Interview with composer Jack Wall

You’ve been composing for games for a while now, do you see any difference in the barrier to entry now compared to when you got started? Do you have any strategies that may be beneficial to those currently trying to establish themselves as game composers?

I started composing for games in 1996, so I’ve been at it for over 15 years. Back then, there were only a handful of people really dedicated to music in games. Now, the bar has been raised to the point that in order to be successful you have to compete with the absolute best in games, film and TV as the budgets have grown to attract the top talent. I personally love that. I like knowing that when I get a scoring assignment, I’m considered to be the best for that particular job and that it’s important to the team.

The only strategy I’m aware of and the one that I follow, is to simply push myself every day to a new level – to be as creative as I can be and to learn more about the latest composing tools available. I regard my composing career prior to being with Video Games Live really good and I’m very proud of it. I’m now pushing for excellent or A level. Not only do I love that challenge, but I feel it’s essential to my own success and continued growth as a composer. A very important addition to this is to continually search for my unique voice as an artist. It’s important to give the client what they are looking for, but it’s equally important to bring yourself into the picture and bring your style and point of view. That’s how you can bring your own uniqueness to a creative situation.

Could you tell us a bit about the Wall of Sound team and how you managed to find your team members?

For me, part of getting to that A level, is understand the art and business of collaboration. The sum is greater than it’s parts. It’s easier said than done! It takes practical experience to pull this off well, but it is essential, at least for me, to keep the creative process interesting and motivating. When all is going well, I feel like a kid in a candy store. I think I do a lot of things pretty well, but when I bring in a certain musician or electronic artist to add to what I do, the results are always exponential.

The Wall of Sound concept is an extension of this idea. I find friends and others whom I respect and who themselves are willing to collaborate with me. It really started on Mass Effect 1 when, at the very end of the project, I suddenly had 40 minutes of cinematics to write in 2 weeks. I went to the dev team and said, I can get this done with 2 other composers and I’ll need 3 weeks. They agreed, so in addition to my co-composer, Sam Hulick, I brought in Richard Jacques and David Kates. These guys are 2 of my best friends with serious talent and their own killer style. It was fun to try to bend their talent towards the needs of the project – that presented a new kind of challenge for me. Those efforts yielded some amazing work by everyone on the team.

Working with those guys, who are lead composers in their own right, was so fun that I wanted to try an entire project like that with Mass Effect 2. With over 3 hours of music to compose, it was also necessary. Richard was unavailable, so I brought in Jimmy Hinson to round out the team. Jimmy, an OC Remix guy, did 10 remixes of my music over about 2 months. He kept sending me these really creative takes on my previous work and I loved what he did. When Richard said he couldn’t work on ME2, my first call was to Jimmy.

In the future, I plan to do more collaborating with various people on my projects. I just think the results are better and fresher. The task is always to establish a solid direction first, but musicians and other sets of ears can be invaluable with that process.

How was it that you came upon the hybrid sound you used in the Mass Effect series? Was it based on iterations with the devs/game designers? or based on previous film soundtracks that you found inspiring? It definitely feels like you created an M.E. vibe to all of the music.

Casey Hudson, the series’ director, had the idea for ME1 that the score should pay homage to the Bladerunners and the Risky Business’ from the 80’s. My references to start were Vangelis, Tangerine Dream with the orchestral ambience of the remake of Solaris. Such a fresh approach – at least for games. Of course, Sam and I ended up bringing something new to all of that, but it was great to have a clear direction from the director. Incidentally, I think Sam Hulick deserves huge credit for ME. Some of the cues he wrote for ME1 just blew me away and are fan favorites. Great stuff.

You’ve had the good fortune to conduct orchestras, and for a new composer, is this a skill you would recommend they develop? What advantages would someone have by learning to do this? I guess I could ask the same of orchestrating…do you orchestrate a lot of your scores, or is there simply not enough time in the game cycle for something like that?

I started studying conducting in 1999 with Brad Keimach – a protege of Leonard Bernstein – because I met him at film music event. I thought, “Wow, what a great opportunity!”. He ended up being one of the greatest teachers of my entire life. He opened me up musically and gave me huge confidence to do just about anything I set my mind to. These are traits that the greatest teachers have – to inspire. I can safely say that Brad inspired me to write and conduct the best music that I could produce. It pushed me forward and that gave me huge gifts of musical accomplishment and experience. I have now travelled the world and conducted well over a hundred different orchestras. I can say that in the game industry, I have more conducting experience than pretty much anyone. But as with all things musical, my knowledge is but a drop in an ocean. There’s so much to learn! That’s what I love about composing, conducting – all of it.

I don’t think you need to be a conductor or orchestrator, but knowledge and practical experience in these disciplines really help you to be more well-rounded. In my case, soon after I began studying conducting, I felt a gravitation pull towards working with orchestras, so that’s how that manifested itself. But, any skill you can bring gives you an edge and a leg up in a competitive career.

Regarding orchestration, most often I do not have time to get into the very detailed and painstaking work of orchestration. At best, I’ll co-orchestrate with someone which is what I did on a recent recording project. And normally that someone does orchestration every day. My job at that point is to make sure the voicings and instrumentation are the way I want it. Orchestration is an art form in and of itself. I make it a point to study orchestration from time to time, as well as take regular piano lessons. These activities help to keep my composing fresh and new – at least to me.

Anything you can do to learn will help your career in some way, small or large.

Jumping in on Myst 3 must’ve been a rush, what sort of challenges did you face in working on that game?

Yeah the Myst series (both 3 and 4) were great for me. The biggest challenge I had was that at the time, there was no bigger game title to work on. I really had to study the lovely simplicity of the previous scores and then figure out how to bring some real melodic content. That was the biggest challenge. I ended up designing an implementation scheme that allowed for melodic content without being repetitive. I still use those techniques I developed with the Myst series on all my projects today.

Which part of the process in creating a game score is the most fun for you?

I really like having a good amount of time at the very beginning to experiment and come up with original ideas for the musical signature of the project. That, to me, is the truly creative time. It’s also a time of great personal learning. I tend to take several steps back from the composing process and get into designing sounds and learning new ways to compose. I’ll sometimes study other scores or classical music and figure out certain compositional techniques that might work for the project at hand, then figure out the best way to get it there. I enjoy letting that creative process take me over for a time and it usually feels like relaxation before the huge amount of work that will be required to write and produce a score. I’ve learned that relaxation or recreation can lead to some great creation.

Equally fun is implementation. If I have control over the final implementation of the game, I feel that the work will be shown as it was intended. We’ve all experienced writing a piece of dramatic music, for example, that ends up in the exact wrong place in the game!

So I guess you could say that I like the beginnings and endings of the projects the most. When you’re in it, it’s also fun and rewarding, but it’s 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration at that point for me.

We’ve seen a lot of composers in advertising, TV and even film try to get into composing for games, what surprises and/or challenges might be in store for someone attempting to make that transition?

I think that any creative composer can write for games as long as they have real guidance from the audio dev team. Indeed, Marty and Michael came from advertising and change the business with Halo. The guys from Heaviocity are doing some great stuff.

But for many coming into games, they may feel a bit lost in the woods unless they have some guidance to get the music implemented and stemmed out in a useful way. Today, this is entirely possible and in fact done a lot. For me, with all of my years of experience, I can lead the team and that is sometimes really handy. But again, I’m a fan of collaboration, so if the audio team is also experienced, together we can have some fun trying to raise the bar on compositional style and implementation techniques. I think the whole process just takes on a higher level.

What are some of your favorite games or game playing experiences of the last few years?

I thought that Mass Effect 2 was great and really different in terms of a gameplay experience. In all honesty, I believe that games still have a long way to go. There are quite a few games that are still too much of the same kind of thing. I like games like Flower and Red Dead Redemption for their uniqueness or immersiveness. So much can be done with interactivity and especially what happens online. I think the industry is coming along just fine, but I’m excited for the future and what it will bring.