Q&A: Chaos Theory composer Amon Tobin
Veteran electronic artist and Ninja Tune headliner talks about creating the music for the next Splinter Cell game.
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During the 1990s, electronic and dance music began to filter from major metropolises into the cultural mainstream. Given the overarching label "electronica" by a bewildered, rock-centric press, the phenomenon actually saw a variety of musical genres rise from underground clubs--techno, ambient, house, drum & bass, and the curious hybrid known as "downtempo" or "trip-hop." Incorporating stripped-down hip-hop beats with a variety of jazz-influenced flavors, the down-tempo subgenre was dominated by two London-based labels for most of the decade--Mo' Wax and Ninja Tune.
Known for innovative acts such as DJ Food, Funki Porcini, Hexastatic, and the ground-breaking Coldcut (who first came to prominence remixing Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full" in the 1980s), Ninja Tune has remained at the forefront of electronic music--so much so that some critics have given the label its own eponymous subgenre. One of its leading lights is Brazilian-born, London-raised, Montreal-residing Amon Tobin. Beginning with his 1997 debut Bricolage, Tobin carved out his own niche among Ninja Tune's roster with his spookily melodic sound, which evolved on his subsequent albums, Permutation (1998), Supermodified (2000), and Out From Out Where (2002).
When reviewing his albums, music critics would often liken Tobin's atmospheric work to a warped film soundtrack. So it should come as little surprise, then, that he has now lent his talents to scoring a video game. Last year, Ubisoft announced it had hired Tobin to lend his dark rhythms to the next chapter of the Splinter Cell series, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory. While the stealth-action game won't sneak into stores until March, the soundtrack was released this week as a freestanding album--on Ninja Tune, naturally--with a special Dolby 5.1 Surround mix to follow in March. To get some insight on the art of game-scoring, GameSpot spoke with Tobin by phone as he rode around Montreal in the back of a taxicab (seriously).
GameSpot: You had a successful recording career as an electronic artist in your own right. What made you want to branch out into soundtracks?
Amon Tobin: It's my first love really. Most of my records are soundtracks, as are the records I buy, the old vinyl I collect. I've wanted to do a soundtrack for a long time--I just didn't think it would be for a game. I was quite surprised how far games have come as far as how much attention was given to music, and so I'm open to it, from that point of view. It's also good way for me to reach people that would really never have heard my stuff. I mean, I have my own fan base, but it’s very small in the grand scheme of things. So it's actually quite cool to be able to get away with doing the music I do and also to reach a whole new audience.
GS: So why do you want to do a game, as opposed to a film, or a TV series?
AT: Well, it's not like I sat down with various projects and said, "Well OK, I'll take this one." It was more like this is what came along at the time, you know. They offered me this project, I looked at it, and sort of weighed it out, and it seems like a really good one to tackle.
GS: Now, you said they approached you. So how did that happen--did they just give you a call out of the blue?
AT: Well they didn't call my house or anything. [Laughs] They called my publishing company, who put me in touch with Ubisoft. I went and saw them and they gave me the proposition of what they had in mind. It was a bit of a special case, I think, because they were familiar with what I'd done already. So they weren't expecting me to do, like, work for hire, it was more, "Can you take the sound that you've got and incorporate it so it works into our game?" I don't know how I would have maybe reacted if they had said, "OK, we have a game, we need someone that sounds like Metallica, can you do that?" I wouldn't have been able to do it.
GS: Is that what made the offer compelling, the kind of artistic freedom that it gave you?
AT: Exactly. That's what I was trying to say before, is that I was able to do the music that I do, without making any compromises and still be able to apply it to something very, very different from what I normally do.
GS: That reminds me of that story about Out of Sight. Apparently, Steven Soderbergh had recorded the whole soundtrack, and then he heard the David Holmes album Let's Get Killed. Then he reportedly threw out the entire soundtrack and just called Holmes and had him redo the whole thing. Were there Ninja Tune fans at Ubisoft who were familiar with your work and lobbying on your behalf?
AT: Oh, sure. Definitely. There were a surprising amount of people. I guess. Computer programmers and nerds in general is my demographic right now.
GS: Are you a gamer yourself?
AT: I play games, I'm just not religious about it. But on tour we always have an Xbox and a PlayStation 2 in the back of the bus and an awful lot of Halo going on, and Tekken and Worms, you know. That kind of thing. And then, since I was a teenager, I don't know, my dad had a Commodore 64, and I used to play all the Commodore 64 games, like International Karate, you know.
GS: Yeah, way back in the day.
AT: Impossible Mission, that was an awesome game, actually. Outback Challenge...
GS: You said you tried to write the Chaos Theory soundtrack as though it were the score to a movie by Italian cult-horror director Dario Argento. Now what did you mean exactly by that?
AT: Just that. I guess it's got a kind of vintage sound to it. You know, I was really aiming for the '70s horror classic thing, a really vintage sound, you know. All the soundtracks I have from Bernard Hermann to John Barry, Lalo Schifrin--it's all from that era. It's got a kind of a classy sound to it that I wanted to transpose into this.
GS: You said you considered your albums soundtracks in and of themselves. How was the recording for Chaos Theory different from your early work?
AT: Well, the music really had to integrate with the gameplay in this case. It wasn't like I was setting out and doing an arrangement like I normally do. It was more a case of making a track and then splitting it into different layers to express a sort of stress and intensity. The different layers get triggered as the character does different things in the game. So, for instance, in the game you won't hear the music in the same way as you hear the CD. That's because on the CD, all the layers are there, and they're all playing at the same time. In the game, if the character is creeping around, you might only hear certain elements of the track. And as events happen, as things get more stressful in the game, new layers come in, and different transitions into new layers. So it's constantly moving in the game, and changing, adapting to what you do.
GS: But you said the actual album has all the layers at once simultaneously?
AT: Well, yeah. What it is, is that I made tracks which were about six to eight minutes long, and then I split them into four layers of stress. I made the tracks to work like that, so each layer, from things like stealth to extreme stress, would work independently of each other, and also together. They all sort of interlock. When they're put into the game, the layers are stripped out, so they're not really playing at the same time. Let's say you have the bass guitar playing while [game hero Sam Fisher] creeping around, and then like, say someone spots him and percussion comes in, that kind of thing. But the various pieces are made as a whole arrangement to begin with--it's just been separated for that purpose. When it came to the actual soundtrack CD, it was back to reassembling all the layers and making proper arrangements out of them again.
GS: Right. The press pack for the soundtrack said most of it was recorded almost entirely with acoustic instruments that you then modified electronically. Did you play all the instruments yourself, or did you--
AT: Actually there's things that you'll hear when you listen to the soundtrack which will be very revealing about all that. I'd rather not go into the recording techniques too much, if that's OK?
GS: No, no, that's fine. I won't ask a magician for his secrets.
AT: That's cool, cheers.
GS: But how long did it take you to actually record the score?
AT: Most of the summer from March, April until November, more or less. but it was a real full-time, seven-day-a-week project. I really dived into it.
GS: And did you record in your own studio?
AT: I did it in my own studio, and then I went down to LA to work on the [Dolby 5.1] Surround mix. Yeah, and we did that down there, which was very cool, you know, we got to use a very beautiful studio with an SSL desk and lots of lovely toys, compressors and reverbs, et cetera. So, yeah, in general it was mainly done at my own studio, about 90 percent, and then the rest was kind of done down in LA.
GS: I know that the regular album comes out today, but the surround mix CD comes out alongside the game in March. Was it more difficult to remix the soundtrack for Dolby 5.1 Surround or was it just more immersive?
AT: It was actually a lot easier to mix in surround than stereo, I found, because I'd never done it before. Basically all we did was just sit in the middle of all these speakers and just chose where the instruments would go. And the reason it was easier than a stereo mix is because you have a lot more physical room, you know, to spread out all the different sounds and frequencies. So the issue of sounds clashing and frequencies absorbing all the frequency range in the speakers is a lot smaller when you've got that much more room to play with. And we really opted for a good, I mean, a proper, surround mix. It's not one of these, you know, surround mixes where you hear all the stuff mainly in the stereo field, and then you have some reverb in the back. It was really a case of, 'we're going to put you in the middle of the orchestra, in the middle of all the band,' and we’ve got percussion in the back, and sometimes there's a high hat to the side, and there's--it's really all around you. So it's a very different sound for sure.
GS: So you said that you had total freedom for recording the album, but you also said it had to fit the actual gameplay.
AT: Yeah, it had to fit the mechanics of the game, sure.
GS: So how much input did the game designers have on that aspect of the soundtrack?
AT: We really worked closely with how the music would integrate with the gameplay. It's all very well--me making an epic track that lasts eight minutes or whatever, but maybe there isn't that much space in the game. So, we had to decide how long each layer would be and how long each section would last. Like, say the character changes what he's doing in the middle of a bar--it presents some musical problems. So we tried to work around that by looking at maybe having, I don't know, a transition where it would go to the end of the bar, you know, and then the music would dissolve instead of just changing straight into the next layer. So there were just little technical things like that that were really important. I needed to listen to the designers a lot because they have a lot of experience with actually integrating music into the software they use to make it work with the game. Stylistically, you know, it was way cool, but when it came to the mechanics of it, the sort of nuts and bolts of it all, it was really a collaborative thing.
GS: Now, most modern game soundtracks are basically licensed music. But a few original scores, ones like Halo's, have become popular in their own right. Did any modern game soundtracks influence you at all?
AT: I took more cues from my film soundtracks, really, because I actually wanted to do something that sounded more like a movie than a game. And so I really wanted it to be something that was a bit different from what you normally hear. I know there's some good game soundtracks out, but I think there are even more good film soundtracks out.
GS: The art form has been around a while longer…
AT: [Laughs] Exactly.
GS: Now, the Chaos Theory soundtrack is being released as an independent album on your label, Ninja Tune.
GS: And according to the press package, which said that it's the first original game score "to be released in an album in its own right." What does that mean exactly?
AT: I don't know, I didn't write the press release. Don't try and hold me responsible!
GS: Right, I just mean is it being kind of promoted as just, as an Amon Tobin album separately?
AT: Well, yeah, they're releasing it as a soundtrack, as an Amon Tobin soundtrack. It's not my new album, it is a soundtrack--that's kind of how we've approached it.
GS: OK, but I mean, for instance, the cover of the album is just three green lights glowing through a foggy rain-swept window. Now gamers will instantly recognize those lights as Sam Fisher's trademark night vision goggles. But if it wasn't for the sticker on the front saying "Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory Soundtrack," nongamers probably wouldn't have any idea it was a game score. Was that intentional? Did you kind of want to blur the line between album and score?
AT: Well, not really. If you open up the booklet you'll see that there are lots of references to the game, and it's meant to be viewed as a soundtrack. I'm hoping that people will take it that way, because the music I'm making for myself is kind of going along different lines. I'm exploring with really new genres and new techniques which wouldn't really have been very apt for this. I couldn't, for instance, throw in a dance hall beat, you know?
AT: Yeah, so it was really a case of making music that fit with the kind of sounds that I was known for, to do this, and not necessarily to break off into new areas, which I sort of want to do with my own record.
GS: Now do you think--you said one of the reasons you were interested in the Chaos Theory soundtrack project was so you could get people outside your core fan base to hear your music. Do you think musicians see games as just another way of exposure, like commercials? Or do you think they see them as kind of a legitimate medium to which they can lend their art?
AT: Well, you know, I think as games progress and develop more people will look at it that way. You know, at the moment, unfortunately, I think the view of games is that they're not fleshed out enough, that if you compare a game to a movie, the dialogue and the storyline generally isn't as fleshed out as in, say, a really good movie. But I don't know. For me, what was exciting about it is that it's something that actually adapts, and is truly interactive. So it can't be viewed in the same light I think. It's a different thing--it's not a movie, it's a game. You are actually interacting with the music and with the gameplay at the same time. That's what made it interesting for me.