Interview with a Composer
I recently had a chance to chat with Troels B. Folmann, composer and producer for Deffmute, Inc. who are developing the soundtrack for Cinemawareís latest game Robin Hood Ė Defender of the Crown for the PlayStation2. The game isnít due out for another three to four months, but Troels sat down and answered some of our questions about music in video games, peer-to-peer networks and what he would do if the world was coming to an end.
Erich: Greetings! Please tell us about yourself Troels!
Troels: I am the victim of my parentsí random lust in 1974. I couldnít speak until the age of 7, but in the meantime I had the chance to make noise. This is my musical training. All music teachers always hated me, because I was annoyingly good and provoking. When I passed my teens and youth hood rebellion I started getting a little more serious. I took a masters degree in information- and library science and I am currently putting last fingers on my second masters in information technology. My thesis will be in composition of digitally simulated symphony orchestra music for computer games. Besides from a high and inconsistent ego I have nothing to add. I am just a boring human being, I pick nose when I am alone and I hate puddles. I have been a hardcore gamer for over 20 years and this is my prime skill, besides from composing and being a good lover (1+ minute). [Laughs]
E: As a composer, do you feel that music has taken a backseat in video games when compared to the buzz generated by graphical effects and gameplay features?
T: Music is often the last element integrated in games. Unfortunately there is trend and belief that music should be done last. This is true in some cases, but in other cases music should be done at the same time. Not only to compliment the game closer, but also to influence on the mood, atmosphere and feeling of the game. If we look at our counterpart (the movies) it is common practice to let composers do music while the production is going on. Spielberg even lets John Williams compose before he starts working. I am not saying this is always the best practice. But music can really spark off something that can add and change the direction of any given product and production. On the other hand music is just music. Music should compliment the game. Itís an element that adds mood, excitement, feelings and go deep into our unconsciousness. Visuals are much more direct and perceptive. We live in a very visually oriented world and people have a far better sense for graphics then music. Conclusion, it depends on the product.
E: Do you think the music industry has grown all that it can, or is there still room for innovation?
T: I have a close friend who is the CEO of Universal Music (largest label in the world) in Denmark. We often have some nasty talks about the industry. Itís a very complex question. Normally people will say: "Why didnít they wake up? The internet was there! They just acted like nothing had happened". I find that statement a bit naive. The music industry is not the cleverest industry in the world, but they have a product like anything else. Itís not their fault that people can copy it. I think the question here is more on morality. There is no morality on the internet. Itís the "freedom world" to the everyday life and people act so weird. I mean what do we do on the internet? Shoot each other. Write sentences that could give a pure republican a pacemaker blowout. Porn, porn and sport results. Music is just like porn. The ones that make it have to bend over. I donít see any problem in that and eventually I believe that it will lead to new innovation. The megastars are way too well paid for what their do. Itís the new world. You can love it or stick to your Michael Jackson posters.
E: I know you just finished up with the score for an upcoming game. What kind of workload goes into producing a score for video games?
T: Three months of total dedication, 1.5 liters of Coke per day, a very sweet and understanding girlfriend, A superb collaboration partner (Cinemaware), gear that doesnít crash too often, dedication, on-time-delivery, and a life accordingly to a fixed schedule. Humoristic sense and a professional understanding of what you do. When I say professional I mean respective, listening and informal. Last aspect is very important. In our case I delivered a full orchestral soundtrack for Cinemawareís "Defender of the Crown". It may not sound like much, but the soundtrack is about 45 minutes long and itís quite a burden to compose that much in three months. Imagine writing a thesis. You write and you write. But you only write one string of words. When you do composition in this scale you write with over 200 voices at the same time. I am currently looking for a sanatorium. The soundtrack is unique because itís a fully simulated digitally orchestra. You can listen to demos of the track here: http://www.deffmute.com/diary/diary.html
E: How does that workload and approach relate to the movie industry?
T: Well. Movies are always static. You compose to the movements and emotions of the movie. Computer games are sometimes static (rendered graphics, intros etc) and dynamic (in game, dynamic audio, loops etc). When doing static scenes the normal approach is similar to movies. You create main themes for the main characters. You create stunning and beautiful themes. When itís dynamic audio the thinking begins. These are often sequences that shifts in moods and the music should correspond to that. I think the workload depends a lot on experience. I have a pretty deep background in computer games, so I can see or relate rather fast to the gameplay. But then again, itís the product and producers that does the real talk. I had a tremendous experience with Sean Vesce (Co-founder of Cinemaware and director of development). Sean was extremely informative and thatís the key issue for me. Getting the right information, so I can create the right product. Questions are not dangerous.
E: Have you ever worked in the movie industry in any capacity?
T: Yes. I have done quite a lot of commercials and a few full scores for movies. Commercials are a bit special, because they are normally very fast and have to be edgy. I often use "theming" in commercials. Theming is my word for creating lasting and sticky themes. You all know these haunting melodies from the movies. Movies are another experience. But while most composers dream of composing for movies I donít. I dream of composing for games and games only. I donít fancy movies that much. They are static and donít amaze me so much more. Well, bowling for columbine is superb, but then again - hardly no music in it. I like movies, but I love games.
E: Say you were to find your recordings floating around on a P2P network like KaZaa or eDonkey. What would your reaction be?
T: Lean back and laugh. I already have stuff floating around in cyberspace and it makes me proud. There is a lot of my earlier stuff and it sounds terrible. I guess a lot of people lack taste. [Laughs] I got no problem with that. I donít think music is unique or something wildly interesting. Music is music. Itís a universal form of expression and the more that can access it the better. That being said my greatest wish is a universal music bank with all titles for 20-30 cents pr. download. No more. I know they are aiming along the lines of 60-99 cents pr. title on the systems to come. I find that too expensive and another faulty move. 20-30 is acceptable. Then again most gaming music is also terrible, so you might wanna give a discount on that one.
E: Going off topic a bit, what is your favorite video game of all time and why?
T: Master is demanding a lot of apprentice! It depends on the genre. FPS would have to be CS. RTS I would probably go for Age of Mythology. Action/Adventure would be Defender of the Crown, honestly. Sidescrollers would be Manic Miner. Strategy would be Panzer General. Simulation would be Flight Simulator 2002. There are a lot of good games, but if I really had to pin it down and be truthful I would take Team Fortress Classic, a MOD for the Half-life engine. This game has a nasty nerve to it and I love the "MEDICCCCC!!!!" yelling. The game is ultra fast and I do suspect the reason I love it so much is because I am quite good at it. Vice City rules too, so does the soundtrack to it.
E: What is your favorite gameís music not produced by you?
T: Apprentice points at Master Rob Hubbard. While everybody is dropping pants on the Jeremy Soules myth, I am not. Jeremy is great at composing atmospheres, but lacks some skill in composing lasting and memorable themes. Rob Hubbard on the other hand was a sound magician. He made my 64 rock so much I recorded it on tape player and heard it along my Miami Vice records. Today it may sound a little too retro, but in the 80's it was the best. His track for Crazy Comets, Knuckle Busters were to die for. I always wondered about the Space Invaders sound. Was that a soundtrack or a raw imitation of the jaws theme? [Sounds out ďJawsĒ Theme]
E: Who are you musical influences, and why do you look up to them?
T: I donít look up to anybody. Only you master. Only you! I used too up, but it kind of stopped as my ego grew. Why look up, when you can look down? But itís hard not to acknowledge influences. In jazz and contemporary its: "Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Yellowjackets, Ruichy Sakamoto, Bill Laswell, BT, Squarepusher, Dave Grusin, TroubleFunk, Fluke, Quincy Jones etc." On the classical and movie side its: "Alan Silvestri, Shostacovich, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Satie, Thomas Newman, Howard Shore and the notorious weeper of all, John Williams. "
E: If you could pick any other job in the world what would it be?
T: I love studying and I love the scientific approach to computer games. I will probably settle for a PhD. in composition for computer games, but not the typical nerdish way behind the desk without experience. I want to apply my scientific knowledge into practice and I will keep on scoring while I study. It might take a little longer to get the study finished, but hey, why not smash two flies instead of one. Anyway, there are many jobs I would like. I would very, very much like to sit in some game publishers CEO chair. Stop the stream of bad games. Itís important that game developers begin to apply are more stringent and intelligent method in the way the design their game concepts. A quite common approach is: "Hey! FPSes are popular! Letís make this cool game where we..." The result ends up like C&C Renegade or something hideous like it. But my hidden desire is to be World Dictator and/or remake GTA Vice City in multiplayer mode. Right dudes?
E: If you absolutely had to chop off an arm of a leg which would it be, and why?
T: But master!? Why!!??? WHY!!!!! Mobility is important for me, but legs are replaceable. Since most my time goes in writing and composing, I would totally settle for the leg, left leg, I hope that they could find purpose in it. Give it to some dog or something. I would hate to know that my leg was just cut off and trashed. I have a rather good looking leg, so maybe it could be used for some cool scientific study. If I had to choice of cutting legs of other persons the list would be: "George Bush (not leg, but by mistake his head). George Zamphir (panflute player, shut da f... His right arm and he would weep), and the postman when he delivers heavy bills.
E: What do you view as the single best innovation in video gaming in the last 20 years?
T: MadCat's fishing rod. I had a blast when I saw it. You can actually sit home and throw this damn thing around. Simulating the intense drama of fishing Salmon or whatever you desire. Second to that it would when Voodoo/3dFX came along. They really raised the standards for graphics, respects to NVIDIA too. I think the PlayStation 1 was a gigantic leap forward as well. But the coolest innovation is by no comparison the internet and multiplayer capabilities over the net. This is the future and this media is going to influence the future more then anything. Computer games have the sheer force that they can give players an individually and social experience at the same time. Thatís why our business is rising and rising - and movies will in the end be more classical and static media. All the dreams of interactive television were hopeless and what happening now? The internet is integrating into the media. Chat pages, SMSpages while we watch television. Chat with known people and so on. The internet is the most elegant technology ever developed right after the book press by Gutenberg. May sound lame, but imagine having access to books at the time. Kind of wild!
E: How was it working on Defender of the Crown?
T: It was orgasmic. It sort of developed to an intimate relationship between our mutual companies. Cinemaware is really putting a majestic effort in the resurrection in this old classic. They are honestly, scouts honor, the most dedicated and professional team I have ever encountered. The working process and schedule was rather tight. I know Cinemaware considered a lot of very well known game composers, but eventually Deffmute.com (my company) was awarded. The process itself was hard and rewarding. The results are - dare I say - rather stunning and I was kind of surfing on a creative wave for those three months of composing.
E: I read that the game and the soundtrack were developed in different parts of the world. How difficult was this to accomplish?
T: Thatís correct. The amazing part about it was that I live in Scandinavia/Europe and Cinemaware is located in San Francisco. 9 hours between us. We managed to create a totally fluent workflow where I would compose while they slept and they would implement while I slept. Each day we had a short debriefing and made corrections. The process was close to being ideal. The most important aspect of being a composer today is the ability to deliver on-time and with the right atmosphere. Cinemaware was superb in providing essential information and I transformed the ideas into music.
E: Do you prefer to create the music along with the game, or wait till it is complete to score it?
T: It sort of depends on what I am doing. The soundtrack for Defender of the Crown was mainly done after the main game was ready in a rough version. It was a common assumption amongst the Cinemaware crew that they would have loved the music in an earlier stage. Not just to fit the game and gameplay, but also to spark off inspiration. Music is a very powerful and descriptive entity. Some of the themes I have done are really adding to the experience and I believe Cinemaware was rather aware of that. Anyway, to answer your question, I think I prefer both approaches. The ideal game would have SOME music scored in the conceptual stages of the game and then later stuff for the actual engine etc.
E: What is unique about the score for Defender of the Crown?
T: How dare you! The soundtrack is unique due to three facts. First of all it has a lot of themes. I developed way over 100 different themes and song lines and this shines through on the soundtrack. All main characters have their own themes; all different sequences have specially composed music. The second reason is that the soundtrack is fully scored on computers. Itís a fully digitally simulated symphonic orchestra. This kind of marks a new point of what can be reached with computers and composing today. Third fact is choice of instruments. I was rather picky in my instrumentation and I wanted to create a real atmosphere for the period. I eventually end up using the real drums, flutes and string instruments from the period. This doesnít mean itís medieval in anyway. There are wild sessions with whole ranged symphonic orchestra and a choir with over 1000 voices blasting it out.
E: What materials (hardware, software) did you use to create your music?
T: No Apples here, straight PCs. The music is created through different kinds of software. Some of things are customized by myself (sounds advanced, but it really isnít) and some are programs called "soft samplers". These mean programs simulate a sampler. This could be programs like Tascams Gigastudio, Battery from Native Instruments and so forth. There are many solutions to many problems. The specs on the PC's are rather similar. Each PC produces about 160 voices. I have a little PC-farm with four times 2.5 GHZ P4, 1 GB ram and approximately 1,200 GB HDD.
E: Quick! Tell us what we can expect from Defender of the Crown!
T: The game is new and old at the same time. I will present a gameplay which is radically different from what we know and still with so many parallels. To put it in bullets:
E: Thanks again for your time Troels; we look forward to hearing your work in the future!
T: No problem. I am always available and believe me this is not the last time you hear Deffmute roar.
My interview with Troels turned out to be a very rewarding experience, mainly because he was so forthcoming with his answers, instead of the non-sentient, ďNo commentĒ which journalists are used to getting when just asking a few questions. We undoubtedly will have a follow-up interview once Defender of the Crown is released later this year in Q2, but until them, be sure to check out http://www.deffmute.com for exclusive sound bites and journal entries to get more information on what it is like to be a composer in the entertainment industry.
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