Tuning in, dropping out

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You remember back when Jaws came out to theatres? Looking back the shark was not all that scary, but the music sure was. In the world of movies, music has always been an important component to any screen gem.

In the early days computer games tried to keep up, but anemic soundcards made the going difficult. Today however, a game without a rich, dynamic soundtrack is a sitting duck for a bad review.

One of the best current soundtracks is Icewind Dale II. A mix of Nordic and medieval instruments, the music ebbs and flows and keeps the player excited and interested about what is coming next. We tuned into Inon Zur, the composer of that score and countless others to chat about the game industry, the history of soundtracks and what we might expect from the future of this exciting area.

GiN: Have you always been interested in music? Is working in music more of a childhood dream for you, or did you find your talent later in life?

Zur: I remember when I was 3 years old walking with my mother through the fields of our little village in Israel. She would sing to me and was trying to harmonize, sing a counter melody. Music was always something I was overtly aware of and later on understood that it was a very strong part of me. At the age of 8 I started playing piano and when I was 10 I started to take music composition and theory lessons. By the age of 18 I had written many short compositions for piano, songs and some small chamber music. Yes, music was in me from the beginning.

GiN: You are from Israel. When did you first come to the United States?

Zur: My wife and I arrived in the US at the end of 1990. This was also the first time I had ever been here. In the first year I was totally overwhelmed by this New World.

GiN: While you studied in Los Angeles, who did you run across that helped to influence your musical style?

Zur: My first musical influences were my teachers in the Grove school of music. Dick Grove, Jack Smalley and Tom Sharp contributed a lot to my assimilation and gave me good a foundation and preparation to work in the media industry. These are all well recognized composers who have worked on many high profile movies and TV shows. A guest teacher like Henry Mancini and other great composers also added to the new musical world that was revealed to me.

GiN: You did not originally start out in the game industry. You got your start doing television for shows like the Power Rangers. How did you find writing music for television?

Zur: Writing music for a TV series for kids is definitely no picnic, you are on a weekly turnaround and deadlines are constant. Not to mention that the music in these shows is what we call "wall to wall" score – music throughout the entire show. There is no time for pondering. You need to just plow away and hope that the producers won’t call too many fixes. You can get burned out quickly if you don’t find methods to rejuvenate yourself. I used to listen to lots of film scores or other types of good music just to keep my writing fresh. All of this has made me a very fast composer as well as very efficient and taught me how to work with producers and directors in a fast-paced environment.

GiN: When you were first approached by Four Bars Entertainment and asked to write music for computer games, what was your impression? Did you know much about music in computer games at the time?

Zur: I have to admit that I knew little to nothing about this media. I was not an avid gamer and I did not think that the gaming audience paid much attention to the music while trying to shoot down a spaceship on their computer. Bob Rice, President of Four Bars Entertainment (also my mentor and good friend), revealed some interesting facts that made me want to give it a try. I am very grateful to him for introducing this area to me.

GiN: I believe the first title you worked on was Klingon Academy, a favorite of many Star Trek fans. What was different about writing for computer games compared to your previous experience?

Zur: I have found that in computer games the music takes a significant role, may be even greater than music for TV. The producers and audio supervisors had very high expectations based on high standards that were established before me. On the technical side, this was one of my first projects where the music was not locked to a picture and gave me much more freedom in my writing. On the other hand it made the process of composing much harder – the musical decisions had to be based on mood, written instructions and imagination rather on existing picture.

GiN: When we reviewed Fallout Tactics, another game you worked on, we were impressed by the haunting, almost vocal quality of the musical score while you were on missions in the post-nuclear wasteland. How was Fallout Tactics musically different from say, The Star Trek series?

Zur: Fallout Tactics is one of the most unique experiences I have had writing for computer games. The game takes the player to a futuristic world that actually looks a lot like our twisted past. In order to musically paint this picture I combined synthetic sound design with live performers. I also used the musicians in a very unconventional way. For example, the percussionist Tal Bergman had to create a new musical instrument from a chair, two sticks and studio floor. The vocalists moaned, growled, screamed, laughed, cried and used their voices in any way they could outside of conventional singing. In this way I attempted to create a sound that would reflect this twisted reality. At the other end of the spectrum, in Starfleet Command I used a conventional orchestra and had to write music that would tell the gamer immediately they were in the Star Trek universe.

GiN: How do you decide what type of music to create for each game?

Zur: Some games are sequels, which means we have to take into consideration the music in the previous game. In these cases we are a bit more limited in choosing a musical style. In others, deciding on the musical direction is the most arduous but rewarding part of the whole process. It takes a lot of innovation, understanding and patience. It also involves many decision-makers, which can sometimes makes it harder. After zeroing in on the musical direction it usually becomes easier.

GiN: How much control do you have over the musical score? Are you given pretty much a free hand or do you have endless producers looking over your shoulders?

Zur: In each game the situation is different. It depends upon how hands-on the producers want to be. If they already know you they might give you more freedom. Usually they will be heavily involved in the beginning and progressively give you more scope to run free. It always helps to have an experienced music supervisor who will help to bridge the gap between you and the developers. This makes your job much easier.

GiN: Speaking about the technology for a moment, do you feel that today’s computers are advanced enough to reproduce all the musical nuances you want to put into a game?

Zur: Today a composer can do a lot with samplers and other midi tools, and it’s getting better all the time. However, I don’t think that the human touch will ever be fully replaced. We, as composers, are looking all the time to change and renew music styles and to add more and more ideas. For that we need the live player to help us realize our vision. In my opinion there is no replacement for a live orchestra. As good and convincing as midi sounds are, when you hear the live orchestra you notice the difference immediately.

GiN: Your latest project is the soundtrack for Icewind Dale II. Can you talk a bit about how you went about making the Icewind Dale II soundtrack unique and what people could expect to hear when they buy the game?

Zur: Icewind Dale II is a unique journey into a magical world of unnatural powers that struggle with the human powers. Filled with magical spells, goblins and other creatures this game is a really imaginative world and mind evoking experience. The music in the game tries to captivate this unique atmosphere by using a combination of orchestral sound and primitive instruments. Each different area in the game has it’s own musical touch, which adds a new dimension for the game experience. I think that avid RPG gamers will have a great time with this game!

GiN: Finally, we would like to know what you think about music inside computer games. Are there any advancements we should expect in the future or general trends that you thing the industry is, or should be, following?

Zur: Games have become more and more advanced quality wise in every aspect. The in-game story board, the quality of the picture and the sound – all demands that the music keeps the same pace. Music for today’s games has to do everything that is expected from film score in theatrical movies. It should be of the highest musical quality, the best possible production quality and most importantly – always try to lead, not to follow. Innovation and imagination should be the composer’s flag. This will help put game music on the shelves next to a film’s musical score.

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