Hi Sam, thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview with us. Could you start out by telling us a little bit about yourself? How did you get started in the video game music business?
My first experience of exposure was in 2003 when I won a composer contest held by the Game Audio Network Guild. That led to my working with Tommy Tallarico, pitching in around eight minutes of music for Maximo vs Army of Zin. I continued my networking efforts and a couple of years later, Jack Wall invited me to work with him on Mass Effect. It’s been a pretty awesome ride ever since!
Let’s talk about your latest project, which is scoring additional material for the Baldur’s Gate – Enhanced Edition. When and how did you get involved in the project?
I met Trent Oster, Creative Director of what is now Overhaul Games, early last year at the Game Developers Conference. As far as I knew, they weren’t working on anything related to Baldur’s Gate at the time, but I expressed an interest in working with him if they should ever start developing role-playing games. Fast-forward to March of this year, just before GDC, and Trent emailed me saying he wanted to meet up and chat about a couple tracks for a project they were working on. This was shortly after the mysterious baldursgate.com site emerged with the countdown timer, so I knew something was up! I had a meeting at the Game Developers Conference with Trent and his partner in crime Cameron Tofer, and they basically pulled out an iPad running Baldur’s Gate, and my mind was blown. I very eagerly expressed my interest in working with them on bringing the cult classic to more modern platforms (with enhancements, of course), and I got started working on the music later that month.
How familiar were with Baldur’s Gate and its score when you began working on it?
The score for Baldur’s Gate was the one that really inspired me to get into writing music for games, actually. A whole bunch of those themes had permanently embedded themselves into my brain, and I’ve been able to recall them easily, even now. These pieces were a pretty big influence on me, starting out.
You’ve written original music for the new content in the game. How did you approach it musically? How did you tie it with Michael Hoenig’s original score?
Since the new music is so tightly interwoven with the existing music, it was at the forefront of my mind to keep it fairly consistent with the original sound. I went back to the original Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 scores and listened to some select tracks, and basically referenced a couple of thematic elements from the games in the new material in Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition.
You’ve also worked on the very successful Mass Effect series. Judging from the composer credits, it was mostly a very collaborative effort between a whole group of composers. How does composing in a team work?
It was definitely a team effort, as each Mass Effect game has consisted of a large amount of music, but the composers all have typically worked separately on these games. Basically with each game, BioWare’s goal was to put together a team of composers to divide up the music and deliver the score more efficiently and more quickly than what one person could have probably handled alone.
Could you expand a bit on your role in scoring the Mass Effect games? Are there any cues/musical passages in the score that you’re especially proud of?
Mass Effect ’s unique musical signature was something that Casey Hudson and the audio team at BioWare had come up with, and Jack Wall and I were tasked with bringing it to life. Initially, with Mass Effect 1, my role was to work with Jack and share the responsibilities of creating the score. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved on both Mass Effect games following that, as well as a couple of DLCs. I have to say I’m especially proud of my work on Mass Effect 3. It was great to bring back some of that Mass Effect 1 sound, but also write all that heavy-hitting emotional material.
You’ve written music for all three Mass Effect titles in the series. What would you say are the particular challenges and rewards for writing music to a sequel?
The challenge for me has been how I can improve upon what I’ve done in the past; I feel the need to make it better than the last time around. And at the same time, it’s nice to come back to an IP that you’ve worked on before. The ramp-up time is much shorter, and you already have a good sense of the universe the game is set in.
Red Orchestra 2 – Heroes of Stalingrad is another project you’ve extensively worked on. What were you particular goals with the score and are you happy with the end result?
I’m really happy with how the score turned out in the end. The goal was to create a very emotionally heavy and intense soundtrack as a fitting backdrop to the Battle of Stalingrad. On top of that, I injected hints of classical German and Russian composers to give a semi-authentic feel. It was a real challenge, and highly rewarding!
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?
Video games have been extremely popular and that trend is continuing. It’s a fun and highly rewarding industry to work in, and I think that attracts a lot of people, especially on the musical side. It could be that film composers are looking to branch out. I’ve worked on film and enjoyed it, but for different reasons than I do with video games. I think the two media offer different sets of challenges for composers, hence this crossing over or at least ‘branching out’ effect we’re seeing.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
I think first, the question is where will video games be in five to ten years? What if we have controllers that could sense your emotions or anxiety levels, then we could have music interactively change based off of that, and the game would also adapt as well. We could be in store for some highly interactive experiences. Or the experience will have come full circle and we’ll be back to ‘bleeps and bloops’ again.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
Getting on the same page with the developer as far as musical vision can often be challenging because you’re using spoken language to try to communicate how music should sound or feel. But of course there’s a huge payoff when you get to that point where you nail what they’re looking for, and you start bringing that musical concept into reality.
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 make an effort to avoid listening to music while I’m in certain crucial stages of projects where coming up with thematic material is the focus, so right now my MP3 player is empty! As for my influences, Ray Lynch is a big one for sure. Especially in his later works, his blending of synth with acoustic instruments is sublime. Other influences and inspirations include John Williams, Thomas Newman, and the classical composers.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
To be honest, I don’t play favorites. I really enjoy all my projects pretty equally but for different reasons!
What would be your dream project?
I think right now, I’d be pretty thrilled if someone came up to me and said, ”We have this game we’re doing. We want you to go totally off the wall and do something crazy with the soundtrack, and you have total creative freedom. The music just has to be awesome. Go.”
What are you currently working on?
There’s more music for Baldur’s Gate on the horizon. I can’t say specifically what, but one of them is kind of expected, and the other is a surprise for the time being, so I’ll keep a lid on that. I’m also writing some music for Conclave, a web-based, turn-based table top role-playing game. The music has this really cool old feel to it, and so I’m pulling out a few period instruments but not in a way that particularly sounds Renaissance in any way. It’s arranged in such a manner that it lends a sense of maturity to the music. I’ve got a couple other things going on but I can’t talk about them at the moment.
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
I wish I had more time for games! Mostly my game time consists of playing on my iPhone, as so many iOS games can be played in short bursts. Put me down in front of a console with a game like Sleeping Dogs, and I’m toast. I’m gonna be sitting there for at least six to eight hours. As far as console vs PC, I used to be more of a PC gamer, but I spend enough time at my desk so I like to kick back on the couch with a controller. I make exceptions here and there.
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.