Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 11, 2012
Everyone of a certain age will remember the sprightly synthesizer tune that played as Mario scooted along in the wildly popular 1980s video game “Super Mario Brothers.” It stuck in your head, once you heard it, like peanut butter – crunchy and satisfying – and gave the little fellow with the big nose and funny cap who bounced along walls and ran atop clouds his defining personality and character.
The funny thing is, no one thinks to ask: who wrote the tune? *
Chris Granner understands the anonymity of composing soundtracks for pinball and video games. He does it for a living. Working from his south Evanston home, he writes tunes and creates assorted wheezes, whistles and whooshes that help bring the games to life.
Inspired by bowling and billiards, pinball was developed in Europe in the 1700s with the invention of the spring launcher, and caught on in the U.S. in the 19th century, according to Wikipedia. The business took off in the 1930s with the introduction of coin-operated games.
Mr. Granner came to the field indirectly. He studied composition and electronic music at the University of Illinois, which he says was “perfect training. I was making beeps and boops on giant supercomputers.” After working at a software company in Champaign, he joined Chicago-based Williams Electronics in 1984 as a sound engineer. Williams was one of the gaming industry’s leaders. These were pinball’s halcyon years. Games were made in Chicago, home also to Bally, Gottlieb and Stern, and sold by the tens of thousands to bars, arcades and entertainment centers worldwide.
In 1995 Mr. Granner jumped to a Japanese pinball startup, just when the market started to slump. Manufacturers were finding it hard to improve on the wildly popular Addams Family game, introduced in 1992, and merchants were keeping older games longer. Also, games designed for personal computers and game consoles such as PlayStation were drawing players away from the arcades.
So he went to work on his own, and has since contributed to many pinball and video game classics, such as Golden Tee Golf, The Simpsons Pinball Party, Terminator 3, Lord of the Rings, Elvis, The Sopranos, Wrestlemania 2005 and World Poker Tour. Currently he is working on a pinball game based on the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. He is responsible for all audio elements – writing the tunes, creating the sound elements, even hiring and recording voiceover talent.
“A pinball game like this is actually quite complex,” he points out from his basement office, cluttered with books, magazines, computers and a couple of classic pinball machines. “It has 128 different switches, some 100,000 lines of computer code and a playfield with ramps, flippers, loops, poppers, lights, bumpers, spinners and targets.”
Using special music software, Mr. Granner can whip up a fanfare, create a dramatic sound effect and write a tuneful melody borrowed from the movie’s famous songs, adapted to match the timing and action of the game. Some of his musical creations include recognizable versions of “Follow the Yellow-Brick Road,” “If I Only Had a Brain” and “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.” The intro music is based on “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” Other tunes are original. He has written 20 songs and composed some 250 sound effects for the game.
The audio effects cover the obvious – the rushing sound of the launch of the pinball up the ramp or the bells and chimes when points are scored, for instance – and also include short sequences such as a “flipper frenzy” when a player rolls over the triple score bonus. He composes the whoosh of a certain shot so that it ends with a subtle tailing off, which Mr. Granner says gives it “gesture and shape.” He aims for humor, drama and distinctiveness in his work.
He is also responsible for voiceovers of the major Oz characters, who are heard at key moments in the game, narrated by local actors. “It took more than a month just to hire the talent, but we’re lucky: Chicago has such an awesome stable of voiceover talent,” he said.
The game, licensed from the movie’s owner, Warner Brothers, has been in development two years and is now slated for release in December. Launch has been delayed due to the complexity of the equipment and the many designers and programmers involved.
The manufacturer, “Jersey Jack” Guarnieri, a game industry veteran, sings Mr. Granner’s praises. “He’s one of the best pinball artists on earth. Aside from being a great sound guy, he’s absolutely passionate about all aspects of the work. Somewhere on the credits of every great game is Chris’s name.”
As for the anonymity, Mr. Granner said, “It’s not so bad. My audience consists of a few hundred to maybe a thousand game designers, programmers, producers and collectors. It’s a small but dedicated following!”
* The composer of the Mario tune was Koji Kondo, considered an industry legend.