Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - Fable III's Russell Shaw

We speak with the head of sound and music at Lionhead, composer Russell Shaw, and ask what it's like to work on the Fable series.

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Happy New Year everyone! I hope everyone had a wonderful and relaxing holiday and had a chance to see GameSpot's Best of 2010 Sound Byte feature. 2010 was a great year for music, and as I mentioned in the previous feature, it was simply impossible to include everything. There's a lot coming up in 2011, and we have interviews from musicians, composers, and other artists lined up for you. As always, feel free to leave feedback below.

To kick off the new year, we have an interview with the head of music and sound at Lionhead Studios, Russell Shaw. You may be familiar with Russell's work from the Fable series, and if you're still busy romping around the rich world of Albion, you've by now learned to appreciate the music and sounds of the Fable universe. Find out below how Russell got into the game industry and what advice he has to give to aspiring musicians.

GameSpot: What is your musical background?

Russell Shaw: I've always been a musician--playing guitar in bands during the late '70s and early '80s. My original career plan was to be a record producer, so I started as a recording engineer/studio manager in the mid '80s working with bands, recording speech, dubbing movies and TV shows--all aspects of recording really. Around 1990 I found myself working for the StreetSounds label writing and producing white label releases for the London club scene. As part of that I was writing and playing most of the parts as well as scoring and sequencing etc., so gradually I was pushing into the composing side of the industry. I was also an avid gamer at the time (the Atari ST was not only a very good scoring/sequencing machine), and computer game audio was very much in its infancy. I heard that Bullfrog were looking to recruit audio talent from the recording industry to bring some serious audio into its games.

I got the job, and I've been composing music for games ever since.

GS: What was the first instrument that you picked up?

RS: Probably the recorder when I was about 5. When I was 7 my uncle gave me his old guitar, so that was the first instrument I really wanted to learn.

GS: Is there an instrument you wish you knew how to play?

RS: Yes, the violin. I have a huge admiration for good folk violinists.

GS: What is your fondest memory when it comes to music?

RS: As a boy, when Christmas came each year, the present I always made a beeline for was the 12-inch flat square, which signaled a vinyl album of some kind. I remember the year I got Elton John's Goodbye Yellowbrick Road, which is a powerhouse of an album. Listening to those tracks gave me my love of music.

GS: What other artists in the game music industry do you admire and why?

RS: There are so many of them. Last year I was on the BAFTA committee for Best Original Score, and I was stunned by the level of creativity and professionalism in all the scores. I can't really single anyone out to be honest.

GS: What were some of the challenges working on the Fable series?

RS: Well, the Fable universe is absolutely huge. So many musical styles to cater for, and yet if I veer off what many consider to be the "correct" Fable path, it's considered blasphemy by the Fable community fan base. Each new release of the Fable series requires a degree of freshness from the previous one, and coming up with new ideas is a challenge. Also, the sheer scale of each game means I have to compose a huge amount of material to cover it all without it becoming tedious or repetitive.

GS: Describe your process when it comes to composing a track for a particular scene.

RS: The music generally falls into one of three categories: region/ambient music, scripted in-game scenes, and cutscenes/animations. With the region music I like to get the level design team to give me keywords that describe that region: lush, desolate, dangerous, tranquil, Celtic, Arabic…whatever. I can start composing mock-ups straight away and put them in-game when the visuals start to get towards final. With scripted music it needs to be timed and synchronized with onscreen action, so first I sit down with the scripter and play through the scene. We make notes on general musical style, any hit points, musical emphasis moments, etc. I then create my mock-ups for that scene, which will go straight into the game for trialing. It's the same for animations, except I'm working with an FMV instead of the in-game engine.

When composing, all my work is done with Cubase and Vienna Instruments to get a very close approximation to how it will sound when recorded by the orchestra.

GS: Do you have a favorite track from the Fable series? If so, why?

RS: Very hard to pick a favourite track TBH, but everyone seems to like the "Summer Fields" track from Fable 1. We had the orchestra play this free-form without a click track, and the result was outstanding--very emotive. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I wrote that track.

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GS: What is your most memorable moment while working on the series?

RS: It has to be on Fable 1 when I first heard an orchestra performing one of my compositions. I had never worked with an orchestra before, and that was a moment I will never forget.

GS: What kind of music do you listen to now?

RS: Nowadays, I find myself listening to music from my past more than anything else. Occasionally, I'll find a new band that captures my imagination (I think Mew and The Glass Handed Kites was the last time that happened). This year I purchased all the Beatles' remastered albums and a remastering of Pet Sounds. It was great revisiting all those great tracks

GS: What are your biggest influences?

RS: This is one of the worst questions to ask a creative person because it's very hard to pinpoint specific influences. One could say that every piece of music I've ever enjoyed has been an influence--it all goes in and is stored somewhere, and generally any music I compose is a result of years of listening, enjoying, and admiring.

GS: What is something about yourself that would surprise people?

RS: The B-52s' Wild Planet album from the late '70s is one of my favourite albums of all time. No really.

GS: What projects are you currently working on?

RS: Well, with Fable III just out of the door, we are regrouping somewhat while we decide the next direction for Lionhead. I'm always jotting down musical ideas, but I consider that playtime rather than work.

GS: Do you have any tips for aspiring musicians?

RS: Not really, other than the obvious "never give up." I heard someone on the radio the other day saying that generally, those that truly want to make it and have the talent, drive, and determination to do so will eventually reach their dream, and I do believe in that. Of course, luck plays a huge part also, but as veteran golfer Gary Player once said, "The harder I train, the luckier I get!"

GS: Thank you for your time.

Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music in games, including interviews with top game music composers and discussions of new and classic game soundtracks. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here.

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