July 31, 2019
We recently had the opportunity to talk with Ryan Davis, the developer of RASHLANDER, and Fat Bard, an audio duo composed of Zach Fendelman and Patrick Crecelius that specializes in music composition and sound design. Ryan Davis has worked with Fat Bard a few times now, most recently to create RASHLANDER’s boppin’ 8-bit soundtrack. While the interview itself was conducted vocally by the Hitcents’ Studio Head, Jordan Taylor, we’ve transcribed some tasty morsels for you below!
On the start of Fat Bard:
Jordan: How did the name Fat Bard come about?
Patrick: Well, the thought when we were trying to come up with a company name was that we wanted to go with a band name basically. And the idea being that we don’t need a pretentious name. It can just be a stupid name that easy to say and memorable, right? And we knew we could probably have some strong branding with it, which we do. We got some cool artwork that goes with it, we’ve gotten him in some of the games we’ve worked on. I think we wanted to use the word “bard” somehow.
Zach: Yea, “bard” came first and then we were cycling through adjectives and we settled on “fat.”
Jordan: When did you all first start as Fat Bard?
Patrick: Seven years ago now?
Zach: Yeah, it was late-2012, I think. Last semester of high school.
Patrick: I think it was right around now that we had started putting together a portfolio and stuff like that, were kinda in talks about it, formulating things. I think coming up this September will be seven years because that was when we went to our first game jam, met some folks there and did a small game.
Zach: Two games!
Patrick: Did we do two?
Zach: Yea, you did one and I did one. You talking about the Simutronics one?
Patrick: Oh yea! We did do two. I forgot we were on different teams. [laughs] But yeah, we started doing game jams locally and met a lot of local game developers in St. Louis.
Ryan: Any time I talk to St. Louis game developers, they all know you!
Patrick: We started locally because we didn’t know what else to do. Starting working with a couple around the country, just remotely, and then we started going to events like GDC and stuff like that. I remember the first time we went to GDC, the biggest takeaway was I realized literally every developer uses Twitter. We didn’t have a Twitter account back then. So we made that, started meeting a lot of the developers and artists through Twitter. I know it sounds like a lot of money spent to come up with that [laughs], but it was huge for us. We just never even realized it. We didn’t have this huge group of developers to talk to. We’re kind of a bubble here in the Mid-West. So we’ve been doing that every single year, going to GDC on the super-cheap. Wonder if we even need to buy the passes anymore.
On meeting each other:
Jordan: Ryan, when did you first come across Fat Bard?
Ryan: Well I think you all reached out to me on Twitter… it was after a Ludum Dare jam. For someone who might not know, it’s a game jam that might last 48 hours, they do 3-4 a year, you figure out what the theme is at the beginning, and then you have 48 hours to make something completely from scratch. I often opt for music because, though I’m a musician, I’m not a composer. I like to sing, but that doesn’t go so well in video games. Mine was Adventure Lamp, which I turned into a Steam release later on, and that was in large part due to the two of you reaching out to me on Twitter and giving it a lot more oomph than it had before. I think that it showed that there was potential, but it really needed the score to make it something special. So reached out on Twitter, if memory serves?
Patrick: Yea, for the previous game. And when RASHLANDER was coming around, you poked us saying, “Hey!”
Ryan: Yea, really at this point… I mean, it might just be that I’m getting old and rigid, but I really don’t want to work with anyone else. I find the games industry is full of flaky people, and when you find a professional, it’s really rare. I can’t say enough how professional and easy it is to work with these two.
On RASHLANDER’s music and development:
Jordan: So when Fat Bard was approaching RASHLANDER, did that change your process knowing it was going to be an arcade game first?
Patrick & Zach: Yes! Definitely.
Patrick: And it made it really fun because this is the first arcade game we’ve done. A game that was for sure gonna go in arcades, get put into cabinets, so having to understand the logistics of that and always be thinking about that as we make stuff was a cool process. It also gave us some direction even to start with. That’s probably always the hardest thing to find a direction at the beginning of the process. Ryan, one of the keywords we used was… “retro with modern effects”? We had a snappy phrase but I can’t think of it now. Sounds so lame when I say it. [laughs]
Ryan: Oh, “high-end, low-res”.
Patrick: Yea, there we go! That was a good theme to go with.
Ryan: My whole art direction was based on that. The game is 320x240, which limits you in the pixel-space, but because we’re using modern graphics cards, we can leverage fun math. The computer just does fun effects with shaders… it does cool things but it’s at a low resolution, which people don’t see much. And that pushed the art direction, and I thought why wouldn’t we just use the same phrase for the audio.
Patrick: There were a lot of chip sounds, kinda more retro sounds, but with more modern production and effects on them, to take it outside the realm of straight-up chiptune.
Zach: Well it also makes it stand out in an arcade setting. Having a more modern production, you can really push the mix to cut through everything else. All the other noise happening.
Ryan: Actually the first time the explosion sound went off in an arcade, it was hilarious because these people were playing and it just rocked the whole building. [laughs] BOOF, the screen flashes, and they just jumped about half a foot in the air and started laughing because they hadn’t been prepared for that. It’s a game where you explode a lot so the fact that it was paired with laughter was such a huge win. And it’s because they designed the mix to cut through.
Patrick: I feel like you can be more creative, and I know it sounds weird, if you have some limits to work with. It gives you a direction, a constraint. Creativity within constraints.
Ryan: On the game design side, on the audio, the visuals, all the factors that went into it, this game was created in the constraints of physical arcade space. It’s unique, even in the mass media space, because it came out of someone making it for mass consumption wouldn’t have considered making a game that works in two minutes and if you only played it for two minutes, it would be satisfying. Or I need to make a game with audio that cuts through the background noise of an arcade. How does that change the things I do? All those things still exist in the game, even though you’ll be downloading it on a home device. On RASHLANDER, the last track that you did for the tutorial area, I realized that it was so needed in the overall structure that I put it in between levels. Every little breather you get, you’re hearing that song.
Patrick: It’s good for continuity.
Ryan: It’s such a good win. After adding that track, the tone of feedback has been so different. I think people have the emotional space for the intensity.
Patrick: It gets a little intense!
Ryan: The idea was you need to hear it over the noise of the arcade. So in your quiet office space, it can be a lot… the breather in there was everything.
Jordan: So that’s interesting. What did you all specifically do differently for RASHLANDER versus other titles you’ve worked on?
Patrick: It had to be super-loud. [laughs] Has to have a lot of upper/mid-range.
Zach: Yea, I don’t think we really considered bass that much. Typically, sound systems on those cabinets are geared towards that upper/mid-range, so most of the music settled in that pitch. And the sound effects were all there. We didn’t do any super-crazy high-end stuff, just really pushing that frequency area.
Patrick: Think of a hip-hop song with trap beats, with a machine-gun high, so sizzly, right? That’s not necessarily gonna work in a cabinet and the same thing goes for deep electronic, super-low sub stuff going on.
Ryan: They don’t come with a subwoofer.
Patrick: Exactly. We have to compose the music and mix it, produce it, knowing that stuff’s not really gonna cut through, so we have to focus on that mid-range spectrum. That definitely affected how we composed, some of our instrument choices.
On Fat Bard’s challenges:
Jordan: In the Fat Bard journey, what’s been the most difficult thing to accomplish? Not even musically, maybe just as a team.
Zach: Marketing is always a struggle. Every year we push it harder than we did the previous year. It obviously helps to just get more work because those people are advocating for you. Just recently we did that portfolio push on Twitter where we put together some clips of our work in games and that wound up doing really well.
Ryan: Yeah, I’m still getting notifications. [laughs]
Zach: We’re always trying to push ourselves to be in people’s peripheral vision. We just want people to know who we are, and it can be a struggle to get people to listen. Especially on Twitter, so much easier to look at a piece of art… “Wow I love that”, click Like, and then move on. Much harder to get somebody to click on a video and listen to 30 seconds of a music clip. We’re always trying to think of new ways to push our brand and do some interesting marketing just to get people to pay attention.
Jordan: Do you feel like that’s the general state of affairs for freelance musicians?
Patrick: In games, yea. Social media is a huge way to network. The best you can do, basically, is let people know you exist. And you obviously do a little bit of soliciting, but a lot of it is just networking. The trouble is, like Zach’s saying, trying to get people to listen to things. The engagement rate is way, way lower compared to art stuff.
Zach: We have a whole marketing chat in Discord that’s spitballing ideas.
Patrick: I think one of the other challenges that we come across that’s not music-related, is communication. We’ve gotten so much better at coming up with strategies to work through this, but depending on the client sometimes, it’s hard to talk about music, right? Or hard to talk about sound design because not everyone has the vocabulary for it. Especially if we’re talking about working with someone where English may not be their first language, and we do quite a bit of that. The challenge is how do you come up with some common vocabulary to describe what they want, what you want. Those have always been the most challenging projects for us to work with, when we’re trying to figure out what the developer’s thinking. If we have a hard time coming up with common vocabulary, it’s challenging.
One thing we do a lot is we throw references out. And we might even do that before we make something for them. Maybe they’ll say, “I want a song that’s bossy and has a fat beat… and it’s heroic!” And so they might send a couple of references, but sometimes they’re contrasting. We worked with someone once where I think they gave us 10-12 references for one song when we were first starting out, and they were all contrasting. [laughs] So a good thing to do - we’ve found in the last couple years - is to send references back. “Hey, we’ve heard what you said, and now we’ve narrowed that focus based on what we think you’re thinking, and we’re gonna send a couple of references back to you. How do you feel about taking an element of this song or this song?” That sorta helps us come up with a common understanding. People understand music, they just don’t necessarily know how to say it. Once you’ve interpreted what they’ve said and sent a reference, that prevents you from spending hours working on a song and sending it to them hoping it’s the right thing.
Zach: I think sending our own references is kinda fun because we get to interject our own personality and what we actually like into the project so it’s more of a collaboration.
Ryan: I think you did that with Adventure Lamp and it was very helpful. Even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I could say, “I like this about it, and that one reference, definitely don’t go that direction.” It was more clear about exactly what to be listening for, and like you said, not just be copying someone else’s stuff.
Patrick: Yea. You’re gonna bring your own flavor to the table no matter what. Your own experiences. So throwing in what’s relevant or interesting to you right now as a musician can not only make the project more fun and exciting but also give it its own flair that maybe the developer didn’t even consider.
On personal growth:
Jordan: Do you ever look back at your early work and think “this is terrible” or “why did we ever do that”?
Zach: I think we’re always trying to improve our skills every day, every week, whatever. So looking back a couple of months, a year, whatever… we’ve worked on projects that’ll take a couple years, and maybe we wrote the music the first couple months, and 12-16 months later the project will be ready so we’ll go back and re-mix the music because we’ve gained some more knowledge and better hindsight on how it should sound. I don’t really regret anything I’ve released. It was right at the time and then you move on to work on something else. I think as a musician, sometimes people get caught up trying to make the perfect song. But the more important thing is to just release stuff and try something new.
Patrick: Finishing. And this is true in game development, Ryan, of course, knows this. You learn so much from finishing it. If you start something over and over and never finish, you never really grow.
Ryan: You really can tell who finishes work because their work is rich. The first things might not have been perfection, but the broad strokes on everything get better for each thing you complete. And then, you know, if you go back and remaster, remix, whatever, some earlier work, then it benefits from what you learned along the way.
Patrick: There’s so much to learn in the slog, the middle, the polish phase. There’s a lot to learn there that you don’t in the beginning.
Zach: That’s why I think it was great for us to do those game jams early on. It forced us to do something really quickly, finish it, move on, think about what we did.
Patrick: We did all the jams we could for two years. All the local jams. Maybe for three or four years.
Zach: It wasn’t like we showed up and did one or two games. We’d show up to these jams, sit at our own tables with our computers, and we’d work on five or six or seven games.
Patrick: We would work with a bunch of teams because there aren’t many audio people at jams.
Ryan: I think in that regard, we’ve always meshed well because everything I make is born out of a jam. I think that we have similar approaches on how to make things and what makes them worth doing. RASHLANDER is a Ludum Dare game. If ever I need to start something, I just wait for the train to pass by with a Ludum Dare because it has all the benefits of starting and finishing things, as well as that very quick turnaround of community involvement.
Patrick: Oh yea, shared experience. And you get feedback, too, which is great.
Ryan: Otherwise you’re like, “Hey, play my broken prototype” to random people. [laughs]
Zach: There’s a casual approach that comes with game jams where people are willing to try it just because it’s a jam as opposed to some lifelong passion project.
On Fat Bard’s projects:
Jordan: Do you all tend to work exclusively with indie titles?
Patrick: Ehhhhhhh, sort of? [laughs] There are certain things we can’t say. We have something very large that’s very well known that we can’t say we worked on.
Ryan: NDAs are great!
Patrick: We’ve done some mobile work that’s between AAA and indie.
Zach: We’re not really picky about the work we get.
Patrick: We’ve done with larger IPs. A Star Wars project.
Zach: A Paw Patrol thing.
Patrick: Some kid / educational games that involve larger IPs. We don’t exclusively work with indies, but we really like working with indies because there are less restrictions on what we can and can’t do. Working on indie projects is about the relationship, and that’s really valuable. We’ve made a lot of friends through working on games. Not everyone is just a client, y’know?
Jordan: Sure. Are there projects that you choose to not work on? Maybe you feel your skillsets don’t fit the projects, or perhaps other reasons?
Zach: I don’t think we’ve ever turned down a project. There are projects we know will be a task, but we’re always up to the challenge. I don’t remember anything.
Patrick: If you do music for a living, if you do sound design, audio engineering, etc, you have to love it wholly. You have to be able to find the good in everything and have a positive outlook. I teach guitar lessons, and if someone wants to learn a Taylor Swift song, I’m gonna teach that song. There’s something good in it, there’s something to learn from it, and I can make it fun for them.
Jordan: To speak nothing of your fandom for T. Swift.
Patrick: Yea, sorry, just lost all of our Taylor Swift fans. [laughs] But it’s the same thing for game development. There’s always something good in it, something cool about a project.
Zach: The project doesn’t have to be amazing for us to want to do a good job. We’re gonna want to do a good job no matter what.
Ryan: There’s nothing like a strong portfolio.
Patrick: We don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one genre anyway. There are some composers that’re kind of like that, and I don’t think they necessarily want to be that way. It could be that they did a certain style for a game and it was extremely successful, the game, and now everyone hires them saying, “Could you do that for our thing?” That’s the reason we pride ourselves on our versatility. We’ll take most projects because it’s always a new challenge because we’re gonna learn from it.
On the technical side of things:
Jordan: I wanted to get a bit into the technical aspects. What does the technical work look like in making games? How closely did you work with Ryan on RASHLANDER? Is there anything particularly interesting or magical when providing music to the devs?
Zach: One of my favorite things that Pat discovered since we’ve been working is the Renamer application, which is fantastic when you have created 75 sound effects and you need to put them all into a spreadsheet. Instead of typing them all out, you just drop the files into Renamer. I love that app so much. [laughs]
Patrick: Yea, a lot of people ask what software we use. They wanna know what technology we use. What’s funny is, in the last couple of years, we care so much less about new audio software and more about productivity software. We still acquire new things every now and then, but it has to be something that really stands out. Nowadays we’re on a big productivity kick. Just so we can move way, way faster.
Ryan: I mean, go back hundreds of years and you can make quality, universally loved music with very simple tools and the only thing you would need to get it digital is a microphone. Whatever constraints you’ve got, as long as you can get it into the format you’re presenting it in, you’re good. And the rest of it is just fiddling with details. It’s cool to have different tools and they do inform the stuff you make in interesting ways, but at the end of the day, playing too much with that gets in the way of making stuff. You’re better off just saying, “Is there something in the way of me doing the basics?” And it’s often productivity stuff, so how can I get the administrative work or the file-renaming crap out of the way so I can just make music or make games or paint something or anything else.
Patrick: The emphasis on tools and technology, because it’s a big industry, it has changed people’s (especially people new to the field) emphasis on what they think is important. We get some many marketing emails, I’ve unsubbed from all of our hardware and software developer email spam. Every time I get one, I just don’t care!
Zach: Crashlands, which was our breakout game basically, we used stock plugins from Pro Tools. Blasphemous on multiple accounts. [laughter]
Patrick: We made it work! What matters is the idea. There’s a GDC talk from the guy that wrote the Bastion soundtrack. His entire GDC talk is about how you can do it at home on a budget. His whole talk was, “I made this soundtrack using a junky microphone and my laptop and stock stuff.” And here it is, people love that soundtrack from Bastion. A very well-known game, successful soundtrack. It’s about your ideas and your execution and your relationship with the developer.
On Fat Bard’s future:
Jordan: We’ll finish up with this: what’s next for Fat Bard?
Patrick: Lots of cool stuff we can’t talk about! [laughter]
Zach: There’s a lot of cool stuff we’ll be able to talk about later in the year. Music-wise, we’re doing a soundtrack with vocals in it which we’ve never done before. We’re doing some more experimental, ambient-type music which we haven’t gotten a chance to do. Just really exploring kinda new areas we haven’t had a chance to do before. Thankfully the projects that are upcoming allow us to do that.
Patrick: It’s been fun to try to reach out and do different things. I think in the last year and a half, we’ve made great strides to up our production values across the board. I think it’s made a huge difference because it’s also been a really cool learning experience.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to know more about Fat Bard and Ryan Davis, give them follow them on Twitter at @Fat_Bard and @RyGuyGames. RASHLANDER is launching on the Steam store Tuesday, August 6th - wishlist here!