Michiel van den Bos Interview: Working on Epic Games (September 2012)
Michiel van den Bos might not be a name that's familiar to many game music fans, but he has worked on an impressive number of high-calibre games such as Unreal, Deus Ex, Age of Wonders and the Overlord series. We caught up with Michiel to talk about his musical background, his career as a composer so far, and his plans for the future.
Interview Subject: Michiel van den Bos
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Flamberg, Michael Naumenko
Michael: What started you on your musical path? Do you have a musical education? Did you play in a band when you were younger?
Michiel van den Bos: I've been into music since I was a little boy, but my ambition to become a composer goes back to the Commodore 64 days. Musicians like Martin Galway and Rob Hubbard made such an impact on me that there was no turning back. The only musical 'education' I had was a short-lived stint playing the piano. I have played in bands as a self taught guitarist, but none of it went past the hobby stage. I was much more interested in tinkering with music routines on the C64.
Michael: Your first big projects were Unreal, Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex. At that time you were working with other talented guys like Alexander Brandon and Andrew Sega. These soundtracks have become cult scores of Epic and Ion Storm's golden era. Tell us about this creative period. What was it like to work with such talented composers under the direction of Epic and Ion Storm?
Michiel van den Bos: A tough one to answer because as far as I can remember, there wasn't much direction. We knew what the projects were, we got some ideas as to what the maps looked like and just made music for them. They weren't easy gigs 'creatively' due to the severe limitations of Impulse Tracker (the program I used to score these games) and getting such a big sound out of that small program wasn't straightforward. I didn't have the hardware to the beta stuff they sent, so the designers basically wrote e-mails outlining what the maps would look like and what kind of atmosphere they were going for. Aside from Alex Brandon, I didn't actually have any contact with the other composers.
Michael: Unfortunately, Ion Storm soon closed its doors, but Epic is still alive. The latest instalment of the Unreal franchise is 2007's Unreal Tournament. Did you want to take part in working on its score? Did Epic make any advances? Do you like Unreal Tournament 3's score and its remixes of classical Unreal Tournament tracks?
Michiel van den Bos: I do like them, but if I'm totally honest I wish they had contacted me to remix my own tracks. I would have been happy to do it and not getting a chance to do so has annoyed me a little. Not so much jealousy as a misplaced sense of pride, I guess. Since wrapping up Unreal Tournament in 1999, there has been no contact with Epic.
Michael: Around the same time, another franchise – Age of Wonders – was born. Can you tell us about your work on Age of Wonders?
Michiel van den Bos: As with the Unreal games, I was given complete creative freedom which, in itself, is an inspirational goldmine. Having developers tell you they want music to sound like something else is fine and something we have to live with, but having the freedom to go all out and develop your own musical palette was awesome and I'm eternally grateful to Triumph Studios and Epic for allowing me to do that. In short: Inspiration is fueled by other composers who are better than you (Goldsmith, Williams, Young, Poledouris, the list goes on) and the freedom to do whatever the hell you want :)
Michiel: Why didn't you end up writing music for Age of Wonders 2 and Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic?
Michiel van den Bos: My father died when I was 19, shortly after I got the okay to make the soundtrack for Age of Wonders. I moved house about four times in five years and worked full time at a games store and a DVD/Laserdisc store while making the music for Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex and Age of Wonders. Roughly around the time when Triumph approached me for Age of Wonders 2 or Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic (can't really remember which, I was 25 or so), my mother died as well. I wasn't really in a frame of mind to make music at that time, so I had to put my career on hold for a while. At this point my hardware was also seriously outdated. About two years later, I decided that life was too short and I really wanted to make music again. I quit my job, started my own company and luckily Triumph welcomed me back with open arms for Overlord.
Michael: After releasing Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, Triumph Studios focused on a new original project, Overlord. The music for the Overlord games seems to be designed more as background accompaniment, but there are also some standouts like "Nordberg Exploration". Unlike others scores of yours, the Overlord soundtracks consist of many short tracks which sometimes work less well outside of the games' context. Are there any particular difficulties in working with more ambient compositions?
Michiel van den Bos: A lot of the music in the Overlord games are there as background tracks that enhance the gameplay. I did try my level best to make the majority of the score nice to listen to outside of the game, but there are a few tracks that are really there as musical ambiance. Sometimes that's just what a game needs. It's not really all that difficult, but you do hope that there will be room for more defined music in the game. Luckily, there's plenty of that in the Overlord games as well.
Michael: Different projects, different developers, different rules - what projects were easier to work on and which ones were more challenging? What different terms and requirements have you been given from developers in your career, and what materials do developers provide you with?
Michiel van den Bos: The tracker days were definitely the easiest. As I mentioned before, I was basically given carte blanche as long as the music was good. As time progressed, on large and small projects, developers would send me existing tracks they wanted me to 'emulate'. This can be seen as a blessing or a curse. A blessing when it's an actual source of inspiration and a curse when you absolutely hate the source material. I'm used to it now, though.
Michael: Recently there have been news about a new project of yours with Triumph Studios. You've written elsewhere that this project won't be Overlord 3, and there's some speculation that it might be Age of Wonders 3. Can you tell us anything about this new score or at least tell us when an announcement will be made?
Michiel van den Bos: There's not much point in signing an NDA if it allows you to divulge any information you please :) I can only tell you to keep your eyes open.
Michael: It looks like we will get news about Unreal Tournament 4 quite soon. Fortnite is already in development, being the first game made with the Unreal Engine 4. Would you like to work with Epic again? Are you currently working on any projects?
Michiel van den Bos: I am working on a few projects at the moment. In answer to your first question: absolutely, positively YES! If they wanted me to do the music for another one of their games, I wouldn't hesitate for one second.
Michael: Some game composers write solo albums. Do you have any plans in that regard?
Michiel van den Bos: Plans, yes. All I need now is a clear idea of what I want it to be and time to do it properly. I have a tendency to make music in different genres and I'd like to stick to one, maybe two if I am to do a solo project.
Michael: Which musical instruments do you like to use in your work? Do you prefer live studio recordings or samples? Have you ever recorded with a live orchestra?
Michiel van den Bos: Aside from using a bit of electric guitar in the expansion for the original Overlord game, I only use samples. If your second question is in reference to my musical taste, I listen to everything from melodic death metal to indie rock to drum & bass. It doesn't really matter to me as long as the music is good. I'd love to record with a live orchestra but I haven't (yet).
Michael: Which artists have had a strong influence on you? Who would you like to work with in the future?
Michiel van den Bos: Influences aplenty! The usual suspects like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Commodore 64 composers like Martin Galway, Rob Hubbard, Jeroen Tel, Ben Daglish. Metal acts like Carcass, At The Gates, Insomnium. Electronic artists like PFM, Artemis, Underworld. The list really goes on and on. I don't really know what artist I want to work with in the future but I'd like to do a film score, collaboratively or otherwise :)
Michael: With all your work, do you get much spare time? If so, what do you do in your spare time? Do you like to travel?
Michiel van den Bos: Right now I don't have that much spare time, but there were periods where things didn't go the way I had hoped. I DJ a bit, watch movies, play games and spend time with my girlfriend. When it comes to travel, I have to check how to spell the word 'vacation' because it's not part of my vocabulary. I haven't been on a real vacation in over 10 years.
Michael: What has been the funniest moment in your musical career?
Michiel van den Bos: Funny is when you just started work on your first project with Triumph Studios and a few months later you're in the USA at Epic's headquarters looking at the beginnings of the Unreal Engine. Well, maybe that's not funny, more unbelievably lucky and surreal.
Michael: Finally, can you give any advice to aspiring game composer and musicians?
Michiel van den Bos: Learn to live with rejection and don't expect to be set for life if you get one project, because you might be doing absolutely nothing for a long time after. Don't quit your day job unless you're absolutely sure you can cope financially. There aren't that many big budget titles to make a living off of and there are thousands of musicians that want the same gigs. Always try to improve and remember that you can make decent money doing this job, but it also costs a lot of money to keep up with technical and musical advancements.