Hi Jack, 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?
Sure. I was working as a recording engineer and producer in New York with a band on Capitol Records, whose lead singer was a game designer by day. This was back in 1994. She had an opportunity to write music for a game and asked me to co-write with her. We started that first game in 1996 and I just never stopped! Cindy Shapiro and I got married, moved to Los Angeles and because of that move I made a career transition from recording engineer/producer to composer. So Cindy really is responsible for that!
Myst III: Exile was one of your earlier projects. Could you talk about how and when you first became involved with the Myst franchise?
That first project in 1996 started a series of relationships that branched out in various directions in the game industry. Dan Irish was someone I’d worked with for several years and he suddenly was becoming the producer of the Myst III game and he asked me to audition. I said yes.
The Myst adventure games focus strongly on puzzle solving and environmental exploration. Their overall gameplay tempo is rather slow and the graphical images static. How exactly did that influence your musical approach to the score?
I did a score that had epic elements to it to set a different sort of tone for the series, but retained a similar vibe to the original game. That game is one of the main reasons I wanted to get into games. For the in-game cues, I wrote more ambient music and designed the playback of it in such a way as to be constantly evolving. It was really a great title to work on.
Let us talk about Jade Empire. How did you first start out writing the music?
I wanted to do something that was a hybrid of eastern and western music. All of the straight-ahead Chinese music I was listening to didn’t have the right feeling I wanted to convey and a typical western score was just too… typical. I wanted to use bits of eastern instrumentation in a film-score approach. I hired a music consultant name Zhiming Han who was very well connected with various Chinese musicians who were wonderful. This was really key to the quality of the score. Zhiming is a great instrumentalist himself. He played the Chinese hammered dulcimer (Yangqin) and the Dizi (bamboo flute) and helped to translate my parts for the players into Chinese music notation – numbers that represent the tones of the scale.
How much creative freedom were you given by the developers at Bioware in order to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game?
For Jade Empire, they were really good about giving me the freedom to do what I wanted. Once I had their blessing on the sonic palette, they just let me go!
Overall, how would you describe your score and what aspect of it are you most thrilled about? How important were character-based themes for you?
It’s an east meets west treatment for a pseudo-chinese universe. We used not only Chinese, but pan-asian instrumentation. Taiko and other percussion from Japan, then various Chinese instruments like Yangqin, Ghuzeng (zither), Dizi, Pipa, Suona (sounds like a very strident trumpet) and others. Each character did have their own theme, but much of it was also environment based and changed depending on where you were in the Jade universe.
You worked with a multitude of live percussion instruments to create Jade Empire’s ethnic sound. Did you enjoy working with live orchestra? How does the overall composing process differ when using a real orchestra as opposed to a sampled database?
I did use percussion as a big part of the palette. So I would book time at a studio with the musicians, then just come up with various grooves that I would later use as building blocks for several compositions. It was a very organic way to work. Find a groove that I liked. Record it, layer it, then take that back to my studio to compose with. There were pieces in Jade that were only percussion. I loved that aspect of the score. The percussion was wonderful to listen to on its own. I simply found that adding anything to it at times would just lessen its effect, so I left it alone. I’m very proud of those cues.
One of your latest projects is Mass Effect. How challenging was it for you to find the right sound for this futuristic title? Are there any cues/musical passages that you are especially proud of?
Thank you! I love Mass Effect. It’s such a unique title and I’m so proud to have been the franchise composer for both the first one and this latest one. Casey Hudson, the director of the game, really drove the vision for what the score was to become. I have to give him props for that. He wanted that 80’s sci-fi sound recalling Bladerunner and various other scores from Tangerine Dream (Risky Business) and then we pulled in some other sci-fi references like the score to the remake of Solaris and popular movie themes from Tangerine Dream. We wanted the feeling of these influences while striving for something unique and new. I think it worked. I think one of the best themes I wrote for Mass Effect was the Presidium Theme and Vigil (plays on the main menu). Those two were really nice as they were so simple and the melody was really easy to latch onto. I also co-wrote with Sam Hulick who penned Shepard’s Theme and Sovereign’s Theme, which are really great.
You’ve also been involved with Mass Effect 2. What’s the most challenging aspect of scoring a sequel?
Well, I’ve done a fair amount of sequel writing and I always feel that the music needs to morph a bit into something new, while keeping a similar vibe. The score I’ve always been really proud of was Myst IV as it grew and went into new directions from Myst III. Mass Effect 2 went into a darker and slightly more aleatoric orchestral direction. In any case, you want the music to be everything the first one wasn’t, while keeping the stuff that worked. For Mass Effect 2, the story was quite a bit different so the music needed to serve that.
You’ve been composing music for games since the early days. How do you think composing for video games has changed since then?
We now have some of the best composers working in the medium. It was relatively easy to get into the industry in 1995 when I started. Not many people were doing it. Now, composers are all over the game industry. Top quality production techniques are being employed to make the scores. Mixers, editors, implementers, etc all working together to make the music the best it can be.
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?
Composers are composers. They are not just film composers, or game composers. They compose music and with games being such a big industry, it’s just another medium for the composer’s art form. I know I could write film scores and scores for TV, but honestly I’m just too busy where I am. I’d love to do films and TV as well. I’m sure it’s the same for people who primarily write for those media.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
Bigger budgets for live recording is the big change, but lately I see a trend towards higher quality implementation into the games. More adaptive and interactive scores being crafted to go with whatever the player decides to do. We will be looking at interactive movies and really being a part of the game as a player. Game music will have to help that experience along and more game directors will be taking music very seriously in order to help them tell their stories.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
Trying to anticipate everything that the player might do. I love doing that, but feel that it’s the most difficult and challenging thing for a composer to nail.
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’ve been listening lately to a lot of songs. My daughter is always turning me on to what’s current and I like a lot of what is out there. I really enjoy Paramore, Green Day, Kings of Leon, Lilly Allen and Duffy. They’re all great despite the apparent disintegration of the music industry. In terms of orchestral and soundtrack music, I really dig Jesper Kyd’s score to Assassin’s Creed II, Tom Salta’s score to Hawx. I think Garry Schyman is just an amazing, amazing composer – his Dante’s Inferno score is absolutely wonderful. Hans Zimmer is one of my all-time favorites. No one quite nails a melody like he and his team do every time out of the box. Just loved the sonic stylings of his latest Sherlock Holmes score, but then, something completely different: The Holiday was just incredible for the way it served the film. John Williams is the best, most influential composer of the 20th or 21st century. Bar none.
Another major influence on my work is Jerry Goldsmith. He just reinvented music so many times. Alien, Patton, Planet of the Apes. Great stuff! I really could go on and on.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
The Myst series, Jade Empire and Mass Effect series are all the best for different reasons. I also very much enjoyed Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. I guess most of the great games I’ve worked on have been my favorites!
What would be your dream project?
Every project I work on is my dream project. It’s just great to make a living doing something I love so much.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on several treatments for upcoming titles. Also, I’m so excited to be producing my first television special for my concert series Video Games Live. It will be shot on April 1 st at the Pontchartrain Center in New Orleans for PBS and will start airing nationally on August 1 st.
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
Yes, I am playing Mass Effect 2 right now. I am in various stages of Gears of War 2 and Halo 3 (yeah, I’m a little behind, but it’s been a busy year!). I mostly play on Xbox, DS and PSP, but sometimes on PS3. Not much at all on PC at the moment.
Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?
Come on out and see Video Games Live and please look for us on your local PBS station in August!
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.