Matt Uelmen Interview: Charting New and Familiar Territory (December 2009)
Matt Uelmen's music for Blizzard's Diablo quickly became iconic after the game's release, a success upon which Uelmen built with his score for Diablo II, which expanded upon the stylistic foundations laid in Diablo. After Diablo II, Uelmen brought his trademark mix of orchestral, ambient, ethnic and rock elements to the Warcraft universe with World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade. Now Uelmen returns with the soundtrack for Torchlight.
Interview Subject: Matt Uelmen
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: Hi, Matt! Thank you for making yourself available for this interview. The first game that you seem to have worked on was 16-bit fighting game Justice League Task Force. Could you recall for us what it was like composing for this game? In those days, did the composer also have to do a lot of programming?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: Looking back at the 16-bit era, how has technology changed for composers?
Matt Uelmen: Even a low-memory game like Torchlight, which can fit onto half of a CD-ROM, still has absolutely luxurious standards compared to those times. With Torchlight, we were able to do about two thousand sound files, with most of those at a very generous sample rate. MP3/ogg style compression has really been revolutionary, and Moore's law seems to have more or less been in effect in my fifteen years of working with digital technology.
Michael: Was Justice League Task Force indeed your first project?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: When did you realize that you wanted to write music for games?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: Have you had a formal musical education? What instruments you are able to play and which ones do you have in your collection right now?
Matt Uelmen: I had a good grounding in music theory from my piano teacher, Lenée Bilski, who took me to 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.
Michael: You were playing in local bands for a long period of time. Did it help you to grow as a composer and develop your own style of music?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: You've been with Blizzard for almost 15 years, so it was a surprise to see the Diablo III trailer with music by Russell Brower, rather than with a new composition from yourself. Then Runic Studios appeared on the horizon and it became obvious that you had left Blizzard with a bunch of people. What was the reason for this - the desire to start something new and unique?
Matt Uelmen: 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 World of Warcraft music team into good shape for the future - which was true, Wrath of the 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 [Schaefer, co-founder of Blizzard North], and was intrigued with Travis [Baldree, lead developer on Torchlight] 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.
Michael: Do you keep in touch with the guys at Blizzard? What was it like working at such a successful company?
Matt Uelmen: 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 was also able to be a part of the World of Warcraft 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.
Michael: What can you tell us about your new project Torchlight from your point of view as a composer? What can we expect from it?
Matt Uelmen: 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. However, of course, the particular backgrounds of Torchlight had their own specific themes which provided a springboard for particular textural and thematic elements. Due to 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.
Michael: You made a dream of yours come true when you recorded with a real orchestra for Diablo II: Lords of Destruction. Did you record any live instruments for Torchlight? If so, could you tell us a bit about it - recording techniques, session musicians, and which instruments you used?
Matt Uelmen: 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 [founder and Artistic Director of the Eminence Symphony Orchestra], 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.
Michael: How difficult is it to write something completely new when so many people know you as "the guy who wrote the Tristram theme"? What inspirations did you have while writing for Torchlight and are there links to the Diablo soundtracks?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: One of the first Torchlight trailers showed us some percussion very similar to what you used in Diablo, so can we also expect your favorite 12-string guitar to get back into the action?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: What was the collaboration between you and Torchlight's audio director like? What materials and assets did you receive when you started working on the game?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: Let's say you've received sketches, videos, concept art and other game documents, but what's next? In other words, could you describe what a typical day in the studio is like for you?
Matt Uelmen: 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!
Michael: What type of music will be in the game - dynamic compositions or traditional looped tracks? If it's the first option, could you tell us more about Torchlight's audio engine?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: How much time were you given to complete the soundtrack? How much music was written for the game?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: We are hoping for an official release of the soundtrack - any news on this?
Matt Uelmen: At the moment, there are no plans 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 is 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.
Michael: Would it be accurate to call you Runic Studios' in-house composer? If so, what opportunities do you see arising in this position?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: As a game music professional with a huge amount of industry experience, could you tell us what you think the future of the game music industry will look like and how it will change? Do you think there will be more Hollywood composers getting involved with game scores, or will projects become so big and expensive that teams of composers will work on them?
Matt Uelmen: 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 World of Warcraft 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.
Michael: What advice you can give to aspiring composers?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: Which groups and composers do you like? With what artists would you like to work together?
Matt Uelmen: My musical heroes really come from absolutely every stylistic group imaginable. I used the work of the great Russian composer Alexander 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 [as on Lords of Destruction]. Hopefully I'll have the money and time to do that kind of thing in the next project.
Michael: Tell us about your first musical experience - at what age did it occur and what was the music?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: Are you still playing in local bands? In other words, is it possible to see Matt Uelmen perform his 12-string guitar live?
Matt Uelmen: I'm not doing anything live at this point, with no plans for it - though you never know what the future holds!
Michael: What do you think of the Video Games Live! concert? Would you like to participate in one of them?
Matt Uelmen: I've always been amazed at the hard work and excellence that Tommy [Tallarico] and Jack [Wall] 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.
Michael: Recently Music of Blizzard Entertainment was released, with live performances by Australia's Eminence Symphony Orchestra. Did you know that the Tristram theme was also featured on this CD? If you've been able to listen to this album, what do you think of it?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: What other hobbies hobies do you have besides music?
Matt Uelmen: 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.
Michael: Would you call yourself a hardcore gamer?
Matt Uelmen: I wouldn't call myself a hardcore gamer - I have worked with people like Eric Sexton [animator on the Diablo games] 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.
Michael: What games have you played recently?
Matt Uelmen: I really enjoyed Empire: Total War, and am really looking forward to the new Napoleonic game the same team is 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.
Michael: And for the end of this interview, some words to your fans in cold and snowy Russia!
Matt Uelmen: 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 Tchaikovsky's 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.