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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here.
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