Dan Forden Interview: The Creation of the Mortal Kombat 9 Soundtrack (April 2011)
Dan Forden's memorable and atmospheric music and distinctive sound effects have been a crucial part of the long-running Mortal Kombat franchise since its inception. In his role as the series' permanent composer and sound director, Forden has had an immense influence on the style of Mortal Kombat. In this interview, Dan recalls how he got into the game industry and how he landed the job on Mortal Kombat. He also talks about the music and sound design for the upcoming Mortal Kombat 9, and shares other toasty bits of information.
Interview Subject: Dan Forden
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Dan Forden: I was very interested in music as a kid and once I had learned how to play guitar and flute, I started to experiment with writing my own music, though these efforts rarely went anywhere. It wasn’t until I started studying music more seriously in college and when I started working for Williams that I began to write complete pieces of music.
Michael: What was the first instrument you played and what is your favorite?
Dan Forden: I learned guitar first - basic chords and such, but started teaching myself finger picking over the years. I started playing flute when I was 12 and studied it seriously well into college. I learned how to play saxophone along the way and even dabbled with the bassoon. Later on, I picked up electric bass and played in some bands.
Michael: Could you tell us more about your formal music education?
Dan Forden: I went to Oberlin College where there was a computer and electronic music program called TIMARA (Technology In Music And Related Arts). Oberlin is a great school. It has a conservatory of music, which is a great resource both for serious performance-oriented students and those that want a general musical education, and the liberal arts college which offers a fantastic all-around education. I received a BA in Music History and Theory and a Computer Science minor.
Michael: Have you ever played in any local rock/metal bands?
Dan Forden: Yes, I had a band called Fish of Destiny back in the late 1980’s and I played in Cheer-Accident in the early 1990’s. I played bass in both of those. I’m on a few of Cheer-Accident’s recordings: Not a Food, Enduring the American Dream and The Why Album.
Michael: Tell us about your studio equipment.
Dan Forden: I’ve worked both at home and at Midway and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment over the years with a variety of different setups. Currently I’m running Pro Tools 8 on an 8-core Power Mac and I have a number of excellent musical plug-ins: Omnisphere, Stylus RMX, Kontakt, Play Libraries (Ministry of Rock, Stormdrum, Symphonic Choirs) and other Native Instruments plug-ins. I also use Vegas and Sound Forge for sound effects and other mixing and editing.
Michael: When did you start to write music for video games, and how did your affiliation with Midway come about?
Dan Forden: I first got a job with Williams Electronics (they actually owned the Midway, Williams and Bally brands), doing audio for arcade video and pinball machines. I pretty much started right in writing music and creating sounds for multiple games. The first video game I ever worked on was called Arch Rivals. It was an arcade 2-on-2 basketball game where you would punch or tackle your opponent to get the ball (or keep him from getting it). It’s still a great game to this day. Midway was eventually spun off into its own company in the late ‘90s.
Michael: Not many game composers have written music for pinball arcade machines. Could you share some insight into the specifics of creating music for these machines?
Dan Forden: The pinball machines have a collection of computer boards that control game logic, light shows, dot-matrix displays and audio. During my time doing sounds for pinball machines, the hardware evolved from an FM synthesizer board to a data compression system (created by Matt Booty and Ed Keenan) that allowed us to use standard music production resources to create sounds and music. In pinball, we would write different pieces of music depending on the game state and the game programmer would write the rules such that the music would change as you progress through the game - not too different from video games. When the ball hits targets or goes up ramps, that would trigger sounds, light shows, dot matrix displays and scoring.
Michael: How did you land the job of composer / sound designer on Mortal Kombat? Did you have any idea how much of a cult title the game would become?
Michael: Do you recall what hard- and software you used on the first Mortal Kombat? What limitations did you face while you were working on Mortal Kombat?
Dan Forden: Just about all the hardware and software we used on the original game was developed in-house. I think Ed used 6800 assembler to write the code. As far as audio went, we had an 8-voice Yamaha FM chip.
Michael: How much creative freedom did you have while you were working on the original Mortal Kombat trilogy? How did the decision to use a gloomy ethnic soundtrack come about?
Dan Forden: I mostly composed what I thought made sense for what was in the game and collaborated with Ed on the direction. It was largely made up as we went along. There wasn’t any idea of doing a “gloomy ethnic soundtrack”.
Michael: What technical limitations did you face, especially when the game was ported to 16-bit consoles?
Dan Forden: I wasn’t involved in the porting of the early arcade versions.
Michael: The Mortal Kombat series has always been famous for its sound design, from Scorpion’s “Come here!” to the powerful sounds of punches and kicks and the memorable “Fatality” sounds in Mortal Kombat 2. Could you tell us a bit about the concept behind the games' sound design and maybe share some funny moments from the field recordings?
Dan Forden: It has always been a group collaboration between the members of the team. Everybody brings ideas to the table and my job has been to try to create audio content that supports what’s going on in the game. We’ve had a lot of fun over the years coming up with things for the characters to say. I remember especially trying to script dialogue for Shao Kahn back on Mortal Kombat 2 or Mortal Kombat 3 - we wanted him to say something that would get the player so mad at losing to him that he’d be frantically rummaging through his pockets for quarters to put in the game as the “Play Again” timer was winding down. That’s where “You weak, pathetic fool” and “It’s official - You Suck” came from. Ed Boon is responsible for Scorpion’s “Get over here!” and “Come here!” He wanted the character to say something when he was pulling you toward him - it’s actually Ed’s voice too. This time around [on Mortal Kombat 9] we have a lot more character speech. Brian Chard did a great job coming up with ideas for what some of the characters might say in the heat of battle and we’ve been able to make some of that happen throughout the fighting.
Michael: On Mortal Kombat: Deception, you took the role of audio lead. What is the difference between this role and the position of composer / sound designer? Also, were you only the audio designer on that game or did you write some music for it too?
Dan Forden: I was composer / sound effects / dialogue guy on all of the first four Mortal Kombat games (all the arcade ones) and responsible for most of the content on Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, with notable contributions from Rich Carle and Vince Pontarelli in the form of some great pieces of game play music. On Mortal Kombat: Deception and Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, I did create a lot of content - music and sound effects - but also managed others in the development of sounds and music for the game (Rich Carle, Brian Chard, Vince Pontarelli, Chase Ashbaker).
Michael: You now return to the Mortal Kombat franchise with Mortal Kombat 9. What kind of soundtrack should we expect?
Dan Forden: This time around, I've had access to an even better composing rig than I had on Mortal Kombat: Deception, so I’ve been able to experiment with a wider variety of orchestral and ethnic samples, as well as with some great synth plug-ins like Omnisphere and Stylus RMX. That said, I’ve enjoyed returning to some of my Mortal Kombat roots and re-creating some of the older music with a new sound and also going in some new directions, especially orchestral, but also more aggressive metal/guitar directions. It’s been a lot of fun.
Michael: Who are some of your collaborators on Mortal Kombat 9?
Dan Forden: We have a great crew headed by Rich Carle, audio director, who has worked hard to set up the department so we all have everything we need to create great content. He’s also contributed a lot of great material, whether it’s fighting or UI music, movie soundtracks or in-game sound effects. Also, Brian Chard has handled a lot of the script writing and making sure all characters have excellent VO, both for movies and in-game. Michael Caisley and Matt Grimm consistently deliver imaginative and super high quality sound effects and mixes for movies and music, and Chase Ashbaker came on late to help us get things out the door.
Michael: How much music was written for the game? Are there any live performances?
Dan Forden: In-house, we wrote most of the in-game fight music, as well as all UI music and some movie scores. We also contracted out to external composers to write music for a number of the movies in the story mode and they did a stellar job. Personally, I played a lot of guitar and some flute for the in-game fighting music and Rich did some guitar as well. I don’t know how much music was written in total, but I guess it would fill at least 2 CD’s.
Michael: Where did you get your inspiration for the soundtrack from and what was your main goal for the music in Mortal Kombat 9?
Dan Forden: The main goal of the music in Mortal Kombat has always been to provide the underlying emotional element to the action on the screen. As far as inspiration goes, I usually think about the music I like that gets me going (see the list below). My typical approach is to get as much of a feel as I can of what the visual environment is and then start playing with musical ideas that help reinforce that.
Michael: Will the soundtrack be loop-based or have you made some innovations in regards to the game's sound engine?
Dan Forden: The music flow of the game is pretty simple and mostly follows the format of the original: main tune, finish-him music and an ending hit, unless you enter the Fatality mode.
Michael: Can we expect a return of Shao Khan's famous voice and his teasing voice samples?
Dan Forden: Much of Shao Kahn’s dialogue will be familiar, but we have a new voice actor who did a fantastic job.
Michael: So far, there has been no commercial album release of your music for the Mortal Kombat franchise. Do you think there might be the chance of a commercial Mortal Kombat 9 soundtrack release?
Dan Forden: It’s definitely a possibility - it can be difficult to find the time since we’re usually on to the next project as soon as the current one completes.
Michael: To close the interview, some general questions. What groups / composers do you like? With what artists would you like to work together?
Dan Forden: I like a lot of different things, but bands / artists I’ve always liked include: King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Soundgarden, Black Sabbath, Nine Inch Nails, Bill Frissell, Fred Frith, Steve Vai, Audioslave, Alice in Chains, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Cheer-Accident, Carla Kihlstedt, Sheryl Crow, Chris Whitley, Filter, Frank Zappa, Incubus, Joni Mitchell, Korn, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Peter Gabriel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Shudder to Think, Yes, UK, Bela Bartok, Olivier Messiaen, Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg, Thomas Newman, Igor Stravinsky... I’m sure I’ve left some out...
Michael: What recent albums and movies have made an impression on you?
Dan Forden: Albums: Chris Whitley - Rocket House, Terra Incognita, Din of Ecstasy; movie: District 9.
Michael: Digital distribution looks likely to supersede the physical CD format. What do you think the future of the music industry will look like?
Dan Forden: I’m not sure where it’s going, but I like the fact that more independent artists are able to be heard.
Michael: What advice can you give to aspiring composers?
Dan Forden: Just keep writing what you love and make sure people hear it.
Michael: And now, some words for our readers around the world!
Dan Forden: Keep playing Mortal Kombat!