The String Arcade  Tagged Articles RSS Feed | The String Arcade  RSS Feed on en Launch Media Network Video Game Tribute Album: An Interview with The String Arcade Composer Dren McDonald Mon, 17 Mar 2014 10:27:39 -0400 Stephanie Tang


All of the original arrangements were performed by local Bay Area musicians, with a special appearance by the Boston-based Videri String Quartet. If you wish to purchase the album and support the Alameda Music Project charity, you can find it available for purchase on:


Many thanks to Dren for taking the time to answer these questions! If you're interested in some of my own thoughts on the album, you can check those out here.

Happy listening!

The big question remains: as a Kickstarter project (and a charity album), will this be the one and only time we hear anything like video game music made for string quartet, or will other tracks also received "the string treatment" in the future?


"I've received this question a few times now, and that makes me happy because it means that people would like to hear more! I don't think that I want to replicate the same type of release with the same type of arrangements but with different songs. But if another idea strikes me that seems to fall into this broad category of interesting game music covers, I'd probably follow up on it."


As for Dren himself, he has worked and composed music for video games before (some of which are on the album, in fact), and it is a lifetime of interest in both music and video games that has landed him on a career path where The String Arcade can be made a reality:


"I had been playing music since the age of 5, and then kind of seriously since age 12. I was in bands, had a record label and very involved in the indie music industry for many years, up until the music industry really started to change in the early to mid 2000's. At that point I was tired of being in the music industry, feeling a bit like I'd painted myself into a corner with my career. So I wanted to try something else and I had some friends in the game industry already. So I consulted with them about working in games, and they were really helpful. 

"I had always been excited about games, ever since I saw Space Invaders in an arcade, and I had a 2600, an NES, a Sega Genesis, etc... and I don't know why I never thought about working in games as a musician... just never occurred to me... for a long time! But somehow I convinced enough people into letting me write music and make noises for their games. It's a lot of good fun. Hard work, but a lot of fun."


As a Kickstarter project, going through the process strictly for charity can be a hard decision to make - and the makers of The String Arcade had decided that this was not going to be a for-profit venture.


The String Arcade Kickstarter mentions that the funds were going towards finishing and mastering the recordings, but did any of that money go to the musicians, sound engineers, etc. or were they doing it as a charity obligation as well?


"The Kickstarter money went to the musicians, the engineer, the venue rental, the manufacturing, postage etc. So everyone (except Jason and I and John Mayfield, our mastering engineer) were paid for their work.


It would appear to be hypocritical to ask musicians to work for free while we are trying to raise money for a music program. If the kids in the program grew up to be musicians, I wouldn't want them to enter a world where musicians are expected to work for free, so I don't want to contribute to that stereotype.


The idea of this recording was fused with the fundraising idea from the beginning. I knew that AMP was trying to get their program off of the ground by fall of 2014, so I wanted to do what I could to help move that along."


And why this particular charity?


"The pilot school for the program is the same school that my kids attend, which is just a block away. It's a community effort, and it's one that I believe in. It's based on the El Sistema program, which originated in Venezuela about 40 years ago.


The program was designed to get children involved in music to not only help them learn music, but to also become invested in a social community project which would also help them stay involved in school. With so many arts programs getting cut from educational budgets, I think it's important to allow access to music lessons, for no cost, for any child who is interested. Makes for a better community." 


With YouTube littered with music covers galore, it's no news that video game music strikes a chord in most musicians - but rarely does it ever extend to changing and rearranging the original score. Furthermore, The String Arcade is far from a collection of video games' Greatest Hits, but rather an eclectic (although thematically sound) collection from games both indie and triple-A. 


So it begs the question - why these games in particular, and why these particular pieces of music? Some of them were Dren McDonald's own original composition, so how about the others?


"I had some criteria for the music we covered.

  1. It had to be a game that I had enjoyed, or connected with
  2. \n
  3. It had to be music that I connected with
  4. \n
  5. It had to be music that would be 'elastic' enough to respond well to the re-arranging that Jason and I inflicted upon them.
  6. \n
The songs music that had previously been represented by chips (Galaga, Zelda) where perfect in that regard. Music that had originally been represented by traditional instruments proved to be harder to re-interpret, or at least, not quite as fun, considering how 'loose' we approached the arrangements."

As for using his own music, I had to wonder - what would it be like having to take what you've already produced and then slice and dice it into something else? Could it feel akin to dissecting a favorite child?


"Oh no, nothing like that! It was a fun experiment. It was a challenge that was a bit of a test to see if this idea had legs to stand on...if I'd hadn't been successful with the re-arrangements of my own music, I may not have moved ahead with the rest of the project!"


Fans of classic video game tracks may find themselves astounded to realize that the songs they thought they knew... could sound so radically different.


Rearranged and reimagined for string quartet by composers Dren McDonald (Ghost Recon Commander, Ravenwood Fair) and Jason Poss (The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King) comes a brand new, completely crowdfunded tribute album: The String Arcade.

What is 'The String Arcade'?
"It was a fun experiment. It was a challenge that was a bit of a test to see if this idea had legs to stand on."
-- Dren McDonald, on rearranging his own music

All profits from the album are donated to the Alameda Music Project, a tuition-free after school program that provides intensive classical music instruction to under-served children in grades K-5.


Dren McDonald was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him after I'd gotten a chance to have a listen to the new album.


(To read more about this album, see: Video Game Tribute Album 'The String Arcade' Now Available as Digital Download and CD)

Video Game Tribute Album 'The String Arcade' Now Available as Digital Download and CD Thu, 13 Feb 2014 22:23:53 -0500 Stephanie Tang

For fans of classic video game tracks and string quartets alike comes brand new, completely crowdfunded, tribute album, The String Arcade

Rearranged and reimagined for string quartet by composers Dren McDonald (Ghost Recon Commander, Ravenwood Fair) and Jason Poss (The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King), the album is a carefully curated collection of 17 different game music tracks. It can be found for digital download on Loudr, iTunes, Amazon, and Bandcamp for $9.99, or as a physical CD for $11.99 plus free streaming from Bandcamp and two additional tracks that were previously only available to Kickstarter backers.

All profits from the album will be donated to the Alameda Music Project, a tuition-free afterschool program that provides intensive classical music instruction to underserved children in grades K-5.

The String Arcade is not your typical collection of classic tracks - far from a Greatest Hits, it draws from an eclectic array of game choices...  and the songs that you hear may also not sound exactly like how you remember them.

"Some tracks use a "collage" approach, slicing up and combining various themes from within a game into one piece of music while staying true to the original melody and harmony. Others are more loosely interpreted and embellished to showcase the quartet performers' strengths. The result is an introspective listening experience that stands on its own regardless of the listener's familiarity with the source material."

"I've never understood why someone would cover a song by playing it exactly like the original artist played it." -- composer, Dren McDonald

According to McDonald, the choice was certainly a conscious one.

A great deal of thought went into choosing the music that would work as an experience from top to bottom. McDonald in fact suggests that "[a]s a point of reference, The String Arcade will probably appeal to people who enjoyed the soundtracks from games like Swords & Sworcery, Dear Esther, or FEZ.

(see Video Game Tribute Album: An Interview with The String Arcade Composer Dren McDonald)

The full tracklist is as follows:

  • Grasswalk (Plants vs. Zombies)
  • Echos of Ecco (Ecco the Dolphin)
  • Ferdinand Wanders Out For a Late Night Haircut (Pettington Park)
  • Engii (FTL – Faster Than Light)
  • Sonic 2 Scherzo (Sonic the Hedgehog 2)
  • Outlaws Title Theme (Outlaws)
  • Medicated Cow Walks the Cobbled Streets with Disgruntled Goat (Ravenshire Castle)
  • Scurvy Scallywags Theme (Scurvy Scallywags)
  • Scabb Cemetery/International House of Mojo (The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge)
  • Altered Beast Title Theme (Altered Beast) *
  • Optimism For an Improvement in The John Situation
  • Turret Suite (Portal 2) Valve
  • Minecraft Title Theme (Minecraft)
  • Tron Arcade Medley (Tron Arcade) *
  • Tango Down (graBLOX)
  • Dance of the Space Bugs (Galaga)
  • The Legend of Zelda (The Legend of Zelda – NES)

( * available on for Kickstarter backers or as tracks on the physical CD only)

And how is the music? 

I was graciously provided a review copy of the album, including the two bonus tracks, and I was able to give this album a good listen before (and while) I wrote this article.

For the record, I am far from a music critic, and my first listen was overlaid with the excitable voices on Mumble calling out plays in FFXIV interspersed with deep-seated discussions about the latest BF4 patch. 

Even someone as nekulturny as I realized all too quickly that this was doing a terrible disservice to the music. I went through it again, this time with a pair of good headphones and a comparable silence around me.

So passed a little under an hour of thorough enjoyment. It is not a perfect album - there are sections where the melody is carried solely on a single instrument and it begins to feel thin and thready, like a soloist warbling the high notes she can barely reach. But these moments are few and far in between, and for the most part, the music is charming, well-structured, varied, and swiftly paced. Most of these tracks average at about the 3-minute mark, leaving the listener just enough time to appreciate without getting bored. 

Structured rather like a rolling grassland, the album drives you through a series of ups and downs, exploding right from the beginning with the reimagined "Grasswalk," a lively tango with the subtle sounds of zombies moaning in the background before slowing down into strong, atmospheric tracks like "Echoes of Ecco" and "Engii."

The pace quickly picks up to reach a climax with the spirited "Altered Beast theme," before slowing down once again with soothingly melodic tracks like "Minecraft Theme 1" and the eerily sweet "Turret Suite" which features the quiet sound of turret voices piping up in the background. 

From there, the transition moves flawlessly back into an even more frenetic pace, starting almost right at the halfway mark of the "Tron Arcade Medley," and not stopping until the end of the penultimate track, "Dance of the Space Bugs."

Even for the most prolific gamer, the last track will drive home the point that any piece of music, even one as iconic as the Legend of Zelda theme, can be so beautifully reimagined that it can transition from a slow, somber, dungeon-crawler piece into the triumphant hero melody we've learned to love... and all within two and a half minutes.

For those of us who enjoy watching our favorite form of entertainment evolve into an art form, I certainly recommend The String Arcade experience.

All of The String Arcade's original arrangements were performed by local Bay Area musicians and a special appearance by the Boston-based Videri String Quartet. You can check out a sample of their work with a free download of the first track, "Grasswalk" from Plants vs. Zombies. 

Or if you wish to support the charity and simply buy the album, you can find it on:

Happy listening!