Mark Morgan Interview: The Maestro Behind the Fallout Scores (February 2008)
Back in 1997, Mark Morgan composed the soundtrack for Fallout, which went on to become one of the PC gaming's classic titles. However, despite all the acclaim heaped upon the game and its ambient score, Morgan seemed to drop off the radar shortly after: his last game score dates back to 2000, and many of his fans are still looking forward to Morgan return to game music and a continuation of his impressive musical legacy.
Despite the popularity of Morgan's work, he has remained shrouded in mystery: no pictures on the web (until the very recent launch of his website), no contact details or interviews. After years of painstaking research, G-OST is proud to finally present an interview with the hitherto enigmatic Mark Morgan, in which he also discusses his plans for his return to game music.
Interview Subject: Mark Morgan
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko, Vladislav Isaev
Michael: Greetings, Mr. Morgan! To start things off, tell us about yourself. When did you decide to become a composer? Have you had a classical music education or are you self-taught?
Mark Morgan: It has been an evolution composing music. I started piano lessons at about seven years old and played quite a lot of the classical repertoire for a few years. Then in high school I played rock and roll in a few garage bands. In college I became interested in jazz, which led me to enroll in the Berklee School of Music in Boston. But I was more interested in playing than studying so I quit school and decided to concentrate on becoming a studio player. That led to touring. One of my first gigs was playing keyboards with Chaka Khan. This led to tours with other artists, then I became a member of the band Starship. Working with Starship really started me on the path to composing by writing and producing songs for their new CD. After leaving Starship, I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and got a call from Snuffy Walden. I had played with Snuff in Chaka’s band. Now he was composing music for television and he needed a keyboard player to work with him on his shows. This was perfect timing. I had been listening to a lot of film and experimental music and the natural progression was to write “to picture”. While I was working with Snuff, I got a television show called Prey. This was the first show on my own and the producers wanted a hybrid score of dark, ambient, world music. While I was doing that show, Bob Rice of Four Bars Intertainment heard some of the score and thought it would work well in video games. He asked if I would be interested. I was, and that was my introduction into video game music as a composer.
Michael: Are there any bands or solo artists that have influenced your work?
Mark Morgan: I tend to gravitate towards artists that have both touched me emotionally and are adventurous sonically. Peter Gabriel, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Clint Mansell, NIN, David Sylvian, Massive Attack and Miles Davis are among artists that come to mind.
Michael: Can you recall your first musical memory?
Mark Morgan: Both my mom and grandmother were musicians. They both played piano quite a bit when I was young. But, what put me on the path to being a musician myself was when I went to the beach in Southern California while I was just a young kid and seeing a live band playing surf music.
Michael: You have worked quite bit in composing music for TV series. What made you venture into game music and how did you end up at Interplay?
Mark Morgan: The games were a perfect evolution for me musically and career wise. The games I was asked to work on was the kind of music I wanted to write. As far as Interplay was concerned, Charles Deenan, their audio supervisor, seemed to like the more experimental stuff I was doing, although it was not his favorite genre. He already had the orchestral guys covered, so I guess I was a good fit for the darker, ambient games.
Michael: Your most recent game score, Giants: Citizen Kabuto, dates back to 2000, and since then you seem to have left the game industry. There have been rumors that you're now working for Square Enix on Rampage: The Death of the World. Is this true and if so, what style of music did you decide to deploy? Are you planning to overtake Japanese minds as well with your subliminally powerful music? :)
Mark Morgan: I wish the rumor was true, but I haven’t heard anything about it. I would love to manipulate some Japanese minds. Do you guys have any pull?
Michael: You've worked both on TV series and games - is there a big difference between the two? What is your composing process for either of these two mediums?
Mark Morgan: I think there is a huge difference. They really are two different mediums, though they are becoming closer. In television, as in film, it’s really all about the dialog and your job as a composer is to support that and hit certain emotional moments. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, that’s the case. In the video games that I have done, there wasn’t really any picture to speak of, except for a couple of “cut” scenes. So, I am asked to write music to create moods appropriate to where you are in game play. This can be daunting, but it’s also liberating. In television, you are a bit of a slave to timing and dialog. In video games, there is more freedom.
Michael: Which instruments do you play, and what hard- and software do you use during the composition process?
Mark Morgan: I’m a keyboard player and I play a little guitar. Right now the software I use is Logic Pro. I do most of my sound design and loops in either Ableton Live or Reason. Then I render the files. They ultimately end up in Logic, where I do all my sequencing. Last summer, I decided I wanted everything to reside inside one Mac, so I converted all my gigastudios into the EXS24 [sampler within Logic] and have slowly been replacing any hardware synths into virtual ones. Now that everything is inside one Mac, I’m able to have more control processing within Logic using plugins. I can work faster this way because when I’m through writing, it’s already mixed and I send it over to a second Mac, also running Logic, to record all the stems in one pass.
Michael: There are rumors that you only had a couple of weeks to write the music for Planescape: Torment. Is that so? What was your time frame on Fallout and Fallout 2, and when did you start working on these projects?
Mark Morgan: Yes, on all three games I began late in the process... Planescape: Torment was a quick turnaround as you suggest. I did it in about 2 weeks. I don’t know why, but the game was pretty much completed before they decided who was to do the music. On Fallout they had another composer to begin with, but for unknown reasons, Charles Deenen called me to work on it and it too was a fast turnaround. Composing time for Fallout 2 was also truncated. I believe the game was essentially complete by the time I became involved and they were in a hurry to get it out.
Michael: While working on Fallout, did you experience any issues or restrictions? In the late 1990s, space for music in games was still limited, so it would be interesting to hear whether all compositions of yours made it into the game. For Fallout, did you have any other inspiration beside the game itself?
Mark Morgan: I don’t know about the restrictions as far as file size, but I believe most everything I wrote was used. Interplay was very specific about how long each piece of music should be and what music went where. Because of time restraints, there wasn’t really any time for rewrites or additional music. If I understand your second question correctly, my inspiration comes from anything dark, not just the game.
Michael: Some of your earlier projects such as Netstorm feature compositions that will turn up on later scores of yours, reshaped and rearranged. For example, Planescape: Torment's main theme seems to grow from a music fragment on Netstorm, and Fallout's "Follower's Credo" is a reworked version of "Thunder" from Netstorm. Was this borrowing of material due to a tight work schedule?
Mark Morgan: I was doing a lot of television at the time, so part of it could have been scheduling since I wasn’t always available. Also, the producers liked certain pieces of my existing music they had been listening to as they were working on the game, so they asked if those could be rearranged or reworked.
Michael: Some of your compositions include non-musical sounds. Were these ready-made samples from music libraries or did you create these sounds on your own?
Mark Morgan: I would say a combination of the two. I was using a Synclavier when I did those games so I did a lot of blending with traditional sources, synthesis and resampling. Then I f*cked them up as much as I could in the processing stage until they sounded good to me. The challenge to me and the fun part, especially in the Fallout games, was to blend this kind of odd ethnic and industrial sound design into something emotional and musical.
Michael: The Fallout soundtracks feature a lot of processed guitar sounds. Fallout 2's "Car" is a particular standout - is that you playing the guitar on this track?
Mark Morgan: No, I did not play guitar on that particular track.
Michael: Bethesda Softworks is currently developing Fallout 3 and is keeping silence regarding the name of the game's composer. Rumors have been running wild as to who will score Fallout 3 and many fans of the first two games consider you the only possible choice for this project. Can you give us any hint about your possible involvement with Fallout 3?
Mark Morgan: Thanks for the kind words, I would love to do that game, but I have not been asked. I’m hopeful after doing the other two Fallout games and other projects over the years that I could take Fallout 3 to another level musically.
Michael: You and Mark Snow (of The X-Files fame) have collaborated on the Special Unit 2 main theme. How did this collaboration come about and have you worked with other composers in the past? Are there any composers or performers that you would like to collaborate with one day?
Mark Morgan: Mark Snow asked if I wanted to collaborate on a main title theme for a new show. I had been a fan of Mark’s work on The X-Files, so of course I said yes. After the main title was done, he asked if I wanted to do the underscore for the show. Again I said yes. Since then, we have worked on many shows together. As I said earlier, I worked with Snuffy Walden on lots of shows including the miniseries The Stand and recently with composer Sean Callery on a CBS show called Shark. As for other composers, I would love to collaborate with Clint Mansell, Paul Haslinger or James Newton Howard. As far as performers, it would be a long time dream of mine to play with Peter Gabriel’s band and with David Sylvian. I would also love to write or perform with Lisa Gerrard. I really think she is incredible.
Michael: Fallout 3's website greets visitors with some concept art and quite an energetic symphonic music track. This is quite a surprise, since the Fallout games have always been associated with a mix of dark ambient and world music. How do you imagine Fallout 3's soundtrack? Did you and Timothy Cain [creator of the Fallout series} ever plan to make Fallout's music more symphonic?
Mark Morgan: Like I said earlier, I would take Fallout 3 to a much more modern place, while honoring a lot of the elements of the earlier games. Maybe heavier, more ethnic, more rhythmic, it could be a hybrid with some orchestral elements. Just nothing traditional. As I recall, Tim and I never discussed anything orchestral. Now that you’ve brought this to my attention, it would be exciting to be involved with the new game.
Michael: There have been no commercial soundtrack releases for the Fallout games and Planescape: Torment, while it's a bit easier to get a hold of Giants: Citizen Kabuto's music. Have you ever thought about releasing this music officially?
Mark Morgan: Vladislav [Isaev] has been asking me about this, but I can’t seem to locate many of the original tracks. The games were being written and formatted to the games in short time frames, so I don’t know where some of the original masters went. I’m hoping they are in some of my older files, and I am definitely trying to locate them. I will let you know because I would like to make them available.
Michael: You’re going to launch your own website soon. Will it have any new music samples of yours available for download?
Mark Morgan: I hope so.
Michael: Tell us about your studio and the hard- and software that you use.
Mark Morgan: I just built a house in which my father, who is an architect, designed to include a studio. The interior layout was developed by well-known studio consultants, Studio Bauton. I always admired their work. They have a very modern sensibility, which works with the style of the house, and they have an incredible knowledge of acoustic spaces. When the website is up, I’m planning on having photos of the studio there. As for equipment, my basic set-up is 2 Mac G5’s, Mackie Universal Pro control and 2 extenders as the control surface. I use a CME keyboard controller, Quested VS2108 speakers, Presonus central station for monitoring, Motu and Hammerfall cards for I/O.
Michael: You haven't worked on any game project for years now. What is the reason for this?
Mark Morgan: Over the last few years, I have taken a slight detour getting involved in television, but always with the hope I would return to games. Because of the television projects, I am looking at music from a new perspective and hopefully, that will make me a better game composer.
Michael: Have you listened to works by other game composers and if so, can you highlight any favorites of yours?
Mark Morgan: I am not familiar with any particular game composers, but I’m sure there are some great ones out there.
Michael: Do you have any plans to record a solo album at some stage?
Mark Morgan: I have been thinking very seriously of doing some sort of solo album, maybe including some collaborations. We’ll see what the future holds.
Michael: Where do you see the game music industry going in the future? Will there be a place for talented independent artists, or will the symphonic, "Hollywood"-style of orchestral music prevail?
Mark Morgan: It seems to me that the game music industry is wide open and has an amazing future. I don’t do well at predictions, but as an observation, I hope there will room for both. It seems there will always be a place for the large orchestral score, but the more experimental scores seems to be the ones I gravitate toward. Having said that, I wish I would have been able to use a large orchestra on Planescape: Torment to create more texture and sonic mass.
Michael: Can you give any advice to aspiring composers?
Mark Morgan: This is a tough one because there are no concrete answers. If you love it, do it. If it’s something you “have” to do, you will find the way. There is no one way to make it happen.
Michael: You now have a unique opportunity to say “Hello” to Ruskies - all the bearded men here with AK-74s in every hand, stunningly wonderful women and tamed KGB bears, all sitting at Red Square among dozens of nuclear warheads and drinking vodka together under a thick blanket of snow :)
Mark: Amazing that you have such a good picture of how most Americans picture Russia and its inhabitants. As for me, I think it would be great to hang out with you guys, drink some vodka and talk music. Maybe we’ll be able to do that in the not too distant future. I really appreciate all the kind words and feel honored you asked me to do this interview.
A huge 'Thank You' goes to Vladislav Isaev (Scann-Tec) for his enormous efforts in helping us to make this interview happen.
News update: The Fallout soundtrack, as well as other works by Mark, will be published by Aural Network Industries (auralnetwork.com). All tracks will be carefully remastered for this occasion. In addition to this, Mark is planning to compose his first solo album in close collaboration with Scann-Tec.