Music in Games / Tom Salta, H.A.W.X. composer

Remember Red Steel? There were about two things that were good in that game. One was the fact that Ubisoft even attempted to make the game, and the second was the score, which you were probably too aggravated to pay any attention too. Go back, give it a listen and thank Tom Salta for making Red Steel enjoyable if you close your eyes and don’t do anything. Salta’s has been composing music for games since the days of the Xbox and his resume speaks for itself and includes not only a nomination for best score for his work on GRAW, but also his own solo albums, and production credits with a plethora of popular musicians.

Currently, aside from his new solo album under pseudonym Atlas Plug, Salta is returning to the world of Tom Clancy by working on the score for the upcoming Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. (which, is a pain in the ass to type repeatedly). TVGB got a chance to talk with him about the upcoming score and what it is like to be working in the quickly growing world of gaming scores. Check out the interview to see how one gets inspired to write music about high-powered jets and some interesting discussion on the current state of gaming music. Also hit the jump to hear two exclusive tracks–“Ready Aurora” and “Artemis Ascendance”–from the H.A.W.X. score.

Matthew Razak (TVGB): Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into composing music for games?

Tom Salta (TS): My path into videogame music was a very long and interesting one. I started about 15 years ago in the records business in the music industry. There I worked with all kinds of artists doing producing and song writing and arranging and mixing. I worked with artists such as Cher and Whitney Houston and I did remixes in the mid 90’s with Junior Vasquez. I worked in every kind of music you could imagine from classical to jazz to pop to hip-hop. This all led to the early days of the original Xbox, perhaps about a year after Halo came out and I was playing those kinds of games and that’s about when the music industry was starting to turn and change a lot. One day, it was like an epiphany, and I immediately realized that the way videogame music had evolved to that point it was now in a place where it was perfect for the kind of stuff that I wanted to do.

I had always been a gamer since the early days, pre-Atari 2600. It was always something I loved, but not until around the early days of the Xbox did I see how my two worlds could connect. Once that light bulb went off I had to figure out how to reinvent myself after a 15 year career. So I decided what I do best is make records. I decided to create my own solo artist persona called Atlas Plug, which is actually play on my last name. The idea was to create an entire album’s worth of music that would be perfectly suited for licensing in not only videogames, but TV and film and commercials. So I was doing the album and before I finished the publisher I was working with got a request from Microsoft to license four of the songs in Rally Sports Challenge 2 … that was how I started and after that it was a matter of me choosing early credits in driving and sports games and then transition into the world of original composition. It took a while, but here I am today.

TVGB: Clearly you’ve had a wide variety of experiences in music. What separates composing music for a game from doing other kinds of music and what do you really like about it?

TS: Composing original music for a game is very different from any other kind of music that I’ve done. Mostly because scoring music for a game by nature is done in a non-linear way. What I mean by that is game music tends to be broken up into what I like to call Lego blocks. A game never plays the same way the same time … there’s often an added non-linear challenge to create a score that feels natural and can adapt to the game itself. You always have to be thinking about how one piece of music can transition to another piece or perhaps even be layered with other pieces at the same time. So it’s sort of a left brain challenge and for some reason I kind of like that.

TVGB: Gaming music seems to be getting a lot bigger. Are you clearly seeing this growth around what you do? Do you see gaming companies paying more attention to the music?

TS: Absolutely. Game music has garnered a lot more respect and attention in the entire professional music community. Even all the top musicians unions who traditionally only dealt with film are very happy to accommodate the videogame industry because the scope of some of these projects and scores surpasses many average film scores out there. Ten years ago having a live orchestral score for a videogame was not very common. Today it seems to be the status-quo that if you have triple A title, you’re going to have live orchestra.

TVGB: Going back, you mention Halo as a point where you realized what gaming music could be. I think as a modern theme the Halo theme is very recognizable, but a lot of gamers really just remember the old themes. Why do you think that is? Is it because the older ones were simpler and played over and over or is it a different type of music now?

TS: It’s interesting that you say that. I see great parallel with regular music and songs. You might hear a lot of people say something like, “The songs today they just don’t have the same memorable feel as they used to.” I think what that is all about is that people only remember the good stuff from the past — they forget all the other mediocre stuff. There was a ton of videogame music that you would never ever remember. Hindsight is 20/20 here. I think there are a lot of memorable themes out there today. I’ll try to remove myself from that but I get a lot of feedback from people. For example people say even though years have gone by they still can’t get the GRAW theme out of their head or the Cold Fear theme. I put a lot of emphasis on memorable melodies and themes and I think that no matter what kind of music you’re doing it’s always important to have that easy to remember, catchy melody that you can hang to. Since there is so much game music these days I think that a lot of it won’t have that element, but there are a lot of scores out there that do.

TVGB: You mention creating a catchy hook. Where does that come into the creative process? When you are developing a game score how do you dive into and come up with a song that feels inspired by the game itself?

TS: That’s a great question. I think to create anything that you’re going to remember you really have to remove all the distractions and focus on the melody itself. A lot of times for musicians that might mean play it on a piano or a guitar or just sing it, and if it is catch that way then when you really develop it it’s just going to be that much greater. It’s like a good story or a good song; if you break it down to its simplest form it’s still something that is memorable and great. That’s the toughest stuff to do.

TVGB: Let’s be a bit more specific now. How did you start developing the music for H.A.W.X. and what has come out of it that you really like.

TS: Well with H.A.W.X. like most everything else I’ve worked on. The first thing I wanted to do is establish a theme, but before I could do that I had to understand what the H.A.W.X. team was looking for. They made it very clear that the game was closely connected with the GRAW story, particularly GRAW 2, which I also scored. Knowing that and knowing that it was another Tom Clancy game and that it had to on one hand fit in with the other titles and the brand, but on the other hand it had to stand out as something unique, that was a tall order and something I put a lot of work into figuring out and researching. In fact I wrote three versions of the main theme, and I remember the team was OK with some of the earlier versions, but it just wasn’t great for me. So I kept at it and kept throwing out ideas and getting something that I thought fit the mood of the game, fit the style and would support all the ques in the score. The whole score was about 60 minutes long so there was a lot of material to create for that.