Steve Burke Interview: A Rare Legacy (September 2010)
Steve Burke is a classically-trained British musician who specialises in music for video games and other visual media. Between 2001 and 2009, he served as an in-house musician at game developer Rare, where he worked in roles spanning music production, composition, sound design, voice-overs, and orchestra contraction. Since 2009, he has branched out to become a freelance composer and already has several interesting projects to his name.
In this interview, Burke discusses his musical experiences past and present. He recollects his huge orchestral soundtrack to Kameo: Elements of Power, celebrated with a soundtrack release by Sumthing Else and even a tribute on a hip-hop supergroup's album. Furthermore, he discusses his diverse musical contributions to the Viva Piñata series, the remake Jetpac Refuelled, and even the Xbox 360's Avatar program, as well as his experiences in non-composition roles. He closes with a discussion of his freelance projects to date, including a possible film title, the iPhone app SkySmash 1918, and a contribution to the Kinect project.
Steve Burke has kindly supplemented his incredibly cool interview with a series of interesting images and an exclusive MP3 supplement. Please do not republish them without his permission.
Interview Subject: Steve Burke
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Welcome Steve Burke. It is an honour to talk to you at the dawn of your freelance career. How is everything going for you right now? Is it enjoyable to be a freelancer and do you feel you made the right decision by leaving Rare?
Steve Burke: Hi Chris, nice to be here. Everything is going great so far and I'm really enjoying the freelance work. I've been fortunate to have several companies approach me with offers of work since leaving Rare, so I'm keeping busy. I felt it was the right time to move on from Rare — I'd been there full-time for nearly nine years, which is a long time in the games industry. It was a really good place to work, and I have a lot of fond memories from my time there. I'm going to try the freelance lifestyle for a while to see how it suits me. I keep my MySpace site updated if you'd like to see what I'm currently working on.
Chris: Before talking about your works in more detail, it would be interesting to learn more about your musicality. Could you discuss your musical background, education, and influences? What ultimately led you to join Rare in 2001?
Steve Burke: I started playing the piano when I was around seven or eight years old. I remember going to Spain for a holiday with my folks and watching a screening of The Sting, and began whistling the theme tune to that movie over and over again until my parents gave in and sent me to have piano lessons. The tune was called 'The Entertainer' by Scott Joplin, and I still have trouble playing those fast octave chords with my small hands! Back then I was fascinated with music for films, and it gave me a reason to start learning to play the piano. Later on I became more interested in composing and went to study music at King's College London and then a Masters Degree in composition at the Royal College of Music. That's kind of a condensed version of my musical background, but it it's funny how one thing can set you on a course that eventually becomes your career.
In 2001, I decided to try working as a full-time video game audio guy, and Rare offered me the role of Composer and Sound Designer in the music department. Before that I'd been working as an assistant to a film and television composer in London for a couple of years, and over that time it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was work in video games. Being an in-house employee at Rare meant a stable job, 9-5 (apart from crunch time), regular salary, and a friendly bunch of people to work alongside.
Chris: Kameo: Elements of Power was your breakthrough score. Looking back at this project, what features do you feel made it particularly successful both as an in-game score and a stand-alone listening experience following its album release?
Steve Burke: Well, it was the first video game I worked on, and I had so many ideas for the score. I wrote a lot of music — probably twice as much as what was expected of me. This meant all those little areas in the game, side quests, and repeat visits to levels could all have there own piece of music. When the action kicked in, I'd score it as if it was a big cinematic fight scene. That's why I thought it was important to have those epic movie-type themes in the game; it makes the whole experience feel bigger than what it is. The quieter tracks — the ones that you can listen to all the little details in the orchestration — were the most interesting to write. It was the first time I started writing music for a small group of singers, or a solo female voice. Working on that game I felt like I learnt a lot more about composing, sometimes through trial and error, but I'm never afraid to try something new.
The game was released as one of Microsoft's launch titles for the Xbox 360. I didn't know we'd get a soundtrack release until close to the end of the project, but luckily there was enough music to put together a soundtrack that felt complete and is a good companion to the game. Music producer Nile Rodgers has a record label called Sumthing Else Music Works, and the CD was released through there. There is a official website for the Kameo Soundtrack, with music clips, video, and a PDF of one of the orchestral cues.
Ha, I just remembered something about working on that game. I came up with the Water Temple Battle music — a very large-scale orchestra and choir action tune — when I was at the gym one night after work. After running on the treadmill for a while, and getting pretty bored, the idea for the theme came in to my head at the same tempo as my running speed. I basically composed the whole thing in my head and then went back home and put it into my music sequencer, and later it was recorded with full orchestra.
Chris: On Kameo: Elements of Power, you recorded with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and King's Choir. Do you think the title was a landmark achievement, given it was the first Rare project to feature an orchestra? What do you think these performers offered to the project that couldn't have been achieved with samplers alone?
Steve Burke: It was an absolutely amazing feeling to hear the score performed by the orchestra and choir in Prague. On the days of recording I was so caught up in the logistics of getting everything recorded on time, making sure it sounded as I intended, listening out for bum notes, and whatnot, that it felt like it was somebody else's music and I was just keeping things on track. It was only after I got to listen in the mixing studio a few days later that it finally dawned on me... I've just had an eighty-piece orchestra and forty-piece choir performing over an hour of my music. How cool is that!
Anyway, the euphoria didn't last too long as I had to get straight back to the offices at Rare and write music for another twenty or so cutscenes and finish off the sound effects. When the live orchestra tracks replaced the temporary MIDI versions, it made the game sound so much more epic. The development team seemed to notice the difference and then people started talking about recording future games such as Viva Piñata with an orchestra. We'd gone through the process once, and the next time things were that much easier in organizing the orchestra, studio, and costs.
The difference between the sampled MIDI track and live performers is huge. Put the two side by side and you instantly know which is the real orchestra and why it's worth forking out the cash to do this, budget permitting. There are still plenty of tracks that I used sampled sounds, and they work fine; it just depends on the music you're writing. Not that many games have the budget to record live orchestras, and we were lucky to convince the powers-that-be it was worth it.
MP3 Supplement: To demonstrate my point, I will provide two versions of a piece of music I wrote a few years ago. You can listen to my original MIDI sketch version using sampled sounds here, and compare it to the final orchestral recording, which had around 70 players, here. There's a huge difference between the MIDI and real versions, and this is something I like to play to movie and video game producers to show what you get for your money with real players. Also, here is another piece of music performed by a live orchestra. This was recorded at the very end of a recording session as a little bonus for me, as I'd written the piece a few days before and wanted to try out some different techniques of orchestration with the orchestra.
Chris: You were also involved in another major solo project at Rare, Jetpac Refuelled. Given this title was a remake, did the ancient original title have any influence on you or did you take the audio in an entirely novel direction? What are you proudest achievements on this title?
Steve Burke: The original version didn't have any music, which was perfect as I wanted to start with a clean slate. This game was made by a small team at Rare — a fun little project for a group of guys who wanted to update a classic title for Xbox Live Arcade. I'd written several versions of the music to this game before finally settling on the retro 80's style game music. My early attempts were more along the lines of a 50's sci-fi theremin score, which suited the first draft of graphics style. When the look of the game changed the music changed to match it. That's part and parcel of working as a game composer — you can't be too precious about the music you write. If the game changes, and the designer wants something different, by golly your music is going to have to change too! He he. That rarely bothers me, thankfully. I feel like I learn something each time I write a new track.
As it was an Xbox Live Arcade game we were limited to the memory size of the game. I decided to write a main theme, an in-game track, and some credits music. The in-game track needed to be long enough not to sound too repetitive, and that is one of the biggest challenges of writing video game music. Whereas in Kameo I wrote something like three hours of music, in Jetpac Refuelled it was closer to 5 minutes. My proudest achievement on this game would be the main menu theme, which was a complete stylistic departure from the big orchestral music I'd previously written.
Chris: While a small project, your music and sound effects for the Xbox Live Avatar Creator program have been heard by many people, given they are pre-installed on every Xbox 360. Was it enjoyable to be involved in this project? What are your most vivid memories?
Steve Burke: I had an absolute blast working on this. Dale, the lead designer, would come up to my room and we'd talk about what the music should do and I'd just improvise at the piano as we were talking. Not because I wasn't interested in what he was saying, but because we were trying to find that 'hook' or signature sound that would identify the Avatars. After several versions of experimenting with themes and instruments, the marimba stood out as the best instrument to play the melody for all the Avatars music. From there on, everything fell in to place. I wrote a main theme, eight background tracks, and a signature intro and outro ident. As of August 2010 there are over forty million Xbox 360's out there, and each one has this music on.
I also created all the sound effects for the Avatar Creator. That's me burping in there if you push in the right thumbstick, and you can change the pitch while holding up, down, left, and right. I heard a version of Jingle Bells on YouTube played with the burps in the Avatar Creator.
Chris: Despite having left Rare, you have nevertheless continued to work with them on behalf of the Kinect project. Could you elaborate on your involvement on this project and what it has been like to work with them? Has the interactive technology of Kinect had any influence on your approach to composition and sound effects?
Steve Burke: Yes, I recently composed ten minutes of music for a new version (Kinect/Avatars 2.0) of the Avatars as a freelance composer. It should be released in an update later this year and rolled out to all the Xbox 360's.
Because I'd already written the original versions it was easy to get in the groove and score this music. The deadline was pretty tight, though. I got a call from Rare asking if I'd be available to write some more Avatars music, and I only had a week to do it. I was traveling around some tropical islands in South East Asia at the time, and luckily had everything I needed (My MacbookPro with Cubase 5) apart from a MIDI keyboard that I had to go and buy. Less than one week later, all the music was finished and signed off.
I remember half way through writing the music to this thinking how many people would be listening to it once it was released, and how important it was to get it right and finished on time. It made for a few sleepless nights, that's for sure. It helped I'd done this before with the first version of the Xbox Avatars, and I started to relax and enjoy writing the music. Essentially it is background music, but there's no reason I can't have a bit of fun writing some quirky tunes.
MP3 Supplement: Here is a download of one of my early drafts of the new Xbox Live Avatars Creator theme for Kinect/Avatars 2.0. This was written in half a day, and it felt a little bit too wacky, so I left this and took a slightly different approach to the final version.
Chris: Your roles on video game scores extend beyond composition into sound effects design, voice recording, performance, and orchestral production. Focusing in on the first role, what are the main challenges when creating realistic sound effects? Is technology ever limiting like it was during earlier eras?
Steve Burke: The technology is there to do so many creative things with sound effects, especially on consoles such as the Xbox 360 or PS3. There aren't really any limitations these days. I made an effort at Rare to become involved in all aspects of audio for the games I worked on as it made the job more interesting. When creating sound effects you never can tell until you hear them in the game if they are going to work or not. I often created placeholder sounds and would then try out different versions until I was happy with the end result.
The workload for sound effects is a massive undertaking on the big games. It often needs at least two people full-time on sound design, and sometimes a lot more when you are nearing the end of development on a game. There can be thousands of sounds and the challenge is keeping track of all these and making sure they work together and don't become repetitive.
The fun stuff is getting out and recording the sounds for the game. That's what I did for some of the gun sounds used on Perfect Dark Zero and Conker: Live & Reloaded. A couple of us in the music department were zipped off to Idaho for a week of shooting big guns and recording the sounds. Apart from the noisy crickets that made recording the sounds out in the hills a bit tricky, we had a productive trip. Oh, being only my second trip to the States I confused a waffle mix dispenser with what I thought was some kind of yoghurt machine and got a few odd looks from fellow diners as I told my friend "This yoghurt is thick and tastes funny". I went very red in the face. I won't mention the faux pas that happened on my first trip to America.
Chris: During your time at Rare, you have also recorded voices for Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, among other titles. Could you discuss what work goes into the international recording sessions for projects like these? What do you think are the most important features for voice acting and recording in video games?
Steve Burke: For Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, I was brought in to record and implement all the sounds for the characters. Each burp, wheeze, grunt, and jibber was recorded specifically for the animations. The in-game characters didn't speak any language — it was all made up vocalizations — and each animation usually had a set of run, walk, idle (maybe five or so), hit react, jump, knockdown/getup, etc. There were dozens of characters, and on average it took four days to record, implement, and sign off on each one. These voices were provided by people at Rare and Microsoft, recorded straight in to ProTools and then edited to fit the animations. We also got some help from our friends at Microsoft Game Studios' audio division as time was running short. I did voices for thirteen of the characters, including Mr. Fit, Boggy, Bottles, Mumbo, and Lord of Games, and I lost my voice for a week.
On Kameo, it was a different kettle of fish altogether. All the Elemental Warriors and Trolls in the game needed their own vocalizations, but there was also a lot of speech that was recorded in English and then localized in to other languages. When you're dealing with thousands of lines of dialogue it makes sense to record the script in temporary form using people in the company, so there are no big surprises when we record the final professional voice actors. I directed and recorded actors in Hollywood, London, and at the Rare studios for that game. Having a Designer from the game development team sitting in on the recording sessions is essential. The speech recording was eventually outsourced to a professional voice-over recording agency, and the results were great.
One fond memory of working with speech for that game was a free audio podcast that we produced with the back story to Kameo told through the main actors of the game and a narrator, and accompanied by my score. That was recorded in London, and we released it on the Rare website and through iTunes (search for Kameo Podcast on iTunes). I think that was the first time anything like that had been done for a video game, and kudos to Microsoft and Rare for deciding to do this.
For Jetpac Refuelled, in contrast, I recorded the line "Game Over" and sent it through a vocalizer. Simple!
Chris: Focusing on the Viva Piñata series, Grant Kirkhope recently revealed in his interview with us that the musical direction of the original game significantly changed. Could you tell us more about the two approaches for the project? What was your compositional contribution to the resultant games in the series, including Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise?
Steve Burke: I was brought on to Viva Piñata by Tim Stamper soon after it was getting up to speed with development. As it was very early days I tried experimenting with a few varying styles of music, and wrote a couple of background tunes that were used for quite a while in early development. One of these was a tune with the bassoon and peruvian flute as the melody instruments, and a kind of Spanish feel to the orchestration. It seemed to fit the game at the time, and I'd describe it as being pretty quirky. I also started writing the music to the Romance Dances which are short 20-30 second sequences where the Pinatas do a choreographed dance to the music. In each of these the music was written before the dance was animated. I guess I wrote around 30 of these, of which 21 were used in the final games (both Viva Piñata and Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise). A fair number of the ones that I wrote were recorded with the orchestra in Prague.
I was getting very busy with the workload for music and sound effects on Kameo and we couldn't afford to slip behind schedule on a launch title, so it was decided that I should stay full-time on Kameo, rather than splitting my time across two projects. Grant had just finished up on Grabbed By The Ghoulies, so it made sense for him to move on to Viva Piñata as other team members were doing the same thing. Once Kameo was released I came back on to Viva Piñata to help with the orchestral preparation just before it was released.
As for Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise, that was only a small contribution. Dave Wise actually scored the entirety of that game and he used a few tunes of mine as a starting point to some of his tracks, so there was continuity between the Xbox 360 versions and the DS. Dave wrote a very nice score to that title.
Chris: You were closely involved with the recording sessions of the original Viva Piñata. Do you think your role on Kameo: Elements of Power provided a useful background for the orchestral production of Viva Piñata? Were you a significant influence to Grant Kirkhope on this project and his subsequent orchestral scores?
Steve Burke: I'd recently gone through that whole process of taking the sampled tracks from Kameo and organizing everything through to the final live recording. I was asked to help out with the same thing on Viva Piñata, and took all of Grant's MIDI tracks and tidied them up for the orchestrator, Nic Raine, to work his magic. I also went along to the recording sessions in Prague and made sure everything went smoothly. That said, I wasn't any sort of influence on Grant's music. He went for a different approach on the background music, and wrote a terrific score with stylistic influences from great British composers such as Sir Edward Elgar.
Chris: Aside the Kinect program, two other freelance projects that you have been involved in include an iPhone title, SkySmash 1918, and a tech demo for Havok. How were you recruited to these projects and in what way did you approach them?
Steve Burke: SkySmash 1918 was a really fun iPhone game that two friends had started working on, and I was asked if I would like to compose the score and create the sound effects. It was the first iPhone game any of us had worked on so we were all keen to make it the best we could. Without any idea how well it would do we were really surprised that it got in to 1st or 2nd position on the iTunes Store "Top Paid Game" in countries such as the UK, Canada, France, Spain and Italy. A HD version has just been released that is designed for the high resolution screens on the iPad and iPhone 4. We've sold well over 110,000 copies, and it's looking like the HD version sales are starting to take off too.
MP3 Supplement: To demonstrate what I was going for, here is the title theme for SkySmash 1918, which hasn't been made available as a download till now. The track has been mixed to sound best through the small speakers on the iPhone.
Chris: And what about the rather unusual other project?
Steve Burke: Havok contacted me to create the vocals for their latest physics cloth demo at GDC in San Francisco. That was through a friend that used to work at Rare who recommended me. It was a gigantic Troll that stomped and roared and growled, so I put on a low guttural voice and acted out the sounds to the animations. Lots of processing on the sound, and mixing in some animal growls and donkey neys, and even some low rumble when the screen shakes. It took about five days to complete the sounds for all the animations. I'd done some similar voices on other games for Microsoft, and as usual, it gave me a horribly sore throat for a week or so. Next time I do that I'm drinking warm milk and honey in the recording session.
Chris: Now that you are a freelancer, you have started branching out beyond games into composition for films and other visual media. Could you elaborate on your developments in this area?
Steve Burke: I've been in talks with a movie director in LA about scoring his film next year. I was asked to write a pitch for the director to send to the producers and execs at the studio. I was given a script of an opening to a movie scene that started out with a tense opening, moving on to a love theme, action, and finally redemption. The brief was very detailed about the characters, and everything that was happening in the scenes. It was fantastic to get a director who is so interested in the music.
I only had two days to provide the first version, and one more day to make changes based on feedback. The feedback required a re-write of the love theme. Yeah, just three days to write over eight minutes of music, including the re-writes. If this composition were to be in the final movie, it would be orchestrated and recorded with a live orchestra. Hopefully the movie will come to fruition some time next year.
Chris: Many thanks for your time and fascinating insight today, Steve Burke. Now we have discussed your past and current projects quite thoroughly, can you reveal anything else about what lies ahead for you in coming months? In addition, is there anything else you'd like to say to your fans around the world? Best wishes for the future.
Steve Burke: Well if there are any fans of the Kameo score out there who also enjoy a bit of hip hop (or hardcore rap) now and then, there is an underground hip hop group called Army Of The Pharaohs who have used the Hero's Theme from Kameo on their latest album. The album is called The Unholy Terror, and the track is "Spaz Out". It's got naughty lyrics, so be careful where you play it!
At the moment I'm working on the music to a new video game, and I'm about half way through the score. I can't reveal anything about the game, but I'm really enjoying scoring it. Lots of big orchestral music and still room for some interesting smaller scale orchestration. I'll keep you posted when there's something I can reveal about this project. There's a few other things lined up this year, including potentially the movie project I mentioned, so I'll be keeping busy for the immediate future. Thanks for getting in touch, and all the best for the continued success of the site!