Creating Scores for Anime and Games with Dorico

By Hollin Jones

Kevin Penkin is based in Melbourne and is a BAFTA-nominated composer for Japanese animation and video games. He is best known for composing the award-winning score to “Made in Abyss” and the music to the game “Florence.” With Dorico at the heart of his creative process, Kevin has recorded with orchestras around the world. Here he shares his thoughts on the unique challenges of composing for the worlds of games and anime.

Can you tell us a little about your background as a musician? What got you interested in playing and composing and what instruments do you play?

My background is that I come from playing the flute but I moved into composing more during my high school years. I was playing games as a kid as well, which led to wanting to write music for that world. I also play the saxophone.

Did your career start with composing for films or for video games? Presumably you were a gamer yourself.

I absolutely was a gamer. I wish I played more today but time just feels so limited unfortunately. My first job was on a Japanese video game called “Norn 9.” When I started I didn’t have any experience or major reference point for live music. I don’t think I experienced a professional music studio until my very late teens or early 20s.

As far as your working process goes, how does it break down in terms of in-the-box vs. live recordings? Presumably this differs depending on the scope of the project and whether you can program it yourself or need to record other musicians.

Absolutely. Some tracks require fully live recording because a synth simply doesn’t do the job. For some projects you may need to be a little more picky due to various constraints, which might result in only one or two musicians being recorded for a track.

You completed a Master’s degree in Composition for Screen in 2013. Do you feel that was an important step in honing your skills as a composer? Did it change the way you approached composition?

I hadn’t conducted before going to college. That was my wakeup call that interactivity with live musicians was an incredibly valued part of my process. The live recording and studio recording techniques I learned during those years are a core reason why I am able to successfully complete all the professional sessions I do today.

Can you tell us what your first landmark composition project was and how it came about?

“Made in Abyss” was probably the most influential project I’ve done so far. I was fortunate to be working with the animation company Kinema Citrus on a few projects before “Made in Abyss” happened. Eventually they moved on to that project which was thankfully received very well by the anime community.

How does composing for anime and film differ from composing for games? Presumably it’s more free-flowing when you’re not writing lots of smaller cues, as you would for a game?

Anime has a very interesting system that requires significantly less “synchronised" film music and much more “Menu Music.” What that means is that you write music, away from the picture, to a brief. The music is then selected and fitted to picture by the sound team during the dubbing process. It definitely allows an additional degree of freedom when writing music, but of course it also means technically that you don’t know how the music is going to come out when combined with the scene.

How might a conversation with a director typically begin on a new project? At what point in the whole process do you become involved?

In anime and games I’ve been lucky to be brought in quite early. Time can be very helpful to let ideas just marinade for a while. So being able to be briefed months and months ahead of when music production actually starts can be great for creativity and mental preparation. Normally there’s a big “kick-off meeting” with the team where everyone introduces themselves. That’s normally the signal that the project is a go.

When you take the scores you’ve created using Dorico to the recording studio with the orchestra, do you find yourself making adjustments during the session?

Yes, without fail! The way I try and explain it is that I want to get the scores to a point where all dynamics and articulation are at a level of completion where the only thing that needs to be adjusted in the room is nuances. Time management is critical so using every minute just to craft an already completed work is best I feel.

I’m unbelievably happy with Dorico. Everything feels like it was made for the actual mind of a composer.

When did you start using Dorico and how does it help you achieve your creative vision? The fact that you can create your scores on a laptop must be very convenient.

I’m unbelievably happy with Dorico. Everything feels like it was made for the actual mind of a composer. It feels quite modular in terms of being able to bend the page around an idea rather than having to force the composition to bend around a limitation of the notation software. No crazy hacking required!

What’s the most challenging thing about composing a game or film soundtrack? It could be either a creative or a technical challenge.

Honestly, just getting the right idea down in the right way is probably the hardest part. If the core idea is solid, it tends to make all the processes that happen after that much more natural to get through.

Are any particular features or capabilities of Dorico that have proven especially helpful during either the composition or music preparation process? Could you name the top two or three features that really stand out for you?

Fanning accel/decel is a godsend. Recalling default format settings so that all scores are universally the same, and chaining inputs for dynamics makes the flow oh so smooth. Shout out also to how tuplets can be spelt out in such a specific way too. It’s sick. Oh! And being able to add and subtract additional lines for an instrument is just unbelievably useful. Major kudos to the team for making it so natural to interact with.