Steve Burke

- Kameo: Elements of Power
- Viva Piñata

Official website


Steve Burke has been in-house composer at developer Rare Ltd. for eight years. In this time, he has worked on projects such as Viva Piñata and Kameo: Elements of Power. In this interview, he talks about the different aspects of audio in games, his video game music works as well the future of the game audio industry.

Hi Steve, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?

I saw an advert that Rare posted in Edge magazine back in 2001, looking for a composer and sound designer to join their in-house development team in the UK. At that time I had just finished working as an assistant to a film composer in London and was deciding what I wanted to do next. I loved playing games and the chance to work full-time with hundreds of game developers at Rare, which incidentally made some of my favourite games back in the day, such as Knight Lore and Sabre Wulf, was a good opportunity for me at that time.


Let’s talk about Viva Piñata. How did you first start out writing the music?

I was brought on to Viva Piñata early on in the development of the game and wrote music to just over twenty of the Romance Dances where the garden animals perform a dance to various pieces of music. The music was composed first and handed over to the animators who would animate the cutscene to the music. Usually it is the other way around where music is written after a cutscene is created. When it came to record with the orchestra in Prague, I took many of these tracks and recorded them with a live orchestra. At the time I was still very busy working on the music and sound effects to Kameo, so it was decided that I’d return to that project to make sure it got my full attention and the audio didn’t slip behind schedule. Grant Kirkhope took over composing duties on Viva Piñata as he had just finished on a game called Grabbed By The Ghoulies and did a wonderful job on the remaining Romance Dances and the in-game score. I came back again to help with the live recordings and a nice trip to Prague.


Your score to the action-adventure game Kameo: Elements of Power remains a fan favourite. How did you first approach the project?

I was involved with Kameo for the duration of the project. My recording studio was on-site at Rare, so I’d go and talk with the designers, programmers and artists on a daily basis, keeping up-to-date with everything that was happening. The music style was left up to me and I wanted it to be a very personal score. I would turn things from quirky to dramatic at the drop of a hat and above all I wanted to convey a sense of playfulness. Some of the tracks are downright crazy, but you can get away with that in games, it doesn’t have to be serious. When I was working on this game I had no idea how people would respond to the music. I was just starting out scoring games.


Overall, how would you describe your score and what aspect of it are you most thrilled about?

I’d describe it as a diverse score that is focused on themes. I didn’t want any of the cues to be generic background music, each piece of music should be there for a purpose and should be memorable. The smaller quirky cues are some of my favourites, especially with the two singers who were on the development teams at Rare. Aisling Duddy was in the art department and Eveline Novakovich in the music department. They both graciously agreed to spend some time in the recording studio and record the female vocal parts, which I tried all sorts of different harmonies and styles of singing. The Celtic element came through with the singers, so I wrote some music cues that would suit the girls’ voices.


The score was performed by live orchestra and choir. Did you enjoy working with a real orchestra? How much does the overall composing process differ when using a live orchestra as opposed to a sampled score?

Around eighty minutes were recorded with live orchestra and choir. It was a thrilling experience hearing music that I’d written using samples performed by real players. I’d recorded live orchestral music before, but not on this scale. The development team were so used to hearing my place holder synth scores and the day we replaced those with the real version, it really boosted the game. The graphics were awesome and to match the production values spent on the look of the game, the music needed to sound equally epic. I think I may have gone a bit over the top in some of the music cues, but you can get away with that in games.

The process of writing for sampled orchestra and real orchestra is the same for me. My orchestral mock-ups were all in the ranges of the real instruments. Until near the end of the project, it was going to be a synth only score, but thankfully Rare and Microsoft Game Studios producers were fully supportive of recording the music with live players and I set about tracking down an orchestra and coming up with a budget to record the orchestra. We picked the music that would benefit most from live orchestra and it was orchestrated by Nic Raine, who also conducted the score. A few weeks before production was finished on Kameo the live versions replaced the synth tracks.


As in-house composer at Rare Ltd, you were responsible for musical scores as well as sound-effects. How do you think these two aspects should work together in a game and where do you see room for improvements in the future? Where do you see game music/audio in five to ten years from now?

Working on the music and sound effects to a game can work out very well, as you can make sure that neither one is competing for attention. There should be room for the music to shine through and other times when the sound effects are the focus.

With tools such as WWise and FMOD, both superb pieces of audio middleware used for implementing sound effects and music in very creative ways, it is becoming easier for the content creators to work away from the programmers and let their imaginations run wild. With an understanding of these tools the composer can write an interactive score in their favourite DAW or with real players and most importantly can test out how the cues will transition and work together as if they were triggered in the game. The sound designers have a whole host more options for creating thousands of variations on sounds and testing the interactivity of sounds through Events and Real Time Parameter Controls. Physics sounds are a good example this. When an object collides with another object, the velocity and surface type (stone, metal, wood, etc.) would differ each time, making the sounds more realistic and not repetitive.

Ambiences in games add a lot to the atmosphere and more and more are replacing the need for music. It’s because these ambiences can continually change, evolve and set the tone of the game, that they are widely used. What they don’t do so well is add emotion, although they can sound very creepy at times. As for the future of game audio, I guess that the composers and sound designers will make more use of some of these types of tools. Maybe the composers for video games can differentiate themselves from other media such as movies, by knowing the ins and outs of what is technically possible through interactive non-linear audio.


Many game and movie music fans regret that the sound-effects in both movies and games are becoming more and more important and that they seem to eventually replace music altogether. What is your perspective on this development?

I’m a huge fan of movie soundtracks in particular and when it comes to music I’m a bit old fashioned. I love a good tune. I can understand in certain games why sound effects are dominant, especially if you’re playing on a single level for a long time, a music track could easily become repetitive. My thoughts on this are that music can still have a place in this type of scenario, but maybe it doesn’t need to be an infinitely looping level tune. A well placed piece of music at the right time in a game can add a lot to the experience and probably have more impact because it’s not constantly playing. Off the top of my head, a game that had a fantastic sound design and impact was Ico. It’s been a while since I’ve played it, but I just remember the space it had around the sound effects and music.

There’s always going to be a need for music in games, as a lot of the emotion and excitement that the game makers want to bring to the game can only be realised with a great musical score. Either an ambient or a thematic score, whatever is suitable, is going to draw the player in to the game. It’s the implementation that may vary from one game to the next. Be it a constant musical background with tracks that may branch off or adapt to the gameplay, or a sparse score where the music comes in occasionally to add that much needed tension or humour.


Could you elaborate a bit on the specific chances and constraints of being an in-house composer as opposed to a freelancer? Could you describe your typical work day?

I worked as an in-house composer and sound designer from 2001-2009 and decided to leave Rare because I wanted to try working freelance for a while, to see what it is like, and also to do some travelling around the world. I’d like to return to an in-house audio position again someday, it certainly has a lot of appeal. These roles tend to be sound designer or audio director. The role of in-house composer seems to be dwindling, as many companies prefer to hire in composers to score their games, rather than employing them full-time. This makes a sense from a business point of view. When working in-house I could see the benefit of staff composers, but I’m seeing the other side of the coin now, as a freelancer. If the composer is brought in to score the game, it would always help the end product if the composer is involved early in the game production.

A typical day as an in-house audio guy would be a mix of composing, sound design, implementing and testing sound effects, and working with the programmers to place the sounds in the game. Sometimes I’d be required to go on field trips to record sound effects, such as going to Idaho to record gun sounds for a few games. Or occasionally I’d be whisked off to London or Los Angeles to supervise voice over recording sessions. The fun part of recording the score with real orchestra was flying over to Prague or wherever the score was to be recorded and be present for the recording and mixing sessions.

I’m just venturing into the world of freelance work. I worked on a game for the iPhone with a couple of friends, called SkySmash 1918, creating the music and sound effects. Recently, I did some sound design for physics middleware company Havok. At the moment, I’m pitching some music for a game and a movie. Being in-house on a salary, with the benefits and perks of being part of Microsoft Game Studios was comfortable for sure. I reached a point in my life where I wanted to live elsewhere and work on different types of games, but I do miss working at Rare with my friends there.


Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?

I sure am. Back before I worked in the games industry, I was very keen to try and become a film composer. I went to college to learn more about composition, orchestration, conducting, and music theory, and did a Masters degree in Composition at the Royal College of Music, with a lot of focus on film scoring. The appeal of games was working as part of a team and at the time, the comforts of an in-house audio job. I see other game composers starting to make an impact in the realm of film music and it makes you realise how far video game music has come along. The Video Games Live series of concerts that Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall put together is a great example of how popular and widespread appreciation of game music has become.


Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?

I remember 10 years or so ago, all my composer friends wanted to be TV or film composers. Me too, it seemed like the goal of many composers. Now lots of these people are asking me how they can get in to scoring video games. They see video game music as a very credible career and something that they would aspire to do. That’s a big change in attitude over the last 10 years and I can see that trend continuing. Up and coming composers, established film composers, they’re all going to want a piece of the action. Successful games can make a lot of money and be played by millions of people. This gives a lot of exposure to the composer, who can often get a soundtrack release for these big projects.

Composers will take more advantage of the interactive non-linear approach that video game music can present, and alongside that, game designers and programmers will most likely want to make full usage of an interactive score. For game music to evolve, it needs the game producers, designers and other team members to be on-board. Otherwise it’s all too easy for a request for a looping level tune to be the brief to the composer. It’s already looking very positive with companies putting a tremendous amount of time and effort into their audio.


What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?

Most difficult is getting that first track you write for the game designer or producer. A lot hinges on peoples first reaction to your music. With a bit of practice, it’s easier to take some of the pressure away from that situation. What I often do now is write two or three tracks, covering my bases so to speak, in different styles. One may be the obvious approach to a game, the other might be my personal approach that might be a bit ‘out there’ and the final track is another option that may help open up dialogue with the game makers to try something non-conventional. Mostly I like to present a few themes, maybe just a couple of minutes long, and use them as a starting point for a discussion. Once you’ve got the confidence of the development team, the task of writing is so much easier.


What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your mp3-player right now?

I read GSoundtracks’ interview with John Debney and realised that video games are getting some incredibly talented composers these days. I follow his Facebook updates and like to listen to his scores to films such as Cutthroat Island, Elf and Hocus Pocus. Other composers that have influenced me for a long time are Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. For game composers, my friend David Wise who wrote the iconic score to the Donkey Kong Country games reminds me of the longevity and huge fan base of great themes to games.


What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?

I enjoyed working on Kameo because it was such a huge project, but I also had a good time working on a relatively small project which was the music and sound effects to the Xbox 360 Avatars Creator, which can be heard on some 39 million Xbox 360 consoles.


What would be your dream project?

Something that uses a big orchestra and choir, so I can get a nice trip to somewhere like Prague or Seattle to record the score.


What are you currently working on?

I’ve hopefully got a game to work on in the coming months, but I can’t talk about it yet as I’m under NDA. Should be something that I can really get my teeth into.


Do you play PC or console games yourself?

I’ve recently been travelling around South East Asia, so haven’t really had the opportunity to get set up with a console system. These days I tend to play games on my iPhone, such as Monkey Island SE, which has great music and sound design.


Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?

Great to see GSoundtracks’ interviews and reviews of video game soundtracks, it makes it all worthwhile!


Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.