Animal Crossing: New Harmonies

James Parkinson
James Parkinson
Animal Crossing: New Harmonies

Animal Crossing is one of the most beloved Nintendo franchises. The social simulator game is all about living your best life, and fans love the series for its colourful, cute art style and relaxed vibe. Central to the game’s success are its extensive customisation options and social features. But much of the charm of Animal Crossing comes from its delightful music. In this episode, composer and YouTube educator Scruffy breaks down the music behind the hit series.

 TRANSCRIPT


JAMES PARKINSON: Animal Crossing is one of the most beloved Nintendo franchises. The social simulator game sees you play as a human character that lives in a town with anthropomorphic animals. You spend your time decorating your home, catching bugs, fishing and crafting. Fans love the series for its colourful, cute art style and totally relaxed vibe, because Animal Crossing is all about living your best life. Its gameplay is open-ended, and the worst thing that can happen is getting stung by a wasp.  

JAMES PARKINSON: In March of 2020, the release of New Horizons, the latest title in the series, coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. As many places around the world went into lockdowns and the future was filled with uncertainty, a new Animal Crossing game had arrived at the perfect time. For so many players, it was a comforting escape, and a relaxing way to connect with friends. New Horizons became the second best-selling game on the Nintendo Switch, with over 30 million copies sold.

JAMES PARKINSON: Central to the game’s success are its extensive customisation options and social features. But much of the charm of Animal Crossing comes from its music.

JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.

JAMES PARKINSON: Animal Crossing debuted in 2001 on the GameCube, and there’s since been four subsequent titles in the main series, plus a few spin-offs. Each game has a unique theme. For example, Wild World is set in a small town, while New Horizons takes place on a deserted island. While some of the development team has changed over the years, composer Kazumi Totaka has been the sound director on most of them, resulting in a consistent approach to the music.

SCRUFFY: So in the first game, Animal Crossing for the GameCube, Kazumi Totaka said that the music is meant to sound electronic, but played in a way that sounds acoustic. Because we really resonate with acoustic sounds, they sound relaxing, in a way. But you can't just record live instruments on the GameCube because that would be a huge sound file. And there are nearly 200 songs in the original Animal Crossing. There are nearly 500 sound effects at least. So you really have to cut down on which sounds you use in order to fit all of that on the disc. So a lot of these sounds are not only played on a MIDI keyboard, an electronic keyboard, but they sound a little more electronic, deliberately.

JAMES PARKINSON: This is Scruffy, from the YouTube channel of the same name.

SCRUFFY: I'm a YouTube educator, and a composer, and a 3D artist. And I put all of those together to create educational videos.

JAMES PARKINSON: Scruffy has spent a lot of time analysing Animal Crossing music because he actually composed his own original Animal Crossing inspired soundtrack.

SCRUFFY: So you'll notice across the whole gamut of Animal Crossing music, that it's acutely sparse music, there's never that much going on. And there's never going to be, let's say more than four to six instruments playing any one theme. And that's deliberate because just like the art - like the visual art of the game - the music wants to leave a lot of room for the players imagination, and for their style of play. Some players just like to chill out in Animal Crossing. They like to stand or sit somewhere, and just vibe to the music. Whereas some players prefer to be more active with it.

JAMES PARKINSON: Music can be integrated into video games in lots of different ways. It can be dynamic and react to your actions in the game, or it might be more static. But Animal Crossing is different again, because it simulates the passing of time.

SCRUFFY: Animal Crossing has a unique, I'd say problem to solve, when it comes to music. Because it's not like other games where when you save and quit, that state of the game is just preserved, and you come back to exactly that when you come when you log back on. In Animal Crossing, the game is referencing a real-time clock. So if you leave at 3pm and then come back at 8pm, the game will have changed to represent what it looks like at 8pm. And the most obvious way is with a day/night cycle, and the music has to follow that as well.

JAMES PARKINSON: One of the most appealing aspects of Animal Crossing is that you can choose to play the game however you want - there are no rules. But from a game design perspective, it encourages you to play at a slower pace, checking in for a little bit each day. It also rewards you for switching up the time of day that you play. Certain bugs or fish can only be caught at night time, and shops are only open between certain hours for you to purchase items. If you only ever played at the same time each day, you’d always hear the same piece of music.

SCRUFFY: So the way that it works is that every hour, there's a new song that's about maybe a minute or a minute and a half long. But that's perfectly, seamlessly loopable so that it can play for the entire hour. And it can score anything that you're doing - which, it helps that Animal Crossing is kind of a laid back, relaxed game. There's never going to be that engaging of action that forces the music to become really strong and engaging. It can always be sort of laid back. And I believe Kazumi Totaka said that it scores the space between the sounds, the sounds of gameplay. So it really does take kind of a hands off, laid back approach. But every hour, it changes to a new song. And that helps reinforce this idea that this game is moving at the same pace as real life. The day is progressing at the same rate.

JAMES PARKINSON: At the top of each hour, the current song that’s playing will conclude, the clocktower in the village plaza will chime, then the next song will begin.

JAMES PARKINSON: As the day progresses, the music evolves to fit the mood. Songs in the morning hours are typically upbeat, and in the evening, the tone shifts to be more relaxing.

SCRUFFY: You'll notice that throughout the daytime, from let's say 8am to maybe 6pm, the music is a little more lively. The tempo will increase a little bit, from each hour to hour. And you won't notice much of melodies throughout these tunes, because hearing a melody for an hour would get pretty tiring. But you will notice just a bit more active gestures in the music. The music encourages your action just a little more. And then once the sun sets and you get down into, let's say 6pm, to maybe even midnight, but at least 11pm, the music calms down a little, the tempo goes a little slower. It's still got its quirks here and there, but it's generally calming the action down a little, as you would in the evening, in real life.

JAMES PARKINSON: There are some exceptions to this though, depending on which game in the series you’re talking about. Once you get past midnight, the music shifts again.

SCRUFFY: An interesting thing happens in the original game, when it gets to midnight and past there. The music isn't necessarily sleepy, it's actually rather weird, I would have to put it that way. It gets a little weird, like 2AM in the original Animal Crossing sounds like this raving party, with brass and a drum machine, and the tempo suddenly spikes up, and it's really loud and flamboyant.

SCRUFFY: And this is happening at 2am. So you'd have to be playing at 2am to hear this music. So the original game had some interesting choices, especially when it came to late night themes.

JAMES PARKINSON: New Horizons continues this idea but takes a slightly different approach with the track for 3AM.

SCRUFFY: They have this muted trombone and really plucky acoustic bass and just some sparse chords on acoustic guitar. The whole thing sounds like it's mocking you for being awake this late. It's got really, like, quirky silly harmonies to it and the muted trombone. Like, that's the icing on the cake there.

JAMES PARKINSON: Animal Crossing also takes advantage of a real-time calendar, so seasonal changes are an important component too. Depending on the time of year, and the weather, you’ll hear alternate versions of the songs.

SCRUFFY: During the winter, depending on hemisphere, during whatever season is cold, snow will start to fall in the Animal Crossing world. And during that time, the music changes to reflect it. It's only when it's actually snowing - not just when there's snow on the ground. It's dependent on a random system, that some days allows it to be snowing all day. And when that happens, the music will chime in with some sleigh bells, and just some like light, really high Bell percussion that either adds to or replaces some of the instruments. And it just makes it feel a bit more whimsical. And it definitely makes it feel like snowing is something special, because it doesn't happen for most of the year. Same thing when it rains, the music will either - it will often replace one of its instruments with something else, that again, fills in the space that's left by the sound of the rain.

JAMES PARKINSON: As the seasons change, seasonal events also occur in-game, where you’ll hear unique music that only occurs at that specific time.

SCRUFFY: They can have a Halloween event, for example. Or all of the villagers that you can keep in your town have specific birthdays that are, like, canonically stored. So each of them will track their birthday, they'll remind you of it. And then on that birthday, you can give them a gift, and you might hear a specific piece of birthday music that wouldn't otherwise be used throughout the game, including yours. You can also input your birthday. And if you play on that day, then you'll get stuff that you wouldn't have gotten for the rest of the year. And if you miss it, then you have to wait another year to experience that again. So I like to call it an element of discovery. There's an element of the player discovering music in this game because of their devotion to it or their curiosity about it.

JAMES PARKINSON: Exclusive music is also used to highlight its importance, like during the prologue. Starting a new game in Animal Crossing signifies the beginning of a new adventure in this world. The prologue music not only matches that feeling tonally, but once you progress past that stage of the game, you’ll never hear it again.

JAMES PARKINSON: The hourly music tracks are also confined. You only hear them when you’re outside.

SCRUFFY: If you go into any buildings, then the music will change. You'll have some music that's specific to a building like a shop…

SCRUFFY: Or you'll have a soundscape, and perhaps no music when you enter your own home. Because another big aspect of Animal Crossing is customisation. There are certain things in each game - more with each progressive game - that you get to choose and customise. And that includes music that plays in your home, for example, you could place down a radio and have it cycle between all sorts of other songs that you perhaps wouldn't be able to hear otherwise. And that forms this continuous stream of music. And that determines when the music, specifically, should change.

JAMES PARKINSON: The setting for each game influences the music too, particularly in later titles. Wild World and City Folk, the second and third mainline games in the series, share much of the same soundtrack. Stylistically, they’re very similar to the original game, with an electronic sound, but the concept has been expanded.

SCRUFFY: The music is now tied a bit more together by the main theme of the whole game. There's a melody to that whole game. That sounds like this, if I can play it real quick. [Scruffy plays the Wild World theme on keyboard] That permeates the whole soundtrack. Not only is it the main theme, but now it shows up in pieces, almost every hour of the day.

JAMES PARKINSON: For example, here’s the song for 12pm.

JAMES PARKINSON: And here’s the track for 3pm.

SCRUFFY: And that energy cycle of the soundtrack is still there. But now I'd say it's a little more cohesive. It's tied together a little more by using similar instruments. A similar melody throughout the day. And again, not a full melody that encourages anything, just bits and pieces that are played very slowly, almost imperceptibly. It's like this, the melody is just sort of floating through the entire day. And to me, it's like it subtly reminds you that you're playing Animal Crossing. In the original game, none of the themes necessarily sounded that much alike, beyond using some similar instruments. In Wild World, and then especially later in New Leaf, the ensemble that is playing this music is well defined.

JAMES PARKINSON: Here’s the main theme for Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

JAMES PARKINSON: And this is 9AM from New Leaf.

SCRUFFY: And then, when we get to New Horizons, the most recent game, the soundtrack took quite a bit different direction. Because it's set on a deserted island.

SCRUFFY: They wanted to create a new soundtrack that sounds, like, easy going, kind of free - especially since there's so much customisation in this game that wasn't quite in the previous games. And they really wanted to create a low barrier of entry for this new soundtrack.

SCRUFFY: So not only did they go with all live instruments, or mostly live instruments in this game, they have an acoustic guitar. They often include some piano or a keyboard. A lot of like, plucked stringed instruments, sometimes some brass when they need to elevate and engage the player just a little more. But now, it's like it sounds like this really warm acoustic soundtrack. It's very easygoing.

SCRUFFY: The one thing that's consistent about that soundtrack is that the energy throughout the day is still cycling that way. Daytime themes are a bit more excited.

SCRUFFY: The late night themes are a bit more relaxed. Especially when it comes to the evening before midnight. The soundtrack is really starting to tell you, like, “Goodnight”. Like, “ We'll see you later, you should probably be heading to bed soon”. And that's - I really like that idea, that the soundtrack is kind of not only relaxing you, but also keeping tabs on what time it is. Just in case you get immersed in the world, and you kind of forget what time it is, because a lot of people like to escape into this game.

JAMES PARKINSON: Coming up, the music theory behind Animal Crossing’s distinct sound, and why it evokes that warm and fuzzy feeling. That’s after the break.

[AD BREAK]

JAMES PARKINSON: As important as music is to the Animal Crossing experience, it still has to be balanced with all the other sounds that you’re hearing as you play. The sparse nature of the music means it never gets in the way of the sound effects. Here’s Scruffy.

SCRUFFY: And there you're going to hear a lot more of the specific, cartoonish sound effects that are mapped to all these player actions. For example, shaking a tree. It's this really loud, tree rustling noise for just a second. And then if there's fruit on that tree, or if something happens to fall out of the tree, then you'll get this little slide whistle sound as it falls to the ground.

SCRUFFY: And then you get this cute little synthesised noise, if your player happens to pick that up, and put it in their pocket with another little loud, rustling noise.

SCRUFFY: They're all very dry sounds, which is to say there's not like a bunch of reverb on them, there's not any clear noticeable digital effects on them, they all sound a bit more just like real recordings.

SCRUFFY: Except for the cartoonish sounds, which are clearly just meant to clarify what action is happening, like falling. Or if something falls kind of slowly.

SCRUFFY: Depending on your level of activity, you're going to hear a lot of those sounds, at your own rhythm. And so the music has to simultaneously stay out of the way of that. But also keep things going and keep time flowing, if you're not doing anything in particular. So it comes to this happy medium, where it does have, you know, a steady rhythm, it does have harmonies, that kind of cycle through each other.

JAMES PARKINSON: As a social life simulator game, Animal Crossing is mirroring our own world by referencing a real-time clock and calendar. Every in-game hour in Animal Crossing equals an hour in the real world, and the music changes to match. But it’s not practical to create songs that span an hour in length. Instead, each piece of music is about a couple minutes long, and it’s made to loop over and over. Structurally, a lot of music can be written to loop, but creating something that doesn’t sound overly repetitive in this way takes a bit of craft.

SCRUFFY: So there's a couple of tricks employed to make sure that the music does that.

JAMES PARKINSON: The first is how the music treats harmonies.

SCRUFFY: A lot of harmonic content in Animal Crossing is designed so that you have a clear centre of the music, you have a clear key. But you're never really resolving to that key in the way that you would expect. And what I mean by resolution is that music is all about creating tension, and then resolving it through some sort of resolution chord. At least in the tonal world. So if I have, for example, the chord F major. [Scruffy plays an F major chord on keyboard] It's a really nice place to be, it sounds very pleasant. If I introduce a chord that we - a chord after that one, like G minor 7 here [Scruffy plays a G minor 7 chord on keyboard], that creates some tension because we're suddenly not where we used to be. It doesn't sound like the home that we just established. And there's a desire, according to the music, to get back to that point. So one thing we could do is go to C7 [Scruffy plays a C7 chord on keyboard], which has a special relationship with F major, where if you follow it up [Scruffy plays a C7 and F major chord on keyboard], it just sounds so buttery and resolved. Like the problem that we just made for ourselves is suddenly solved and we're back home in the most, like, delightful way that we can create. Animal Crossing doesn't do that. And it's interesting you think that it would, because this game is all about relaxing. But if you were to hear that over and over for an hour, like the spell would definitely be broken. So what Animal Crossing will do, sometimes it will, instead of having, let's say, we’ll start an F major [Scruffy plays an F major chord on keyboard], we'll go to that problem chord, G minor 7 [Scruffy plays a G minor 7 chord on keyboard], instead of going up here, where that note, E, can just step up to F. Instead, you could have something a bit more ambiguous like [Scruffy plays a C suspended chord on keyboard ] that chord, that is called a suspension chord, C suspended, because we're suspending the note F. And now you'll realise that that note follows us throughout the entire chord progression. That makes it so that we actually don't move as much as we were moving. And yet, it still sounds, like, satisfactory and resolves well. And that just makes it a little easier to listen to when we have to listen to it over and over.

SCRUFFY: Same thing can occur with, like, substituting all the chords for something different that sounds maybe a little jazzy, you know, it still comes back to F in a resolving way. But it doesn't sound like we had to cause as much of a problem first, and then erase as much tension through a resolution. It sounds like we're closer to home the whole time. These are like subtle ways that the harmony in Animal Crossing can create a sense of like, home.

JAMES PARKINSON: This approach is even present in the main themes, particularly for New Horizons.

SCRUFFY: New Horizons, dips way into that idea of very easygoing, very low wall of entry in its main theme, where it goes [Scruffy plays New Horizons Main Theme on keyboard] And again, another suspended chord, it's not going to resolve back to F. It just feels a little jazzier, and this one I think returns to the roots of inviting the player in. But it's not played on piano this time. It's played on, you know, flugelhorn and ukulele, and some guitar and eventually, other instruments are added in, if you let the menu continue to play this theme.

SCRUFFY: Another thing that happens is there's always a steady rhythm to a piece of music But sometimes it's not made all that clear, you'll have a lot of absence of notes in between notes. Especially like later at night, when it sounds like even the musicians are getting tired or sleepy. So you'll, you'll have a lot of space between notes that sometimes plays with rhythms, so you can't exactly expect a downbeat, or where the music might begin again.

SCRUFFY: And sometimes they'll even play with time signatures. So like, normally in a piece of music, you can count a specific amount of beats before the next measure. So often, you can count as 1-2-3-4, then back to 1-2-3-4, 1-2...and so on. Sometimes, Animal Crossing will inject one measure where there's only three beats, or one measure where there's only two beats. And the amount of space inside of that measure is enough that maybe you don't really notice. And then suddenly, the beginning of the piece has already gone by. And you just haven't noticed because the rhythm is either sparse enough or just latently playful enough that you can't come to expect it.

SCRUFFY: And the last thing that it can do, the last strategy that I've noticed across most of the Animal Crossing world, is modular composition. That is to say, you're not only choosing which instruments are playing in this ensemble, you're also building with them as though they were like building blocks or puzzle pieces. You create this one gesture, that an instrument or a group of instruments might play, and that's one block. And then you place that block on top of another block, and perhaps they're not the same length. So when you use one, again, it might occur in a different time and position relative to the other blocks. And you kind of build it that way. And that goes hand in hand with the idea that the rhythm is not always revealing itself, and sometimes playing with itself. And that way, you know, not only is that kind of easy to compose with, because you've got these larger chunks of music that you can place together. But that also makes it harder to discern when it looped. Because that's the most important point, it has to sound like it's just being played continuously. Otherwise, it will be very noticeable. And you'll be taken out of the experience a little.

SCRUFFY: One other thing I should mention that occurs in like a lot of video games nowadays, the way to do that with recordings of music, is that you have to expect that there will be a little bit of a tail end to what you're recording. You know, after you've finished the composition, there are still things that are going to be ringing, like a guitar. If you strum something, you've got to wait for that sound to stop. And then you take any of the sound that was in that tail end, and put it at the beginning of the next loop. So that it sounds like the musicians were - they didn't just stop playing, they went into the next loop iteration. It's particularly difficult when you have live musicians, because you have to make it sound like they're starting the next loop, even though they aren't. You have to make it sound like they're playing this for one straight hour, even though they're only playing it for two minutes at most. So there's a lot of interesting technical challenges to get it sounding seamless. And that was actually an advantage of earlier games because they're all digital, they're all playing MIDI instruments. So you can literally tell them to just keep playing for an hour. It's a machine, it can handle it.

JAMES PARKINSON: If you search on YouTube for Animal Crossing music, you’ll find a heap of curated playlists with titles like, “Relaxing Rainy Nighttime”, and “Animal Crossing Music to Study, Sleep and Chill to.” There’s a reason these simple tunes evoke such heartwarming feelings. It partly comes back to the use of harmonies, and subtle melodies that are sprinkled throughout the soundtrack.

SCRUFFY: Harmony is extremely important to that feeling of, like, creating a home, and then not traveling too far from it, and just returning right to it. Another thing is melody. So, in New Horizons in particular, every hourly theme has some element of the main melody to the game. [Scruffy plays the New Horizons Main Theme on keyboard] That's all played using the F major scale, which is, you know, it's very, again, buttery scale. We've all heard it a lot of times before, and especially played on a warm flugelhorn, it just sounds really, really welcoming.

SCRUFFY: And then you have other instruments, such as ukulele, that give you a bit more of the sense of the island side of it. And that's, you know, that's specific to New Horizons because it takes place on an island. But you'll find that that melody, even just for notes of it, will pervade every part of the hourly music and a lot more of the soundtrack, really. It becomes a motif. And that reminds you of - not only what game you're playing, but what home you've created. You know, a lot of people think of Animal Crossing as, like, a second home.

SCRUFFY: I will say that there's one element that kind of accidentally becomes part of the DNA of Animal Crossing. And that's specifically either what acoustic sounds are used in the later games, or what electronic sounds are used in the early games. In the earliest games, you've got a lot of specific Yamaha keyboards that are only scoring the game, because that's what the composers have access to. And that's what will fit on the disc or the cartridge. So by coincidence, these sounds become associated with a lot of people's beloved music that they listen to all the time. And I suppose not by entire coincidence, it is the composer’s choice. But it's just interesting that out of all the sounds that could have been used, there are very specific, digital MIDI sounds that become just ingrained in our memories, that we come to associate so fondly with the Animal Crossing series.

JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much to Scruffy. Be sure to look him up on YouTube for some excellent game audio content. And coming up next, right after the credits, Scruffy tells us how he composed his own original Animal Crossing soundtrack, called Taking Root, and breaks down some of its tracks. That’s in a moment.

CREDITS

JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.

JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, and our artwork is by Keegan Sanford. Additional music this episode from Breakmaster Cylinder.

JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. You can join our Discord community as well. And if you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend and leave a review for Gameplay on Apple Podcasts. And as always, you’ll find transcripts, links and further reading on our website, gameplay.co.

POST CREDITS

JAMES PARKINSON: As you’ve just heard, there’s nothing else in video games quite like Animal Crossing’s music. But given his love for the series and his appreciation for game audio, Scruffy wanted to try composing a soundtrack from scratch, taking inspiration from the whole franchise. And he called it 'Taking Root'.

SCRUFFY: So Animal Crossing: Taking Root is a fictional Animal Crossing game that I came up with, because I wanted to try studying the styles of composition in Animal Crossing games, and see if I can come up with this sort of idea. These 24 different songs that can play for each hour of the day, and that can loop seamlessly for exactly an hour. And then during that process, like, ideas about how this game would work actually sprung up. So I think that's why I went with like, making it an Animal Crossing idea, instead of just saying, “I'm going to make a 24 song album”. Because you can ground the music in something that can invite, like a player or like, invite conversation about how Animal Crossing works, and what kind of game it is, and how it behaves relative to its soundtrack. And yeah, now it's become a full 24 song album. And on YouTube, each of these songs is looped for exactly one hour. So if you listen to the whole playlist of them, the whole thing lasts one day. And if you were to set the whole playlist to loop, then it would, like, keep track of your day, in the same way that Animal Crossing does.

JAMES PARKINSON: Imagining Taking Root as a game, and not just an Animal Crossing inspired soundtrack allowed Scruffy to really tap into what makes the music of these games so effective.

SCRUFFY: So I thought of this as a sequel to New Horizons where you've gone off on this deserted island tour, and you've made it into your own island and invited all your friends there. And now, you're coming back into the Animal Crossing mainland. So you're coming back ashore, on this town. And it's the town itself, it doesn't have anyone there anymore, because everyone's gone out to these islands. So, that loose amount of story aside, it's mainly a playground for you to create your own vision of a town and attract people back to it, attract villagers back to it, mainly by having specific attractions that are based off of what you, the person playing Animal Crossing, likes to do. And the way you would do that is by taking this train at a train station to one of several junctions that are all based off of a different activity. One could be based off of cooking, one could be based off of skiing. One could be based off of things that have been an Animal Crossing before, like finding fossils and collecting bugs, or fish. And each of these junctions would invite you to try some little mini game. And the more you came back day by day, and visited that place, the more that it would give you either souvenirs, or just little mementos of that activity. And then you could populate your town with that, until the point where you could literally install a ski slope in your town, or you can build a museum for all the fish and bugs that you've collected. Or you can just put specific activities in your town, not just decorations that could attract other villagers and other players. And that way, your town would be full of all the memories that you've made, and also plenty of things to do throughout the day. Yeah, that's what I've been figuring would be going on while you listen to this music. And of course, there'd be other tracks for when you go into an indoor space, or like when you're actually partaking in a little activity. If you're like playing checkers against a villager, or if you're bowling, or if you're skiing, no matter what you're doing, those would each have their own little slice of music to engage you during that. But otherwise, the music has to take all of that into account and say, “Okay, this town could be anything”. It could look like a space station, it could look like a pirate ship, it could just look like a normal town. The music has to be kind of nondescript. It can't describe anything specific necessarily. And of course, unless I want it to. But I wanted to kind of follow in the spirit of Animal Crossing soundtracks and make something that could play over any style of these towns.

JAMES PARKINSON: Scruffy also created a main theme for Taking Root to tie it all together. He hadn’t finished mastering it at the time of our interview, but it will be published when it’s complete.

SCRUFFY: I had the main theme in mind, the whole time I was composing these. It started out as just this little gesture [Scruffy plays a melody in F sharp major on the keyboard] in F sharp major. And that started to pervade most of the hourly themes, just like New Horizons, or New Leaf or Wild World - especially Wild World would do. Both but I only had like, little tastes of gestures like that. I knew I wanted to make them consistent, but I didn't have a full theme until I finished the whole thing, and I could draw context from each of those. So now it's got chords under it [Scruffy plays a melody on the keyboard], and it starts with the F major scale, but then it goes to that place, which is a little jazzier, you know. I can't compose anything without just a little hint of jazz in it.

JAMES PARKINSON: And just like the Animal Crossing series, instrumentation was also important.

SCRUFFY: I try to use acoustic instruments wherever I can. Because I do like how inviting and just how real they sound. So like, if I needed a guitar sound, then most of the time, I would actually take out a guitar. And even though I'm not an expert guitarist, I would just practice a part until I could feasibly play it for that one section. And the same goes for, like accordion, and at times the bass, when I needed it to have the resonance that a real electric bass has. But yeah, other times it's either a virtual instrument that's emulating a real instrument, like this piano, this is the exact piano sound that I used in this album. Or it's a synthesiser that is specifically emulating a decades old Yamaha keyboard. Because I wanted that authentic Animal Crossing GameCube sound.

JAMES PARKINSON: A single song took Scruffy about 2 hours to write, and the entire album three months to complete. But the process of just analysing Animal Crossing music in detail, in order to replicate it was extensive.

SCRUFFY: So for studying Animal Crossing music, I had to listen to everything, every hourly theme from every game, and even some of the music that plays in interior buildings and some of the KK Slider music. Because I wanted to get a feel for, not only the mood that every hour seemed to set, but also the specific instruments that were employed during each hour. And not how I could copy those, but which ones were most important to emulate in an hour of this fictional game. And when I had all that, I created a spreadsheet with every hour on it. And I assigned a mood to each one. So for example, 8AM, 9AM, 10AM, they're more about waking up, greeting your day. And then 3PM, 4PM, 5PM, those are more about settling into the afternoon, maybe having a relaxing break, or doing something in your house. Even if you wouldn't be hearing it while you're inside your house, it's still music that invites you to enjoy the afternoon in any regard. And 5PM, in particular, has become notorious in any Animal Crossing game, for being one of the best themes in the entire soundtrack. It's just consistently 5PM, for some reason, is just the one that everyone wants to listen to. So I felt a great deal of pressure to make that one really resonate. And thankfully, I wasn't alone on that, I was able to enlist the help of a fellow composer, Rudd, who played - who helped me compose some of that theme - and played accordion on it. And I can't thank him enough for that, because it really elevated the piece, beyond what I could have done alone. But before I even decided on what to do with that, I had listed all of the moods of these different hours. Particularly in the late night, there was some things about the original Animal Crossing that I wanted to reference. For example, 2AM being kind of this loud, rambunctious party, and not trying to sleep, because you've already been through all the other evening hours, you might as well stay up. I wanted 3AM to be a bit spooky. Because there's this little, I wouldn't call it a running gag, but just sort of a little running detail about Animal Crossing games, where 3AM, some kind of spooky, unexpected things start to happen. For example, if you're watching any TV, it will cut its feed, and it will just go to a placeholder screen. And then in New Horizons at 3:33am, something really weird and kind of alien will broadcast on that TV, while it's got this dead air theme. But once I had had all those directional notes written down, I wrote down all the instruments that I wanted to use, and I made sure that no more than five or six were playing, any particular hour. And if I used one in an hour, then it didn't get used again until at least two or three or four hours later.

JAMES PARKINSON: Sticking to the same principles that Animal Crossing employs, with brighter, upbeat tracks during the day, more calming songs in the evening, and even paying tribute to some of the more quirky music of the early hours, is what really makes Scruffy’s soundtrack stand out. To give you just a snapshot of how the album came together, I asked him to break down a few of the songs.

SCRUFFY: So this is one of the earlier tracks that I composed, this is 8am. And yeah, you can hear that there's sort of a, there’s a simple melodic material over it. And it combines everything that I was talking about. You've got that accordion, which is a Yamaha emulation sound, entirely digital. You've got a pretty simple beat, and a pretty simple progression that don't go too far, harmonically. And you've got real, live clarinet. I do have a clarinet. I'm no clarinetist. But I was able to play these parts. And I just love how warm and full of personality raw, dry clarinet is. I'll compare that with the theme for noon. Here's that theme. So again, we've got a lot of electronic sounds, combined with that one more realistic sounding kalimba. And it all feels very small, it all feels like none of its intruding too much, it's very soft music. But at the same time, we are at the apex of the day. So this tempo is faster, you've got a little more percussion that's, like, I was always thinking it's encouraging you to run. I'll go to 4PM next. I guess we're going by intervals of four. By this time, we're getting well into the afternoon. Again, I wanted to encourage, like, easing into the afternoon, maybe doing something inside. So if you went outside, you would hear this much slower theme. There's just enough rhythmic play, and there's just few enough rhythmic elements that you can't tell where it's supposed to start. If we move down to 8pm, later at night, this one was a unique one. I wanted to make - I enjoyed writing 8AM so much, that when it came to 8PM, I made it an inversion of what we had heard in the morning. This is the melody for 8AM [Scruffy plays the 8AM melody on the keyboard]. And then when it comes to 8PM [Scruffy plays the 8PM melody on the keyboard], it just reverses the direction. Then I'm going to run all the way to 2AM. There's a lot more sleepy material in that late evening, that's really encouraging you to get to bed. And if you ignore all of it, if you keep playing that active play style, then you'll get to themes like 2AM, where it just throws all that out of the window. And yeah, that's sort of the cycle of the energy throughout the day in Animal Crossing: Taking Root.

JAMES PARKINSON: You can purchase Taking Root on Bandcamp. There’s a link to that in the episode description and on our website. Thanks so much again to Scruffy. I’m James Parkinson, and until next time, thanks for listening.


References:

Purchase Taking Root album by Scruffy

Stream Taking Root on YouTube

Wholesome Sound Design in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons - Theme Song Performance [Nintendo]



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