Engineering the Video Game Music Ensemble

Image of the Video Game Music Ensemble performing on March 18, 2022 at the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Concert at Michigan Tech
The Video Game Music Ensemble performs on March 18, 2022 at the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Concert at Michigan Tech.

Turning a Love of Video Game Music into an Ensemble

What happens when you have a love for jazz/funk/fusion and video game music? Naturally you form an ensemble. Ryan Briggs and Sean Hanson formed theirs in the fall of 2019; the Video Game Music (VGM) Ensemble. The ensemble is now a student-run group of thirty musicians who like to arrange, rehearse, and perform songs from various video game franchises. 

Video Game Music Creates an Emotion and Heightens Interest in the Genre

Image of Ryan Briggs playing base in the Video Game Music Ensemble at Michigan Tech
Ryan Briggs plays stand-up bass in the Video Game Music Ensemble.

Video game music was always front and center. It spoke to them. “It’s similar to the interest with film music, when you hear the initial Star Wars theme music with the title screen, it elicits a very strong feeling of excitement, adventure, and grandiose. It’s the same thing with video game music, the difference is that each piece from a video game isn’t the theme of a story that you’re watching unfold, it’s the theme of your story as the player. It’s a very impactful and personal medium,” says Ryan. “I love the way music can manipulate emotions and make us feel…. It’s just really fascinating to me.”

Sean relates. “Soundtracks are probably the feature of games that enhance it the most for me – since it can really amp up an action or bring the emotion for a sad scene – almost cinematic in a way. And there’s such a huge diversity of music featured in games today as well – a forest might have a somber composition with flutes, piano, and violin – a beach/ocean setting might have groovy Latin percussion and ukulele/classical guitar – a snowy/ice setting might have twinkly glockenspiel and triangle – and a fiery/volcanic setting might have driving drum patterns, heavy electric guitars, and powerful low brass. While these cliches are common in video game compositions – they nonetheless are extremely effective in establishing the setting of a game – and that’s just from an orchestral point of view.”

Online Influencers Show What’s Possible

Online influencers helped to grow Sean’s interest. He started to get involved with the YouTube VGM community. A YouTuber named Carlos “insaneintherainmusic” Eiene played jazz arrangements of popular video game songs (notably Nintendo games). “He basically did everything I’ve always wanted to do – arrange, play, and mix his own arrangements on YouTube, organize an ensemble to playing and recording VGM at his college, although he graduated from Berklee – which is obviously a lot different than MTU, and perform at concert venues and convention centers,” Sean says. Carlos is one of the figureheads of the VGM scene.

The Pixel Mixers community is another key influencer. Sean describes it as “a tight-knit group of musicians of all instruments, genres, and countries of origin dedicated to making collaborative albums dedicated video games/franchises. Everyone here is super supportive of one another, and internet collaborations are very common.” Sean has used Pixel Mixers to collaborate on piano and percussion with dozens of people around the world in a fun and safe environment.

Image of Sean Hanson, founder of the Video Game Music Ensemble at Michigan Tech, playing keyboards.
Sean Hanson, founder of the Video Game Music Ensemble at Michigan Tech.

An Ensemble is Born at Michigan Tech

Thanks to Ryan and Sean, video game music took root here. Now there’s thirty active members. There’s another seventy interested people on Discord. To Ryan, “It’s a great intersection of interests, so when I found someone else (Sean) with the same interests, it was only natural to want to make fun music with like-minded people.”

Adam Meckler, Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan Technological University says “The formation of the VGM Jazz Ensemble is a great example of how creative, resourceful, and motivated our students are here at Tech. All of the credit for VGM’s success and growth goes to Ryan and Sean, who organize all of the rehearsals, arrange all of the music, and rehearse the band in preparation for performances. I am just glad that I have a platform to give them performance opportunities so they can show off all their hard work. Bravo Ryan, Sean, and band!”

So how did it begin? According to Ryan and Sean the VGM Ensemble happened spontaneously. After a Research & Development (R&D) Jazz Band rehearsal, Sean was playing “Space Junk Galaxy” on piano from Super Mario Galaxy. Ryan Briggs (the R&D bass player) took notice of this, and came over to talk about it. The conversation turned to their favorite game soundtracks (Ryan’s primarily The Legend of Zelda and Sean’s primarily Pokemon). Next they were talking about forming a small group. They sought the advice of Adam Meckler.

Sean continues “We decided to choose Thursday nights as our main rehearsal day since the band room was usually open then and also didn’t interfere with any other of the ensembles at MTU. We also asked Zane Smalley to play drums for us – and we’ve since learned that drummers are the ones who control the rehearsal schedule. A few more people joined in (trumpet, trombone, alto sax, and tenor sax), and we mostly just played a few video game songs casually. VGLeadSheets is an extremely helpful database full of fan-arranged lead sheets of various VGM pieces, so we mostly played these for the first few months. At this time, we didn’t really have any end-goals or performances in mind – I was just happy to have a chance to play some of my favorite songs from games with other people. Unfortunately, in March 2020 we all know what happened, and then COVID made us go on indefinite hiatus.”

By Spring 2021 COVID restrictions eased. The VGM Ensemble started using the band room. Advertising on the MTU student Discord, subreddit, and word of mouth helped with recruitment. Ryan and Sean began to create their own arrangements which the ensemble rehearsed. The ensemble got its big break in March  2021. Adam Meckler offered to let them perform between bands at the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Concert in March 2021 (performance timestamps are at 28:46 and 1:10:53). The band also opened the 2022 festival in March 2022. And Sean recorded a session for an album in April 2021 which he plans to release soon.

By Fall of 2021 membership in the band essentially doubled thanks to interest from freshmen. Ryan and Sean decided to organize their own concert and worked with George Hommowun (Rozsa Production Manager) to get it scheduled. In November 2021 they had their  first concert and filled their allotment of seats (don’t forget, capacity restrictions were still in place). 

“Hands down, our November concert “Playing With Power!” was my favorite moment of the ensemble.” Sean adds, “Doing something like this has been a dream of mine since my senior year of high school, and seeing it become a real thing actually made me tear up a bit. Seeing a full house audience also surprised me, considering we only had our concert information finalized and advertising ready less than a week before the performance – on top of it being right before Thanksgiving break when people were heading home.” Sean graduated soon after. He continues to write arrangements for the ensemble. Ryan has taken on the primary leadership role.

Video Game Music Ensemble Helps Sean and Ryan Grow

Leading the VGM Ensemble is not without its challenges. For Ryan, it has been learning how to play music while leading at the same time. Being aware of what others are playing while you are trying to play your notes can be a multi-tasking nightmare. And doing it while not having a background in music education is an added challenge. As Ryan relates, “I have no background in running and teaching an ensemble. I always took this aspect of it for granted. Band directors made it seem easy, partly due to their experience. They always had a plan.”

Sean supplements, “I’ve learned that there’s a LOT more that goes into organizing an ensemble than just the stuff we see on the surface. Even something as simple as organizing rehearsal schedules can be a lot of work – since we had to account for everyone’s personal schedules, the times the band room is actually available, and even times when parking is enforced or no. I also mentioned earlier that the drummer is truly the person who decides the rehearsal time – since if they can’t make it… you’re not having an ensemble.”

He also learned how to be flexible and to work with the strengths of the team to create success for all. “Since we’re not a music school, we have to account for the different skill levels of musicians here. Since we wanted our ensemble to be available to everyone regardless of proficiency and instrument, writing arrangements that everyone can play while still having fun can sometimes be difficult – I found that out the hard way last year when I arranged “Guile’s Theme” from Street Fighter II in its original key (concert C# minor)… yeah, safe to say some of the wind players were not happy with me. But at the same time, this opens up creative possibilities for arrangements. One of the best examples I can use is our arrangement of “Big Blue” from F-Zero. The original track is very obviously written and played for a computer/electronic instrument with triplet runs at 210 beats per minute. Since these are clearly not playable for most humans, we decided to slow things down into a funk arrangement instead – which everyone enjoyed and appreciated,” Sean says.

Sean Hanson, founder of the Video Game Music Ensemble at Michigan Tech has arranged many video game scores.
Sean Hanson’s arrangement of Monster House.

Why Does Music Thrive at Michigan Tech?

Michigan Tech has a supportive environment for students passionate about music. As Ryan observes, “Tech has a concentrated community of passionate people who are drawn to each other and want to help each other, build each other up. There is no music major here which helps to reduce competition. We’re all in it together and building each other up. It’s a great environment for getting feedback too.” And music runs much deeper for students like Ryan. He invokes a line he often heard from his mother, “While I am in Engineering I will be able to feed my family. But music will feed my soul.” Ryan hopes to continue to cultivate his passion for music.

With nine different bands and ensembles, two choirs, a symphony orchestra, practice facilities, a sound lab and a recording studio, the McArdle Theatre, and the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts, Michigan Tech has great facilities to let students exercise their creative muscles and hone their craft. Ryan has taken advantage of the variety of opportunities in music at Michigan Tech. As mentioned earlier, he plays in the R&D Jazz Band. He also plays in the Campus Concert Band and serves as one of the trumpet section leaders for Huskies Pep Band. “Pep Band is so much fun! There is no band like it,” he beams. “Pep Band was my first group of friends on campus. Everyone is looking for a group to belong to when they step foot on campus. Some of my best friends are from pep band.”

Image of the Michigan Tech Huskies Pep Band
Ryan Briggs (back row, upper left) and the Huskies Pep Band.

Sean points out other opportunities for music such as informal jam groups that pop-up around campus. “There’s also a surprisingly active local music scene for those who would rather play independent of the school – and several venues such as the Orpheum in Hancock and Bonfire in Houghton. And then if you’re an electronic musician/producer, there’s a student Discord server full of electronic musicians to discuss ideas and share works. There’s definitely more than you would expect from a small town like Houghton.”

Music and Sound As Part of Their Future

What does the future hold for Ryan and Sean? Ryan is currently president of the Theme Park Engineering Group at Tech and dreams of a career in theme park entertainment. He’s more succinct about his five year goal. “I want to be working on one of the coasts. I want to be a Disney Imagineer.” He wants “to work on something that makes someone smile.” Combining his engineering skill with his passion for music is a great recipe for creating a satisfying theme park experience.

Sean graduated and has started his career at an architecture firm in St. Paul, MN. He designs systems (e.g. HVAC and plumbing) for government contracted buildings (schools, hospitals, police stations, etc.). At Tech he discovered he enjoyed working with acoustics and sound. “I took Acoustics and Noise Control as a technical elective in Spring 2021. It was hands down the coolest class I’ve ever taken in my college career – since I got to geek out STEM-wise and audio-wise at the same time. I’m especially interested in room acoustics and studio design. So when I interviewed for the company I’m currently at, I brought up my music background and how a healthy noise environment can enhance a building space (they liked it enough to give me a job, so there’s that). I don’t work with acoustic-related information very often, but I do occasionally use simulation programs to see how much noise an HVAC duct is making in a room – and if there’s any changes that need to be made accordingly.”

Sean continues to be involved in music as a side career. His personal VGM covers are available on commercial streaming services and stores (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.), which generates a small amount of revenue every month. “While it isn’t nearly enough to sustain me as a career, it’s nice to receive an extra $20 every now and then.”

Making Music Part of the Michigan Tech Experience

As Ryan and Sean’s story shows, music is a fun and rewarding part of the Michigan Tech experience. This is the place where you can find people who share your passion in music. Where you can partake in a variety of music experiences and genres. Hone a craft that allows you to exercise your creative muscle. 

Ryan shares, “People that are here are here because they want to be here. They love what they are doing. You can come here and do your own thing. You have a special musical interest, you can start your own ensemble. We have a pirate choir. If you have an interest and it’s not already here, you can start it.”

Anyone want to start up a Folktronica, Pirate Metal or Math Rock Band?