Tom Salta Interview

At GSC there was a lot of focus on going  step beyond simply creating .wav files and ftp’ing them as “the audio contribution” to a game. How much should upcoming game audio hopefuls be focused on going above and beyond the traditional methods of contributing audio to a game?

I think it’s a good policy to always exceed a client’s expectations. That being said, if the client doesn’t need music delivered in a 3rd party middleware session, for example, then it’s wasted time and effort.

When I’m working on a game, I always like to discuss the capabilities of the audio engine with the audio team. It ensures I’m delivering right kinds of cues and I often find ways to make the client’s job easier. In the case that the developer has their own audio engine, which happens quite often in my case, then I’ll usually deliver finished loopable mixes and often sub-mixes and stems when requested.

In one of the panels you were on, there was a discussion about some of the grey areas of billing for audio work (how many versions of each cue does the client get before it’s a “change order”, how does one bill using terms like “creative fees”, “studio fees” etc), and I’m curious if you have a formula for figuring the number of minutes needed for each game you work on? Do developers come to you with “I need 10 minutes of music, how much will you charge?” Or do you have situations where the dev/studio says “I estimate the game to be about 30-35 hours of gameplay, how much music will I need for that?” If the latter, how do you estimate the minutes of music needed for a project?

Ideally, there should always be a mutual respect when working with a client. My job is to make the client happy and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. But if it takes 5 revisions to make a client happy, then I think there’s either a huge lack of communication and synergy or the wrong composer was chosen. Fortunately, I’m glad to have never been in that position.

Do you have a favorite gameplay experience (either because of the fantastic gameplay, or because of who you were playing with etc…?)

This is a really good question that has caused me to make a observation and look back on my life-long journey with video games. In hindsight, all those “magical moments” happened each time we crossed into a whole new level of technology.

It’s the same cycle over and over. Any time we reach a technological breakthrough in games, it’s amazing… and then it becomes expected.

I remember going to the arcade every week in the early eighties. Space Invaders was amazing, and then came Dragon’s Lair on Laser Disc… holy cow. Just thinking about it kept me up at night. I remember getting the Atari 2600 and thinking “Wow, an arcade game in your house, amazing.” (what was I thinking?) And then Coleco Vision; Donkey Kong was so close to the arcade version… amazing. And it went on and on from there. Xbox, Halo, multiplayer LAN parties… amazing. Bioshock, amazing…Uncharted 2… you get the idea.

But of all the breakthroughs I’ve lived through, I don’t think anything has topped the one when we crossed over from 2D to 3D environments and the whole idea of free roaming exploration. I vividly remember experiencing Super Mario 64 for the first time and the euphoria of being able to roam freely in a 3D environment… truly amazing. I compare it to what it must have been like for audience members seeing the Wizard of Oz for the first time… when Dorothy’s house landed in the world of Oz and it switched from black-and-white to color… amazing.

You told the story of going to GDC for the first time, and wandering around, not only like a stranger in a strange land, but also as an absolute novice, even though you had accomplished a great deal in the music industry. I imagine others looking to get into game audio will have that experience at some point (I sure did) , so what advice would you offer towards offsetting that sense of getting overwhelmed?

Being out of your comfort zone is a necessary part of growth. It also adds to the gratification over time to start feeling like an “insider” rather than an outsider.

My advice to anyone new to GDC is to just be yourself and observe. Attend the panels. Be genuinely friendly, hang out at the networking events and socialize.

Is there a particular composer, in either games, or traditional, that continues to inspire you? If not other composers, maybe other art or situations in real life that are inspiring?

Ironically, nowadays most of my inspiration comes when I’m NOT in the studio. Sometimes just getting outdoors and living life is inspiration enough. Getting inspired on a deadline is always the tricky part. I find that if I force myself to NOT think about the music, the best ideas usually reveal themselves.

Tom will also be doing a panel at GDC, here’s the info:

The Musical Recipe of Emotion

Speaker: Tom Salta (Composer/Producer, Persist Music), Laura Karpman (Composer, Art Farm West), Marty O’Donnell (Bungie), Jason Hayes (Audio Director, NC Soft Carbine),Chance Thomas (Principal Composer, HUGESound)

Date/Time: Thursday (March 11, 2010) 9:00am — 10:00am

Location (room): Room 110, North Hall

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald