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Game Composer Tommy Tallarico

Tommy Tallarico seems to have a lock on the videogame industry: Not only is he a leading composer with hundreds of titles under his belt, he's an on-air personality for networks like G4TV, a fixture at game conferences and awards shows, and one of the founders of Video Games Live—a concert tour that marries live orchestras and elaborate light shows with themes from Halo and Final Fantasy VII. Tallarico describes himself as the product of a "rock and roll family"—his parents introduced him to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and his cousin is Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. He stumbled into the games industry almost by accident, at the dawn of game soundtracks. He recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how the field has changed, why Beethoven and John Williams are his favorite composers, and why a great game score doesn't have to stay in the background.

The AV Club: How did you get into the game industry?

Tommy Tallarico: My whole life, my two greatest loves and passions were music and videogames. That was all I ever thought about, dreamed about. When I turned 21, I left my parents to go out to California. I was looking for a career in the music industry, because back then—this is 1990—there was no such thing as a videogame composer. You were a programmer, that was it, and I didn't know anything about programming. I didn't know anyone, I didn't have a job, no place to stay, no money, no friends, nothing. I just drove out there, showed up in Hollywood, and—let's just say it doesn't look like it looks like on television. The only other thing I knew was Disneyland, so I stopped a homeless person on the street, asked him where Mickey Mouse lived, figuring that must be a pretty cool place to be, and he pointed me down to Orange County. So I drove into Orange County and I picked up a newspaper and saw a job at Guitar Center. I was homeless. I was actually sleeping under a pier at Huntington Beach for the first three weeks I was out in California. But the first day I picked up a newspaper, saw the job, went down there the next day, and they said, "You're hired, you start tomorrow." The first day I showed up for work, I was wearing a Turbographix-16 T-shirt. One of the first people who walked in the store that day was a producer from Virgin. They were starting a videogame company right down the street, and he saw my Turbographix T-shirt and he was like, "Whoa, you're into videogames?" I'm like, "Yeah, are you kidding me?"—started reeling off everything I knew. And he says, "Do you want a job? You start tomorrow." I was hired as a games tester, and I would literally bug the vice president of the company every day, saying, "Whenever you need music, just let me know. I'll learn how to do it, and do it for free, and if you don't like it, you don't have to use it." So about three or four months later, one of the first games that I was actually a producer and tester on was [the 1992 GameBoy] Prince Of Persia. And I asked him to do the music, and the rest is history.† They made me the full-time music guy after that.

AVC: At that point, it was only programmers who made music?

TT: Yeah, all of the music that was being done was a very simplistic. And don't get me wrong, some of the greatest videogame music of our generation was written during or before that time. Mario Bros., Zelda, Castlevania. And that stuff was fine when I was a kid. But now that I was turning 21… Wouldn't it be great to have music that I listen to? To have rock 'n' roll, and blues, and techno, electronica, trance, and thematic film score-type of styles? Why does it always have to be merry-go-round sounding?

AVC: As a kid, did you like game soundtracks?

TT: I can remember Space Invaders, how just those four notes—[sings them]—I would hum those after playing Space Invaders, for a couple hours. When I was 9 or 10 years old—this is the late '70s—I used to record all my favorite videogame music. From my Intellivision and Commodore 64 and Apple II and Atari 2600, I would go to arcades and record stuff right there with a handheld recorder.

Now the only way to do videogame music was to know how to program. I didn't know how to program, so I'd go to the programmers and I'd say, "Look, instead of programming and mouse-clicking in notes"—I mean how do you mouse-click the blues? It's impossible, right?—I said, "You know, instead, there's this thing called MIDI, that is basically the note value, note-on, note-off, how long the duration is, how hard you're hitting the note, the velocity of it, you know. It's all that information that you guys are programming by hand. Why don't you build me a system where I can take my MIDI keyboard, hook it directly into the videogame systems, and then I can play on the keyboard, and hear the sounds that are coming out of the machine?" So I had a completely unfair advantage over everyone else in the industry. [Laughs.] Only because I could play a real keyboard, and get real music. The mentality back then was, "Okay, well, here's a level, we have 12 levels in Prince Of Persia, so write me 12 songs that are a minute each, and they loop." Because that's what videogames did back then. But Prince Of Persia—the animation was so ahead of its time, and it had a story—I said, "Why does it have to be like that? Why do we only have music for certain things? If a door slams, or if the guy dies, or if we do it during the cinematic story setup, or if he draws his sword, let's do music." People were wary at first, but it ended up working out great.

AVC: We can see now that production values have increased across the board for games. But when you first started pitching them on this, did you meet resistance?

TT: I'll tell you some screaming matches that we got into… Because the industry really changed in the mid-'90s, when CD-ROMs became available for storage. As soon as that happened, I'm like, "This is great! All the barriers now are broken down! So for Terminator, I'm going to record live guitar, and drums, and bass, and we're going to go to town! And now I can do real music!" And I remember some of the people from within the company going, "Um, yeah, this is good music and everything, but it doesn't sound like a videogame!" And I'm like, "Exactly!"

AVC: There's so much emphasis on the graphics in games today, and I've talked to some composers who feel they don't get the budget they deserve.

TT: I think that's a fair comment, although it has certainly changed by thousands of times since the old days. Back in the old days, this is how it went: Okay, the game's finished, we have no time left, we have to submit this game in two days, we have no space left in the cartridge, and we have no money left. Make some sound. My whole thing was always, "Look, you have to view audio right from the very beginning. Audio is a third of your whole game! A third is the visuals and graphics, a third is the gameplay and programming and design, and the other third is audio." Obviously we want the budget to be higher, and I think with all these film composers and TV composers coming into our industry—which I think is fantastic—I think that's going to help our case that much more.

AVC: I've heard complaints about people coming in from Hollywood, saying, "Look, there's all this money in games."

TT: I think it's great. Bring 'em on. The more the merrier.

AVC: But aren't there downsides? You also need to understand the tools, and understand how to really make an effective interactive experience. In a lot of cases you can't even play through the game at the point where you have to start working.

TT: It's definitely a learning process. First of all, in film and television, music is considered background music, or "incidental" music, right? It's considered background music because film and television, the medium, is all about storytelling. It's all about people talking. So maybe a couple times during a film, you'll get your chase scene, or maybe your credits at the end, so you know, maybe you can feature a couple tunes. But for the most part, the music is background music. Now, in videogames, I call it foreground music. Because in a videogame, it's not dialogue that drives everything. It's action and interactivity. Which means the music is always out front. The music—and the audio in general—is the thing that drives the medium. It is our job as composers and sound designers to put the end-user, the player, in an emotional state of mind as he starts the level. That's awesome for a composer. I'll give you another restriction: Even the great John Williams has to sit down with George Lucas at some point, and George says, "Okay, at one minute, the music has to do this, because Darth Vader walks through the door. Then at 1:45, it has to do this, because the Death Star blows up." So when John Williams is creating music for Star Wars, he is completely boxed in to exactly what that linear piece of media is doing. Whereas a videogame composer, the designer will come to me and say, "Okay, here's the deal, we have 100 guys on horseback, with swords, all coming to kick your ass. Write me a three minute piece of music." Now I can just dream up whatever my head comes up with, and I might see storyboards, or play the game, and then I can just sit there and just create.

And it's for all of these reasons, I always say that if Beethoven were alive today? He'd be a videogame composer. He wouldn't be a film composer. He wouldn't want people talking over his music. He wouldn't want to be constrained by exactly what the producer needed for that scene. He was all about putting somebody in an emotional state of mind, you know? And that's exactly what we do in videogame music, without all the dialogue.

AVC: Back in the day, it was much more about the hooks and the melody. But do you think people are still thinking, "I have to have the killer theme and the killer hook," or are they spending more and more time thinking, "How do I create atmosphere?"

TT: I think it really depends on the game. A game like God Of War, the whole thing's action. Every level of God Of War is a big, giant action piece. There's no subtle music in God Of War. But then you get a game like BioShock, which I think does everything great. It has great licensed music, it has great original music, some of the music is kind of spooky and incidental, yet some of the music is out-front and in your face. Same with the sound design, and the voices as well. I would put BioShock up against any film score. That's a perfect example of doing it right.

AVC: You're known for working with orchestral scores, and bringing live orchestra into your soundtracks. What appeals to you about the orchestra?

TT: There's no other thing on the planet that can emote as much as a symphony does. There's nothing that is more emotional, that can convey so many different kind of emotional states. … Now, does every game need a live orchestra? Hell no. But I think when you're talking about action/adventure, nothing says drama and emotion and passion more than a live orchestra. It's the way it's been for the last 300 years. And it's going to continue for the next 300 years. You listen to John Williams, for example. There's a great example of somebody who uses the symphony in such a melodic way, and has become the soundtrack of our generation. Star Wars. Superman. Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Jaws. I mean this guy is the modern-day Beethoven, case closed. And the way he uses a symphony is incredible.

AVC: How did you learn to compose for an orchestra?

TT: I come from a rock 'n' roll background. My parents were a product of the '50s, I never went to [music] school, never learned how to read music, and then my cousin is Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. So I always grew up in a rock 'n' roll atmosphere, and always wanted to be a rock star. Like, "Oh yes, cousin Steven can do it, so can I! Must be easy!" But then when I heard Star Wars and Rocky when I was 9 and 10 years old, that's what really changed my life. When I heard that, I'm like, "I want to make music like that! That's cool!" And that in turn, turned me on to classical music, turned me on to Beethoven and Mozart, and to me, the greatest composer that's ever lived, Beethoven. He's my number one guy. I'd probably put John Williams number two, Beethoven number one. And so I learned how to write for orchestras by listening to those guys. So when people say, "Who did you study under?" I say, "Beethoven and John Williams."

AVC: How do you compose now? With a computer?

TT: Yeah, all on the computer. I have a keyboard, which is hooked up to a computer that has every single instrument in the symphony right there at my fingertips. So if I want a violin, or a cello, or a bassoon, or an oboe, it's all a mouse-click away. And so I will hear something in my head, and then start to figure it out on the keyboard, and then start to record one part at a time. I write it, and then I pass it off to an arranger, an orchestrator, a copyist—so four different guys. And of course I'm looking over it and producing the whole thing. But that's how most music in film is done, as well.

AVC: We were talking about interactive music, and the way that you can use game music to shade the experience and follow what's going on with the player. Do you find orchestral music is less flexible?

TT: No, in fact, it's easier. In a symphony, when I create that three-minute battle tune, I can branch off and do so many different things with the orchestra, because I have a hundred different players at my fingertips. I could say, "You know what, let's drop out the woodwinds when such-and-such thing happens." Or, "Let's drop out the choir." Or, "Maybe now the violins are gonna play more staccato." So it's actually a hell of a lot easier to do interactive music when you're using a symphony.

AVC: This must be monstrously more expensive than a guy working with a synth, or just a couple of live musicians. Is it still hard to pitch this to developers?

TT: It's getting easier every year. Sometimes they come to me and say, "Look, we've got a $500,000 recording budget on this one." Because they want to try to get me to work on their projects, so they're pitching me. Which is nice. I think the reality of the game industry is that everyone has awesome ideas in the beginning. "Oh yeah, we're going to have seven hours of interactive music, we're gonna have this and it's gonna be that, and when the person turns to the left we're going to get a different tune, and if he turns to the right…" And then reality sets in. "Okay, well, seven hours of music, and then we have to record that, so that's going to be about seven million dollars. And oh, and then there's my fee, to create seven hours of freakin' music."

AVC: You've spent several years building up the Video Games Live tour. How did you and Jack Wall decide to start this?

TT: The reason I created Video Games Live is because I wanted to prove to the world, not just gamers, how culturally significant and artistic videogames and their music have become. So I wanted to create a show for everyone. And to do that, the presentation had to be very unique, and very visual. And that's what really separates Video Games Live from anything that's ever been done previously, is that everything is completely synchronized with huge video and special effects and synchronized state of the art lighting and productions, and interactivity with the crowd. And so I like to say that Video Games Live is all of the power and emotion of the symphony orchestra combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert, mixed together with the cutting-edge visuals, technology, interactivity, and fun that videogames provide. But what really makes Video Games Live and why it's become the huge success it has, is that we're not just catering to hardcore gamers. We're catering to families, catering to grandparents just as much as to an 8-year-old.

AVC: One thing that's intriguing about interactive music is that it almost makes the player the soloist. The player's actions are driving the music. And as the tech gets better, do you think soundtracks will become more interactive and more responsive?

TT: That's always the challenge. The concept sounds great, and very avant-garde. I'll give you an example, I remember working on [the 1996 Sega Saturn] Mortal Kombat Trilogy. And we were talking about—"Hey, let's play a piece of music and then if this guy's energy bar gets to a certain spot, the music will change. But then if this guy's bar gets lower, then it'll change again, and the music will be really interactive and it'll be really cool." Sounds like a great concept, doesn't it? Then you implement it, and it sounds like shit. [Laughs.] People love the idea of interactivity, but it doesn't necessarily work in every style of game. Sometimes for a driving game, or a fighting game, just play the freakin' three minute piece of music.

And I'll give you a perfect example. Earthworm Jim was a game where, I would create just awesome pieces of music. And whether or not it matched the background or not, I didn't care. It was all about, "Let's create an awesome tune." Because at the end of the game, it's all about that music. My goal was always to get people to want to hear the music even after they shut the game off. Some people may disagree with me, and that's fine. Some people, especially in film and television, their whole thing is, "The perfect score is when the listener never actually hears it." That's cool, if they have that opinion. I'm the exact opposite of that. A great man once said, "People never walk out of a movie humming dialogue."