Hi Tom, 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’m a composer, producer and solo artist and have created music for games such as Prince of Persia - The Forgotten Sands for the Nintendo Wii, Red Steel 1 & 2, Tom Clancy's GRAW 1 & 2, Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X, Need for Speed Underground 2, and others. I also go by the name « Atlas Plug » for my solo electronica work.
I transitioned into video game music after working in mainstream music for fifteen years. At one point I realized it just wasn’t fulfilling to me anymore and I felt creatively stifled in the “cookie-cutter” world of pop-music. Even when working on records, I always seemed to gravitate towards music that felt more “soundtrack-like” and music that took the listener to another place. So when I started playing games like Halo and Rainbow Six, I was immediately drawn to the music. It was something I could relate to and I immediately saw a new opportunity for combining my love of games and music. It was a new and challenging frontier for me to explore but I knew I had to try. Once I started down that path, there was just no turning back.
Let’s talk about the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter series. When and how did you first get involved in the project?
GRAW was really the first major military title I scored. It was an important project for me because I think it put me on the map as a “hybrid” composer. Some people point to that score as defining the Tom Clancy style that I became most known for.
How much creative freedom were you given by the developers in order to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game?
There was a great synergy between myself and the audio director on this project. He really liked the sound and style of the original pitch proposal I submitted and we continued developing it from there. They knew exactly what they wanted but were very open minded to my suggestions as well. For me, that’s the perfect combination.
Overall, how would you describe your score and what aspect of it are you most thrilled about?
As I’m my own toughest critic, it’s hard to say that I’m “thrilled“ about anything I’ve done, but there were some key aspects of that score that I think were very effective. One particular stand-out moment was the embassy scene which evokes feels of sadness and desperation. It created an effective juxtaposition against the ambush and the intense battle that followed.
You’ve also worked on another title in the Tom Clancy universe called H.A.W.X. How did you approach the fast-paced aerial combat? How important were themes for you in the score?
I my opinion, themes are generally the most important part of any score, so I approached that first. In the case of H.A.W.X, the team approved my initial theme, but I wasn’t satisfied and actually composed three themes before I found one that I liked.
At least half of the score is about creating an adrenalin rush. So the music had to really cut through and is usually very percussion-driven and intense. To convey the feeling of speed, I always made sure there was something fast and busy in the music, whether it was in the strings, percussion or electronics. The aerial feel was created more by melodies and style to give you a sense of flying.
Your score is very dynamic in-game. Could you talk a bit about the process of writing an interactive score and implementing it in the game?
For an interactive segment it’s important to fully understand the scope of the score and how the audio/music will be implemented in-game. For example, will the cues be layered or triggered one after the other? What kind of special stingers and textures might be needed, etc. Under ideal circumstances, I am given the opportunity to play an early version of the game and discuss various ideas with the team. Once that is done, I start developing a palette of sounds and a custom tailored approach.
Implementation involves actually placing the music in the game engine and programming it such that the right cues are triggered at the right times. It’s a crucial part of the process and happens to be one aspect that I am not usually involved with directly. If not executed well, it could ruin a good score and when done properly it can really bring out the best in the music and enhance the gameplay exper ience.
This is why it’s important that the composer understands games and how they work, especially when it comes to music. This enables me to anticipate the needs of the client and even make suggestions they might not have considered.
One of your latest projects is the action-adventure title Red Steel 2. Could you elaborate a bit about your particular goals with the score? Are you pleased with the end result?
Just like the original Red Steel, RS2 had to have a distinct, memorable, and different sound. But although it was a sequel by name, the game took a completely new direction into the Wild West. My aim was to blend Eastern and Western instruments, and support the numerous intense battles throughout the entire game.
The audio director and I discussed exactly how we would symbolize both the East and the West in the sequel. It was decided that three distinctive guitar sounds would be used for the Western influence. Each of these sounds represent a different type of enemy. I also included other staples that most people associate with the “Wild West” like the fiddle, jaw harp, harmonica and a real whistler to pay homage to the classic Morricone scores. As for the eastern influence, I incorporated a variety of Japanese and Chinese instruments including live percussion and performances by celebrated Pipa player, Xiao-Fen Min.
Overall Red Steel 2 was a very challenging project, but also very rewarding. I am certainly pleased with the end result and how well the video game community has responded to it.
You’ve also written music for the original Red Steel. What are the specific challenges in scoring a sequel?
The real challenge in this case was that Red Steel 2 was really a “non-sequel.” I wanted to find subtle ways to tie the two scores together, but still keep it sounding unique. I used some of the original theme’s melody and brought back the same Shakuhachi player to augment some of the ambiences and fight scenes.
Both H.A.W.X. and Red Steel 2 feature orchestral/electronic/ethnic hybrid scores. What is it about the merging of different styles that fascinates you in particular?
I like the idea of using an endless palette of sounds rather than only traditional orchestral sounds. For me, music is like an adventure and working with a diverse array of styles gives me the opportunity to delve into other musical worlds that I’ve not previously explored.
You’ve also written the score to Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands for the Nintendo Wii. What drew you to the project?
I fell in love with The Sands of Time on the Nintendo 64 system and since then I’ve always dreamed of scoring a Prince of Persia game. For me, it is the epitome of what I love about music and video games as it combines fantasy and ethnic music, transporting you to another world.
The game is very much a return to the first game in the series, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Were you influenced by Stuart Chatwood’s original score?
Although I thought the score to The Sands of Time supported the game very well, the PoP TFS team deliberately wanted me to avoid certain styles and sounds including electric guitars, orchestra and anything sounding modern. The score to PoP TFS for Nintendo Wii is completely unique in its style and approach.
Many of your works feature a wide array of real instruments. Did you enjoy working with live musicians? How much does the overall composing process differ when using a live recordings as opposed to a sampled score?
When possible, I prefer to working with live musicians as opposed to samples. It always breathes more life into the music. I will often record live musicians in the middle of the project rather than the end so I have time to work with the live material and sometimes develop it further.
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?
Sure, I’m certainly pleased to know that my music has garnered the attention of the film industry as well.
As far as movie composers entering the game industry, I think it’s happening for several reasons. One reason is that there are some game companies that still feel having a “famous movie composer” will help their marketing initiatives. Another reason is that in this economy there has been less work in the movie industry so it’s only natural that composers will look for other work. But, at the end of the day, I firmly believe that the greatest game scores will more often come from composers who are truly passionate about the art of music for games.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
I see game music continuing to thrive and mature, gaining more attention and respect from the music industry. I think you’ll eventually see game music award categories at the Grammys.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
The most difficult challenge is the non-linear aspect and often not being able to see or play the game ahead of time, which then requires more guess-work and “second-guessing”.
The most enjoyable aspect is that video games have been a passion of mine most of my life. It’s very gratifying to be part of the process and work with such incredible talent in this growing industry.
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your iPod right now?
John Williams, he has always been one of my favorite film composers. From when I was a young boy, I would listen to his scores for Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T, Superman and Star Wars over and over. As for modern composers, Hans Zimmer has certainly been an influence since so many of his scores combine electronic and orchestral elements. Ironically, when I’m not composing, I usually listen to music that is unrelated like classic rock.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
That is difficult to answer as I usually love what I just finished working on. But, if I had to pick one from the past I’d say Red Steel 1 was particularly enjoyable because almost every level in the game required a completely different style of music. It was intensely challenging but the Audio Director and I had a lot of fun working on it together. Prince of Persia was also one of my favorites. It was easy to get lost in some of the otherwordly and atmospheric music and I feel there is so much more to explore in future Prince of Persia titles. I hope to have the opportunity to return on a future Prince of Persia project.
What would be your dream project?
My dream project would probably be anything that allowed me to play the game as I scored it and 6 months to complete it. (laughs) But seriously, I’m usually attracted to scores that allow me to escape to another world or explore a style that I haven’t done before. I’ve been very fortunate to have those kinds of opportunities several times already and I’m happy to say that I’ll be working on at least one project this summer that will be unlike anything I’ve ever done before. Sci-Fi is another style I look forward to exploring more in future projects.
What are you currently working on?
I wish I could say. But, unfortunately NDAs are quite strict in the game business. J
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
I’ve always preferred consoles over PC’s. I liked playing games sitting comfortably on a couch in front of a large TV (or “standing” in the case of the Wii) rather than at a desk with a computer monitor and keyboard.
Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?
Thanks to you and all the readers out there. Please join me on Facebook and visit my website: www.tomsalta.com
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.