The two of you have been working together as composers for over 10 years. What’s your working relationship like?
Bob: As much as we’d hate to admit it, it is like a professional marriage with all the bickering and in-fighting, who farts the loudest, who shouts the loudest. We’ve worked together for over 15 years now. Fortunately, we now have two separate studios so we can go off in a huff that much more successfully. We both read scenes differently as to where the musical focal point should be and we are quite different people and our backgrounds bring different ideas to the table, some harmonious with what’s there already, some not. We have different skill sets. Barn will, say, initially focus upon theme writing and instrumentation, whereas I’ll be thinking about the whole musical picture, arrangement and orchestration. Then we’ll swap, argue, refer to the other’s work as having questionable parentage and go from there.
But somehow, we manage to pull it together and begrudgingly agree on a musical direction. If the client likes it, well that’s another story.
And how did you get involved with making music for games to begin with?
Barn: I began scoring games in 1990 as an offshoot of writing music for the underground ‘Amiga Demo Scene’. It was suggested by a guy I met at the Share and Enjoy copy party in July 1990 to think about writing music for games, he worked for Codemasters at the time. Never worked with them funnily enough.
So, summer holidays, 17 years old, I grabbed a copy of Zzap! 64 and rang up all the game developers who advertised. Managed to persuade three companies to let me demonstrate my work at the European Computer Trade Show in Earls Court that September. Trade shows are no place to demo music, fortunately my timing was good and I was invited to play tracks at the Sales Curve office in Battersea. October 15, 1990, I played them 10 Amiga modules, they all went quiet when one loaded up. I thought that was it, but much to my surprise they asked to license that track for the Amiga shooter SWIV. I was, as they say, on the map.
Bob: I responded to an advert for a sound engineer / junior sound designer at a games company in Cambridge that was posted on the student notice board at York University where I was studying an MSc in Music Technology in February 1996. Around a year later, Barn was away for a week, I had no sound design to do so volunteered my services and ending up writing my first track for MediEvil, which subsequently became ‘Gallowmere Waltz’. I was already very familiar with the studio and had watched music being written. The rest is history…
What are some of your musical influences and how have they affected your work?
Barn: Funk and film scores. Recently learning to play the electronic drums (bought a kit a few months ago) and am learning 80s Chaka Khan albums to play along with. Disco and jazz funk fusions from the Bob James, Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament era to more contemporary instrumental works by the likes of Spyro Gyra, David Benoit and Chick Corea. Film wise, James Horner’s Star Trek II, Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall and Basic Instinct, Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy and John William’s Superman.
Bob: 80s cheesy rock, such as Whitesnake, Dare and Dan Reed Network. These days more along the lines of film scores: Danny Elfman, John Powell, Trent Reznor and contemporary rock, like Evanessence and Nickelback.
How does creating music for games differ to that of film or television?
Both: Simple, interactivity. On TV or film you always know that at 28 minutes and 11 seconds she slaps him in the face. In the gaming world she may never slap him in the face or he may slap her. It’s impossible to score every possible eventuality so you cheat, try to come up with the most common scenarios and use clever implementation to smooth over the cracks of the rest.
We’ve just finished a couple of tracks for a very-well-know-racing-game but instead of one single high octane racing track, which has been the norm, we now have a six minute track that’s comprised of 25 segments of differing intensities that’ll be triggered and (mostly looped) over pertinent changes throughout the race creating – in theory – a much more coherent experience where the music more closely matches the energy level of the race.
Music evokes all kinds of emotion, helps strengthen themes and often gives the player vital non-visual clues. Do you find yourselves fulfilling atmospheric as well as design needs with your music?
Bob: Absolutely. In fact during our earlier days sound and music could help bridge the hardware visual limitations, since we audio folk have been using digital audio which can comprise of anything for 18 years. A low polygon gaming character can be brought to life through sound and music, so a great deal of our work was in providing atmosphere, and designers loved it.
There are projects, horror especially, where distinctions between music and sound design are rapidly becoming blurred. Jason Graves’ great work on the scores for Dead Space has more in common with music from 50s Noir than contemporary sci-fi. On its own, the string section of an orchestra performing a textural cluster but using the bows’ upside down on the strings is a stark and harsh sound, which is not something to be consumed musically but it works brilliantly in providing atmosphere in-game.
Following on from this, a big part of music and sound in games is giving identity to settings, people and objects. Can you explain how this has evolved, perhaps in reference to your C-12 score where you wrote songs for zones, instead of ‘one song per level’?
Barn: To create a cohesive experience for the player, it’s all about the implementation. From the limited requirement of title track and end credits music of the early 80s on 8-bit platforms to where we are now, the evolution of gaming hardware has allowed for greater expression and subtlety. For many years, music was simply aural icing on a visual cake, where the icing bore no resemblance to the action on screen. It was wallpaper music, written to set the mood and place. This isn’t how it works in ‘traditional’ sound to picture mediums of film and TV, where music serves the picture, ebbs and flows along an audio narrative, and music, dialogue or sound design take it in turns to take audio dominance.
So, 10 years ago we worked on our final PlayStation 1 title, C-12: Final Resistance. I was interested in pushing at least the musical variety throughout a single level. Long before middleware solutions (off the shelf software for plugging into games that now does this) were around, I worked with the audio programmer and we setup musical zones throughout the map of each level and tagged them with words such as ‘exploration’, ‘suspense’, ‘horror’, etc. I wrote numerous 30-60 second long looping musical cues that would fit those particular terms. Once the player entered or left a zone, a different set of musical cues would be triggered from the palette of cues entitled ‘exploration’ (or randomly it could wait up to a minute before triggering a cue), just to help imbue the player with the correct feeling and mood for the area. Once the fights kicked off, it triggered battle music which was again picked from a selection of battle cues.
It was the most ‘interactive’ score we’d done at that time. By today’s standards this is a crude approach but it helped us pave the way for the interactive scores we have written since.
How do you go about choosing the sounds and instruments to create a suitable atmosphere for a game? For instance, MediEvil’s atmosphere flows from the chilling (‘Hilltop Mausoleum’), to the comical (‘Comedy Corpses’), to the heroic (‘Zarok's Lair’).
Both: Put simply, as sound-to-picture composers, our inspiration comes from visuals. In the case of MediEvil, we would spend time with the team, looking at concept art and discussing what it should sound like – dark and horrific or light and comedic. We’d already formulated a MediEvil ‘sound’ from scoring the original FMV sequences which were used to sell the game. Chris Sorrell, the designer, had a very clear idea of what kind of music he would like to hear and gave us CDs from Danny Elfman, Elliott Goldenthal and Wojciech Kilar. We ‘assimilated’ as much as we could from these various sources and worked towards creating a sound palette and overarching theme that would unify everything.
Once that had been done, the majority of the hard work was over. It’s then down to cherry picking which parts of the unified sounds you use in which guise. We weren’t creating anything subtle in MediEvil, so using the organ and choir for ‘Hilltop Mausoleum’ was hardly original, but effective. ‘Comedy Corpses’ was a fairground attraction, so much fun with woodwinds and oom pah pah brass, and ‘Zarok’s Lair’ was the final showdown, so time for Dan (the hero) to step up, all to a rousing heroic version of the MediEvil theme. I’m sure we’re dispelling any myths behind composition there may have been, but in the case of a game like MediEvil, subtlety wasn’t really required.
In the early game projects you worked on, you created the music entirely on computer. What was it like producing a full score with those restraints?
Barn: A right royal pain. In many ways it focused you, you didn’t have to scroll through banks of sounds to find something appropriate, you had a couple of waveforms to choose from. So you focused on writing catchy melodies to help capture the mood, again it was hardly a time for subtlety. I started on the Commodore 64 (writing music in hexadecimal using Future Composer, fun!) and progressed to the Commodore Amiga (writing tracks on the musical equivalent of a piano roll triggering 8-bit mono samples across four channels).
I loved the Amiga and found it very hard to translate that compositional discipline to MIDI – what’s used in all production studios. It took me over a year to be won over by MIDI / conventional sequencing and there are still quirks that annoy, but overall the freedom of not running out of RAM or polyphony and the overall leap in quality of the final recordings means that writing ‘chip’ music isn’t something I look back at with anything other than rose tinted glasses.
And what does having the presence of an orchestra, like the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on your scores for Primal and MediEvil: Resurrection, mean for the quality and scope of music in games?
Bob: It’s important that if you choose to have a large scale orchestral production in your game that you go the whole nine yards and produce it that way. Producing synth demos is OK to a point, but a synthesised orchestra is merely a snapshot in time of what a full orchestra can produce. In addition, having two separate processes, composition and then production, allows you to focus on the respective jobs at the respective time so that nothing gets missed.
Of all the video games scores you’ve worked on so far, what’s been your favourite and why?
Bob: It’s very hard to pick a favourite or a worst to be honest without upsetting someone along the way. I have to say, each and every project has its relative folly and foibles as well as its virtues. All you can do is produce the best work possible within the parameters set for you by your client. MediEvil was a great project to be involved with, a fantastic opportunity to write interesting music and really flex our musical muscles. Working on Brink was a different challenge – deciding where to place the music so that the soundscape made sense as a whole and also choosing a sound palette that made it stand out sonically from its peers.
Barn: For me, Brink kind of epitomises where we’re currently at. The combination of orchestral, electronic and ethnic with an unusual palette of instruments which we developed over the course of a number of months has been immensely satisfying. We love the Hang Drum, the Chinese Erhu, the Udu, Yamaha CS-80 sounds (Vangelis used it on Blade Runner), Taiko drums, Dharabuka’s and a whole manner of world percussion all mixed with an orchestra, Chinese Dulcimer and Soprano voice.
Thematically and musically, it’s one of the simplest scores’ we’ve ever written, a simple seven-note piano theme that ties everything together. As composers, I always like to think that we’re constantly evolving our process and honing our particular style. If Brink had lengthy narrative cutscenes where we could really amp up the emotions, it’d be as perfect as scoring Primal. But I’m niggling now, Brink is where I believe we are in terms of sound. Complexity of score and technical writing would go Primal or a German feature film we scored around the same time, but terms of who we are, I think Brink says it pretty well.
Can you tell us anything about your latest work?
Both: Alas not, we’ve just completed work on two projects, both of which will be announced towards the end of the year.
With the exception of BAFTA, do you feel video game music is respected outside the gaming community?
Bob: I do feel like it is now. BASCA have set up an Ivor Novello for best music score as well so the wider music community is also recognising it as a valid discipline. And rightly so, on many levels it’s actually more difficult to write interactively than it is to write a linear score and much more difficult to come from film to game than to do the opposite.
I think the days of game music being considered to be the poor cousin of film music have gone and we see lots of contemporary film composers getting in on the act now – but usually writing themes that are then expanded and implemented by industry specialists. We used to actually avoid mentioning our games background to prospective clients in TV and film, but we now realise that games are considered cool and many directors in both these industries are big games players.
Finally, can you imagine a time when radio stations, like Classic FM, would play video game scores like yours or Elder Scrolls, as they already do for films like Lord of the Rings?
Both: Absolutely! It’s all about respect for the craft. We’ve had music for games performed on Classic FM, but in a niche capacity. It’ll take a few years before more widespread recognition is garnered, but it was no different than that of film scores from the 1940s onwards.
Strangely we had a meeting with a DJ at Classic FM last year and mooted the idea that they could play more game scores in addition to their usual output. He was surprisingly receptive to the idea and talked a lot about the music itself rather than where it came from. They know their listeners very well and know what they like. If a game score were to fit the easy listening criteria, they’d be happy to add it to their playlists.
Hi Paul, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?
I was really lucky actually with the way things turned out. Personally I’m not a big games player so after studying for a Music Technology MSc at the University of York , composing music for games was not an obvious progression. Millennium Interactive based in Cambridge advertised a position in their audio department, but I didn’t actually see the advert – a course colleague did and applied himself. Shortly after that he decided to buy a house in Surrey and so when he was asked to go for interview, he declined and asked me if I wanted to go instead. I did, I got it and that was how I got into it!
You and Andrew Barnabas form a composing team. How does composing in a team work? What are the advantages/disadvantages when working in a team?
Yes, it is unusual but works surprisingly well for both of us. Barn likes to work with melody and I like to work more with harmony and chord progressions. We both come from different musical backgrounds, bringing something different to the table.
The obvious disadvantage is if we don’t agree on the approach we should take for a particular project. This happens rarely though because it is seldom exclusively our decision. We often have the involvement of Directors and Producers who have a clear idea of how they want the project to develop.
On the plus side, if one of us is suffering a creative block, the other can often add to the composition and provide a much needed spark to kick start the creative process again. With there being two of us, when we get very busy and the workload is enormous, we can multi task and work independently. As all of our music is performed live, it doesn’t matter if the mix of our mock-ups sounds inconsistent; the final recording process irons out that particular problem.
You are most famous for your score for Primal. How did you get involved in that project?
As they say, it’s who you know in this industry!! Barn and I used to run the audio department at Sony Cambridge up until we set up Bob and Barn Ltd in June 2001. Thankfully, the relationship didn’t take too much of a dent when we left and they asked us to still score the game which we were delighted to do.
How would you describe the score and what aspect of it are you most proud of?
The score is split into 4 distinct sounds to identify the 4 main areas of Primal. Solum being a primitive area we decided to give it a signature sound of Col Legno which is where the string section play the instrument with the back of the bow giving a pitched / percussive sound. It sounds very primitive! Aquis had big, lush, flowing melodies and rich harmonic textures. Aetha was a level all about oppression and class distinction so we decided that we would opt for a melancholy sound featuring the solo violin in much the same way that Schindler’s List does. Finally Volca had a volcanic feel so we decided to distinguish it with a slightly middle Eastern sound and feel. The thing I’m most proud of is Jen Meets Arella (track 5 on the CD) as it was the first theme that we wrote (in fact it was originally scored not for orchestra but for rock band with a solo cello!) It was strong melodically and harmonically and stayed with us throughout the 2 year development of the game score.
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?
We both enjoyed it immensely! It’s incredible to hear your musical ideas realised with the help of so many other specialists along the way. Nic Raine our orchestrator, Jan Holtzner the recording engineer, and of course not forgetting each and every musician!
The main difference is through the division of labour. Prior to this our job was to compose it, orchestrate it, record it, master it and pretty much do everything to it! We are left to focus on 1 area now – the composition. That means that we have specialists involved in all the other areas, bringing in their talents in order to raise the quality bar much higher than was possible when we were handling all aspects of the musical production.
The Primal soundtrack has been released by Silva Screen Records. Are you planning to release your future scores as well?
We always hoped that we would continue the trend of releasing soundtracks but it is difficult to convince record labels that it is a viable proposition because it is early days for it as a consumer product. I believe that in years to come we could be competing with film scores for unit sales but as yet we’re not even close. Until then we will continue to use persuasive means with developers and record labels in order to keep the industry moving forward.
You’ve also worked on the kung-fu game Kung-Fu Chaos. I’ve read on your website that finding the right style for the soundtrack was one of the most difficult aspects of the score. How would you describe the final style in the game and what have you learned from that difficulty in terms of methodologies?
Yes it was tricky. I’d describe the final result as a fusion between disco, funk and oriental music. The music on the initial levels drew more from the oriental sound and the score evolved throughout until it was almost pure disco for the last level.
You meet all kinds of developers, ones that have clear direction from the start, and others that want us to provide it. And of course you get all levels in between. Each has it’s own relative problems. The former is sometimes very hard to please because they have strong creative ideas. The latter is difficult because it is hard to establish exactly what is needed if you aren’t on the same wavelength.
We had additional problems on Kung Fu Chaos in that there was place holder audio already in the game when we arrived there. Stylistically it was very left field of what was required but it did set a precedent because the game had been played like this for long enough for it to have established itself in the minds of the developers.
We’ve learned that the best approach is to play as much existing music as possible to developers so that you’re not writing test tracks which are time consuming. It’s actually possible to play the game along with this ‘source’ music to get a feel for tempo and rhythm. Does it give the right desired effect?
One of your first projects is Medievil 2. What can you tell us about that score?
Well actually, MediEvil 1 was our first project – we scored the whole series. Chris Sorrell, the brains behind the game, had a clear idea of what it should sound like musically. He wanted it to have a Danny Elfman feel (‘Beetlejuice’, ‘Nightmare before Christmas’ and ‘Batman Returns’.)
I personally really enjoyed writing this style of orchestral music because I feel that a lot of the character lies within the chord progressions and harmonies used. We also had to experiment heavily with how we orchestrated the music because Elfman’s music tends to be very complex from an orchestration standpoint. You only have to listen to the theme from the Simpsons to realise that.
You’ve also scored a great variety of movie and TV spots. How would you compare movie and game scoring?
Working in film and TV is satisfying for different reasons. The picture we work with is totally linear and so it gives us much more scope to synchronise our music very accurately with the action on screen and make sure that the music is much more tailored to each nuance. In terms of production schedules etc we have equally little time to get the scores written in all cases :) Of course, at the top of the tree in film, the production values are astronomical, but I’d say that your average game score competes quite admirably budget wise with a decent sized TV / film production and with the onset of next generation consoles just around the corner, that figure will undoubtedly rise 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?
Actually any comparison of our music with film for us is an enormous compliment. We have strived to echo the skill and quality of film music and if people pick up on that we’re always elated.
In answer to the second part of your question: Budgets! Well not purely that, but things must have taken a big shift upwards because the likes of the names you list above aren’t working for a packet of crisps and a pint of lager! That said, it is important to remember that these composers made their names in a field that is related but not the same as ours. They can write great orchestra music, but they don’t really have much of a handle on the interactive part of games and how to deal with it. This probably explains why they’re currently being used mainly for the creation of themes (as well as to keep the price down of course. :) )
It’s more than just down to finances though. I think that a lot of the stigma attached to games is slowly being eroded and a worldwide respect for it as a medium is gradually being earned. I think that these forward looking composers can see that video gaming has become an enormous industry in its own right and can not be overlooked any longer. This can only improve with the next generation of consoles about to be launched. As the creative boundaries become broader, perhaps we’ll see an influx of other film talent in different areas, such as sound design?
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
Can’t you ask me something easier like, what is my favourite colour or my middle name or something? :) I do see a convergence of media as a likely event. And I think with that, there will be less of a distinction between film / TV and game composers. Perhaps the distinction will be more about who composes for linear media and who composes for non-linear media? Games will no longer be the poor cousin to film but perhaps more a bonefide twin.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
The most difficult task for me is usually deciding how to deal with the interactive aspect of the music. In some cases, this is not difficult as the game does not demand a highly interactive score. In others, the success of the audio in the project depends on it!
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?
I grew up listening to rock music – some of the most cheesy and clichéd stuff you can imagine. That said, the music could be quite complex at times and I learned much about harmony and chord progressions listening to that.
Now I’m listening to pop music, rock music – you name it actually. Of course, I get a lot of my musical influences listening to film scores. My favourite composers include James Newton Howard (6 th Sense and Peter Pan), Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future and Forest Gump) and of course, John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, ET.)
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
That’s a tough question to answer. I loved working on the early MediEvil series but probably more for nostalgic reasons. Game development was quite different back then. I really enjoyed working on the German feature film we did last year because of the diversity of music we were required to write as well as the travelling we had to do.
At the moment, I think my favourite project has been MediEvil PSP because Sony just ‘get it’ when it comes to production values. We weren’t rushed in the recording process and things didn’t seem quite so rushed during the compositional phase, which is probably as much a testament to the game’s producer Piers Jackson’s skills as anything. It was the culmination of seven years work for us, revisiting old themes from MediEvil 1 as well as having the chance to write new material – all being expertly performed by the Prague Philharmonic. This was how the original music was intended to be heard, and now it has finally happened seven years later.
What would be your dream project?
My dream project? Well probably a game that gets made into a film and becomes an on-going license that’s as big as Star Wars. Or course, we would always have to score the music on both projects!! That would be rather splendid!
What are you currently working on?
We’ve set up a ring tone business specialising in music for film and TV called Protones.net. We’re currently in the process of re-branding and promoting the site. Alongside this we are about to make a big announcement with our sister company Side – can’t say any more about that at this stage. Watch this space. We’re also planning more car recordings for another PSP title due for release next year. Actually, I didn’t realise just how busy we were!
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
As I said earlier, I’m not really a big games player myself. I’m more into sport. Barn likes to get stuck into games though, but I’ll leave it for you to ask him about that!
Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?
No :) My fingers are about to fall off as it is!
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.
Thanks and the same to you!!