Robin Beanland has worked at iconic videogame maker Rare for a quarter of a century. During that time he has worked on some of the biggest games ever released, including the company’s latest hit – Sea of Thieves. Robin recently won an Ivor Novello Award for Best Original Video Game Score for his work on the popular open-world adventure title.
Here, he talks about rubbing shoulders with the stars, his career at Rare and fans sending him cover versions of his music.
Role: Music Director at Rare
Lives: Near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in North West Leicestershire
Family: Wife and two sons
Pets: A beagle called Jasper
Hobbies: Cycling (Robin has cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats to raise money for videogame charity SpecialEffect)
Tell me about your current role
I write music for videogames at Rare Studios, and I’ve been doing that for around 25 years. When I started here in 1994 I developed the sound effects and the music, because there wasn’t a lot of memory in the hardware back then, but now I just focus on the music. I use a musical sound palette to try to define what the tone of a game is.
Do you have a favourite piece of music that you have written?
There’s a piece in in Sea of Thieves called Becalmed. When I wrote it, I remember trying to make the hurdy-gurdy a nice and pleasant instrument to listen to. I wasn’t sure whether the team would like it or not, but they did. Then, when the game was released, a lot of people created their own versions of Becalmed, which is amazing to me. It’s great that people take the time to do a cover version of your tune.
Do a lot of people do cover versions of your songs?
Yeah, they have on most of the games I’ve worked on. They send me links to their cover versions and ask me to listen to their versions. The first game I ever worked on was a game called Killer Instinct, and even today I still get people sending me heavy metal versions of pieces of music I wrote for that. It’s quite humbling, really. I sit in my little writing room in Twycross, the game is released and people really take to it.
A lot of people obviously love your work because you’ve just won an Ivor Novello Award…
It’s unbelievable to win. Just being nominated was amazing. I’ve been working professionally on music for 27 years, and during all that time I’ve read M Magazine (a monthly magazine published by PRS) and I’ve read about who won an Ivor that year. Every year I thought that it would be incredible to win, so to actually have one of my own is absolutely amazing. You don’t know who is going to win until they read the name out on stage, so it was pretty nerve-wracking. The awards ceremony was quite surreal – going to the event, winning, doing interviews, walking back to my seat as Mariah Carey is giving her video acceptance speech, then seeing Richard Ashcroft getting up on stage and accepting his award, and Deep Purple were sat on the table in front of me.
What does winning an Ivor Novello Award mean to you?
It’s such a prestigious award, and it means an awful lot because it’s your peers who vote for the winner. It’s just amazing. It feels good that video games are being considered now. In days gone past you would say to somebody I write music for games they would say “oh, you do that annoying ‘plink, plink fizz’ sounding music. It’s moved on a bit since then and for it to be in the Ivors is just amazing for games in general.
Music and sound are crucial parts of immersing players in games today
I think the instruments I used on Sea of Thieves really helped give the game its own identity. The first time I got the hurdy-gurdy out I was a bit scared of it; I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Then there’s the waterphone, which I used quite a lot in Sea of Thieves – in the Ferry of the Damned, for example. Sound is one of those things that people don’t notice it when it’s right, but they definitely notice it when it’s wrong. My job is to immerse people in the experience, and if anything breaks them out of that then I haven’t done my job properly.
What were your previous roles?
I started playing trumpet when I was seven, and by the time I was doing O-Levels I was getting into Miles Davis. There was a college near me in Leeds that had a good jazz course, and a guy there encouraged me to learn to play the keyboard, to understand chords. So, I got a keyboard and then joined a rock band called Brazil; we were named after the Terry Gilliam film. We did a Radio One session on Tommy Vance’s rock show. Unfortunately, the band broke up, so I started working in a studio and learning how to use all the equipment – reel to reels, synchronizing machines, samplers. I wrote the music for of a few TV series – a kids drama called Just Us, which was written by Kay Mellor – and a few adverts. Then my brother mentioned there was a company in the Midlands looking for musicians, and that was Rare.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Sometimes I do just stare at a blank canvas. Sometimes the music will land quickly and other times I have to really work at it, so it’s hard but enjoyable.
What’s the best part of your job?
I love all of my job. I love coming to Rare every day; I have a stress-free cycle to the office and then I sit in this amazing studio full of instruments. I get the opportunity to learn how to play fantastic instruments, be creative with them and then write and record music.
What inspires you?
The people I work with. When you see the graphics and some of the stuff they’re doing with the software, you realise you need to step up and make a good job of the music. Another thing that inspires me is that I work in such an interactive medium. Depending on what the character is doing and the way he or she is moving around the level, they are triggering different music cues; they’re becoming the arranger of the music. So I have to think of ways to get the player excited about the experience.
What’s your favourite Microsoft product?
OneDrive. It’s great for storing and sharing files; I take a photo with my phone and it’s sent straight to the cloud. I can always get to my stuff and it’s frictionless.
What’s the first piece of technology that you got excited about?
When I was in the band I got a loan and bought a sampler called an Ensoniq Mirage. It cost about £1,200 and it could sample eight seconds of sound. By today’s standards it was terrible quality but it was amazing at the time. It was unbelievable to hear human voices coming out of a keyboard. During one gig, our drummer knocked it off its stand and it smashed on the floor. I hadn’t even finished paying off the loan. Drummers, eh?