It was always music or nothing for Kevin Penkin. Born in the UK but raised in Australia, he started off his musical journey as a flutist around the age of 7 and played classical pieces. It wasn’t until he received his first home console, a Game Cube, along with Metroid Prime that he became exposed to video game music (VGM). Penkin quickly realized the kind of music he wanted to play and it matched that of the classical greats.
Today, Penkin’s name reverberates throughout the VGM and anime industry, just as much as his music does. His career led him to become a BAFTA-nominated and award-winning video game and anime composer who can proudly etch his name on the musical scores of world-renowned titles such as Made in Abyss and Tower of God.
The Sound of Games
“It’s been a combination of pure luck and a lot of hard hours to get to where I am today. Growing up, I knew this was what I wanted to do but there was no self-awareness of the financial consequences of pursuing such a specific genre. The transition to becoming a professional video game and anime music composer was just something that developed with time and perseverance,” says Penkin.
From the age of 18 onwards, the composer would spend an entire year saving up money to visit Japan during the Australian summer vacation period purely to network and to expose his compositions to the right individuals. While studying music, he also studied Japanese, which he notes has been exceptionally helpful, especially when working with Japanese industries.
While much of his work does originate from Japan, Penkin loves having his base of operations in Australia. “I’ve never been happier to be writing music in Australia,” he says. “There are places like Melbourne and Hobart which provide wonderful settings to feel inspired. But step further into the countryside and there’s nowhere else in the world that captures the feeling ‘middle of nowhere’. Sometimes silence can be the perfect setting to write music.”
A Harmonious and Symbiotic Relationship
Video game music might seem like a left-of-field genre of music to specialize in, but media composition has been around for a very long time. It refers to music that one produces for another medium. Penkin cites Early Romantic Era plays and tone poems as examples of this form of music. The commonality between them all is that they rely on a harmonious and symbiotic relationship between music and the media. Some VGM composers that Penkin admires are the likes of Darren Korb who composed the tracks behind the games Bastion and Transistor, and Ludvig Forssell who composed the soundtrack for Death Stranding.
“Making music for a video game or anime is an interesting way to express yourself through contributing to something that is inherently greater than yourself,” he says.
The process of composing music for an anime or a video game is a unique and involved one. Often it begins with Penkin receiving the source material or any relevant imagery. “I try to sonically identify the anime or the game. Think of it like a translation effort from what you see visually to how it can be represented through sound,” continues Penkin.
This, he says, is a technique called ‘word painting,’ where one composes music that reflects the literal meaning of a song’s lyrics or story elements. From here, he has an open dialogue with his clients as he shares his work in progress with directors and music producers before getting the approval to proceed with the recording.
Perfecting the Sound
“The fun part begins when it’s time to record. At this point, I’d say the project is 80 percent complete. The remaining 20 percent, you have leeway to adjust while you’re in the recording studio. You want to get your sheet music to a stage where you’re not dictating but massaging it to get the exact sound you desire,” says Penkin.
The time it takes to produce an entire suite of music for an anime depends on how much he has to make. This can range from a few songs to over 65 pieces of music. Something the size of 12 to 13 episodes could take between six and nine months at a comfortable pace, but Penkin admits some projects must be produced in less than two months, which can be stressful.
He mentions one of the best things about his career is the opportunity to regularly travel and be exposed to different cultures. Nashville, Vienna, London, Sydney, Boston and Tokyo are just some of the places he’s had the opportunity to record his work. Regardless of where he is, Penkin is very cognizant about working with the local community in a direct and respectful manner.
“It’s a deep honor to work with locals and in some cases, for them to play instruments that are unique to their culture,” he says. “I always want to make sure we’re respecting it as I don’t want to mess it up.”
Since the rise in popularity of anime, there too has been a significantly increased interest in individuals looking to pursue anime and VGM composing as a career. Penkin is excited to see this, but his biggest advice to those wanting to make it big is patience.
“I hope those coming into the field understand the time investment required,” he says. “There are so many routes to success. Some take longer than others. What’s most important is to develop a sound that is uniquely your own. We all begin with imitating our idols, me included, but as I’ve grown, I’ve been able to distill my inspiration and my music into a style that is more specifically me.”
Penkin has plenty of work in the pipeline that he’s looking forward to announcing once it’s official. As the second season of Made in Abyss draws to a close, the corresponding soundtrack he worked on will also be released. On a more sentimental note, Penkin is excited to work on his own personal album, something he has never done before. Ideas are being worked on with plans for execution, but Penkin promises this time it’s all him, no anime, no video games.