Sound Byte: Meet the Composer of Mass Effect

We talk to Sam Hulick, one of the composers behind Mass Effect, about his background and his work on the upcoming Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad.

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Best known for his collaboration with composer Jack Wall on the critically acclaimed score for Mass Effect, award-winning composer Sam Hulick has been immersed in video games since the age of six. With Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 under his belt, his latest project is Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, where he signed on as the sole composer. Here's your chance to get to know the man behind the music and listen to some of his work, which is embedded below as well as on the Sound Byte Radio station. To all you loyal Sound Byte readers following us on Twitter, we'll have some Mass Effect soundtracks to give away as well. Enjoy!

GameSpot: What is your musical background?

Sam Hulick: I am self-taught, so my music background mainly consists of experimentation and personal music study. I majored in computer science, but I was always playing around with music and sounds. After constant exposure to music, I think one begins to naturally learn music theory to some extent--just without the nomenclature that goes with it.

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

SH: I'm mostly a keyboards guy. My father had a studio full of instruments, but I spent the latter part of my teen years cutting my teeth on synth workstations like the Ensoniq TS-12, writing piano pieces and orchestral/synth hybrid new age music.

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

SH: It would probably be the cello. I think it's an absolutely beautiful-sounding instrument, definitely one of my favorites. It's hugely expressive and is in roughly the same range as the human voice. In a lot of orchestral pieces, I'll often catch myself humming along with the cello line, as if it's the one element I identify with the most.

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

SH: Hearing the themes from Mass Effect played live in front of several thousand people at the Chicago Theatre is definitely high on the list. However, I would have to say seeing John Williams conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as they played several pieces of his music from various films is something I'll never forget. Being just 20 to 30 feet away from the master himself, watching him work his magic and conducting one of the greatest orchestras in the world…very cool!

GS: How did you get into making music for video games?

SH: There were several video game scores very early on that really influenced me, such as Shadow of the Beast III, Baldur's Gate, The Bard's Tale (the 1985 version), Heroes of Might and Magic III, to name a few. Years later I joined the Game Audio Network Guild, entered a composer contest, and won. That directly resulted in my involvement working on Maximo vs. Army of Zin with Tommy Tallarico, which was an important starting point for me. Of course, my big break was in 2007 cowriting Mass Effect with Jack Wall.

Meet the composer Sam Hulick.

GS: What is your process when composing a particular track?

SH: It really varies from project to project and what kind of track I'm working on. Developing strong, memorable themes is important to me, and it takes a considerable amount of time to come up with something that sounds fresh and new. In the case of writing a main theme, most of the time I experiment with semi-random phrases. If I walk away from my studio and I catch myself humming a melody, that's a pretty good sign that I've nailed it. For other tracks such as ambient and combat, I usually immerse myself in concept art, screenshots, or gameplay footage, and get a general feel for the level, and then start writing. But it varies quite a bit. For Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, for example, I spent quite a bit of time listening to classical German and Russian music for inspiration.

GS: Do you enjoy collaborating with other musicians? What are the pros and cons?

SH: I enjoy the collaborative process of scoring games and working with other composers, and it can be a refreshing way to work on a project. Not only does it help make a massive project more manageable by dividing up work, but it also pushes you out of your comfort zone and opens you up more to others' ideas. However, it can also be beneficial creatively speaking to be the sole composer on a project and have more control over the final production. I think both scenarios have their advantages and disadvantages.

GS: Moving from Mass Effect to Red Orchestra 2, how different was it? Did you change your approach?

SH: Yes, it was quite different, and each game called for a very specific approach. Not only do their musical styles contrast with one another, but the interactive elements are also executed very differently in each game. Red Orchestra 2 also took hours of immersing myself in classical works from Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Red Army Choir, Beethoven, Wagner, and other sources, in order to get the right sound. Mass Effect had its musical references, but it was nowhere near the challenge for me that Red Orchestra 2 was as far as getting the sound just right. There are specific rules to make a tune sound Russian, and these had to be learned before I forged ahead with the main writing.

GS: Where do you see video game music heading in the future?

SH: I think it's going in a few different directions. I'm seeing a lot of retro or "low-fi" games in the limelight, and the music that accompanies them is really different from what we're used to hearing in AAA titles, yet some of these games do really well despite their smaller budgets. Minecraft and Sword & Sorcery are good examples of this. I see more of that in the future, as well as video game music hopefully moving away from mirroring Hollywood so much and regaining more of its own identity to set it apart from other music in media.

GS: There's not a lot of recognition for video game music in the mainstream, but that's changing slowly with the recent Grammy award update. How do you feel about that?

SH: I think it's great, and I believe it'll open some doors for us. There are still some out there who don't take video game music seriously, and this is one more step to help raise awareness for the art form in its own right.

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

SH: Michael Hoenig's work in Baldur's Gate was a big inspiration for me when I became serious about pursuing a composing career and scoring for games.

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

SH: I'm mostly into folk-type music, like Swell Season, Fleet Foxes, Damien Rice, Mumford & Sons, Andrew Bird, but there are a lot of other bands I'm into (Elbow, Death Cab for Cutie, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, MGMT). My most recent discovery is an indie synth-pop band called Stepdad. Really cool stuff.

GS: What are your biggest influences?

SH: Some of my biggest musical influences are Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, Michael Hoenig, Ray Lynch, Beethoven, Chopin, to name a few.

GS: What projects are you currently working on?

SH: I have a couple of projects in the works, but I can't talk about them yet. Sorry!

GS: Any advice for aspiring composers?

SH: Be persistent, constantly work on your craft, and develop your own style that's uniquely yours. And alongside that, network like crazy, be passionate about what you do, and always be positive. It's just as much about attitude and personality as it is about your music.

GS: Thank you for your time!

Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music and audio in games, including interviews with top game music composers and sound designers, as well as discussions of new or classic game soundtracks. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below or e-mail us at soundbyte@gamespot.com. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here.

Discussion

46 comments
Sharpie125
Sharpie125

@gashoe13 Tron Legacy has a fantastic soundtrack :). As much as I love Mass Effect, I see what you're saying about the space battles not being "epic enough", and though I've listened to the soundtrack release a ton of times, the tracks that stick out more are the ones I've heard on loop wandering around the Presidium, Wards, Noveria, etc. I'll concede that after Virmire, the music didn't stand out as much as the earlier ones do. I think I've stated this before on the ME3 boards, it's not that I have a great love for synth (outside of Mass Effect and Tron and novelty 70s/80s classics, it really isn't my thing), I just always want more diversity in my soundtrack music. For example, John Williams is still fantastic in his composition, but I will always prefer the Temple of Doom soundtrack to everything else he's done. I still like Raiders/Last Crusade/Star Wars, etc. for nostalgia, but ToD is the most musically unique.

gashoe13
gashoe13

Sorry for the double post... @Caprica23 Yes, BSG's score is quite brilliant. Loved it. SUPER inventive. It's just that I grew up with scores like Star Wars and Star Trek that kind of pull me away from the allure of scores like Mass Effect, that completely forget about things like thematic identities and development. That's what frustrates me: The complete lack of a narrative flow in the music, the lack of true thematic development, the lack of any form of consistency, and the lack of musical dynamicness. If that's a word. But that's just my opinion.

gashoe13
gashoe13

@Sharpie125 Mm... I guess it is true that synth can do brilliant stuff, but it's just my personal opinion that space battles should be more epic. True though, Battlestar Galactica's impressively unique score was a highly inventive soundtrack and it'd be interesting to hear more of that stuff as time goes on. And if synth is a necessity (as it does seem to be increasingly used in today's scores), at least use it the way Tron: Legacy did. Tron's score was a very very very impressive synthesis of both synth and orchestra and despite the differences between the two, the score came out remarkably well. And even epic in certain areas.

Samrat_Ashok
Samrat_Ashok

Nice I article. I like to read about these 'behind the scene heroes' of our great games. No Mass Effect would be the same without the epic music.

KsatriaKilat
KsatriaKilat

If you like Mass Effect you'd probably like djent \m/

digitalheadbutt
digitalheadbutt

@Gamer_4_Fun ME2 has some great bits, I really dug the atmosphere for Afterlife's queues. They we familiar but not rehashed. The first sound track reminds me a lot of the Wendy Carlos Tron soundtrack.

Gamer_4_Fun
Gamer_4_Fun

loved his work on mass effect series. I don't know about you guys but the soundtrack of mass effect felt more original and memorable than 2, but both are great none the less.

Ka113
Ka113

"I see more of that in the future, as well as video game music hopefully moving away from mirroring Hollywood so much and regaining more of its own identity to set it apart from other music in media." Amen! I remember when game music used to be original. Nowadays most of it just sounds grey and dull. I still get flashbacks to games like Fallout whenever I hear a piece of it's score. I can't tell the difference between any of the music in games today and mostly just mute it after a few hours and put on something from my own collection. However I liked the music in Mass Effect and it was only until my fourth play through I listened to my own music :)

PCsama
PCsama

i realy love the Mass Effect2 OST he done great job

woonsa
woonsa

About time this game got featured. The soundtrack made ME as epic as it is.

Hirasugi
Hirasugi

ME1 is THE Soundtrack. Definately following this guy's work. I wonder, is he collabing with clint mansell on ME3? I sure hope so...

Lone_Warrior_66
Lone_Warrior_66

Great article Sophia! Love the Mass Effect soundtrack, I am curious what Clint Mansell's take will be on the third chapter.

revanknight
revanknight

No mistaking. This guy is very good.

001011000101101
001011000101101

Mass Effect (the first one) has one of the best soundtracks in videogame history.

Justforvisit
Justforvisit

I loved the Galaxy Map Theme in Mass Effect, really great work, it creates utmost impact with very minimalistic effects, something only real artist can do. His work really sounds good. Furthermore he said he adores John William like I do. If he as well would have mentioned Nobou Uematsu I'd straight marry this guy...as a straight guy! xD

Super-Poke-Bros
Super-Poke-Bros

Video game music is underrated outside of the video game world

RIIIIKU
RIIIIKU

Was their a Sound Byte for Portal 2 ??

wizardboyus
wizardboyus

hah self taught, bro caught a lucky break

Pete5506
Pete5506

I enjoyed the soundtracks in the past ME games, looking forward to seeing what is instore for the third

2er0
2er0

@Mexan These two are from Red Orchestra, mate, they shouldn't be sci-fi.

Smosh150
Smosh150

@Mexan lol they are not supposed to sound "science fictionish", they are made for the game Red Orchestra 2, a WW 2 tactical realism shooter. You should read the article too, not just listen to the music.

Sepewrath
Sepewrath

Their giving out a Grammy for game music now? And I don't know who wouldn't take game music seriously. Who would look down on music or refuse to appreciate its value because of where its used? That's stupid.

Ronnie_Rim
Ronnie_Rim

The first Mass Effect game has some of the best soundtrack of any game ever made. It is so good, it fits in so well with the atmosphere and gameplay and is just a pleasure listening to. I strongly encourage anyone that has not heard ME1 music to go listen to it right now! Especially "Citadel" "Feros" and "Vigil". I only wish more games had as good quality music as this!

Alucard_Prime
Alucard_Prime

The above picture should be used in Webster's dictionary, next to the definition of the word "genious".

Caprica23
Caprica23

@gashoe13 totally agree with you in regards to the music for Battlestar Galactica. Bear did an awesome job conveying drama and emotion into an awesome science fiction series. As for Mass Effect, it would be interesting if Bear did it, but I rather enjoy the music that we heard from 1 and 2. lets hope Sam does a good job for 3.

cjastero0
cjastero0

I miss the video interviews, those were way cooler

Mexan
Mexan

Nether of these sound... "science-fictionish" to me.

ThePowerOfHAT
ThePowerOfHAT

I'm honestly still a bit disappointed that he's being replaced by Clint Mansell for the score to Mass Effect 3. I love Mansell's work, but Hulick's done some great things with the series.

italiano72
italiano72

@ DarthVeng_basic I agree with you, I still listen to M4 (part2) by Faunts often, it's mt favorite.

thrice00
thrice00

Why don't you have more rock song?? Remeber the first Da:origin trailer where you got this nice guitar song while the psycho jump from the roof of the castle on the dragon !!! Epic!

DarthVeng_basic
DarthVeng_basic

Mass Effect 1 is some of the best music made in a game, I could listen to that soundtrack forever. I love how it fits into the game so perfectly as well. Being a multi-instrument musician myself, I would really like to hear exactly what his set up and programs used are. I assume he uses some East West software.

Poncho_Hachacha
Poncho_Hachacha

@dkdk999 In an interview he did a while ago he said he loved his time working on the series but wanted to do something fresh and new. 'Sounds like he just wanted a new challenge.

Sharpie125
Sharpie125

@gashoe13 I feel the opposite of you. I find myself hating "epic orchestra" more and more these days. The overdramatic "trailer music" (Two Steps from Hell/The Immediate...etc) is becoming grating to my ears simply due to overuse. Considering Mass Effect 1 was like an homage to the great 70's sci-fi B movies, the synth complements it well. IMO ME2's mostly orchestral score felt generic and I really hope Clint Mansell doesn't go that direction for ME3. Sci-fi battles don't need to be upscale and epic-sounding. Battlestar Galactica's Bear McCreary does complete wonders with taiko drums, a dudek, and spoons. The music on BSG is still the best music I've heard on a TV show, bar none, and that goes for most sci-fi works as well.

gashoe13
gashoe13

honestly, i can't say I enjoyed Mass Effect's score very much. Far too synth-filled for an epic space opera. I'm very open to new ideas to represent epic space battles and everything - but synth loops and little orchestra (as compared to other sci-fi scores) don't do it for me. Listen to the tracks Noveria and Ilos and tell me they represent sci-fi battles well. If you can, well, I'm glad you have a wide spectrum of appreciation.

larlarbd
larlarbd

Mass Effect and Mass Effect-2 had not only good but extraordinary Music considering the space environment , I thoroughly enjoyed those - Thanks to Mr.Sam Hulick , it's a shame he won't compose for ME3 - weird choice to shove out a guy who has made his music a trademark for Mass Effect series.

D-Pad_Destroyer
D-Pad_Destroyer

I love ME1 and ME2's soundtracks...and I thank Mr. Hulick for that. :)

dkdk999
dkdk999

why won't you compose ME 3 ? :(. You said video games are mirroring hollywood too much. And I guess ME 3 is a perfect example of that having clint mansell as the composer.

sonictank
sonictank

Hmmm intresting this guy seems to know his stuff!

brickdoctor
brickdoctor

Mass Effect had an awesome soundtrack. Red Orchestra 2 seems like it'll be no different.