Crash Bandicoot 4 Composer On Making Music For The Iconic Franchise
Walter Mair previously composed music for GTA, Killzone, Total War, and Splinter Cell--he speaks to us about his process on Crash Bandicoot 4.
After working on the soundtracks for mega-franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Killzone, Total War, and Splinter Cell, composer Walter Mair was brought on to write new music for Activision's Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. The music in Crash 4 does a good job at staying true to the origins of the franchise--you'll hear lots of marimbas and percussion instruments--while updating the music for a more modern feel. We recently spoke with Mair about this an a number of other topics about Crash 4's music.
In our interview, Mair speaks about how he became attached to Crash 4 in the first place, how much access he had to the development team and what the collaboration process was like with Toys For Bob, and the varied instrumentation he used to score the game.
Mair composed unique music for each setting and character, and he went to some interesting places to nail down the right sounds for each. For Dingodile, Mair used a clumsily played tuba and double bass to describe the character, while Mair used electric guitars and bass guitars through massive stacks of guitar amps and a drum set to create the music for the N.Gin boss fight.
Mair also shared that he used primitive instruments like the bone flute and fur drums for Crash 4's prehistoric levels, and you can hear some of this in the videos embedded in this story.
Now that Crash 4 has been out for about a month, Mair reflected on the response to the game and the music, which has been generally positive. "Fans enjoyed how the music was composed to be more dynamic and reflective of the unique worlds, as well as different sections of gameplay within levels," Mair said. "The off beat mardi gras level has been a standout music experience for many."
Mair also said people have been sharing their own cover versions of songs, including full-on metal tracks. "There is absolutely brilliant material online and I am loving every single piece of it! This is a great honor and exactly what this amazing franchise deserves--to live on and see the many interpretations of the music," Mair said.
You can check out our full interview below.
How did you come to be attached to Crash 4 in the first place?
As a big fan of the franchise I was over the moon when I heard from the Toys For Bob studio that I was invited to audition for Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. The next stage was critical and so I locked myself into my recording studio to come up with new sounds and combinations of instruments to create a quirky-sounding world that fits this new Crash adventure.
How much access did you have to the Crash 4 development team, and what was the collaboration process like?
I was given access to the title in an early development state. I had the pleasure of meeting the Toys For Bob team at their studio in San Francisco. Each sub-team provided me with updates on their latest development so I could see first-hand how the animations were going to look, the objects and colors of the level design, and which characters the studio would introduce or bring back to this exciting new experience.
From then on, I stayed in regular contact with the studio and the Audio team. Toys For Bob wanted to create a more sculpted, dynamic music experience for the player, so there was frequent back and forth with the Audio team to dial in what works for each level and gameplay section. Threading the needle of being inventive and fresh while staying true to the established Crash music tone can be a challenging target and the team provided great feedback--sometimes we’d go a little too far, then reel it back in. There was a lot of music to be written in a short timeframe, so we created a helpful system for tracking music progress and sharing notes and assets. The Audio teams at Toys For Bob and Beenox also assisted with music remixing including the N.Verted mode remixes – it was great to collaborate with folks who care so much about the music and bring their own music skills to the creative process.
At a higher level, can you speak about the challenges of trying to stay true to the roots of the series while also putting your own stamp on it?
The people at Toys For Bob were absolutely amazing in that they gave me free reign to explore and experiment with different instrumentation and ideas, while staying true to the core tone and feel of Crash music. We tried various approaches at first--recording instruments live versus using mainly synths and electronic instruments. For Crash 4, we wanted to elevate the soundtrack to the next level so I decided to follow a hybrid approach where we recorded most of the instruments live but then tweaked them with analog and digital effects. A recorded saxophone would result in a quirky synth sound that still contained all the ‘breathiness’ one would hear on a real sax performance. I also experimented with synths and incorporated my modular synth rig which was responsible for many of the textures and sounds for Cortex.
To connect the music with past titles and add a bonus for the fans who’ve been playing the franchise for decades, I also brought back some of the long-standing themes. I also incorporated the heavy usage of marimbas, memorable melodies and playful composition as a way of grounding the music as a Crash experience, while at the same time pulling it into new territory through more sculpting of tone and instrumentation to represent the unique locations.
Whilst I composed a fresh main theme for Crash 4, you will notice a hint at previous themes in some of the cutscenes. For example, when Cortex enters the screen and we hear a synth-laden rendition of his theme that then cuts off abruptly as Tawna enters the stage, and her new theme comes in.
Crash's adventures in the new game take place in a multitude of varied locations--what kind of instrumentation did you use to capture this?
This was so much fun as each setting and character got their very own music. For Dingodile I recorded a brass band with guitars and drums. A clumsily played tuba and double bass describe the character that comes to Crash’s aid in the game.
The music for the first boss fight against N.Gin was something rather special--I was presented with the task to write music for a huge robot who plays a gigantic drum set behind massive amps that fire large soundwaves at Crash to the beat of the music. The music needed to capture the vibe of the scene and be bold, daring and … epic! So I recorded electric guitars and bass that I had run through massive stacks of guitar amps and a large drum set that was accompanied by fast synth-movements. We also slipped in a nod to the original N.Gin music, to connect with franchise history.
For the levels set in Wasteland I wanted to capture raw and ‘heavy’ sounds. Equipped with field recorders I took a recording team into a quarry where we smashed rocks and metal objects with sledgehammers and large wrenches. These sounds were then treated with effects and became the backbone of a drum beat or massive stomping effect.
The Prehistoric levels received their own unique sound-world by recording primitive instruments such as the bone flute or fur drums. These sounds, combined with orchestral colors and the Crash-style fast Marimba runs, provide the score with a unique sound that is equally at home in the Crash universe. We also contrasted the playful, prehistoric-themed Crash music, with the super epic, cinematic chase music in the Dino Dash level. This is a good example of times when we stylistically pushed music into new territory.
Percussion instruments are a big part of the Crash series--what did you do to ensure you were really nailing this essential part of the franchise?
Absolutely, percussion is such a great element to pick up the pace and add an element of forward momentum to keep the player pushing through the level. I recorded a very large selection of drums. From the simpler hand-made instruments for the Prehistoric levels, to industrial sounds that were recorded in a quarry to enhance the Wasteland levels. The score also makes regular use of full drum sets and electronic drums. In particular, the drums employed for the city levels feature this ‘80s ‘old school’ vibe that were so fitting to the retro sounds of synths accompanying the beat elements. There are also levels where more than one drum set plays at a given time and we weave in and out of electronic and real drums for added craziness when we really want to change up the sound.
Now that Crash 4 has been out for a little, what are you hearing from fans about the music?
I’ve rarely experienced before such support as that which the amazing fans of Crash are showing me. I’ve received countless messages every day from fans complimenting the music. Fans enjoyed how the music was composed to be more dynamic and reflective of the unique worlds, as well as different sections of gameplay within levels. The off beat “mardi gras” level has been a standout music experience for many. The entire level--platforms, obstacles, ghost musicians, playable instruments – were synced to the beat, creating a synergy between music and gameplay. And of course, they loved hearing nods to established franchise music themes.
Many even send me cover versions of the themes and level music. They interpret the melodies in a completely different way and produce fully-fledged metal tracks with videos that you can find on YouTube. There is absolutely brilliant material online and I am loving every single piece of it! This is a great honor and exactly what this amazing franchise deserves--to live on and see the many interpretations of the music.
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