Interview with Matt Uelmen - Torchlight soundtrack composer
Interview with Matt Uelmen - Torchlight soundtrack composer
Hi, Matt! First of all we are very glad having you interviewed. When the Diablo was released by Blizzard you became cult for many people. Diablo II used much more music and that’s was almost brand new tracks, more complicated and different. Later it was a work on WoW: Burning Crusade, which soundtrack we called something like “orchestral ambient with ethnic”. Three huge titles and 15 years as professional game music composer – that’s not everybody can say about himself in our times. Now, it’s time for the Torchlight.
But, don’t you mind if we’ll start from something else? Well, your first work we were able to found was 16-bit fighting game Justice League Task Force. Could you remember that times? :) Did the composer was more programmer than music guy?
I did need to be a little bit of a programmer to make the GEMS (the nickname for the Genesis music system) work. I also wrote a tiny bit of assembly for the Gameboy football titles around then. Needless to say, I was happy to see the end of that era and move to a platform which was able to accommodate actual recordings. That game was the ideal project at the time insofar as it was a great learning experience and a good way to get a little bit of my music on the shelves.
How the situation changed for current moment?
It’s a little bit history but is it really your first project? How did you get there?
Technically, my first soundtrack project was probably music I did for a play about the story of Patty Hearst while in college. That was a great experience - really what time at a university should be about. I think that opened up a part of my mind that eventually led to the soundtrack work I did just a few years later.
Game music composer isn’t that kind of line everybody dreams about :) When did you realize you want to write music for games?
The video game industry was in something of a lull when I entered it, and didn't have nearly the momentum, sophistication or creative muscle it has had in the past ten years. At that point, it still seemed like a faddish thing where some big title - Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, Sonic - would capture the popular imagination and then recede for a couple of years until the next big event. I was lucky in that my timing was right in terms of crawling into a small hole in the industry when things weren't that competitive, and most musicians were more interested in either entering the conventional recording industry, which had as of yet to really face the pressure of digital piracy and was still investing in unproven bands.
Did you have musical education? What instruments you are able to play and have in your collection right now?
I had a good grounding in music theory from my piano teacher, Lenée Bilski, who took me too a point where I could appreciate the classics, even if I lacked the discipline and natural capacity for memorization that a good classical musician needs. I would say that I'm fairly competent in the keyboard and guitar family of instruments, bad but interesting in the percussion family, and a total disaster in the wind family, though able to squeeze out a few useful things. My 1926 Steinway L, 1968 Guild Starfire XII, and Artley/Ogilivie bass flute are all very cool toys, and I dearly love them.
We know you were playing in local bands for a long period of time. Did it help you to grow as a composer and maintain your own style of music?
I really only played in bands during my time attending school in Washington D.C., with one very brief exception which played exactly one show in Oakland. These experiences were very good for my musicianship, however, and were extremely educational on many levels. Incidentally, a recent visit here in Los Angeles from a friend I played with in my college days inspired me to put a little bit of classical guitar in "Torchlight". A big part of what made the experience of working on the Diablo series so magical was the creative, collaborative vibe we had at Blizzard North in the Redwood City days, and I really enjoyed the interaction I had with some of the guys I worked with in those days.
So, intro had been made for our readers, now for the real things. Almost 15 years you were with Blizzard. When Diablo III trailer was released with music by Russel Brower we thought something like that: “Hey, what the hell! Is Matt missing or something? Blizzard, we want that guy back!”. Then Runic Studios appeared on game horizon and we finally understand that you left Blizzard with bunch of people. Why so? New perspectives, more freedom or Blizzard became so big that you want to start something new and unique?
Well, I didn't leave Blizzard with "a bunch of people" - that was really a decision that had more to do with my personal life and my family's needs, and I was the only "ex-Northie" to leave at that time. I also felt like I had helped get the WoW music team into good shape for the future - which was true, "Lich King" had a great soundtrack - and that the Diablo team still had quite a few years before having the pressure of a release, so the timing was relatively classy in terms of the company's needs. When I first talked to Runic, it had been almost two years since I had worked,in the industry and it just seemed like the right fit. I knew, liked and trusted Max, and was intrigued with Travis and his team. I also knew that the game would be somewhat close to a style that I was familiar with, so it would be a relatively easy transition to creating content for a game in that genre.
Do you keep in touch with guys from Blizzard? How it was to work in such internationally famous company?
Helping to create Blizzard was an amazing experience, and I was incredibly lucky to be a part of it, and I do try to stay in touch with many of the guys that I worked with in that time. Everything about it was an amazing experience, and I am very happy that I was able to not just see the golden years of Blizzard North in terms of the creation of the original Diablo, but also able to be a part of the WoW team in Irvine. Blizzard's domination of the PC game space is no accident, and I am genuinely proud that I was able to be there and contribute in every phase of that history.
We know almost nothing about Torchlight. Could you tell us about that game from your point of view as composer? What can we expect from it?
Torchlight is really a fusion of the best elements of the team that made "Fate" and the "Diablo" series, with some entirely new elements. As a composer, it was relatively familiar terrain insofar as the game called for a similar combination of a little bit of "shopping music" and much more "action music" which both of those antecedents had, though, of course, the particular backgrounds of the game had their own specific themes which provided a springboard for particular textural and thematic elements. Because of piracy and the omnipresence of torrents, the single-player PC game is basically a dead art form. But because of the long-term vision of our Chinese partners and the business moxie of Max Schaefer, we had an opportunity to put something together in a genre we really love. Hopefully, you can expect a good hundred hours of entertainment from it, and a nearly unlimited amount of entertainment from the brilliant mods which we hope to see out there within days of release.
You made your dream become true when you were working with real orchestra in times of Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. But what with Torchlight, did you record live instruments? If yes, could you tell us more about it, what techniques did you use to record them, what instruments did you use and some words about session musicians.
The creation of the Torchlight soundtrack was a pretty solitary affair. I really wanted to have a guest appearance by the amazing violinist Hiroaki Yura, but ran out of time to make that happen. I recorded a great deal of my own performances on my menagerie of guitars (and suffered through incredibly long "guitar nails" in the month of September), as well as a little bit of percussion and a tiny bit of flute, but the meat of the soundtrack came from Logic's stock samples and the Vienna Symphonic Library.
It is hard to write something completely new if everybody knows you as a “guy who wrote fantastic Tristram theme”. What inspirations did you have while writing this soundtrack, are there any links to Diablo soundtracks?
It was definitely a challenge to work on similar terrain without seeming too referential to "Tristram". Using the textures of the classical guitar definitely helped, in that it was something different from what I had used in the Diablo series. You'll hear some familiar sounds if you have a good ear for these things, my acoustic and electric 12-string, flutes and trusty Paiste cymbals and Slingerland snare all make an appearance, though the orchestral and choral samples I use are all totally new to me, and have a very different flavor than my previous work.
One of the first Torchlight trailers showed us percussion very similar to one you used in Diablo soundtrack so here goes another question: will you favorite 12-string guitar get back into action?
You'll hear my Leo Kottke signature Taylor 12-string, but I didn't use the original "Diablo" Seagull Cedar anywhere in the game. This soundtrack is really about the Gibson SG which I bought in Santa Monica a couple of years ago at Truetone, a really great store here. I haven't liked everything about being in L.A., but if you love classic rock guitars, between Truetone and Norman's in the Valley, it is easily the greatest place in the universe.
How the collaboration between you and audio director was going? What materials did you receive when you start working on title?
No one really had the title of "audio director" - if you play Torchlight, you'll notice that the credits don't specify any individual roles, which is how it should be. The musical soundtrack was entirely done by myself, but the sound effects part of the job required a tremendous amount of work from many people in Seattle, who uniformly did an amazing job, especially Travis himself, who has a great feel for sound.
Well, you’ve just got sketches, videos, concept-art, but what next? In other words, could you tell us about one day of Mr. Uelmen in studio? :)
The next year will be interesting in that we actually have enough time to really process concepts (though not that much time, in terms of the content demands of MMOs). In this game, in terms of sound, it was largely a matter of playing catch-up with material that already existed, while the music concepts went from descriptions of the level types, often as they were being created. Generally I didn't have the luxury of too much experimentation, I started working on the game in late January and we are shipping tomorrow!
What type of music will be in game? Is it dynamic or traditional looped tracks? If it is the first option, could you tell us about audio engine of the game? How many layers it is used, how are they mixing, etc.
The game's engine uses F-mod and OGRE. Most of the musical tracks are basic looped wallpaper, with loops generally between three and five minutes. When you encounter a boss, there is an "anticipation theme" and a "fight theme", both of which are about a minute and a half, and a half-minute resolution theme for when you complete the battle. There is a special fight and resolution track for the final boss. We actually spent an unusual amount of resources on the sounds in terms of using 44.1 Khz rates for them without much compression.
How much time were you given to complete the soundtrack? How much music was written for the game?
This was a fairly compressed development cycle - I had nine months to write the music, while also working on the sound design for characters, items, ambiences, monsters and NPC/actor files. Obviously, it was impossible to give everything the time it deserved, but I tried to put the music first, and ended up with about 40 minutes.
We are hoping for official release of the soundtrack album. Maybe you can bring some light on this question?
There are no plans as of the moment to do a stand-alone release of the soundtrack on CD, but you never know what will happen. I am hoping to create much more music for the MMO release, which would probably mean that a soundtrack release was more likely. In any case, the music tracks included in the game itself are of high quality - 350K ogg files - and should be very easy to extract.
Can we name you as in-house composer for Runic Studios? If so, what opportunities you see in that status?
Sure, that's a good job description. I'm really looking forward to the MMO we're starting now, and my job in the next few months will largely consist of creating strategies for executing on the design for that title.
As a pro with huge experience, could you tell us your vision of future of game music industry? How it will change? More Hollywood style composers jump to gamedev (Hans Zimmer writing music for Modern Warfare 2, you know?) or maybe projects become so big and expensive that composers staff would consists of 10 people simultaneously? Predict the future!
I'm really of many minds on that subject - my experiences in the past obviously have some resonances with the era of the studio system - and at least ten composers have worked on the WoW series, though my experience with Runic is reminiscent of some of the successes that more independent teams had with smaller budgets at a later point in the history of Hollywood. Inevitably, the art forms need to follow the economics to at least some degree, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a continuing migration of talent to the economic models that work, whether that is the subscription model with dominant titles on the PC, or on successful broadcast models which manage to integrate advertising into their processes of monetization.
What advices you can give to beginner composers? Share the wisdom!
My main advice would be to try to emulate the actual work processes of the composers and or performers you try to emulate. Technology is wonderful, but when you don't have the distraction of a computer, it is often possible to get much more done in terms of developing your own style.
What groups / composers do you like? With whom would you like to work together?
My musical heroes really come from absolutely every stylistic group imaginable. I used the work of the great Russian composer Scriabin in more than one place in Torchlight, and also found myself obsessed with the song "Heavy Love Affair" by Marvin Gaye at the end of my work on the game. If you can find a connection between the two, I would be impressed (besides a certain maniacal element and an early death, of course). I really wanted to work with Hiroaki Yura on this title, and would have loved to have had the resources to have recorded with Kirk Trevor in Slovakia again. Hopefully I'll have the money and time to do that kind of thing in the next project.
Tell us about your first musical experience? What age, what music? :)
My sisters were studying piano from the time of my birth, so there was always someone playing the piano in my house. It would be impossible to remember a particular memory, I'm sure there was plenty of that from my birth.
Are you still playing in local bands? Is it real to see Matt with this 12-string guitar in live action, you know? :)
I'm not doing anything live at this point, with no plans for it. Though you never know what the future holds!
What do you think about Video Games Live! events? Would you like to participate in one of them?
I've always been amazed at the hard work and excellence that Tommy and Jack have put into their performances, and really enjoy and appreciate the way they have promoted and advanced the interactive soundtrack world. Perhaps I'll be creating the kind of material that would fit into the kind of package put together by VGL or J. M. Paul's PLAY!, both of which have produced great concerts.
Recently Music of Blizzard Entertainment album was released with live performing by Australian Eminence Symphony Orchestra. Do you know that Tristram theme was also featured on this CD? If you were able to listen to this album what do you think about it?
Hiroaki Yura personally demoed the music for me here in L.A., and I really enjoyed it. I was deeply flattered that they put so much work into the arrangement, performance and recording of that music, and deeply honored that a composer like Ko Otani would do a variation on that material. I hope to hear more work from them in the future, and would love a chance at future collaboration.
We are sure you are not only in music! What other hobbies do you have?
I love games in general, and also love activities involving speculation and chance, and generally find sobriety to be overrated. But we are all mortals, and our bodies, minds and wallets can only take so much fun.
Do you like to play games? Can we name you hardcore gamer?
I wouldn't call myself a hardcore gamer - I have worked with people like Eric Sexton who really deserve that title - though I really enjoy games of strategy. I don't have enough talent for twitch or shooter type games to be competitive with them, but I really enjoy anything with a speculative gambling element. I'm utterly crushing the current ESPN NFL fantasy league with my former Blizzard North coworkers, and always claim a healthy amount of losses every year on my taxes due to my consistent embrace of the latest idiotic fad in stocks. The stock market is the ultimate MMO.
What did you like / play recently?
I really enjoyed Empire:Total War, and am really looking forward to the new Napoleonic game they're developing. This time, we'll wait until the Spring before we invade you guys! And we'll bring extra blankets and canned food just in case.
And, to the end, some hot words from Matt to crazy Russkies. Here will be snowy and cold soon, you know :)
The Russian people have plenty of heat in their passionate natures and fiery intellect such that the cold means nothing. As I mentioned, Scriabin appears more than once in Torchlight (and is actually an influence on the melody of the main town piece). Incidentally, my favorite opera is also "Queen of Spades"- there is no better final scene in any movie than the final flipping of the card in that classic. Between all of that great culture and the obvious fact that the most beautiful women in the world are Slavic, staying warm should be quite easy.
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