Jeff van Dyck Interview: A Journey Through His Life and Works (May 2011)
Jeff van Dyck is a Canadian composer and sound director currently based in Brisbane, Australia. He is best known for his work on the Shogun, Medieval, and Rome titles of the Total War series by The Creative Assembly, as well instalments of the Need For Speed, NHL, and FIFA franchises by EA Canada.
In this autobiographical interview, Jeff van Dyck takes us on a journey through his life and works. He reflects that, while his routes are in rock music through various bands, he has expanded into orchestral, electronic, and world music to cover the diverse demands of the games he scores. Along the way, he discusses his highlight scores while reflecting a few disappointments.
Interview Subject: Jeff van Dyck
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Jeff van Dyck, we greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today. First of all, could you tell us about the path that led you to become a musician? In particular, it'd be various interesting to hear you recollect your experiences working with your father in his studio.
Jeff van Dyck: No problem Chris, happy to oblige. I suppose it all started with piano lessons as a pre-teen. I tended not to practice my songs very much — I found myself more interested in making up my own melodies and chords, even during piano recitals.
Around this time my father Ralph would take me with him to studios that he was working in as a studio musician. I remember sitting in the studio, marvelling at all of the high tech gear, and then watching these great musicians record on to 2 inch analog tape. Sometimes they would let me run the tape machine for them. Sometimes I'd just listen to them discuss how they were going to record an instrument. I suppose it was an education through osmosis. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the musicians and knew I wanted to become part of it.
Ralph was also an electronics engineer and worked for Roland Corp. He always had prototypes of cool gear (sequencers, drum machines, synthesizers) and I got to play with this stuff. At one point Ralph had to move to the US, so he left an entire studio's worth of gear with me to take care of. I'm pretty sure I was the only 13 year old on the block with an 8 track recording studio in his bedroom. Through what I had learned earlier and a lot of trial and error, I started writing and producing my own music.
Chris: Before you entered the gaming industry, you were involved in numerous bands in Vancouver. Could you share some of your memories of these projects? How do you think these experiences influenced your career and musicality?
Jeff van Dyck: I have fond memories of working with bands in Vancouver. I hung around Bullfrog Studios as a teenager and met a fellow named Tony Papa. He taught me a lot of about song structure. We also toured across Canada, playing in hockey stadiums to huge crowds. Another guy named Ken McBride taught me how to jam... to this day I still love to jam with the band I'm in now.
In a band called the DropDolls, we focused on how tight we could play together... keeping our rhythms so synchronised that the groove was awesome. In the Heavy Lounge we were a little more indulgent, and created music that had lots of cool changes, and mashups of styles. The guitar player, Saki Kaskas, and I would harmonise our melodies together and we pushed each other to experiment with more and more eclectic riffs.
I think I learned something new from each band I was in, and am thankful for the great times I had with each of them.
Chris: You made your debut in the industry when you joined EA Canada as a composer and sound designer around 1992. What are your memories of your first years at the company working on various limiting technology? Could you share your experiences overcoming such limitations create the rock music and sound effects of Skitchin'?
Jeff van Dyck: Getting that job was a dream come true for me. It was like I was being paid to do my hobby. Dealing with the limitations of the tech was my favourite part of the job (and still is for that matter).
Specifically with Skitchin' the first thing I had to overcome was the fact I had written very few rock tunes until then. So I wasn't sure if I could do it. Luckily I managed to ignite the fire of my inner rock, and blasted out a whole whack of major riffage... who knew? I wrote the tunes on a Mac running OS 7 with MOTU Performer and a SampleCell II. I had full CD quality samples running and it sounded not too bad.
But then I had to make it work on the Genesis... so I had to downsample the guitars and drums to 11khz mono 8bit. Drum wise I could only have sampled kick and snare, and the rest of the drums and bass had to be synthetic. Lastly the lead guitar sample had to be replaced with the PSG chip in the Genesis, which gave it that definitive "Genesis" sound. Kevin Pickell coded our sound tech on the Genesis at the time and squeezed out every drop of power he could get out of that thing. He made it play more samples than it was meant to, and it was amazing at the time.
The end result is what's in the game now. I had a lot of fun naming the songs too and tried to make up the most bizarre names possible.
Chris: Much of your time at Electronic Arts was spent working on sports games, including the NHL and FIFA franchises. Could you tell us the unique requirements of scoring such games? How did you develop a suitably cool and modern sound for you key scores for EA Sports?
Jeff van Dyck: After Skitchin', I ended up doing the first few FIFA games on the Genesis. The producer at the time asked me to make it sound like TSN with guitars and horns... a real TV sports style. I wasn't very excited about this, and Brian Plank (one of the coders) said to just do what I think is right — what's the worst that could happen? I agreed and went on to do a more techno-styled soundtrack for FIFA. I always felt it matched as FIFA was more European, and most techno at the time was coming from there. In the end the team, and the producer, ended up liking the tunes as well.
After that, through drawing of straws, I managed to get the chance to do NHL '96 on PC. It was going to have no midi music in it at all, just streaming CD quality tunes — this was a great break for me. The guys liked the rock tunes I did previously, and asked if I could add a more industrial/tech edge for NHL. I was dead keen to do this and I had started playing in a band with Saki Kaskas, who's an awesome guitar player. So again the riffage was plentiful. Generally I wrote synth tracks with heavy basslines that Saki doubled on top. When we put these tracks to the game, it just felt right and that defined the style till NHL '99. The heavy guitars matched the action, the electronic sounds matched the techy look of the games.
Chris: You were also a major contributor to the original The Need For Speed. Was it satisfying to be relieved of technical limitations on this project? What sort of legacy do you feel your electronic music left for this title?
Jeff van Dyck: Having fewer limitations was a huge relief, but also yet another challenge. We now had to go back to our studio production roots and couldn't "hide" behind the limited tech. Personally I felt quite comfortable with this, as I had spent a lot of time in the studio producing tracks. The Need for Speed was unique at the time in that it had multiple composers, each with their different styles and abilities, and I think this comes across in the game.
As far as electronic music legacy, I'm not sure... When I listen to it, parts of it do sound electronic, but I think it's not as techno as pure techno was back then. To me, it sounds more of a hybrid of pop/rock/techno.
What I've learned though is that, when kids play the games at an influential age, it's amazing what an impact game music can have. To this day, I get emails from people who used to play the first two Need For Speed games and they say listening to the music now reminds them of being young and of happier times.
Chris: You have noted that Need For Speed II was your first experience with adaptive music. Could you elaborate on how you inspired and developed this approach for the title? Did you design further adaptive music systems in your subsequent projects?
Jeff van Dyck: Need for Speed II actually had more limitations again, as we tried to create interactive music that would change based on how well you we doing in the race. As we wrote the songs, we would write each section in three levels of intensity, with a transition bar at the end of each 4 or 8 bar segment. If you were at the back of the pack, you got low intensity music (little or no guitars, light percussion, etc.). If you moved to the middle of the pack, the next intensity would play and a drum beat would kick in and some more layers. Once you got into first position, all remaining instruments would come in, including heavier guitars and drums.
We also gave the player the option to choose either Rock or Techno music. All of this forced us into certain boundaries, and I think the end result is more subtle than we had anticipated. But nonetheless, people seem to still like those old songs despite the boundaries we had.
In the end, I believe there was a technical limitation on the PlayStation and we couldn't have truly interactive music on it, so we had to make linear versions. This is why the music sounds different between the PS1 and PC. I don't think they continued with interactive music after that.
Chris: There were several other talented composers at EA Canada back in the 90s, including Saki Kaskas, Traz Damji, Rom Di Prisco, and Alistair Hirst. What was it like to work with such individuals? Do you have any memories of particularly rewarding collaborations?
Jeff van Dyck: When I first started at EA, Traz and I had to share a composing room while EA was building us more rooms. Traz was working on NBA, and I was working on Skitchin'. We both had to wear headphones so we could hear our own music. We could still hear each other thumping away on our keyboards in the background. It was quite fun actually. As each of us would come up with a new part of our songs, we'd say to the other "hey check this out", crank up the speakers, and listen to it loud and proud. We jammed a lot as well and to this day are great friends.
When I started working on NHL and working more with Saki, we started to do a lot of collaborating. We would take turns running the sequencer and I found our ideas blended really well together. I think the key was having the songs approached from both keyboard and guitar perspectives. I think the songs we wrote together are the strongest ones.
Chris: In 1997, you left Canada to become a freelance musician in Australia. As a fellow migrant down under, I'm curious about the career opportunities and other factors that inspired this big move? Do you continue enjoy life there?
Jeff van Dyck: The big move mainly came from marrying my Australian wife Angela. We met at EA Canada and, in fact, she sang on some of the songs in the first two Need For Speed titles. I started getting tired of writing music for sports games, and Ange was getting tired of the Vancouver rain, so in 1997 we decided to move to Australia and seek better weather and new jobs.
Funnily enough, having moved half way across the world, the first job I end up with is working for EA Australia on Rugby and Cricket. I couldn't seem to get away from sports! The cool thing about this, though, is the developer of these games was The Creative Assembly (of Total War fame), and I still work with them today.
Chris: Focusing more on the Total War series, your breakthrough project as a freelancer was Shogun: Total War for The Creative Assembly. How did you depict the ambience, action, and cinematics of this samurai strategy game? Did you try to remain authentic in your approach or did you assert some Western aesthetic too?
Jeff van Dyck: My initial approach to Shogun: Total War was to take what I had learned through researching Japanese music and instruments, and combine it with a contemporary orchestra. I don't think this was a unique idea — it seemed very Hollywood to me and seemed like the right choice. When I submitted my first pass of the music to Mike Simpson, the creative director at Creative Assembly, he knocked it back and said "it sounds too western, make it more authentic!".
So I did. The end result is what we hear in the game today. I'm glad he suggested it, as I think people like the foreign sound of the music and its ethereal, melancholy mood. This mood is inherently in Japanese music and it seems to come partly from the scales that some Japanese instruments use, and the minimalistic nature of the themes too.
Taiko drums certainly help with the action of the battle scenes. In fact, the Japanese used to use taiko drums as a form of communication on the battlefield, with different rhythms signalling different formations for the armies.
Chris: The scores for Medieval: Total War, Medieval II: Total War, and Rome: Total War depicted old Western civilizations by hybridising elegant orchestrations with ancient instruments and choral elements. How did you develop your versatility to create such scores, given your background more as a rock and electronic composer? Were any particular artists or scores influential to you.
Jeff van Dyck: I think the versatility comes from a few things... one being that each of those eras has a particular set of instruments from the music of that era. These have recognisable characteristics that tweak our brains to go "hey, that sounds medieval" when hearing a recorder, or "that sounds arabic" when hearing a duduk. There are also scales and chords that give each of these eras their own sound.
It was learning these differences that helped me evolve from rock and electronica to world and orchestral music. When working on Rome: Total War, I also listened to a lot of Hans Zimmer's Gladiator soundtrack and found it really inspiring.
Chris: Spartan: Total Warrior and Stormrise focused on blending orchestral and electronic elements in a cutting-edge way. Could you elaborate more on the concepts of these scores? Do you regret that the music for these titles was never released on CD, unlike the other historical titles you worked on?
Jeff van Dyck: I don't regret these titles not being released on CD at all. I don't think these were my strongest titles to be honest. For me, when I was working on Spartan, I was quite burned out from having just finished Rome. I had this idea in my head of orchestral music meets electronic, but I couldn't quite get it to sound the way it sounded in my head. I thought it would match the "arcadey" nature of the game and its fast pace. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a break and approached it with a fresh perspective.
Stormrise was a bit of a disaster. The Brisbane studio was trying to stand on it's own two feet and out from under the wing of Creative Assembly UK (who set it up in the first place). We thought we could make a better Total War game and we distanced ourselves from the UK office. We got obsessed with production values and process, and forgot about gameplay. We ran out of time, a lot of functions were incomplete and Sega wouldn't extend the schedule. The end result is a very undercooked game.
I had scheduled myself to write the music towards the end of the production cycle, and it was right at the time the game started falling off the rails. I ended up writing music that more or less just played in the background. I was pretty uninspired as the game never really had any flow to it. Needless to say, I learned a lot of lessons from this game, so I suppose that's a good thing.
Chris: On the Total War series, you have generally worked in the role of 'audio director', meaning your responsibilities extended beyond music alone. What sort of individual challenges does sound effects design, voice recording, and sound programming bring on these projects? How do you bring all these components together to form a fully-fledged sound?
Jeff van Dyck: Each of those disciplines you mention have their own challenges, and I find each one fascinating, which is why I like being the audio director. Sound effects not only require good sound assets, but good triggering and code support. You could have the coolest sound effect in the world, but if it's getting triggered over and over again, you'll soon tire of the sound. There is a lot of technical trickery going on to make things sound good. For example, in Total War, there are thousands of soldiers on the screen, yet the sound card can only reproduce 256 sounds at once... how do you represent the sound of all those soldiers at once?
Voices are extremely difficult to get sounding right in a game. It's very easy to end up with B grade acting, so actor choice, script, and direction is paramount.
To bring it all together you need to make sure you keep thinking from the gamers perspective. What would sound cool when playing the game? What would sound annoying? Also, you really need to have a strong, capable team. Having the great people that I work with makes my job easier.
Chris: While you were responsible for the initial scores in the series, both Need For Speed and Total War have gone on to feature different composers and contrasting approaches over the years. How do you feel about the changes in direction? Do you still feel your legacy for both series has been an influential one?
Jeff van Dyck: I'm not sure with Need For Speed. To be honest, I haven't played it since Saki showed me Hot Pursuit. As for Total War, due to the fact that I stopped working on it for a couple years and then returned, I can definitely see and hear where things have changed and where things have stayed the same.
I really like the additions Richard Beddow (Audio Lead & Composer) and Jon Raftery (Audio Coder) made to the engine — they really started to take things to the next level. I found this quite inspiring and now we're taking it even further by reworking the whole system entirely with some cool new tech and even add even adding some old ideas from Rome. Musically, I think Richard did a great job on Empire and Napoleon and he has had some well-deserved recognition as well, including his recent IVOR win.
I still find elements of the original audio system we made 10 years ago in Shogun, and I feel proud that Total War has built on its foundation, and is still going strong.
Chris: Nevertheless, you will make your long-awaited return to the Total War series in 2011 for Total War: Shogun II. What was it like to reunite with The Creative Assembly and revisit feudal Japan to score this title? What elements of continuity and change are there with you score for Shogun: Total War?
Jeff van Dyck: When I heard they we doing Shogun II, I thought I HAVE to do that game. I immediately contacted Tim and Mike at CA and asked if they were interested, and they said "We were hoping you would want to do it!". Then, after working on it for a bit and seeing the guys again, it felt great — like putting on a favourite t-shirt... it just fits and feels comfortable. The team seemed happy that I was back on board and I felt like I could really sync my teeth into this one. We all had great memories of working on the first Shogun with its amazing art style and melancholy mood. We all seemed quite focused.
The first thing I did was listen to where I had left off musically in the original Shogun. People liked this music a lot, and I didn't want to change direction too much, but I wanted to improve on the same idea. I was told I had a budget to use live musicians, which was a huge step up. My immediate thought was to hire taiko drummers. I considered hiring an orchestra as well, but I decided against it, as I wanted the focus to be on the Japanese instrument side of things. So the orchestra in the final version is synthetic. That said, in addition to the live taiko drummers, I also hired a couple of shakuhachi and shinobue players. I feel this combination gives Shogun II a much bigger, lush, and natural sound, but still pays tribute to the simplicity of the original.
In addition, I brought back the idea of the credits song being a more contemporary piece. This is something I started on Rome, and proved to be quite popular. My wife Angela has a beautiful voice and she writes great lyrics too, and I think people will enjoy hearing her again in Shogun II. I also added a few of the old Shogun songs in as loading songs as a sort of tribute to the original as well.
Chris: Away from game music, you have scored some independent Australian films in recent years. Could you share your summarise the highlights of such roles? How would you compare these experiences with working on video games?
Jeff van Dyck: I really enjoy writing to picture. I would like to do it more, and if any directors out there read this... give me a call! The biggest highlight for me was to go to a cinema, see my name pop up in the opening credits, and watch a movie that I did the music in. It was such a buzz. It was something that I had always wanted to do.
Doing a movie score is quite different from games as it's totally linear and the same every time. Games can be different every time in the sense that you don't always know how long a gamer will take to get through a section of the game. So, you have to write music that can loop, or have a system that changes to other variants of themes to fill the gap, for as long as it take the gamer to complete the mission.
Once the final edit is complete, movies don't change length and you can make the score match each moment with a lot more precision. Even better is, if the composer and editor can bounce ideas off of each other. So there's a moment where a song would naturally lend itself to having a note last for x beats, the editor could in fact re-edit the movie to match — to make it absolutely perfect.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Jeff van Dyck. Do you have anything else you would like to say about your life and works? In addition, do you have anything you'd like to say to your fans around the world?
Jeff van Dyck: I think I've said enough already. :) But I would like to say hi to any fans out there and tell them I really appreciate the kind emails they send, and I will endeavour to keep writing music that they will hopefully continue to enjoy. All the best!