Sound Byte: Meet the Composer of Homefront - Matthew Harwood
Composer Matthew Harwood shares how he gets the right sound for THQ's recent shooter, Homefront.
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There is no shortage of first-person shooters on the market, but Homefront does make its mark by featuring a unique setting in the not-so-distant future where a unified Korea has invaded the United States. While shooters generally have short campaigns, and the bulk of your time is spent in multiplayer, it can be a challenge to find the right tone to complement the story as well as come up with a theme that can be used for extended periods of time and still be interactive.
Matthew Harwood shares with us his experience on Homefront and how he got into the video game industry. For the video review, check it out below! Also, courtesy of Sumthing Else Music Works (where you can purchase game music soundtracks), we have five Homefront soundtracks to give away this week! To be eligible, you have to live within the US and have a Twitter account. Follow gs_soundbyte for details.
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GameSpot: Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Matthew Harwood: Sure! I am Matthew Harwood. I am the audio director at Kaos Studios. Heading up most of the sound design in the game and composing the music for Homefront is where I spent much of my time during Homefront's dev cycle. I live in the Hudson Valley of New York. I am 6'4". I love my wife, my four kids, and playing outdoors with them and my dog, Wilson. I am a Christian. The guys at work call me "Lumber Jack." I think it's because I wear plaid a lot, I am tall, and can kick their butts.
GS: What is your musical background?
MH: I grew up in a musical family; my father played the bass trombone in the New York Philharmonic for 30-plus years (currently retired), so I like to say that music is in my blood. I have always studied music throughout school, various classes, and in college, but most of my experience comes from just sitting down and producing music for various projects. Trial by fire. Music and sound as a career was not entirely clear until an odd turn of events presented itself.
I was helping a friend of mine move his family down in Florida where I got my big break. Jim Elston (the friend I helped) was an animator at Disney and knew a few guys making a Disney film pitch, and he introduced me to them knowing my background. Elliot Bour and Saul Blinkoff were pitching an idea about a pig that could fly to the big wigs and wanted music for it. I composed a theme for them, and they loved it. I flew down later to do an interview and perform the theme at a studio there at the Disney animation studio in front of them and other suits. They also loved it. Later, the project was put on the shelf. Even still, that was the motivating spark I needed to give confidence that I could do this as my career.
GS: What was the first instrument that you picked up?
MH: I started to play the piano when I was 3 in the laundry room where I grew up. And it still is my main instrument, as the keyboard is the conduit to the computer for music. But it's strange: the computer and the "studio"--that is, synths, samplers, etc. hooked up to the computer--is becoming more of an instrument to me these days, but not in the traditional sense.
GS: Is there an instrument you wish you knew how to play?
MH: Yes, for sure. I have always wanted to learn the uilleann pipes.
GS: What is your fondest memory when it comes to music?
MH: This is hard because I have a few. My dad would invite the brass section from the orchestra to our church every year during Christmas to play in the balcony during the service and after. I played trombone when I was growing up for years, and after a while Dad let me play with them. I was not very good, so I had to play quiet (ha ha!), but it was a thrill to be there and sit with these world-class musicians. Meeting John Williams was up there, but as of recent, having my father at the recording sessions for the Homefront score was just awesome. To have him at my side making him proud was very special. Full circle you know?
GS: How did you get into making music for video games?
MH: After school I took a job out in Indiana selling music gear as a base job to pay the bills and start my life newly married. My thought was that it would gather contacts in the industry. It worked. Using the contacts, I started to freelance. I knew I needed to do more than just one thing to support my family, so using my new contacts, I started to freelance, stretching my abilities out to include more than just music. I began creating sound design for TV shows, websites, games, and many other interactive oddities, recording bands and producing them, recording loads of books and completing postproduction on films and various other projects. During that time, I discovered I had a real knack for sound design as well. I did that for seven years and slowly acquired a rich database of clients from Adidas to Disney, from Dateline NBC to Fox News and America's Most Wanted, from The Behemoth to Activision. Freelance is great, but I thought it would be an interesting change of pace to try and find a full-time job, to work on one project long term and work closely with a team. So I found Kaos Studios on Gamasutra. I said, "Hey, it is a New York-based studio. I might as well try." So I applied, auditioned, and I got it.
GS: What is your process when composing a particular track?
MH: With Homefront I wanted to really nail a few specific themes. I wanted to make sure to permeate those melodies throughout the game. So at the very beginning of production I started to sketch out a bunch of different ideas to see what would stick. During this process I would go talk to the concept guys and see what they were working on, see what environments they were drawing based on that part of the story in the game. Many times I would get inspired by these images and build a tune based off of that picture alone. Several of the themes came from this process; incidentally, the main theme came from a very early drawing of a man in a yard with his gun, a downed heli in the background that crash-landed in a house, his family inside the other house. I imagined him protecting them and doing what it takes to keep them safe. So confidence and steadfast resourcefulness were key emotions I wanted to evoke. I used horns for their noble character, and a driving rhythm section based around taiko and koto drumming to add ethnic flair. Other themes, like the Oasis, were almost completely based off of the inspiration from a drawing. The drawing was of a huge tree in the middle of a backyard, kids playing under a thin veal of safety behind camo skrims keeping them from being detected and obliterated for not following the rules. Temporary happiness, with elements of unsure, trepidation, and an uneasy peace were emotions that I felt appropriate. So the piano with strings and a few woodwinds were the instruments of choice here.
GS: What is it like composing for a shooter like Homefront? How did you approach the themes and specific moments in the games?
MH: Homefront presents some very compelling situations, and it was important for me to make sure that you were getting that emotional nudge without beating you over the head. It was very important to me to present the music as if it was a supporting cast member in the game. What dialogue could the music produce to contribute to the scene? What does this (musical) cast member have to say to the player when you have to hide in a mass grave? I wanted to expose what the essences of the scenes are in the context of pulling the player into the experience through music. All too often I feel like the music in games and in film at times can be used as a cheap trick. But in reality music is so powerful it can actually change your physiology. So really getting to the meat of the situation and having good intuition is essential here. Many times that meant removing the music entirely from the scene to let some key sound effects play through, as the music would detract.
Also, a few choices needed to be made technically early on to make sure I could transition in and out of musical situations without sounding strange. So I composed the score in the key of D. Guessing what the player might do at any given moment or just accounting for that choice is always a challenge, so the music revolving in the same key would allow the player to switch from this bombastic score to something more subtle during a walk and talk scene. That way it was easier to transition in between and it feels like, well, a "score," a whole cohesive piece of music rather than something that bumps around between other keys.
GS: Do you work closely with the sound team? Why or why not?
MH: The audio team here at Kaos is just me and Scott Cresswell. Doing most of the sound design and composing the music for the game myself meant that I needed a very competent individual to handle the voice. Scott handles just about all of the voice in the game: directing, editing, integration, and localization. I was there to help advise and lend opinion, but voice is a big job and so important to the creditably of this game that I needed somebody 100 percent on it, and he was absolutely the man for the job. An interesting side effect of doing both the music and the sound for the game was that it allowed for some cohesion and control between the FX and the music and how they play out in a scene.
So yeah, I work closely with the sound team--it's just me and Scott!
GS: Where do you see video game music heading in the future?
MH: Oh man. Music in games has taken many steps to be much more mainstream when compared to what Hollywood produces, and that's good and all, but games can offer something so much different. With a game, you sit forward in your chair, you're in it, you are involved and often the force changing the circumstances in the game, thus changing the musical score. A film is like a ride; you sit back and watch it unfold. You're not participating in it, or for that matter controlling events at all. You are enjoying the narrative from an observation standpoint. That's cool and all, but music in games can react to what you do, develop with your input, interact with your intention. It's wide open. And that is exciting. The limitation for the observer in a film is still very compelling, and trust me I do get a kick out of going to an art gallery and looking at the images beautifully crafted before me. But what if I could go into that picture and stand there and walk on M.C. Escher's stairs? What would the music sound like when you make a choice in that world? It's open and that is exciting. Exploring more ways to have music develop with the narrative and building off the experience more interactively, more depending on the player's input, is where I see it heading.
On a side note, personally I would like to see more music games out there that are original and interesting. Like Lumines or Rez--amazing.
GS: There's not a lot of recognition for video game music in the mainstream. Why is that?
MH: I think that is really starting to change. Several big-name Hollywood composers like John Debney, Hans Zimmer, and Harry Gregson-Williams have all lent their talents to the world of video games within the last couple of years. And with other major composers entering the gaming world, I think we are starting to bridge the gap. It still has to pick up speed, but if you think about the origin of games, it makes sense. It's a toy? Not really anymore. It's getting to be more of a compelling viable form of entertainment. We still have a ways to go, but it's getting there for sure.
GS: What other artists in the game music industry do you admire and why?
MH: To name a few: Jesper Kyd, Michael Giacchino, and Greg Edmonson. These guys among others are continuing to offer interesting new colors and expand on music in ways that bridge the gap of different forms of music. Their compositions are compelling and thought-provoking.
GS: What kind of music do you listen to now?
MH: Currently I am listening to the Ink Spots. But I like classical and film scores. I also enjoy a well-crafted pop tune. I think my favorite band is Switchfoot.
GS: What are your biggest influences?
MH: In life? God, my wife, my parents.
Musically? This list would go on for a long time, but what comes to mind for Homefront specifically are styles from the likes of John Powell, Hans Zimmer, Steve Jablonsky, and Harry Gregson-Williams.
GS: What projects are you currently working on?
MH: We're working on a few secret things here at Kaos already.
GS: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
MH: Find a local film school and get with guys doing their projects and offer to score their films for free. Find some indie gaming guys though IGDA in your local area and see who needs work done. Look on Gamasutra and see who is offering internships. Get in a school that has a gaming or film program and work with directors and designers. You need to get yourself a conduit to hone your skills. A runner needs a track, a weight lifter needs a bench, a musician needs an instrument, and a composer needs a project. Find out where you can garner skills and practice. You never know who you will connect with or what you will discover along the way.
GS: Thank you for your time!