Keeping Composed

Danny Baranowsky talks to Steven Balbirnie about composing for games, working with Edmund McMillen and an exclusive announcement Danny Baranowsky is one of the most acclaimed composers working in indie games, his soundtracks to games such as Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac having earned him well-deserved recognition. As Baranowsky reveals it was clear from a young age that he had a keen interest in music, and more specifically video game music: “I grew up with Final Fantasy and Zelda and all that and I used to always leave the TV on and just listen to the sound track even when I wasn’t playing.”This interest however, only found an outlet years later, as Baranowsky explains: “Around 2000/2001, I found a place called OCReMix where they remix video game music and I got really into it and eventually I started doing remixes myself and I did that for a few years.” Baranowsky’s time spent remixing allowed him to develop and refine his unique style by experimenting with pieces such as an orchestral remix of Doom and “a Castlevania medley in the form of lounge jazz music”Baranowsky’s first major project was the soundtrack for Adam Atomic’s Canabalt, an experience which was somewhat a baptism of fire. “Canabalt was made in five days. I did the music I think on the fourth night, in like seven hours.” This was a very different experience from his next big venture, the soundtrack to the award-winning Super Meat Boy. “Super Meat Boy; I had an Alpha a year before the game came out and I was just playing the Alpha to get a feel for it, and then they would just say ‘Here’s a screen shot of the salt factory I’m working on, do it okay?’ And since I knew how the game kind of played I could feel it out based on how the game feels.”This is indicative of Baranowsky’s approach to game music composition, generally. “Mostly I try to immerse myself as much as I can in it, just play a bunch of it if I can and look at it and just think about it a lot. And then at this point I kind of let the instinct take over. I’m not an over-thinker, I don’t sit down and rationalise everything. With Super Meat Boy I just had a lot of conversations with Edmund and if I can just hear the developer talk about it for an hour or two, usually by the end of that conversation I’m at least in the ball park, and then it’s helpful that I have guidance from the game developers and some of them give me a lot of leeway and some of them don’t; and I don’t even know which of those I’d prefer because they’re just completely different experiences.”Scoring the soundtracks to Canabalt and Super Meat Boy was also a significant change from the composition which Baranowsky had been doing for indie films. Baranowsky says that composing for films was “a lot more rigid in that they would complete the film, they would lock it and maybe sometimes there would be little changes but usually it’s like ‘Here’s a film, put music on it’.” This exposure to the nature of cinematic composition helps to explain why Baranowsky favours composing for games; “Game music is a lot more interesting to me because you have to score to uncertainty. A video game is just a set of states that could be completely different every time and you have to write something that fits that situation, and that’s something that’s a lot more interesting than ‘Here is events, put music to them’.”Baranowsky’s impressive work on Super Meat Boy brought him wider attention and his previous experience with remixes came in useful when he was offered the chance to remix the original Cave Story soundtrack for the release of Cave Story 3D.  While Baranowsky enjoyed this opportunity it came with some challenges. “I knew that doing Cave Story 3D, no matter how good I was, a lot of people were going to hate it because it wasn’t the original, because you always get that group of people who if you change the art, or the music, or anything in any way from the original because of their nostalgic attachment to it they’re going to hate it; so it was pretty stressful.”More recently he returned to collaborating with Super Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen on the phenomenal indie hit, The Binding of Isaac. It is very clear from speaking to Baranowsky that he has a lot of respect for McMillen: “He is his own man. My impression of the way he works is the very last thing that ever comes into play is any kind of self-censorship.”This mutual respect is very important to what has developed into an efficient collaborative dynamic. “You know at this point I just kind of know what he’s looking for from me so it’s really kind of streamlined, he just kind of says ‘here it is, go for it’ and if I need to make any changes it’s cool. But when you see the games he makes, who wouldn’t want to do the music for that?”The pair will be working together once again this year, though when asked about McMillen’s forthcoming titles, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and Super Meat Boy: The Game, Baranowsky can only reveal a little, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say here. I guess I can say there will be new music in The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. Super Meat Boy: The Game I think I’m going to have to pass; I think I’m going to have to check with Edmund on that.”He can however exclusively reveal that fans can look forward to hearing previously unreleased music from his substantial back catalogue. “I have like 30 or 40 tracks sitting around that never got released and I’m going to put together a B-sides album.” Regardless of what role he may play in McMillen’s forthcoming titles, it is certain that the release of a B-sides album will be a welcome announcement to the fans of this talented composer. You can find Danny Baranowsky’s music at