How iam8bit Picks Video Game Soundtracks
The company's vinyl releases are a marriage of art and commerce.
If you’ve noticed a lot more physical game soundtracks popping up online over the past few years, it’s probably the work of iam8bit. The company doesn’t produce the CDs often bundled in collector’s editions (though its varied catalog has helped bring game scores back in vogue); instead it caters to discerning fans with premium vinyl releases that blur the line between production and art, for games from Uncharted to the recently announced Rocket League.
With such a wide range, what drives iam8bit to choose the projects they go after? And where did it all start? For co-founder Jon Gibson, the origins are tied to the past.
“The goal originally was to take something familiar and nostalgic and remix it using the talents of all these young people who were doing art, but had no outlet for it,” says Gibson, who created the company in Los Angeles in 2005. Its namesake comes from the original art show Gibson held, which reinterpreted classic 8- and 16-bit games in a variety of creative pieces and installations.
The response to iam8bit — and the notion of so-called remix culture — was so positive that companies started to approach Gibson for industrial design, marketing, and promotional projects. It wasn’t long after that Gibson met iam8bit’s co-founder Amanda White, then a film producer, whose business expertise quickly raised the company’s profile, allowing the operation to move into its current gallery space, a 4300 sq. ft. warehouse in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood.
“Before [Amanda], it was a bit ragtag, it was a bit scrappy,” Gibson says. “She brought a lot of professional acumen to the process.”
For years, iam8bit’s online presence was restricted to selling game-related art prints, but it eventually made sense to progress into other types of merchandise — particularly vinyl. The company’s first release was a three LP, trifold-jacket set for Hotline Miami 2, which Gibson says made a fitting pair.
“There was this ‘80s kind of synth-y nostalgic value to all the music, but Hotline was also a franchise that was akin to what we were kind of doing,” he says. “It was little and scrappy, but it was also big and noteworthy at the same time. And the game’s music was very much the game. Without [it] the game would be much less.”
That personality is a core component of what iam8bit strives for.
“We want to put out soundtracks where the music is a very important character,” Gibson says. “There’s a lot of music that exists out there that is merely an explanation, that is serviceable, but not designed in this collaborative sense.”
With smaller teams, Gibson has found that music-making is much more involved than just hiring a composer, with musicians instead often playing an influential role in a game’s design, and designers in turn influencing how a game’s soundtrack evolves creatively. The philosophy is something that iam8bit takes to heart.
“For vinyl releases, especially, we interpret all the brands and characters and worlds via commissioning art from different artists,” Gibson says. “So we’re not just taking key art and slapping it on the cover, we’re going in and mining the mythology and creating something new and fresh that didn’t exist before — even if it is a new game, it’s important for us to build on the mythology and complement it versus just using what pre-exists.”
Part of the appeal of vinyl is that it’s more artistically malleable than any other medium for music, Gibson says. He gives the example of one of Waxwork Records’ Friday the 13th soundtracks, which had fake blood sealed in between each side of the disc — one of countless ideas.
“You can try anything because records are made from basically melting little balls, that give you the color,” he says. “So you can do many different combinations — its not this preexisting disc.”
The company’s vinyl releases are a testament to that idea, going beyond even a record’s color into more abstract and interesting ideas like records that glow in the dark, use splatter patterns, or, in the case of the vinyl release for the soundtrack to Shane Black’s ‘70s detective homage The Nice Guys — iam8bit isn’t restricted just to games — limiting production techniques and designs to what would have been used in the era.
“We weren’t overly embellishing or printing in a way that wasn’t possible then, so it’s not this heavily embossed modern release,” Gibson says. “It’s very classic in its approach of how the cover jacket might feel in terms of printing quality, or how the sleeve for each individual disc might feel.”
Another good example is Rocket League’s vinyl, a design which iam8bit and developer Psyonix came up with at random while brainstorming in an email chain.
“One of the most exciting parts was when we realized we could take the rims — the 3D models from the game — and paint over and treat them a little bit, [then] apply them as picture discs to the vinyl,” Gibson says. “Connecting the fact that vinyl records spin and wheels spin — its such a simple thought, but at the end of the day it made for a really cool visual.”
For the upcoming release of Killer Cuts, the original Killer Instinct soundtrack once sold in Nintendo Power’s mail-in merch catalog, iam8bit added an extra bit of flourish that wouldn’t be possible on a disc or digital media.
“We have a locked groove — essentially at the end of the record, the needle goes into a little reservoir that’s infinite, so it spins in there perpetually until you basically pull the needle off the record,” Gibson says. “And it plays the ‘combo breaker’ line over and over and over again.
Developers and composers love this kind of stuff, Gibson says, and who approaches whom can go either way. In any case, the conversations in order to get to the final finished product are always interesting.
“Some people have a grand notion of all the things they want to do, and some people just want to brainstorm,” he says. “It’s a cool process no matter how you boil it down, because there’s always a challenge no matter what you want to do.”
Gibson says the company has been lucky to be given the kind of creative freedom it has, which often includes being involved with a given project’s thrust during production rather than after everything’s finished.
“The relationships that we have are a little more intimate. We’re there while the creation is still happening sometimes, which is exhilarating because it allows us to really see the guts of something,” he says. “A typical licensing arrangement prohibits a lot of that from happening, because there’s a lot of barriers to entry.”
Getting projects off the ground regularly takes a lot of extra legwork, with corporate deals often being especially tricky.
“Big corporations have quotas to meet and stockholders to please. These are people that we’ll never meet and just don’t need to care,” Gibson says. “But in every company we find a couple people that do care. It’s really meaningful that they would spend time on something that takes a lot of bandwidth and time to figure out and get feedback on. When that happens we’re really thankful.”
It’s just as important that the musicians responsible get more exposure, Gibson says, which the company helps accomplish by bringing composers out to meet fans at regular events in one of their LA retail shops.
“Musicians that are touring or on stage or have solo albums, they have identities. They’re on talk shows, they’re playing stadiums and clubs,” Gibson says. “Video game composers and people that are featured on these soundtracks don’t really have faces as far as the public is concerned. You could be at Chipotle sitting next to Bear McCreary and not even know what he looks like.”
With any luck, the amount of expression that vinyl can have will only continue to bolster the medium’s artistic value — and gaming soundtracks as well.
“It’s no different from a painting canvas or a piece of foam that you carve into a sculpture,” Gibson says. “Same thing.”