Hi Troels, thanks 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?
Thanks for spending time with me. It is my intention to bring an honest portrait of what I do and to provide the readers with applicable knowledge they can use in their own career.
My "career" in video game music started when my mother got really concerned about how many hours I spend playing on the infamous ZX Spectrum 48K and its counterpart C64. I was obsessed with games from a very young age and it still shines through to this very date. I remember recording C64 music of other game composers (ex. Hubbard, Galway) and imagining how amazing it would be to score it myself. Eventually I started using small music applications on the Spectrum and C64 and got more serious when I got my first 8bit sampler for my Amiga 512. This is how it started and I somehow think it will end this way too. Composition is a life long trade and fortunately it gets better with time. It’s like wine and cheese … gets better with time.
My enthusiasm for games eventually brought me closer to the video games music business. I started out by scoring for a variety of MODs and most of them never made it publicly. However some of the MOD creators are now having studios of their own and some of them are still great friends. This was my first step into the industry and something I would highly encourage new composers to pursue.
You've also worked on Defender of the Crown. How would you describe the score and what aspect of it are you most proud of?
Defender of the Crown (DOTC) was the first game I ever played on my AMIGA back in the 80s. It was one of the greatest leaps I have ever seen in games and truly stood out at its time. The maker of the game was called "Cinemaware" and had a great history of doing games with a movie thematic quality. DOTC was the first game they made and was followed up by other great games like Wings, King of Chicago, It Came From The Desert, SDI, Rocket Ranger and a variety of other games. The company got revived in 2002 and this is where my story begins. I was thrilled when I saw the game was in the making and kept on sending them fan scores, since I was eager to get involved. Eventually the persistency paid off and I got to score the game, which was truly one of the most amazing collaborations I have ever been involved in. The DOTC soundtrack was roughly 60 minutes long and was one big bundle catchy swashbuckling themes, which still bring joy to me these days – though I can hear an innocent sense of musical naivety in the scores.
Before we get to Tomb Raider, let's talk about your earlier work. In 2005, you scored the action game Project Snowblind. How did you get involved in that project?
I initially got involved in Project Snowblind as a part of my Ph.D. studies in game music. I was conducting academic studies in game music and was invited to score the game in order to conduct further analysis of the media. These studies eventually lead me to Tomb Raider as well. Project Snowblind was an award-winning futuristic FPS shooter based on the Deux-Ex franchise released for PS2, Xbox and PC. I had the good fortune of scoring the game, which was an interesting diversion from DOTC. Snowblind takes place in a near future and the directors wanted an epic orchestral score with eastern/ethnic elements. I do believe I carried some of this into my later Tomb Raider scores.
What were your specific goals with the score? Are there any musical moments in the score that stand out for you?
The goal was to create an epic orchestral score with eastern world elements. I was particularly focused on Chinese instruments on top of the orchestral score. I generally like using world/ethnic instruments on top of the orchestra to bring new colours and inspiration to the score. I remember one piece in particular that stands out. It didn't take me more then 2-3 hours to score it, but it's a sad requiem scored with a boy-choir. Snowblind was also a great experience of terms of understanding how I could mix elements. Whether it was adjusting the balance between orchestral groups or mixing things like world instruments and/or sound design into the score. I generally think many composers tend to neglect mixing as a part of their main tool. I find mixing highly important and the old saying: "fix in the mix" still holds true to me. Mixing is a part of my compositional process. It brings colours and tension to the score – just like the instruments themselves. My journey into mixing became more extreme when I started on the Tomb Raider soundtracks.
When we're talking about Tomb Raider, we're of course talking about a huge phenomenon and a great legacy of games and soundtracks. Over the years, many composers have contributed to the franchise. How daunting is it to start working on something like Tomb Raider: Legend?
I fully enjoyed it and I am generally too naive to fear things like legacy. I had some very specific ideas about how I wanted to score the game, but those ideas needed to be merged with the director and producers of the game. I wanted to respect the previous Tomb Raider scores, but I also wanted to bring it to the next level, especially towards a more motion picture oriented type of sound. I am generally not a big fan of traditional game music and think there is a great deal to be learned from motion picture in terms of overall compositional quality and its ability to create emotional bonds.
The emotional bond was extremely important to me. I wanted to make a score that made me feel. How often do we feel anything in games? How often do we have truly memorable experiences? I wanted the music to be the emotional glue between the player and the game. Whether I succeeded or not will remain a mystery, but I knew it was an objective that kept on motivating me throughout the production. The game took aprox. 8 months to score and had over 4 and half hours of music.
What were your first steps when you started out writing music for TR: Legend?
Tomb Raider Legend was a significant part of my Ph.D. studies in advanced type of game scoring. I had developed the first ideas for a methodology called: "Micro-scoring", which I will go into later in this interview. I started out by listening to the scores from all the previous games and collect thematic material – and generally get an understanding of what I liked in the scores. I then moved on to the two Tomb Raider movies and analyzed their soundtracks. I then wrote a very lengthy document that would describe how I would approach each level in the game and what type of instruments I would need. This was a very academic process to scoring and not something I always do. But it gave me a great sense of consistency and a perfect overview of what I would need to do to complete the score.
TR: Legend features an elaborate mix of orchestral and electronic elements. How difficult was it to combine the two?
Essentially my life as a composer has always been focused on versatility. I don't believe that focusing in one particular direction is the right way for me, so I pretty much score freely in whatever genre I want to. It is a constant journey exploring new tools, techniques and compositional styles, but I think it pays off in the end, since I can satisfy more clients. So it wasn't really difficult to combine the orchestral type of scoring with electronica and world elements. The most obvious thing would have been a classical orchestral score for the game, which I did for later instalments (ex. Tomb Raider Anniversary), however I wanted to do something special with Tomb Raider Legend, so I took this very world-oriented approach to the score and pre-defined a specific set of instruments I wanted for each level in the game.
The game features many different locations, from Peru to Kazakhstan and England. How much work went into finding the right musical style for each region? Did you use any exotic instruments?
This is the demanding wonder of Tomb Raider. It is a world game, so it takes a lot from your compositional palette. I initially started investigating music from all the different cultural regions that the game takes place in, whether it was Peruvian flutes, Himalayan folk singers or English boy choirs. The investigation brought me to a wonderful website called: "Lark in the Morning", which sells a variety of exotic instruments like the Armenian Duduk, Turkish Kaval, Peruvian Pan flutes, Japanese Shakuhachi and so forth. I then started learning how to play them, which became an integral part of the way I score today. While I am absolutely fanatical about samples – I am increasingly becoming fanatical about custom sampling too. Speaking of exotic instruments I had the good fortune of buying the PanArt Hang Drum last year, which is the best percussion instruments I have ever tried. I am still contemplating whether I should sell it on Ebay, since they go for over 8K now. But you don't sell the things you love… right?
You dealt with the interactive side of the gaming experience with a musical system called "micro-scoring". Could you tell us more about that?
So a part of my Ph.D. studies in game music related to developing new methodologies for advanced types of application of music in the game. One of my main focal points was – and still is – the development of something I call: "Micro-scoring". Micro-scoring is essentially about breaking the score into a variety of small components that are assembled in real-time according to player action and/or interaction. The micro-scores are made in such a way that they adapt to player action or interaction. You have to imagine that there are thousands of things going on in the game environment — the idea behind micro-scoring is to support the major elements in the environment. An example can be a 3-second score for breaking pillars or falling stones, which is scored in the same key as the main ambient background score. We also have more detailed types of micro-scores which are based on slices samples like REX and other sliced sample formats. This allows us to fully adjust pitch- and timing based on player interaction with the game. An example of this is adjusting beat to footsteps and increasing tempo when she starts running. A good example of micro-scoring application relates to chopping up a score in multiple components. So essentially composing a score in 15 different steps and cutting each step up, so it can seemingly integrate into any of the other 15 steps. The system then blends the steps in real-time and you have a much more varied and versatile score – made from micro-scores. This allows you to adjust mood in music with using basic cross-fades, but actually have adaptive types of compositions. Needless to say it's a fairly complicated effort.
After TR: Legend you also worked on the remake of the very first Tomb Raider called Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Fans have noticed the strong musical references to Nathan McCree's original score. Did you enjoy adapting and expanding McCree's material? What new musical elements did incorporate into the score?
It was important to be faithful to the original title while scoring Tomb Raider Anniversary (TRA), however I also wanted to elevate the compositions, since they had a very simple compositional structure that didn't quite matched the advanced fidelity of today’s systems. The original game was made in 1996 and music – just like graphics – does evolve over time, so essentially I made an evolved score of the original. But I also added a variety of new themes and textures in the score. One of the main highlights is the usage of an epic choir, which I sampled for my custom library. I essentially recorded a full symphonic choir and had them sing in a specific way that allowed me to reproduce a choir. The score was very different from Legend. Legend was a world-score and TRA was a more typical classic score using symphonic elements only.
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?
The main difference between film scores and games scores is one of quality. My opinion is quite subjective in this matter, but I personally think the majority (90%) of game music is in the trashcan category and we have a long way to go. I certainly don't mind being compared with movie composers, but I am only starting to get close to their sound and overall compositional quality. There is also a serious budgetary issue related to this discussion. The majority of game scores, including my own, are made with samples. The majority of feature scores are made with live orchestra, which makes a huge difference. This is one of the reasons I have been sampling two full symphonic orchestras myself, which allowed me to get closer to their sound.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
It depends on whether studios are willing to commit to investing properly into game music. The commitment involves a variety of factors, including prioritizing audio in the production planning and a willingness to invest properly in the scoring. I doubt we will see a huge leap within the next ten years, but we will see more adaptive types of music based on principles similar to the micro-scoring methodology I described. We will also see some real-time DX/VST-based FX plugins like the integration of Waves plugins in Halo 3.
We will not see true adaptive music, since the next-next generation consoles won't have the processing power to play a 50 GB orchestral sample library playing in real-time with 5 high-end convolution reverbs and an advanced AI that translate player action into music.
We will see more ties between motion picture, television and games – and most likely a larger degree of score usage between the media. But we also see a billion mediocre game scores and they will retain game music in a space it doesn't need to be. Bleep, Bleep. Blob.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
I believe there are many answers to this question. The most difficult exercise for me is to create a score that truly complements player action- and/or interaction. This challenge relates both to the quality and mood of a score, but it also related to the technology and implementation of the score. It also relates to how to the score ties in with the rest of the ambient audio, whether it is voice-over, ambient backgrounds, UI or whatever audio component relates to the score. The most enjoyable task – for me – is actually to hear the music in the game and note the change it creates. An example of this is action sequences. You can have the best looking action sequence in the world, if the audio doesn't match it – it doesn't breath. Watching it come alive is what truly motivates me.
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?
The CD-player is a pre-century tool I gave up on many years ago. But I will tell you what is in my iPod. Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Pat Metheny, Thomas Newman, Gabriel Yared, David Arnold, Herbie Hancock, Boomjinx, BT, Jerry Goldsmith, Gorecki, Hans Gregory Williams, Don Davis, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, John Williams, James Newton Howard, Edward Shearmur, St. Germain, ES Posthumus, Gustav Holst, Bill Brown, James Horner, John Barry, Trever Rabin, John Adams, Bernard Hermann, Alex North, Jeff Rona, Bobby McFerrin, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Sly and Robbie, Enya, Ennio Morricone, Thomas Bergersen, Oeistein, Colin Malley, Bach, Mozart, a million others and my own stuff.
What is, so far, your favourite project you've worked on?
The making of my baby girl.
What would be your dream project?
I would love to work with a group of extraordinary talented and collaborative individuals. It doesn't matter whether it is games, features or television. The end-product should be a highly emotive experience that would transcend the media and provide a profound experience for its users and makers.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working as audio director and composer on some different projects. They haven't been announced yet, but all of them contain epic orchestral and modern electronic elements.
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
Oh yes. I am currently playing Orange Box (TF2/Portal), Halo 3, BF2, Skate, Fight Night 3, RB6 Vegas, Civ4, COD3/COD04, Assasins Creed and Mass Effect.
Is there anything you'd like to say that I didn't cover?
I have this pseudo-narcissistic BLOG that nobody ever reads. Feel free to pass by and check my ramblings at www.troelsfolmann.com/blog/ or write me a mail at email@example.com
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.