Banjo Kazooie is one of the most critically acclaimed video games of all time, developed for the Nintendo 64 by Rare in 1998, it was particularly well revered because of its quirky soundtrack that was composed and produced entirely by Grant Kirkhope.
Grants first solo project at Rare was Banjo Kazooie, before that he worked alongside composer David Wise on SNES titles like Donkey Kong Country 3. David taught Grant how to make music for the Nintendo 64 console and introduced him to sequencers and samplers which were used to create music for the system.
Grant recorded a lot of his own samples for the titles he worked on, mostly orchestral, however whilst having the samples to create orchestral pieces he also had a vast array of guitar and synth samples at his disposal which he used on titles such as 007: Goldeneye. Further to the point, Gruntilda’s Lair was created using entirely sampled instruments, mostly orchestral with a few splashes of well timed sound effects, like the witches chuckle which can be heard right off the bat at 0:02.
So to get into the song itself some basic details:
Key: C minor (C major)
Time Signature: 12/8
Length: 2:13 (Loop)
Gruntilda’s Lair is a cavernous maze that the player will find themselves in throughout most of the game, it is the central HUB that leads to the games other levels, to combat the problem of hearing the same song over and over again and going crazy Grant has used a few clever techniques in the arrangement to add new spins to the theme.
Firstly, when you approach one of the themed worlds, several of the instruments in the composition change, for example when you approach the Haunted Mansion level the arrangement changes from this to this. Adding in a spooky organ, some howling wind and some owls. Really clever way to switch things up, especially when you’re already using those instruments in other parts of the game.
Secondly and this leads into composition, but the slight variations on the same theme along with the constantly changing instrumentation keeps this simple song surprisingly fresh as you listen to it for hours.
The only other thing to note as far as composition is that the song is mainly in C minor however at times it does transform into C major. In the harmony and bass, the flats will occasionally naturalise and at times there is a counter melody that will sharpen the third during an arpeggio as can be seen below transcribed to piano sheet music:
The tempo sits at a steady 95 bpm, this like most of the music composed by Grant directly reflects the pacing of the players movement. This tempo fits very well with the speed at which the main character runs and due to tempo relationship between this song and the rest of the games music, which are all similar, I’m comfortable in making the assumption that this is a big reason for the songs tempo.
Looking at the time signature was a little confusing, at first I thought it was surely 4/4 because of the steady beat of the percussion on the 1st and 3rd beats however upon closer inspection its a compound meter of 12/8. This time signature is essentially a 4/4 time signature broken up so that it has 4 dotted quarter notes which can be divided up into to give a song a triplet swing. This triplet effect is present in the melody lines however most of the harmony, bass and percussion stick to the main beats to allow that marching band pulse.
Great video for understanding the time signature here.
To look at the structure and arrangement I used Pro Tools with a coup of empty tracks to create this image:
Overall it has an ABAB structure with a C section that is a variation of the B section and a Bridge section that is a variation of the A section, squashing these together is an definitive Intro and Outro. The Outro is also the point where the song loops back on itself.
There are eleven instruments in total which is typical of Grants style as often he will replay a melody line on a different instrument in a different section to change the effect often swapping the melody and bass lines or giving the lead instrument a harmonic role for a section such as when the Xylophone changes from the lead instrument to a harmonic instrument at 1:00. By keeping a few extra instruments on stand bye he can change the songs feel without writing any new music.
The instruments are all sampled from real instruments according to Grant and the library he used for this game and many others can be found online. Looking at the roles of the instruments in groups and individually helped me understand further the importance of them as elements:
The string section is comprised of a Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass all of which can be heard during the intro when each instrument plays the same motif in their own registers. All are played pizzicato throughout the entire song which gives off a creepy vibe. The Double-Bass plays jump bass style throughout most of the song and the rest of the strings come in on the offbeat to make up the harmony.
Whats also interesting to note is that the strings alternate left and right panning during the intro which can be seen in this stereo analysis showing the cello coming in a little to the right:
This unfortunately is the extent of the panning, as can be seen in the following analysis the rest of the song is fairly centre aligned with the exception of the Tambourine which is panned slightly to the left along with the Pad and the Bassoon and Double Bass which are panned slightly right:
The Xylophone and the Glockenspiel both sound as if they have a moderate amount of reverb added to them which I believe is to make the song sound more cavernous. Both are mainly used as lead instruments except when the Xylophone is flipped to a harmonic instrument at 1:00.
Tuba and Bassoon
The Tuba and Bassoon are both used as lead instruments as well in the B sections and the Tuba is used in place of the Double-Bass in the C section. They both sound like fairly low quality samples which are typical of the times, they have very limited dynamics when dropping into their lower ranges, which is why I think the Bassoon is mainly acting as a lead instrument I believe dropping it too low would cause it to become heavily distorted due to the low sample rates of the time.
There is a pad like instrument that enters during the Bridge and continues into the beginning of the outro, it can heard here at 1:20. It sounds a lot like a choir or voice synth patch or maybe even some kind of theremin pad.
The percussion is fairly simple, it’s a Bass Drum on the 1st beat and a Tambourine hit on the 3rd beat. It creates this lazy marching band feel. The Tambourine sounds like it was recorded being played extremely slowly, it may even have been slowed down for that lazy effect. The bass drum is being hit with a mallet like in an orchestral ensemble as it doesn’t have that super sharp attack you would get from a kick drum. You can see the bass drum poking in at the 22Hz and 47Hz marks on the frequency analysis below.
The frequency analysis shows just how broad the spectrum is with the inclusion of all these orchestral instruments.
All in all Gruntilda’s Lair is a fantastic piece of video game music and is definitely some of Grant Kirkhopes best work. Not only is it an enjoyable piece on its own with its variations, but when it changes due to the switching themes within the level it takes on a whole new character. I wish I had enough time to go in depth with all the different variations, however this is going to be the end, but I do encourage anybody who finds this as weirdly interesting as me to go have a listen through the full song, which I will remind you is at the top.
Thanks for reading,