Vladislav Isaev Interview: Writing an MMORPG Score with Mark Morgan (February 2009)
Allods... to many Russian gamers this word means a lot. The name refers to giant islands floating the Astral, populated by mighty magicians, imperial troops and dragons. Published in 1998, the game (released as Rage of Mages in the West) was in a way a Russian response to Diablo with its item generator, unusual storyline and progressive magic system. There were no games as polished as Allods in Russia at the time, and developer Nival became the Russian game industry's hope of being able to compete with Western game studios. A sequel - Allods 2: The Master of Souls - was quickly released, but then gamers had to wait for a while until Allods Online took the franchise into the realm of 3D MMORPGs. Only rumoured to be in development for a long time, Nival CEO Sergey Orlovski finally confirmed in 2007 that Allods Online was coming.
There's good reason for game music fans to be excited about Allods Online, as Nival's composer Vladislav Isaev collaborates with Mark Morgan (of Fallout fame) on the game's soundtrack. Michael Naumenko, senior editor at Game-OST, visited Nival’s office and had a chat with Vladislav Isaev about the creation of Allods Online's soundtrack and his close collaboration with Mark Morgan.
Interview Subject: Vladislav Isaev
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Vladislav Isaev: I was born in Moscow and began writing music in 1995, when I was a 9th grade student. I started composing music using Fast Tracker under DOS on a 386 computer. I didn't have my own PC, so I used to go to my friend's place. At that time, I had an ordinary Creative mic which came with Sound Blaster 16. Back then, that was a crazily expensive and cool sound card. I recorded phone talks, different sounds and ambiences, and after that I prepared samples and mixed and mastered them in Fast Tracker. After that I recorded all this on audio cassettes and gave this music to my friends and classmates. Like lots of people who were practising to write music at that time, I helped to put together music for school parties, graduation ceremonies and so on. I observed how people reacted to my music, studied their tastes and built up my own. In 1997, my music was broadcast on radio for the first time.
I happened to meet Yuriy Romanychev, composer and pianist. At that time, he wrote TV jingles for Russian channel NTV and was one of the pianists in an old TV show called Dva Royalya / Two Pianos on channel RTR. One day, Yuriy invited me to his place, where he also had his studio. By that stage, I already had my own PC and experimented with vocals and creating MIDI backing tracks. As soon as I found myself in Yuriy’s studio, I asked him to master my tracks and record them on CD. Back then, the CD format was pretty new and records were mainly sold on audio cassettes. Yuriy showed me Logic Audio and showed me some tips and tricks of working with music equipment.
My uncle is a professional trumpet player. In the 1990s he was principal trumpeter in the FSB (Federal Security Service of Russia) Orchestra. One day he was invited to play at the Vysotckiy Club on Taganka Street and he asked me to go with him. That's where I set up my first experiment with live music. My tracks were being played and my uncle accompanied them on his trumpet. It was damn cool...
Then I did lots of different other experiments, as I listened to a lot of diverse music. I always had earphones with me, no matter where I was - in the street, at my lessons, at home... Later I combined my university studies with working as an administrator, while writing music using the first versions of Sonar. At that time, representatives from Kahvi - a UK label - noticed my work and asked me to do a mix of three or four of my tracks for an EP release. It was one of my first web releases which was also published as a limited CD edition. At the same time, Raw42, a label releasing music for movies, ads and TV, chose one of my compositions as a ”track of the week”.
Then other works of mine were released, I performed in Russia and abroad, and made lots of contacts with different composers and musicians. After that, I was contacted by Ultimae Records, a French record label specializing in ambient music. They suggested publishing one of my tracks as part of a very popular series of compilations, Fahrenheit Project Part Six. In 2004-05 I got in touch with Mark Morgan, though I had been trying to contact him since 1997. I contacted Bob Rice and Four Bars Intertainment, and he was the person who introduced me to Mark.
I've always made very complicated plans for myself and tried to make them come true. It helps me a lot in life.
Michael: What kind of music equipment do you have at the moment?
Vladislav Isaev: As far as my home studio is concerned, there's a MacBook Pro / Pentium 4, Logic Audio, Nuendo, Renoise, Nord Modular G2X, Korg Z-1, Sennheiser HD 650, Universal Audio UAD-1, RME Hammerfall Multiface II, RME HDSPe interface, Tascam DA-P1 portable recorder and a couple of mics.
As for the studio at Nival Network, there I have a Mac Pro, Logic Audio, Nuendo 4, Renoise, Final Cut Studio 2, CME Midi Keyboard, RME Fireface 400, Sennheiser HD 650, Edirol R-44 portable recorder, Sennheiser MKH 60 P48 mic and all the things for it, and a PowerCore X8 with a set of plugins.
Michael: Which bands and performers have influenced you the most?
Vladislav Isaev: I really like and am constantly listening to Eduard Artemiev, Klaus Schulze, Vangelis, Mark Morgan, The Future Sound Of London and Amorphous Androgynous.
Michael: Can you recall your first memory connected to music?
Vladislav Isaev: It was in a pioneer camp. I happened to be allocated to a music squad where most children were older than me. After all the musicians had left, I stayed in the studio, sat at the drum kit and started improvising. One time I was caught, but the squad leader seemed to like what I was playing, so people started teaching me how to play drums, telling me about the techniques and methods of playing. A few days later I rataplanned on a pioneer drum when the pioneers showed the flag. Then I was invited as a drummer to the pioneer orchestra and we were playing jazz music. I was just jamming and producing rhythms for the whole orchestra. One day when the parents came to visit their children in the camp, we were giving a concert. It was wonderful sitting on the drum throne. After that, I was presented with a real pioneer drum and I still keep it as a souvenir.
Michael: How did you land the composing gig on Allods Online?
Vladislav Isaev: At the beginning of 2008, I was working on several projects at Nival, creating sound designs and different music sketches. Closer to the middle of the year, I had a talk with the producers of Allods Online and they suggested I should work on the music for the game. I agreed and suggested Mark Morgan as additional composer. I wrote him a letter and he agreed to work with me on this project. So that's how all of this started.
Michael: For how long have you been working on the music and sound of Allods Online?
Vladislav Isaev: In fact the work has been going on for nearly half a year. The world of Allods Online is highly diverse. Contrary to other similar games, in Allods Online we wanted to create contrasts between different locations, races and so on. That's why the music for this project combines any and all possible styles. At the moment the composing work is still going on, but the game's release is set for March, so we still have some time. The closed beta test has already begun and I hope that you guys will receive a key so you can plunge into the Allods Online universe. :)
Michael: When and under what circumstances did you establish contact with Mark?
Vladislav Isaev: As I've already said, my acquintance with Mark started with the help of Bob Rice. I was writing several compositions for Four Bars Intertainment and so I became friends with Mark. We discussed music, talked about life, shared news with each other, spoke about our impressions of various tracks. Then, when I worked for Nidal, I decided to invite Mark for some collaborational work.
Michael: Could you give us some insights into the creation of Allods Online's music? For example, how many sounds and lines of dialogue were recorded for the game? Did you bump into any difficulties or boundaries during the composition process and how different was it to write music for an MMORPG as opposed to offline games?
Vladislav Isaev: Interesting things occurred all the time. Sometimes I had to invent some tricks during the composition and recording process and see how the results would turn out. Recording a teaser track for Igromir [Russian computer and video game exhibition] was interesting and unique in its own way. I recorded ordinary people and various sounds and then modified and mixed them. The vocal samples for IgroMir were produced with the help of two of our guys – our system administrator and the director of the teaser trailer. At first we wanted to record an offscreen voice, with the text being read by our director for the sketches. Ultimately though, we rerecorded it with the help of an actor and from those recordings I chose the phrase "Astral Breathing", which can be heard on the track, and I sampled "Allods Online" spoken by our system administrator.
As for music design for online games, it seems to me that the main thing is to create a sound world that helps plunge the player into the game and evoke all the necessary emotions. For example, Mark did this perfectly in the Fallout games. As far as boundaries are concerned, there's only one limit – your imagination. The music in Allods Online will combine lots of different elements and styles. Dark ambient and ethnic, symphonic and rock music, various noises – all these will be fused. In every track we tried to catch a certain "Russian" spirit, a newness of sound and quality.
Michael: How many minutes of music will be composed for the game (and also converted into actual tracks)? Will there be any collaborative tracks written both by you and Michael?
Vladislav Isaev: At the moment we're still working on the project. We have already composed about 20 tracks and several others await finalization. For the final release, we are planing to write over 40 tracks. A lot of the tracks were written by me and Mark together. Before starting the work, we discussed the music's concept with the game's lead designer and shared our ideas with each other. Then Mark called me and we started discussing the whole concept of the track, its elements, instruments etc. After that we exchanged our base materials, as we were both working in Logis Studio. Working online, we could easily upload original materials and samples (the size of which can vary from 900 Mb to 2 Gb). Then I worked on the overall track mastering.
Mark had several cool ideas during the composition process, which we tried to implement in our tracks. I wrote more music themes for locations while Mark concentrated more on the title tracks. However, each composition contains elements from both of us.
Michael: Was some concept art available when you started composing, or did you even have a working game demo?
Vladislav Isaev: When the work started, we had a Windows demo of the game that I played on my laptop. For Mark we made some demo videos, descriptions and screenshots with concept art.
Michael: How was the work on the collaborative tracks organised? Could you tell us about your creative process - what do you do when you start writing a piece from scratch?
Vladislav Isaev: As I mentioned before, almost all the tracks have been written collaboratively in one way or another. The collaborative work on compositions began with discussions of our ideas and once Mark and I had found a shared vision, we started working on the music. For example, for desert locations we used different elements of Eastern instruments. I tried to fuse the music with various sounds of wind, sand and so on. All this sounded transparent in the mix, but created its own atmosphere. I recorded all sorts of sounds, then worked with each of them and mixed them into the overall sound design. At his end, Mark recorded several tracks (music stems) and then sent them to me. We talked to each other via online voice communication a lot and discussed a track and listened to various parts together. After we had a sample demo track, I took it to the lead designer and we listened to it and again discussed the track's frame work. Sometimes we had to rewrite a track in full because it didn't suit the game from a design point of view, but this rarely occurred.
Michael: How would you describe the music's style? What were the developer and publisher's original ideas of what Allods Online should sound like, and did you incorporate their ideas into the soundtrack?
Vladislav Isaev: The music in Allods Online is very diverse, just like the world of the game itself. Of course, the game designers gave us some reference tracks whose style they considered appropriate for one location or another. Sometimes Mark and I suggested our own ideas. For example, in Hadagan locations, the designers wanted to evoke the atmosphere of the Russian past. In one of the compositions I used a well-known melody from a radio station called Mayak. I chose a fitting version, wrote it and then inserted it in the track. Small elements like that recall the Russian past, of which the Hadagan capital is full of.
Michael: What sources of inspiration helped you in your work? To what music were you listening to while working on the game and did music by other composers serve as a reference point for Allods Online?
Vladislav Isaev: Among my sources of inspiration were sketches from the developers, location screenshots, the game itself, some Russian movies and fairy tales, and music by Eduard Artemiev and Vangelis. Mark is constantly listening to electronic music. During my work at home, I was also listening to The Future Sound Of London. I think these guys are unique. They have millions of ideas in their tracks. Other sources of inspiration are people that you meet on the street, events in your life - and women get me inspired too of course.
Michael: Was World of Warcraft an influence on Allods Online's sound and music? What do you think are Allods Online's chances of becoming an international success?
Vladislav Isaev: At times I play World Of Warcraft, it's an awesome game. We can't say we were guided by World of Warcraft though. It was more of an additional source of inspiration for us. As for Allods Online's chance for success, I'm sure the game will come out on top, because it is unique.
Michael: Will the compositions written by Mark be similar to those that he has done for previous games or will they be distinct and new?
Vladislav Isaev: In regards to their basic approach to music composition, they will be similar. In style, it'll be a completely brand new sound. On some tracks, people will recognize Mark's trademark style, while on others he'll present a new side to his music. I wouldn't associate Mark exclusively with his old works. He's an artist who is constantly developing, has no fear of experimenting, and is forging ahead. That's great.
Michael: Mark is mostly known for his work on the Fallout games and Planescape: Torment, and it seems inevitable that Mark's fans will compare Allods Online to these titles, no matter what Allods Online will sound like. What you like to say to these fans in preparation for Allods Online's release?
Vladislav Isaev: The worlds of these games and the universe of Allods Online are completely different. I think that the music in Fallout and Planscape: Torment worked perfectly because it magically managed to capture the spirit of the game. Lots of listeners must have been projecting themselves into the games' world when they listened to Mark's tracks outside of the game. This is what I call harmony and a beautiful mix of music and gameplay. Our aim was not to repeat the music from these games, but to create an even stronger atmosphere.
Michael: Could you tell us which sample libraries and VST plugins you used in your work, as well as what hard- and software?
Vladislav Isaev: The main hard- and software is your own brain and imagination. We used different VST instruments and synths, and I recorded plenty of sounds with my mics. Of course we used libraries of symphonic instruments with post processing.
Michael: Will the music in the game be interactive and dynamic, or tied to particular locations? Have you been directly involved in the implementation of the music in Allods Online?
Vladislav Isaev: The music will be connected to locations. It will immerse the player even more in the game. Since all the races and locations are stylistically different, the music will be tied to these. As for the implementation of music in the game, other people dealt with that.
Michael: Are you satisfied with your work?
Vladislav Isaev: I'm very happy about the fact that a great composer like Mark Morgan was involved in a project as big as Allods Online and I'm very glad that we managed to realize it here, in Russia. In fact, Allods Online is tremendous not only in terms of its music, but also in regards to gameplay and design. It's really a unique game project for Russia.
Michael: Will the music be released separately from the game?
Vladislav Isaev: Yeah, the release of the soundtrack album is slated for the near future. I'm already thinking about how to make it perfect. I want to use tracks from the game and fuse them with sounds and ambient elements. I think it will be a glorious CD and a stunning listening experience outside of the game.
Michael: Thank you!
Vladislav Isaev: You are welcome :)
"Breath of Astral" can be downloaded here.
Game-OST thanks Nival for kindly making this interview possible.
Vladislav Isaev on MySpace: www.myspace.com/scanntec
Mark Morgan on MySpace: www.myspace.com/markmorgancomposer
Official game site: www.allods.ru