotional attachment to the original music as it was originally composed and produced. We didn’t want to disappoint those fans and we wanted to give them the option to have the experience they want to have playing the game.

In some ways it made sense to put it in alongside the Reignited music, so that way it allows people to compare and contrast the work we’ve done against the original, if that’s something they want to do. Lastly, it encourages replay value. The second we announced we were going to have the original soundtrack and the Reignited versions in the game, a lot of people were saying, “First time I’m playing the game, I’ll play with the Reignited music, second time I’ll played with the original, and the third time I’ll play, I’ll play with the Reignited music with dynamic music off!” So it gives players a lot of different options for how they want to experience it.

And last thing I’ll say about that, and probably the most important: I think that music more than anything else on this project is something people feel strongly about, it was important to have the option for players to experience it with the original soundtrack if that’s what they preferred. You can’t say the same thing about graphics, for example. If you want to play with the old, low-poly graphics, well you can just play the old game. In that space, in my opinion, it doesn’t make sense to play with the original graphics, but I believe that music is a highly personal thing that absolutely made sense for us to offer that option.

Is it easy to switch between the two?

Yeah! At any point during the game, you can go into the pause menu, go into the option menu, go to the audio options, and first you’ll see an option on whether you’d like to play with the original soundtrack or the Reignited soundtrack, and if you choose the Reginited soundtrack, you have the option to play with dynamic music on or off.

I want to ask one more thing about the dynamic music, more so the alt variations. Were those also used for the Toasty boss fight from E3, where the main instrument doesn’t kick in until you approach the boss?

So that’s something we actually had for an early demo, it’s an idea we were playing with, especially with that level where for me it made a lot of creative sense because the track has two different distinct sections like the mysterious, ambient section at the start and then there’s this really big, loud rock section because the level was structured this way. There’s not too much action, but then you get into this Toasty boss fight and it’s a high-energy, high-intensity thing.

We wanted to play with the idea of having two different music tracks, one is the first half of the music piece, one is the second half, and then loop the first half until you get to the boss fight, then the big loud rock section when you get to the boss fight.

We actually didn’t end up using that in the end product. Although in some way creatively, it sort of made sense, it was a very specific situation with that one level and it’s not something we could have rolled out across an entire game because that approach didn’t seem to work in other tracks. We ended up changing course on that so now you’ll hear the full soft half then the energetic second half so it’s not tied to the boss fight.

Fortunately, this isn’t much of an issue. Toasty’s theme is designed with the length of the level in mind, so by the time you’ve reached the boss, the second part of the song will be kicking in unless you’re rushing to get to him as soon as possible.

Do you have any tracks that you’re proud of specifically that you can’t wait for fans to hear?

I like a lot of the flight levels in Spyro the Dragon. Of course the flight levels, at least two or three of them are thematically tied together musically. But I really love the energy of those pieces. I really like the Agent 9 theme, I just like that odd meter and also the groove.
I really enjoyed Scorched too. I’m a big fan of ethnic music so Scorched holds a special place in my heart. Gosh, there’s so many. Charmed ridge is a favorite of mine too. It’s such a joyful happy tune, and we were actually shocked with how close we could get our Reignited version to sound like the original. It’s uncanny, really (laughs).

Cloud Temples; I’m really happy with how Cloud Temples turned out. We used a lot of the original sound sources on that track which sort of set the foundation, but we added some more ethnic instrumentation, specifically percussion to play up the whole zen vibe of the theme. If I sat in front of my computer, I’m sure I could tell you more.

There’s so much good stuff.

Yeah! There’s over 120 pieces of music, a lot of great music.

What has Stewart Copeland’s reaction been to your renditions?

He’s been amazingly supportive of the work we’ve been doing. Initially when we approached him about the project, this was done over email, we mentioned that we reimagined his music, he came back and said “what do you mean, ‘reimagined my music?’”

“We’ll fly down, meet you, and show you.” We thought it was really important to show him what we were doing in context of the game instead of sending music files back and forth. Going into the meeting of course there was some trepidation on our end. “It’s the drummer from The Police! We’re going to his studio..!” We went down with the building with a few levels, and by the end of the meeting he was sold. He was so thrilled. He kept saying, “this is my music, but it’s just really brought into the year 2018.” He was really happy with the work we were doing.

As far as the dynamic music thing, that was something that we were already working on, and we showed him how it works in game. He said when he was first working with Insomniac that was something they wanted to do at the time to have music feel like it was reactive, but due to technical limitations they couldn’t do it at the time.

We were super thrilled to hear that. Here we are, thinking we’re coming up with this idea on our own, but it’s something apart of the creative vision he had and it’s really awesome that we can follow through on that vision.

Can you talk more about the title theme to the trilogy?

So Tiger Train is the new theme for the game that players will hear when they first boot up the game and every time they go to the main menu. So, it was important that we get that right because it’s the first thing you hear in the game and it’s something that should pay tribute to all three games. Here we have each of the original games that were their own product and had their own title music, but here we have three games part of one product and we wanted to find a way to have recognizable motifs from each game worked into a single piece of music.

I love mashups, so we can compare it to mashups and the idea was, “could we get a mashup of Spyro 1, Spyro 2, and Spyro 3 music?” We talked about it, played with some ideas, and who better to create this than Stewart Copeland himself? This is his music, he’d know best how to weave these into one. So we approached him about it and by complete coincidence he was already working on something Spyro related. He keeps saying that Spyro is some of the best music he’s ever written, he was putting together an orchestral medley of Spyro music for one of his own personal projects when we approached him to do this new main theme. We heard the beginning of it, his work in progress and said “this sounds amazing, this is exactly what we’re looking for,” and the stars aligned that he was working on something and it was exactly what we were looking for. It was a real treat to be able to get that into the game for the fans.

We worked with him on the piece, it’s about six minutes, and it’s an epic, rock orchestral journey through the trilogy and we’re thrilled with how it turned out. It’s an awesomely, epic triumphant return of Spyro, and that’s the first thing people are going to hear when they start the game and we’re super happy with it.

Sounds awesome, I’m looking forward to hearing the whole piece! Is there anything else you’re dying to let us know?

I guess just letting the fans know how much care and love went into working with the music on our end and how honored I am personally to be part of bringing Spyro through his music back to life in 2018. I’m super excited for players to be able to hear our work, and lastly, the magnicone monster, we weren’t able to locate the original source for that, so we had one of our voice actors do an amazingly accurate rendition of that voice, so I know that’s a piece of music people always point to. I think people will be pleasantly surprised when they hear that piece of music.

We’d like to once again thank Stephan Vankov for sitting down to chat with us about the incredible music work done for the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. The game will be released this Tuesday, November 14th, 2018, for $39.99 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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